Recently, in a book about aging, I noticed that the author seemed almost obsessed by the notion that luck determines whether or not an artist becomes an artist, much less an old one. I have no argument with his point, which is well taken. Luck always plays a role. The composer and conductor, Jean-Baptiste Lully, for example, was beating time by banging a long staff (a precursor to the bâton) against the floor, a common practice at the time, when he struck his toe during a Te Deum in honor of Louis XIV. He died of gangrene two and a half months later. In our own time, Bob Marley suffered the same fate from a toe infection. Bad luck in both instances—although Lully did get into his 50s. Marley died at age 36.
The author of the tome on aging artists worried that many people don’t succeed at all because of bad luck. Being born one place rather than another, of one kind of parents than another, in poverty instead of wealth. I heard a heartbreaking story recently about that sort of luck and it’s bothered me ever since. It was told by an excellent storyteller and much of its power as a story was in the telling. I may have to fictionalize it a bit since I don’t remember the details that well.
The story teller was only six or seven years old and living in Hardwick, Vermont, a village that, at the time, called itself the “Granite Capital of the World.” The industry was beginning to wind down by then, sometime in the 30s or late 20s, but the village was still a thriving place with a large immigrant population of mostly Italian granite workers. Pam, my storyteller, would get up each morning and take a walk around town, visiting a baker, a butcher—oh, I don’t know because I’ve forgotten exactly who— but wandering cheerfully about on her daily itinerary. The streets, I presume, were soft with morning light and that peculiar kind of freshness that happens when the day is just beginning. I say a baker because I’m sure that there the smell of fresh-baked bread filled the street. A butcher. I don’t know, but I’m certain Pam would have known him. She finally came to the house where a dear friend of hers lived, an elderly woman who inhabited half a house. In the other half lived “Sissy,” the painter. That wasn’t his real name, of course. He was called it behind his back because…. well, you can guess: there, in this macho granite town, lived a gay man. He’d grown up in the town. and was its tailor as well as a resident artist whose portraits of townspeople were very popular—moreso, certainly, than the man himself.
On this particular day, Pam took it into her head, the way a child would, to run up to him and, tugging at his sleeve, call out, “Sissy, Sissy, Sissy! Make a picture of me.”
He took her hand and led her into the room where he made his art, and did a sketch of her. She kept it for years after. It’s since disappeared and, in fact, the man’s paintings all seem to have gone, along with him. “There must be some around still,” she says.
Her parents had something to say to her about calling the artist “Sissy” to his face, and she never did again.
So that’s the sad and I think haunting story, or at least sketch of it, of an artist with bad luck—but an artist nevertheless. I like to think that living alone and maligned in that small town for all the years of his life, however many there were, he had moments of sheer joy from the making of his art.
If anyone from Hardwick, Vermont reads this story and has a painting to sell, I’d gladly buy it.