It would be a lark to sit before a cartoonist at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, a joke because last night two of her oil paintings were hung in an art exhibition hall side by side with a pair of her husband’s oils. Would not a cartoon of her be the perfect ironic token to give him to commemorate their recognition? One local art critic dubbed them the “Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera” of Orange County, California. Granted, her husband had cultivated him and planted the phrase, but now it was out there.
She saw only the plaid-shirted back of the man who called himself “Sketch-O”, his booth surrounded with drawings of happy faces, people depicted better than they were. Her critical eye rapidly appraised his work superior to the standard sideshow fare found at places like this fish market. Some germ of truth, happiness, or both, had been located in each subject and exploded into absurdly gigantic flower with black pen on white paper. No pencil for this man, he was sure of hand, confident in every stroke. Sketch-O was a hack providing schlock mercenary entertainment, but there was something here.
She wordlessly sat upon the stool, the perch that customers took, and awaited his recognition.
Sketch-O’s canvas-topped booth was at the main entrance to Seattle’s Pike Place Market, before the fish bazaar and to the left of the produce and jewelry. The City’s Market committee awarded him this prime spot because his cartoons not only gave people joy, but also drew them into the Market.
On this drizzly spring 1981 morning he drank sugared coffee from his thermos and smoked one of his long thin brown cigars. He was 41, 5’6” tall, and built like a rain barrel. His face was a broad weathered creek bed stone; a thick shortly-clipped white beard matched the thatch on top.
He recognized her immediately, a small delicate bird nested before him, posing demurely atop the wooden stool. Even after fourteen years. She still wore her black hair short. She still had that lovely fine-boned face and those large, deep-as-an-ocean eyes. She was a couple of inches shorter than he, and still elfinly thin.
“Good morning,” he said.
Did she recognize that voice? “You are Sketch-O?”
Without looking at her he pointed impatiently at the sign that read “Sketch-O” with his left hand, already working the 18” x 24” easeled paper with his right.
“Can you talk while you work?”
Miffed, he briefly made eye contact. “Of course.” She should at least remember that much about him. “My mouth’s not doing the drawing.” That elicited a few laughs from the spectators behind him. He never cared who watched him work, a benefit in this venue because a gathering crowd meant more customers. He felt their warmth.
His posed model observed him. The manner, the height, the eyes — it could be the man she hoped it was not. Sketch-O appeared so much older than the Jacob Bailey she remembered, a popular untenured art teacher at an Orange County California community college, as popular for his own artwork as his teaching ability. Students took his class to learn to create as he created. There was a time when she did, too. She had posed for Jacob Bailey more than once.
“I am here for an art exhibition,” she announced. “At The Huijari.”
“I’ve never been in there.”
“It’s on – “
“I know where it is.” He knew what was prized in there.
More tourists gathered to observe the progress of Sketch-O’s work and they were joined by curious Market people from neighboring booths. Something was happening on the piece of paper that united artist and model, something beyond accumulated black strokes on white paper. Sketch-O did not care, he did not care about anything because he was deep in creation. She did care. If this was Jacob Bailey, what might he be drawing? What had she let herself in for? Should she get up, throw some money at him, and walk away?
No. That would be cowardly. She had chosen to pose as his model and she would see this through. In the meantime, his contemptuous tone towards The Huijari needed to be rebutted.
“Two of my pieces are hanging there.”
That got him, a kick in the stomach, and his hand paused mid-stroke. So, her art had gone that way. “What medium?”
“Thank you. My husband is there now.”
“Is he an artist, too?” As soon as he said it, he wished he could retract it. Her husband, who would now be in his late-fifties, had been chairman of the Art Department where Sketch-O used to teach. He was no doubt still head of the Art Department and would be until someone pried the key to his private bathroom out of his dead clutching fingers. When they both taught Art at the community college, Jacob judged his professional superior’s work derivative, blasé, and boring.
With that “Is he an artist, too?” comment, its tone, she knew. This gnarled piece of granite before her was indeed the former art teacher Jacob Bailey, a Jacob who wrestled Angels over his Art. She crossed her hands and then her legs; uncrossed her legs, and then her hands. Caught herself. She knew how to pose and she was not being a good subject.
“Our work is being displayed side by side.”
He thought, “Isn’t that sweet?” but said, “Give him my congratulations,” and was not totally insincere.
She wondered what she would do with this cartoon. Could she – should she – ever show it to her husband? He would gloat. Young excitable Jacob Bailey, reduced to drawing cartoons in a street fair setting, revealed as a sideshow buffoon. Unstable. Volatile. Wasted talent, gone to seed.
The compound accumulation of onlookers behind Sketch-O and their steadily growing hum was like a gathering of bees. Several faces looked at her, at the cartoon, and then back at her, as if trying to reconcile the two. She studied the onlookers faces for a reflection of what she could not see on the other side of that easel.
Was he drawing her nude, as he remembered her?
When he was a college Art teacher, Jacob Bailey never lacked for female companionship. His models adored him. Uninvited women appeared at his apartment any time, night or day. A few strove to take their relationship to the next level, but even the most earnest had to concede that his art would always outrank them.
He was wildly popular amongst the students who aspired to become artists, displaying the ability to look at their work in progress and ask insightful questions, specific to the individual student, that drove forward their own unique creativity. Michelangelo visualized the statue fully realized in an uncut block of quarry marble. Jacob Bailey saw the potential artist – or lack of one — in every student.
The thorn in his existence was Warren, eighteen years his senior, the Art Department Chairman. He assessed Jacob’s classes as chaotic, focusing on the seven percent of dissatisfied students who gave him bad reviews at the end of each semester. Warren could not outright fire the popular Bailey, but he could and did block him from acquiring tenure. He had a primal response to Jacob: his popularity, his art, his person.
Jacob did not care. He was too busy for Warren and his politics. He was getting better and better at his own creations, and a few of his students won competitions. Unlike Warren, his recommendation carried weight in getting students into the best MFA programs.
She was among the best; the best he had ever seen. Her work was nothing like his, but it had its own voice, as if a flat two-dimensional surface when handled a certain way could sing. He looked at her work and he learned from her. By their fourth consecutive semester, working side by side, the classroom was not enough; it lacked the space for their expansive need to explore and discover in tandem the astonishments of applied imagination. They were intimate in every other way before it became physical.
The realization that he had to make a decision about her covered Jacob like a new skin. He had not sought to love her. She complemented him in too many ways. She was practical, she paid attention to detail. She kept him from flying too high; inspired discipline in his work. And she was right about his career, he needed tenure and he would never get it as long as Warren was his boss. He applied to a community college in Oregon and was accepted; guaranteed a pathway to tenure.
He asked her out to dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Pacific. A friend who understood such things helped him pick out the ring. She would be free at ten. She would meet him in the bar.
She turned him down because she was having dinner with Warren.
The trick of juggling two men is to understand them. Warren knew she was involved with Jacob; that he was his competition, and that he must keep quiet about their involvement. (Unbeknownst to her, he enjoyed that.) She never mentioned Warren to Jacob because she knew that would end their relationship.
Jacob just assumed that he was her one and only. He never imagined she could be as she was with him and also be with someone else.
How many women receive two proposals of marriage within three hours? Neither was a complete surprise. She told Warren he would have her answer in the morning.
The bar staff knew Jacob, and they knew that this was his big night. She was led to him with smiles and bows. Their table was in an extension levered out over a cliff, high above harbor lights, sitting in the sky’s lap. There was no moon. The skylight spilled starlight like rain, and the ships and boats ran reds and greens in soft sentences spelled across the sea. Jacob expected her to sit next to him, where he had his acceptance letter to teach in Oregon placed for her to see. She sat across from him. He slid the letter across to her.
“What is this?”
She did. “Will you get tenure at your new school, or will you upset your superiors there as you have Warren here?”
“I’ll get tenure.” He slid a small box across the table. “Open it.”
She did not open it. She slid it back to him. “I am going to marry Warren.”
“I am going to marry Warren.”
“Him?” The guy had to be – what – at least twenty years older than her? “Do you love him?”
“Warren is established in his career.”
She had answered his question by not answering it. He thought she loved him. If she did, that only made this worse. His face altered; assumed those first fissures that would deepen and spread. More to himself than her, he said, “What happens now?”
What happened was that he never made it to his job in Oregon. He never taught another day, not even returning to clean out his office. He drank at the bar until they threw him out with him throwing punches.
Cut adrift, he eased and then rushed into the flow of his time, of his generation. It was 1968. Marijuana, cocaine, LSD. He lived in the Big Sur woods, sketched in San Francisco and contributed to Zap comics; shared an inner tube off Carmel with Jimi Hendrix and was his guest at the Monterrey Music Festival. A girl he ran into convinced him to hitchhike cross-country with her to a music festival in Woodstock, New York. A few years later he was at the Altamont Festival and a Hell’s Angel killed a man in front of him. That was when he came north, to Seattle, and began to draw cartoons at The Pike Street Market. They made people happy. Sometimes it almost made him happy.
As she posed, poised on the edge of the stool, fearing how this man who had once loved her was drawing her now, her nine-year-old son rushed to her, escaped from the company of her sister.
“What are you doing, Mommy?”
She placed her hand upon his head. “I am posing for this gentleman,” she said, hoping Sketch-O was a gentleman and not exposing her to ridicule with his cartoon.
“What’s your name, son?” he asked.
“Junior,” Jacob said.
He completed his work with the signature “Sketch-O” at the bottom right corner and applied a stamp on the bottom left that stated this cartoon had been created at the Seattle Pike Place Market on this date. Then, he carefully separated the work from the sketchpad to protracted applause from tourists and locals to which both artist and model were insensible.
The moment of truth. She took the cartoon in her hands, turned it over and saw –
Who she had been, years ago, in his classroom, that first class she had taken with him, when he had awakened the artist within her. Her face was in the act of turning from him, looking towards the door – model and artist knew what she was turning towards, that she was about to leave his life –
It was not a caricature. It was her life, his life – their life — set down in black and white.
With this, she knew he had not stagnated or regressed in his work. Jacob Bailey was still wrestling with the Angels.
She briefly wondered what life with Jacob would have been had she not gone out that door; but because she had two of her paintings hung in an exhibition hall several miles away.
Jacob named the price. She gave him double.
It was an even exchange.
Image – Rootology, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons