Inheritance

By Ben Scott-Brandt

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When I’m cutting hair, I forget about the time, the weather, my mosquito bites, eating, and even the bad moods I always have before I get to work. I become entranced. The people come in for their haircuts. Some are pretty, some gorgeous, some annoying, some hilarious. I forget about them. I forget about my fingers and my scissors and the comb. All I see are tufts and slopes and ridges. My hands move through the tufts, and I’m lost. I drool. I drop things. I forget to make small talk. When a subject does come up, I’m easily caught off-guard, and usually fumble my way right into a cumbersome conversation about life and religion and politics and art. You know, the fiery topics that in beauty school they tell you not to talk about -- too volatile. Distracted from my work, I talk too much and end up running 15 minutes late the rest of the day.

Carolyn Fehsenfeld was in my chair recently, and she said sometimes she feels like her paintings are only exciting to look at in the dark. Frustrated, she’ll visit them over and over in the daylight, but when she visits them at night with the lights off, they look mesmerizing.

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I said sometimes I’ll listen to someone else’s record, and I’ll swear off singing for weeks. I even get shy in the shower a little. Why am I even trying to make half-assed songs when someone else is making such glorious sounds? Carolyn said she was glad that happened to me, too.

I told her I’m on Flickr all the time now. When did that happen? If I’m scared to sing, I’ll just look at other people’s pictures. I can’t get enough of surfing from one person’s pictures to their list of favorites from other people, to their list of contacts, and on and on. My wife will yell down the hall, “We’ve got a diaper to change in here!” and I’ll be trying to get my headphones off and turn the fan down so I can hear what the hell she’s saying. You’d think the computer and our little digital camera were a drip-IV hooked into my arm for life support. Are we all doing this with our free time now? What happened to actually getting together around a table with other artists?

This past spring I hosted an artists’ dinner at my place for eight friends. After the birth of our daughter, my wife and I had started feeling sort of socially disconnected from our friends and from art, and I in particular wanted to try kick-starting some kind of dialogue about our experiences and struggles as artists. So we combed our address book and laid some foundational guidelines – invite only one or two artists from any given discipline, and invite people from as many different schools and backgrounds as possible. It turned out to be a cathartic evening. I was surprised afterwards how often I’d hear about one artist accidentally running into another artist whom they’d just met at the dinner. Grand Rapids is a small place; recognizing all the artists you walk by in the grocery store is easier if you’ve had dinner with them.

Marlene Guter, a friend and client, invited me to a party last week. I was the youngest person there -- except for two adorable little kids who kept pretending they were fairies and casting spells on people. Being there was like being the unnoticed nephew at a family gathering. You can eat all the food you want, wander around, eavesdrop on fifteen conversations, and someone’s bound to offer you something to drink every ten minutes. The art on the walls was one thing, but it was the worn floor, the triangular deck in the side yard projecting off like a fractal, the oddly juxtaposed titles stacked on the downstairs bookshelf, and the photo-flipbooks of musical friends at a dinner together that really drew me in. Sometimes you have to go somewhere you’ve never been before to really see where you are. And the fact is, I’m nearing thirty years of age -- I don’t completely belong at college parties anymore.

At our dinner party it took a couple bottles of wine before any fruitful conversation started bubbling. Gary Perrine, an ex-boss of mine, is an anarchist and a bit eccentric, which boils down to: he loves to tell a good story. Andy Tzortzinis, another friend, loves to needle people until they’re really saying what they’re thinking. Sometimes we didn’t talk about art itself, but about images that have impacted us, about events and catastrophes, about our fears.

Adam Wolpa, an arts professor at Calvin College, asked the question, “What image has impacted us the most as artists?” Sometimes we struggled to describe what we are so used to conveying visually. Many of us had traumatic experiences that spurred us on to art making, and many artists’ names were mentioned as inspiring. Throughout the night we talked about artist struggles in general. Gary told some stories about walking into galleries with his paintings in a battered suitcase -- wondering, “Why won’t anyone sell my paintings?” Carlos and Alynn, in their 30’s and transplanted from Mexico, explained how necessity mothered the building of their own printmaking press in their basement. They tried some things that didn’t work, and they tried some things that did. Their perseverance and ingenuity got the rest of us excited. My wife had to keep getting up to tend to our daughter, and by the end, it was evident that folks almost didn’t want to leave.

So, why are young people always moving to Chicago? Is there something I’m missing? I want to be a part of the city I’m living in. I want to see it blossom. I want to give back to it. I want to host dinner parties. I want to eat sweet potato pie at Jamaican Festival. I want to see jazz on the church front steps. I want to get drunk at my friends’ wedding receptions. I want to meet artists -- young artists, old artists. I want to meet that new painter from Kendall everyone was talking about last month, the one who sold many thousands of dollars’ worth of work, and the lively young lady who opened her own gallery/salon in Heartside a few months ago.

Herm, owner of Vertigo Music, said to me tonight, “People need to realize that if they want us to stay in business, they have to shop here. What do they want their city to look like?” Sometimes it’s really that simple. I want Grand Rapids to reflect my values. Too often we concede our city to the “plain-Jane,” straight-laced family values it’s always had, forgetting that we, too, have inherited values that we long to pass on. As artists, let us continue to responsibly share that burden. It’s our inheritance!

Posted on August 20, 2006 2:52 PM

Comments

I moved to Chicago because I couldn't find a job that paid me enough to pay my rent in Grand Rapids. Nice post, Ben. I enjoyed it.

Posted by: David Sampson on August 23, 2006 10:11 PM

Yeah. Why DID we move away from GR? I know Philly will grow on me, but right now I feel lost in it. Being anonymous was an attraction but now it feels like a curse. I don't know anyone yet and, in a city so big, it feels like I never will. I got my hair cut the other day and the lady did fine, but it just wasn't the same. I could've been anywhere. In Grand Rapid, I felt somewhere.

I'm no artist, but this really struck a chord. You're a great writer, Ben.

Posted by: kate on September 27, 2006 9:59 PM

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