BILL SCHILLACI - ARTIST FOUND
Bill Schillaci has worked as a freelance environmental writer for 20 years. He was born in the Bronx, New York, and attended New York University. After college he worked as a technical writer for engineering firms in New York and San Francisco. His short stories have been published in 34th Parallel Magazine, East Bay Review, Prole, Palooka, and others. He is also an amateur cabinetmaker and has built most of the furniture in his home in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
Artistic creativity – better known among those who think they possess it as the impulse to humiliate oneself in front of as many people as possible – travels hand-in-hand with craziness. And so it should. What we know from eminent artists is that a strong shot of lunacy breathes life into art, everything from dreck to timeless masterpieces. Romance, tragedy, spectacle, divine grace. Words to live by and abandon reality for. The more unhinged you get, the better the chance your voice will sing, your hands procreate, your words astound.
Take Faulkner, his tweedy blazers, his haircut, his briar pipe, the persona presidents seek for ambassadors to western European nations or hospitals for their chiefs of neurosurgery. Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s plantation home, was just as patrician, as grave as the man who lived there. On the surface, Faulkner was spotless respectability, solemn accolades, university lectures and saddling up for Sunday morning equitations.
Faulkner the artist was something else entirely. When the gentleman novelist sat down to write, a bottle of bourbon, or, when he had the patience to stir up one, a pitcher of mint julep was never more than an arm’s length away, and the more he imbibed, the closer to the surface his savage id crawled, the greater those titanic sentences became, many of which, when sober, he could not say what they might mean or even recall writing them.
Sadly, Faulkner did not confine his drinking to Yoknapatawpha County. One day, fully inebriated, he mounted a willful steed. After a short trot through a nearby wood, the beast flung him into the air and onto his back. True to the spirit of madness, several years later, Faulkner, wholly sodden yet again, went for another trot and once more was thrown to the ground. He died shortly afterward.
“Civilization begins with distillation,” Faulkner famously quipped, and certainly he walked the talk. And we can say the same about art and creation – it begins with distillation, distillation and dissolution of the borders of proper behavior and thought that serve no function except to drag down rapturous human imagination into replicating self-help slogans and plagiarizing hit HBO series and classic rock songs. That’s what aspiring artists are prone to becoming, flunkies to popular cultural, and to break free, they need to pursue obliteration, they need to forget what came before, they need to free their own savage id and start from the beginning. To be an artist you need to flee sanity like a house on fire.
Raven Levy hummed, an ironic high C midway. The interviewer had asked her when she had decided to become a sculptor.
“Do you mean when in terms of a date, like during the Cuban missile crisis or during my first menstruation or do you mean when in terms of a personal revelation, as in when I first began to understand that after being rendered immobile in front of Henry Moore’s Reclining Woman I could never go to back to what I was?”
There followed several elongated seconds of dead air as the interviewer apparently wondered which of those two questions she had in fact asked Raven.
“Well, um, how old were you?”
I winced. Wrong question.
“I would say that somewhere between the ages of eighteen and twenty two I decided to give up the goal of following my father’s footsteps and selling engagement rings on Forty Seventh Street and devote my life to sculpting plexiglass.”
“Was it the material that attracted you.”
“Plexiglass? Plexiglass is appalling stuff. Particularly when it’s sanded, which is pretty much how I spend my days, sanding. There’s nothing attractive about plastic in your lungs, in your hair and under your eyelids.”
“So you were not attracted to plexiglass?”
“Were the Aztecs attracted to volcanic rock when they carved their gods? I think not. They used it because it was nearby and soft for a rock. I got a good deal on plexiglass because my uncle Sol had a mold-making factory in Maspeth.”
“Were others doing work in plexiglass.”
“I don’t know.”
“Your pieces are quite large. How long does it take to create one?”
“I do different sculptures at the same time, so I can’t say how long any one takes.”
“That must be difficult, switching from one piece to another, changing your frame of mind.”
“Switching is not difficult. I do a drawing and then I build it. At some point, the work takes charge and I just follow its lead.”
“So it’s instinctive?”
“There’s nothing instinctive about it. If anything, it’s mathematical, in an anti-mathematical way. Imbalance and disproportion. If it looks like the elements are adding up, if they’re making mathematical sense, then I have to recalculate.”
“How fascinating,” said the interviewer, her voice a lonely cry for mercy over the air.
It was past one in the morning. I was alone, on my back in the bottom bunk in my double room on the seventeenth floor of the dorm on East 10th Street, a converted art deco luxury hotel. My portable Sony All Transistor radio was balanced on my sternum, the bar of faint red MHz on the dial the only light in the room. Helmut, my dorm mate, the son of a German shipbuilding magnate, was back in Bremen for the one-month winter break. The WBAI show, New York Arts Scene, was probably broadcast at some other, more reasonable hour during the week. But I loved tuning in in the middle of the night, the appropriate time to access a pipeline into the unruly core of the city where BAI thrived. On this particular Saturday I was also in luck because Raven Levy was a name on the assignment list for my Perception class. Perception was a dippy course the heads of the fledgling School of the Arts had dreamed up for first year students. Assignments involved walking around the West Village blindfolded – with the help of a seeing-eye classmate – and singing folk songs of our own composition in class. Our single research project was to learn as much as we could about ten local anarchist artists who had never been reviewed in the New York Times.
After continuing to strike out with several more questions about Raven’s aesthetics, the interviewer fled to safer ground, the artists’ collective Raven had helped form.
“Raven, what can you tell us about the collective?”
“What do you want to know?”
“I understand one of the ideas is to bring neighborhood high school kids into the artists’ studios.”
“Yep, we show them our work. I heard most of them want to paint.”
“Are they surprised to see your sculptures?”
“Can’t say. Nobody’s shown up yet.”
“Oh, would you like to say where your studio is?”
“Eleven Greene Street.”
“Do they need to make an appointment?
“Nope, my door’s always open.”
“Well, that’s unusual.”
More dead air. The interviewer thanked Raven and BAI went dark.
“Finally,” Raven Levy said when I walked unannounced into Eleven Greene Street as she had said to on the radio. Her studio occupied several thousand square feet of unrenovated space on the ground floor of the building, a nineteenth century six-floor cast iron structure still many years away from becoming world-class Soho real estate luring Japanese CEOs and Saudi princes into bidding wars.
“The placement office sent you, right?” she said.
Cautiously I nodded, and then, in one of my more enlightened moments, with vigor.
Raven was petite with a head of aggressive black curls encroaching on her face so that there wasn’t much more to see than her full and fully tightened lips and aqua green eyes sizing me up. She wore a full-length, artist’s apron of frayed duck canvas over a white wife beater and jeans cut off at the knees. Her thin arms and boney shoulders were ripped with tendons and vivid blue veins. She stood in the midst of a plexiglass wilderness, colorless, transparent forms precariously stacked on the floor and leaning against the walls like pieces of an ice palace waiting to be built or one that had been sloppily dismantled. Mid-floor was a seven-foot-tall Depression-era band saw I later learned Raven acquired at the bankruptcy sale of a window manufacturer in Jersey City. It was winter outside, but the studio was sultry, the consequence of an antiquated coal-burning furnace in the basement that refused to be regulated beyond on and off.
“Have you ever used a belt sander?” Raven said.
“An orbital sander?”
“A palm sander?”
I shook my head. “Sorry, no.”
Annoyance flickered across the visible part of her face; then she laughed, mostly through her nose, a phlegmy, caustic snort.
“Comere,” she said and led me around the plexiglass mounds to a long workbench against one of the studio’s walls, paint-splattered two-by-four planks on saw horses. On the bench was a plexiglass plus sign, each arm about a foot long, clamped in the jaw of a large pipe vise bolted to the bench. Parallel grooves from cuts made by the band saw fully rippled all sides of the form. She lifted the belt sander and squeezed the trigger switch. With a burst of white dust the machine roared and rotated into action. Raven attacked the grooves, her shoulders and forearms popping with lumpy little muscles as she bore down on the sander. Twenty minutes later I knew all I needed to about being a sculptor’s assistant. She told me she was part of a show in six months at the Park Avenue Armory and she needed every minute I could give.
“What are you paying?” I said.
“Paying? Didn’t they tell you?”
I stared at her. It wasn’t that I needed a job, but Raven’s allure, which was growing by the minute, still went only so far. She snorted again and slapped me on the back.
“Just kidding. Do a little work first, and we’ll come up with a number. Fair?”
Not really, I thought, but it was becoming clear right away that Raven’s was not a shop that operated under union rules. A little while later she came out of her office wearing ironed slacks and a pink buttoned-down shirt. She told me she worked off and on as a substitute teacher and had gotten a call.
“Here,” she said, handing me a key. “Work as long as you can and lock up when you leave. Leave the lights on.”
She ran out to catch the bus, her shirt tail, untucked, bouncing off her ass. I hadn’t even told her my name.
In the weeks ahead, I learned several things about Raven. One, she hadn’t lied when she said she worked on multiple pieces at the same time because every symbol, sign, chunk, oval, diamond, sunburst, spear, and non-representational form scattered throughout the studio and waiting under layers of frosty fairy dust was an element of an ongoing larger project, some started years before. Neither had she lied when she said she couldn’t say how long it took to complete a piece because since I began helping her prepare for her show, not a single one of her drawings had been converted into final form. It wasn’t that she didn’t know how to bring a sculpture from concept to fruition. In her office, pinned on the walls among her hand sketches were photos of Raven standing near her finished work in indoor and outdoor settings. In the photos, she was younger, sunnier, her fabulous curls longer, swept away from her face and piled high, bold and Grecian, like the hair on the Roman statue of Aphrodite I had seen at the Met. Once I made the mistake of asking her what we needed to get done for the show. It was as if I had yanked her power cord out of the wall socket. She squeezed shut her eyes and her small body seemed wilt on the spot. That was the first day I found her sniffling in her office. It was also the first day I was there when she opened the lower drawer of her desk and pulled out her stash of Thai stick. Thai stick was still new to the city. I had only heard about it, that it was a world above local weed.
“Seriously? Thai stick?” I said. “They’re not dealing that in the dorm yet.”
“I get it from my ex,” she said. “It’s in the divorce settlement.” She told me to flip the wall switch that turned on an exhaust fan near the ceiling and kicked one of her retro vinyl kitchen chairs toward me. “Sit.”
In the space of two prodigious hits, Raven went from morose to crinkly-eyed and chill. She nodded benevolently as I inhaled and coughed violently as sweat beaded on my forehead.
“This is the real deal,” I gasped in a voice I did not recognize. I pulled myself together and hit it again.
“You won’t need anymore,” Raven said, extinguishing the J between her fingertips and dropping it into a tiny clay urn with a top that went back into the drawer.
“Where are from anyway?” she said.
“Rye. It’s in Westchester.”
“I know Rye. Playland, right?”
“Un-huh, oldest amusement park in the country.”
“Oh my god, we’ve got to go! Will you take me?”
After that, we worked on assembly. More accurately, we found that nothing assembled the way Raven wanted it to, the way she had drawn it up. Her theme for the show was interlock. Parts were to lock onto each other to form a single sculpture, like a closed zipper or a belt buckled or a tractor snapping onto a trailer. Despite what she said in the interview, it was mathematical, and Raven’s work was indeed not adding up. The openings were too small, or the posts that were supposed to go through them too thick. A part intended to click onto another part slid slowly away like one hand dropping off another in an indifferent hand shake. Raven watched the pieces for minutes on end, occasionally shaking her head as if she could not understand why they had betrayed her. She consulted her drawings and used a felt marker to scribe new lines on the pieces, which we carried back to the band saw. She sawed and I sanded, endlessly, one week, two weeks, but the show’s theme just wasn’t happening.
Crisis arrived the day I walked through a February pre-dawn, just me and the bread vans, so I could start sanding at six. By the time I had to leave for class, a half-dozen right-out-of-the-box eighty-grit sanding belts were gritless, smooth as peach fuzz all the way around, but the form I was working on, an S stretched at the ends into an eight-foot long wavy line, was still not ready for the hand sander. I would need to tell Raven that I didn’t finish as she asked me to, actually as she begged me to. I blew my nose for the twentieth or so time that morning. The bandana I had tied around my face fluttered uselessly against the hot blasts of plexiglass dust the sander spewed as I ground down the rough cuts. Several times Raven assured me she would get dust masks, but it never happened and I stopped asking.
In the sudden quiet, I heard her on the phone in her office, her voice a tense octave above normal. At the slop sink I washed up, felt no less contaminated and washed again. Raven had gone silent. If I stuck my head in to tell her I was leaving, she would take out her stash. It had become routine, sharing a J with Raven. This was cool, getting buzzed with a downtown artist. But then my Modern European History professor told me if I walked into his class stoned one more time he’d report me to the dean.
I had an option, sneak out of the studio. But then there was what Raven had blurted out a few days before when interlock failed to happen one more time, that she was going to burn down the studio and everything in it. It was just blowing steam, probably, but I had yet to figure out when Raven was simply venting or semi-serious or dead-serious. Her supply cabinet was packed with cans of flammable cleaning solvents. I didn’t know if plexiglass could catch fire. But if Raven conflagrated her studio and most likely herself, it would be me who could have stopped her and didn’t.
“I’m off,” I said, peeking around the doorway.
Raven was slouched in her chair, looking at her battered laborer’s hands upturned on her knees.
“It’s over,” she said dully. “I’m out of the exhibit.”
“How? It’s not for three months.”
“That’s nothing for work like this. The organizer wanted to come over and take photos for her brochure. I said I needed another month, but she’s been at this too long. She knows when she’s being conned. She has backups.”
Raven flexed her fingers, intently watching the movement like an infant who had just discovered her toes. She reached for the stash drawer, but I placed my hand over it.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I said.
“I need your help.”
“Me? Not a good time, Teddy.”
“This is important.”
The corner of her mouth curled in resistance, but then she wagged her head in resignation. There was an oil-stained fisherman’s sweater on a wall hook that she pulled on, enraging her ringlets. The Madwoman of Chaillot popped into my head. I was reading it for Dramatic Lit. But I didn’t need to explain this to Raven. I just needed her to follow me out the front door, which, accompanied by a series of doleful sighs, she did.
The temperature had dropped, the sky a delicate blue above the mud-colored low-rises flanking Greene Street. We headed north toward Houston, Raven dragging beside me, the sweater pulled up around her ears, commenting on how fucking cold it was. I had already told her about Perception and the loopy homework we got, but not, of course, the assignment where she was one of the topics.
“I have to bring in a piece of found art,” I said.
“You mean junk,” she said.
“Right, but junk with a fresh outlook, a personal outlook. That’s how the teacher described it.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way. But you have lots to choose from.”
This was true under the city’s princely but maladroit mayor, who had yet to solve a two-week sanitation workers strike. Hills of overstuffed plastic trash bags, some as high as a basketball hoop, populated most city streets, many split open and fouling the sidewalks with their reeking discharges.
Raven inhaled mightily and flung out her arms.
“Ah, it’s good to get out,” she announced.
“Here,” I said, stopping in front of a metal finishing shop. Pushed up against a heap of refuse was a discarded sheet-metal part, some kind of hood, probably for a plating bath, five-feet long and blotchy on the outside with decades of rust and peppered with BB-size holes. “SCRAP” had been printed in white paint on the reddish surface. I flipped it to show Raven the inside, a startling mosaic of plating metals, zinc, chromium, nickel, copper. Raven grunted.
“Not bad,” she conceded.
“You take the back,” I said.
“You want me to carry this?” she said. “Can’t we just cut out a piece? I have a shears in the studio.” She tried a helpless look, which was a first, and of course I didn’t believe it.
“Nope, found art is as it’s found. No tampering allowed. Come on, I don’t want to be late for class. It’s not heavy.”
Trash bags that had rolled off their piles made progress difficult on the narrow SoHo sidewalks, and we switched to the bumpy cobblestone road, squeezing between parked vehicles and taxis and delivery trucks that slowed for us not at all, missing the hood by inches. We ran across the four wide lanes of Houston to beat the light, at different speeds, which put our grips on the hood at risk.
“Slow down, sculptor’s assistant!” Raven laughed breathlessly.
On LaGuardia Place, she started singing Ball ‘n Chain, keeping it up all the way to the park where we took a break on a bench. Even in the cold, dealers were in action, whispering “weed,” “grass,” “smoke” just loud enough for people passing by to hear.
“Maybe I should switch careers,” Raven said. “Peddle my stash to tourists.”
“In this market, you’ll end up floating in the river. These guys don’t like competition.”
“Have you ever made a purchase?”
“In high school. It’s all fake. The cops don’t even bother them anymore. You can’t bust somebody for selling oregano no matter what you call it.”
Our Perception teacher’s bio in the school’s bulletin showed he had once edited a book of essays by Mao and included not a single other accomplishment in the arts, performing or otherwise. He had moved the class to a dance studio in arts building on Stuyvesant Street so all the found art could be displayed on the floor. The hood needed extra room, and Raven and I had to shift some of the articles, a pair of worn-out construction boots with mismatched laces, a cardboard box filled with old mercury thermometers, and a stunning pitchfork that looked as if it had been exhumed from a colonial archaeological site.
“Oh, wow,” said our teacher, coming up behind us after we situated the hood to display its colors. In the first class, he said that we should call him by his first name, Boyd, and “oh, wow” were his favorite words. “Where did you find this?”
“Greene Street,” I said. “And this is Raven Levy.”
“The Raven Levy?”
“Yes, sir, Boyd,” I said.
Raven looked at me sharply, but Boyd was already squeezing both her hands in both of his.
“I saw your exhibit at Clinton Castle,” he gushed. “Well, I saw it three times.”
I sat in one of the folding chairs placed against the walls in the spaces between the found art, and tried not to stare at Raven and Boyd quietly talking. The remainder of the class trickled in and tried to place their contributions advantageously the early afternoon sunlight passing through the studio’s lofty windows. Boyd turned to us and introduced Raven who, he said, had kindly agreed to say something about her work and answer any questions. Raven blushed and talked about large-scale transparent sculpture and the differences in their aesthetic depending on what you saw when you looked through them.
“Sometimes, in exhibitions, what I do, what people see and experience, depends entirely on the art that surrounds it.”
Boyd nodded deeply and some in the class did so too. Raven got asked a few of the same questions the poor interviewer on the radio had posed, and this time she tried to answer them. She then sat and listened as each student said a few words about what they had brought in. I remember not a single thing I said about my hood except that Raven had helped me haul it across half the Village, which prompted a few laughs. Boyd gave us our next assignment – do something with paper, anything but write on it – and said we had to take our found art with us because the studio was needed for a movement class.
Raven and I carried the hood back to the street and deposited it near a tower of garbage a few buildings down.
“Seems a shame,” she said.
“Art is fleeting,” I said.
She turned to me, surprised.
“No, it isn’t,” she said.
She then wrapped me in those steely arms and parked her lips on my cheek. It wasn’t the longest kiss I’d ever gotten, or the hottest, but it was, with no near contender, the softest.