Creative inspiration and the meaning of art can be found anywhere—often by accident.
When I worked for an art gallery and framing shop in Delta, B.C., I framed more mundane pieces than I can count—limited-edition wildlife prints, diplomas, photos of sunsets, kid scribbles, the odd seventies-era oil painting and Granny’s landscape watercolours. People hang some pretty boring stuff on their walls. Every day in the shop I hoped for a masterpiece to arrive, though I treated everything our customers brought in—even the most faded posters—with respect.
One morning an older couple came into the shop, wanting to frame a small portrait of the man’s family, taken in the 1920s when he was a small child. The portrait was glued to a piece of card. On the other side of the card was a photo of two young men in clown suits, with “yours sincerely, Neil” written in the bottom right corner.
“What about this?” I asked.
“Oh, we don’t know who they are,” said the woman. “You can just cover it up.”
I looked again, wondering what the connection was between the stern-looking people in the family portrait and the two young men in fancy dress. “It’s such an interesting photo,” I said. “It would be a shame to hide it.”
“We don’t mind,” she said.
They chose their frame and left, but that photograph bothered me all day. I pulled it out again later on and imagined the two men dissolving into laughter as soon as the photo was taken. I couldn’t stand to hide these jovial fellows behind a family portrait for all eternity, so on my break I took the picture to a photo lab and had a copy printed for myself. I felt as if I had rescued real people from oblivion.
At the time I was obsessed with Alain-Fournier’s 1913 coming-of-age novel Le Grand Meaulnes, in which a young man happens upon a strange party orchestrated by children and spends years afterwards trying to find the girl he met there. Pierrot and Harlequin appear frequently in the narrative as totems of the characters who refuse to grow up. I loved the magical, bittersweet taste of this little book. Alain-Fournier was killed in battle at age twenty-seven during World War I; Le Grande Meaulnes is his only completed novel.
I was reading Le Grand Meaulnes for what must have been the fourth time on the day the clown photo came into the shop, and these small connected events led me to put down my book and start sketching ideas for a painting. The shop was never busy, so I had a lot of time to think about words like synergy, and time to wonder where inspiration comes from. A month later I finished my painting of a juggling Harlequin in greens and browns, gold and orange. I decided to frame it.
Framing an item can validate it as art. You’ve spent money to celebrate and protect it, and placed the object prominently on a wall. That must mean something. There is a sense that a framed image will be handed down through generations, that it will last a long time and touch the hearts and minds of all who see it. Framing something makes it seem permanent, real, the art and the border joined eternally.
The most difficult customers I had were artists framing their own work, because artists think they know all about what will suit their masterpieces. They are almost always wrong, especially when they choose mat board. Some artists think everything should be matted with stark white, because that’s what museums do. This cold, hard colour looks terrible with nearly everything. Others assume their piece should be matted using the strongest colour in the artwork, which only serves to overpower the art and to make it recede visually. Generally, the best colours to use are the mid-tones in a piece, never the highlights, but this is hard to explain to someone with a huge emotional investment in their work.
For my painting, I chose a four-inch-wide dark brown beauty of a frame with a mottled yellowy section the exact colour of the mid-tones in my painting. It had daubed gold highlights and a bright gold recessed inner border. It was one of the most expensive frames in the store at the time, and it was so perfect that it appeared I had painted it to match the canvas. I brought it home, leaned it against the stove on the kitchen floor and stared at it during meals for days before deciding where to hang it up.
In quiet hours at the framing store, I browsed our catalogues of posters. Picasso, Monet, Warhol, Kandinsky, Miró—mass produced and available for fifteen dollars and up, depending on the size. I’ve never liked Van Gogh’s Starry Night or any other work of art that is reproduced on T-shirts, coffee mugs and mouse pads. Some pieces, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in particular, have nearly lost all meaning—diffused into society like aerosol spray. I have even received dental appointment reminder cards with a picture of the Mona Lisa, altered to have a wide grin, and the caption: “No reason to hide that smile after you visit our clinic!” It’s like hearing the same song over and over again until you are sick of it and never want to hear it again. Even those who brag about going to see the actual Mona Lisa and only truly understanding it once they have gazed at the real thing—have they really seen the painting as the artist intended? Through a wall of glass and other tourists?
Many official definitions of art still include the words “beauty” and “aesthetic value,” as if these are the most important goals in creating something. Art history textbooks tell us what pieces to revere and why, leaving us with a sense that art is something that has already happened.
I know it is hard to define something so complex and subjective, but I wonder why these definitions have not evolved and I wonder if they will ever fit the subject. Or are we on our own with this, each of us? Basquiat said, “I start a picture and I finish it. I don’t think about art while I work. I try to think about life.”
I have a hard time talking about why I make the things I make. Someone once asked me why I had so much artwork depicting clowns in my apartment, and I said, “I just like clowns.”
I have a framed postcard of Pierrot beckoning the viewer to enter a room and another of two little drunken Pierrots supporting each other, which reads, l’union fait la force. A 1930s papier-mâché clown mask that terrifies my friends decorates one wall, and my juggling Harlequin hangs above the loveseat in an expensive frame. When I am gone, will anyone want these things, value them? I imagine some young couple finding the Harlequin painting at a garage sale and the man saying, “Honey, that is a gorgeous frame, don’t you think?” He puts his arm around her. “We could put our Klimt print in that, couldn’t we?”
Shortly after I discovered the clown photo and had the print made, I went to a copy shop and printed an enlargement to use in the set decoration for a friend’s short film. In the panic that often surrounds the making of independent film, I left my “original” in the photocopier. When I went back to the store, the print was gone. I consoled myself by imagining that someone else was as captivated by it as I had been. I hope it inspired them to make something. The version of the image that I still have is twice removed from the print that I buried in a family photo—a copy of a copy, the inscription traced in chalk.