The garden was shaded with huge cottonwood trees, with a scattering of light stabbing in from the morning sun. I was setting up a shot with my camera, to get some video images of Salvador painting on a large canvas. He wore a black t-shirt and dark grey chinos. Even though he was in the shade, the shot looked great. The problem was that damn peacock strutting about. Normally a male peacock, its tail feathers in full display, would be a perfect addition to some b-roll of the “artist at work.” However, the peacock was white, and he kept wandering into the light, becoming overexposed to the camera. I hoped to get some footage I could use where both Salvador and the peacock appeared harmoniously lit in the frame.
Annette had been sitting at the picnic table beside me, where I had my camera case sitting. But she soon grew bored and walked over to a low fenced enclosure where several chickens were roaming about. They pointedly ignored her wiggling fingers.
Annette had set this all up. She’s something of a rather well known artist with some substantial public art commissions, and recently she managed to secure a grant to collect a series of video interviews with famous Texas artists. Salvador, ever since he won the prestigious Rome Prize, has enjoyed a certain degree of international acclaim, and Annette wanted him for her first interview session. I had been hired to shoot and edit the interviews.
Because of Salvador’s love of larger than life drama, we had to reschedule the shoot three times. Something would always come up, and taking into account Salvador’s particular notoriety, I assumed drugs were involved. But, finally, we made it into his compound on the west side of San Antonio, an estate of three small houses clustered together in the barrio. The place was surrounded by a chaotic garden, charmingly rustic, with exotic birds, chickens, goats, and all cluttered with hundreds of art projects in various stages of completion, or, perhaps, abandoned altogether. When Annette and I showed up, we were dismayed to learn that the previous night a pack of dogs had broken into the property and had killed five of Salvador’s goats, leaving behind one sad and shaken kid.
As I was loading in my equipment, Salvador pointed over the back fence to the city workers who had been called to dispose of the bodies. They were lowering the tailgate of a pickup truck. I was surprised to learn how prompt they were. Salvador explained that Miguel, a sullen neighborhood boy, who could be seen sitting in the adjacent lot atop of pile of discarded tires and drinking an orange soda, had done an admirable job wrapping up all the goat carcasses in white sheets which he had then tied up with some red flocked velvet ribbon Salvador had left over from a commissioned art project. “Beautiful work on those bundles. And he’s heartbroken. The boy loved those goats.”
I thought it best to shoot Salvador working on his art for about an hour or so before we set up for the interview. I wanted to give him time to decompress after what had been a stressful night and rather grisly morning.
There’s a sort of phony intimacy about watching an artist at work. There are at least two layers of fantasy going on. One being the fantasy in the mind of the artist as being important enough for someone to be watching him or her involved in the creative process. The second is in the mind of the observer, who feels so lucky to witness that secret and sacred moment where the crude everyday substances are pummeled, kneaded, abused, and finally inexplicably reassembled into an object of beauty and subtle importance. Unfortunately, it all plays too well into a sort of theater of narcissism to deliver much in the way of truth.
As I repositioned the camera to record Salvador’s expressions as he painted, I remembered back to when I lived in Fort Worth. I must have been about 35. I was working at a bookstore near the university. One of my coworkers was an art student. I wish I could recall her name, but I can’t. For some reason I think it was the same as a liqueur or cordial made by monks in one of those tiny European countries littered with charming mountain monasteries. Sambuca? Campari? No. When she discovered that I fancied myself as a writer, she began pestering me to let her paint my portrait. When I finally agreed, it was less involved than my imagination had allowed. I had thought, of course, that I’d be posed for several days in her disheveled studio. The desk at which I would be seated, chewing thoughtfully on a pencil, would be positioned knowingly adjacent to her unmade bed. Actually what happened was that she came to my place and took a series of photographs of me at my desk, poised at an old standard manual typewriter. She would paint me from a photo.
Over the next few weeks she shyly confided that she often left art work for people when they least expected it and in strange places. Under their windshield wipers or perhaps at their favorite table of a local coffee shop.
I never expected to find some rolled up canvas tucked behind my screen door or anonymously placed atop the dashboard of my truck, but I did enjoy the attention of that young art student as she focused more energy on my work than anyone else ever had. I even had a fantasy of giving her the story I had been typing while she photographed me, but when I read it later, it was horrible.
“You know what?” Salvador suddenly said. “This isn’t feeling so much like a bouquet of white flowers,” and he quickly rotated the large canvas 180 degrees, “as it does a wedding dress.” And as he made a few fast embellishments with a can of white spray paint, he shouted out: “Boys!”
Two young men of about twenty suddenly appeared. “They are my most trusted house boys.” Salvador laughed. “I try to help out the local youths. I need studio help, you understand. And maybe help in the kitchen or the garden. With the animals. Always with the animals. I pay them and they keep me comfortable. Isn’t that right Leo and Rudy?” The two men stood at the ready and smiled. “Boys, these good people will be wanting a snack soon. I know I will. Why don’t you drive over to Taco Cabana and get as many chalupas and sopapillas as this will cover.” He pulled a wad of cash from his pocket and held it out. One of the men reached for it. “No, Rudy. Not you. Leo, you take the money.” The other did so. “Rudolfo’s a sociopath, aren’t you dear boy?” Rudy smiled and shrugged. “What a charmer he is, but don’t you ever trust him. Well, off you boys go.”
Salvador returned to the painting. Annette sat back at the picnic table and I kept shooting. We watched as Salvador transformed the flowers into a fairly detailed wedding dress, with just the hint of a slim young women who was wearing it. A soft wind caused some of the delicate petals of the crape myrtles surrounding us to scattered across the camera, and a rooster crowed a couple of times back in his enclosure. Then all fell silent, but for the soft whoosh of Salvador’s brush as he applied long aggressive strokes of black to the outer edges of the painting.
When Leo and Rudy returned with the food, Salvador provided them with instructions as he cleaned his brushes. “Set the table up on the deck. And cut some leaves off the banana tree for a festive table cloth. And you could even tear off little squares to use as sort of rustic plates, you know. Whatever. Use your judgement.” The final bit of advice was spoken to Rudy, who responded with a sort of rakish solemnity, which I realized can be well conveyed with a wink and pursed lips.
We climbed the rickety steps up to the deck which resembled a tree house built by a precocious child, fashioned from scavenged doors and masonite panels, and roofed in window casements with the glass still intact. The large carved banquet table, surrounded by wrought iron chairs, had been covered with huge banana leaves. All of the Taco Cabana bags and foam to-go containers had been removed. About a dozen each of chalupas and sopapillas had been arranged in the center, with salsa verde and honey dipping sauce transferred into small stone molcajetes. A large clump of marigolds tied with yellow twine had been dropped onto the table with careless attention.
“Rudy sets a lovely table,” Salvador said, as Rudy moved about pulling back the chair for Annette to sit. Leo came up the stairs carrying a bucket of iced Mexican beer.
I was not drinking, so by the time we climbed down from the deck and entered Salvador’s cluttered kitchen for the interview, the two of them were more wobbly and groggy than I would have liked. It was hell to get them focused on the task at hand, which was to get the lights set right, the microphones clipped on, and the camera set up; also, Salvador had to go through a series of sports coats and dinner jackets in search of just the right look. A fair amount of mascara and face powder was also needed (or so Salvador insisted). During all this, I was glad to have Leo and Rudy helping out. They proved to be the more dependable adults around. Once the camera began rolling, it all feel into place. The interview went well. We got about an hour of Salvador talking about his life and his work, exchanged some artist-to-artist pleasantries with Annette, and signed off. Salvador, now in good spirits, offered to do portraits of the both of us on little 8 by 10 framed canvases. He pulled out some tubes of acrylic paint and brushes and quickly knocked out a painting of me. It was fast and painless, and after maybe ten minutes he was done.
I took Salvador’s portrait of me and sat down, waiting him to finish with Annette. It looked near enough like me. The artist managed to flatter me by removing what I would guess to be about forty pounds. I have to admit that although Salvador is an internationally renowned artist, the Fort Worth art student, all those years ago, managed to capture me so much better. I did indeed see the finished painting. A couple of years back, out of curiosity, I looked her up on the internet. That was when I still remembered her name. Amaretto? No. Anyway, it was there, featured on her home page. And it was awesome. It was me. From behind, but just enough of a slight profile to recognize my chin, glasses, and the onyx stud I wore in my left ear at the time. There was my trusted Remington Rand typewriter. And she had placed me and my desk in a empty bleak and dusty plain. The sky was pure apocalypse. An undulating tornado had just touched down, and, as it tore up the dry and naked earth, it bore down directly on me. But I kept my head down, typing away. Chartreuse? Drambuie? No. But I do remember the name of the painting. “Portrait of Jerome Hollister.” Who the fuck is Jerome Hollister? No doubt some man who made a greater impression than I upon young Cointreau, or was it Frangelico? Frangelica?
Annette sat down beside me, blowing dry her portrait. “Isn’t it delightful!” It was. She looked like a slightly out-of-focus Audrey Hepburn, circa Holly Golightly. I began collecting all my equipment. Salvador waved us off when we made to help him return his home to the state it was in before we arrived. “I have my retinue,” he said, indicating Leo and Rudy, who needed no more prompting. They stepped forward and gathered up all the equipment cases, light stands, and my tripod. We followed them outside. I was surprised that the sun was still up. Just barely.
Salvador gave us each a warm embrace before withdrawing back into his home. Leo placed my tripod and camera case in the bed of my truck. Rudolfo kissed the back of Annette’s hand, and he plucked a hibiscus flower from the tree beside him and placed it behind her ear. We drove off, just as the sun was setting, making our way down an unpaved and overgrown alleyway. In the empty lot adjacent to Salvador’s garden, I noticed that the little boy, Miguel, was still on top of his pile of tires. He now had, slung over his shoulder, a menacing compound bow with a lime green grip. He gave us a dismissive glance as we rolled along, before he lifted up a pair of military binoculars and began a slow, sweeping scan of the creek.