“I Love The Art So Much I Sometimes Weep” — A Former Writing Professor’s Life As An Art Framer

I’ve been dreaming, I’ve been paying dues
I’m not one for the glory
And I’ve been falling, won’t be landing soon
It’s not the end of the story

–The Revivalists, “Good Old Days”

I don’t want to hold back
I don’t want to slip down
I don’t want to think back to the one
thing that I know I should have done

–Cake, “Love You Madly”

Months into my new art-framing job, the stacks awaiting me on the worktable each day still feel like a miracle, a surprise party just for me. The art is piled neatly between empty frames, matboards, sheets of glass, foamboard, giant vinyl portfolios. I turn the pieces over one by one, each a puzzle. Glass, paint, wood, canvas, paper, ink, cardboard, silk, wire, tape, staples. Dog hair. Legos. A golf ball. A recently filed legal brief—just a little stapled booklet—for a federal case about protecting immigrants’ rights. (The young attorney who brought it in explained when I asked, his face full of pride.) A century-old studio portrait of a small boy in a sailor suit, smiling out from under his bangs, taken the year before he died, a faded note handwritten on the back: The brother I never knew. I use my phone to take a snapshot of these words. Later on my computer I’ll enhance it, print it out, then slide it into an acid-free sleeve to be taped onto the finished piece’s back, as the customer requested. The original note will remain, too—sealed safely and invisibly inside the frame. Maybe for another hundred years.

We are not a museum, just a tiny, scruffy, neighborhood frame shop in Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago suburb known for Northwestern University and the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, for its commitment to social justice and the arts. As in most places, that commitment often fails when it meets reality, but still, Evanston is fierce and beautiful where you least expect it.

At my job, for instance. The art is unrelenting.

Landscapes and dreamscapes, towers, harbors, mountains, forests, icebergs, beloved anonymous houses, beloved anonymous pets, psychedelic visions and graffiti, diplomas, hockey jerseys, vintage bicycle parts, photographs of every possible object or being, doing every possible activity. A little pencil line drawing of Warhol’s famous Absolut vodka bottle, his signature scrawled at the bottom. A dentist’s certificate of appreciation for his work caring for “the oral health of Holocaust survivors.” An orange cartoon brontosaurus riding a tiny scooter through downtown Chicago. A pack of fierce-faced bicyclists racing along a cliff, in an advertisement for the 1953 Tour de France. Director John Waters grinning in his favorite pink Comme des Garçons jacket (“that looks like your aunt’s bedspread with the little balls on it,” he told GQ). A tasseled table-runner from Turkey, a Dave Chappelle poster, a disintegrating page from a 1904 Chicago newspaper found under someone’s bathroom floor during a renovation. Lots of Phish posters. An anonymous, headless female nude painted all in rich, egg-yolk yellow. An 1871 textbook illustration of a uterus embellished with flowers. A Japanese golfer painted in broad calligraphic black brushstrokes. A cowboy in full dress, rodeo number pinned to his back, standing on a diving board over a swimming pool. A child’s felt-scrap collage. Autographed photos of Billie Jean King, James Brown. An Alaskan indigenous formline hummingbird, a Hebrew mandala, a Frank Lloyd Wright window. An aerial view of Machu Picchu, glowing gold and black against a bright orange sky, as if the whole world is on fire.

When I get home at night, I collapse in a chair, mute and unable to move. The art feels like a tornado whooshing through me. I feel euphoric and empty, cleaned out. Words and thoughts blasted away. My eyes scoured clean.

I love the art so much I sometimes weep. I try not to let anyone see. My boss works in the basement building frames, and the only other employee works mostly on days I don’t. When customers come in, I can’t look up at them right away anyhow because I’m handling glass or razor blades or using some sharp tool I never knew the name of until now. (For the first time in my life, I own an awl, a sleek little wooden-handled model sheathed in clear vinyl. My boss gave it to me, said to keep it secret, write my name on it. This felt ceremonious, initiatory, though I think he just wants all our awls to quit disappearing.)

I have no training for this work. I got the job by bringing in my posters to be framed, things I bought in the 1980s at Chicago’s famous Wax Trax record store, now closed: David Bowie’s Lodger album cover art; a Roxy Music concert poster from the band’s 1973 German tour; Tom Tom Club’s Tina Weymouth standing naked in a swamp, strategically smeared with mud, electric guitar strapped across her chest.

I got the job by asking the frame shop guy—my boss—if he needed an assistant.

My life has gone off the map, it seems. Possibly also off the rails.

In 1989, in my early twenties, I fled Chicago and moved to the American South, where I hoped to spend my entire adult life, writing and teaching and teaching writing. I planned never to return. Chicago was cold. My parents were difficult and made mistakes. In North Carolina, I lived at the actual beach. I won awards, I published books, I got tenure—I showed everybody, didn’t I? I got cancer; I recovered, surrounded by friends. I survived hurricanes.

Back home in Chicago, my parents grew old. I didn’t see this happening and neither did they. They were busy birdwatching, attending new plays, trying new restaurants. Our relationship had mellowed and warmed with time. But then my father, my sweet, strong, and only father—he began to die, and then he died. Words that still don’t sound true five years later, as I type them here.

I stopped caring so much about words. In Chicago, my mother, now alone, began to lose hers. She fell, and didn’t remember falling. She said she never fell, and if she did, she certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone. She had no family left in Chicago. She agreed to move into Memory Care. I decided to move back north.

Why? Why did I leave you many years ago? wrote the artist Marc Chagall in the 1940s, in a letter to Vitebsk, the Russian city of his youth. He imagined that the city understood and forgave him: Maybe the boy is crazy, but crazy for the sake of art…he is still “flying,” he is still striving to take off…

I had flown. Now it was time to migrate back.

I did not yet know what else it was time for.

At the frame shop there is so much beauty, it can’t be real. Maybe this is the afterlife, I think. Or purgatory.

The work is taxing. I stand all day, or walk around and around the worktable. I carry huge sheets of glass to a cutting machine and cut them. I smash unusable pieces loudly into a metal bucket, then tote the bucket to the dumpster out back. My hands grow strong and scarred.

A few blocks away, my mother dreams, awake or asleep. She plays Uno with an aide or naps in her wheelchair, wearing one of my old sweaters. Hand-me-ups, we joke. She can still joke. But I don’t understand how she can forget so much of her life so quickly. Or where a life goes after you forget most of it. She hasn’t forgotten me yet. Not yet.

The assignments on the worktable each morning have been set aside for me because they’re easy and I’m a novice, or because they’re complicated and there’s a skill I need to learn, or practice. Or because my boss knows I will love them—though maybe I’m imagining that.

Once, early on, I drilled a screw into the back of a frame and it came out through the front, a bad mistake. The frame had to be rebuilt. I arrived at work the next day to find twenty identical manufactured frames from Target or Walmart, allegedly brought in by a customer who wanted only new hangers installed on the backs. A strange order. I spent the day drilling forty holes, installing forty screws, twisting forty wires. My hands hurt for a week.

I work six or seven hours without breaks. I can’t seem to explain this to my friends. Momentum, focus. While I’m cleaning glass, inspecting endlessly for specks of dust or lint, using a marker to cover a flea-sized chip on a frame, time falls away. Everything outside the moment falls away, like a blurred background in an Impressionist landscape. No, I don’t want lunch, no I don’t want to sit down.

My boss is in the basement building frames. Sawing or chopping long pieces of wooden moulding, joining corners with a compressor-powered pneumatic machine that seems to breathe on its own. It’s dark and dungeony down there, cement floor and cinder-block walls, accessible only by rickety wood plank stairs. The basement runs the length of the building, filled with machinery and racks upon racks of uncut wood, organized in a system only my boss understands. Ash, oak, pine, eucalyptus, ramin. Finger-jointed wood, wood made of milled scraps. Narrow, wide, flat, scooped, beveled, painted, stained. My boss knows them all. He knows what each wood will do, and what it won’t. One crumbles so easily he calls it “cornflakes.” Others are impossibly hard. He hates maple.

(Why? Because it builds like shit, he says. Maple is hard. Plus its shade varies and might not match the sample the customer viewed. Whenever maple is mentioned, my boss starts giving everyone dark and desperate looks.)

He has been making frames since the 1970s. He sort of is the 1970s. He’s Wolfman Jack, WKRP’s Johnny Fever; he’s Oscar the Grouch with the worst smoker’s cough I’ve ever heard. He keeps smoking anyway, even inside the store, though none of his legions of customers seem to notice. He’s a rebel, an old hippie, or maybe a young one? A long-hair, not a suit. No framers are suits, he tells me.

He once hoped to become a comic book artist. He loves vintage sci-fi comics and Robert Crumb and Lichtenstein and Dali and Hieronymus Bosch and has adorned the store’s walls with samples of their work and lots of other dark and strange images, showing off our frames. My boss quotes randomly and significantly from Dune. (It’s best just to nod.) When he’s in the basement, thumping bass and psychedelic reverb waft up the stairs into the store from his beloved Hawkwind CDs, faint behind the blare of our workspace boombox.

Yes, we have an actual boombox, its radio dial set to Chicago’s WXRT-FM, the alt-rock soundtrack of my youth—how does this station even still exist? (And why is it still playing Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”?) Soon I’m humming along with Black Pumas, Tame Impala, Teddy Swims, Cold War Kids, the Revivalists. Also Cake, and Beck: Things are gonna change, I can feel it.

And yet, here in our shop, they haven’t. Our customers seem to love this about us, our indie small-business vibe. We are falling apart in so many ways—our bodies, our tools, the glass-cutter’s blade holder. Our two-sided tape gun is held together by one-sided tape.

The store’s front room is no bigger than my apartment’s living room, an open space with high whitewashed ceilings and bright track lighting to illuminate the worktable, around which everything, and everyone, revolves. Our picture window directly overlooks the sidewalk and busy street, nothing but glass between us and the pedestrians rushing by or stopping to look in. Lots of people know us. Customers love to tell us how long they’ve known my boss. It’s not that they want special treatment. It’s like they want to be part of us in some way.

When my boss works in the “cellar,” as he medievally calls it, he stays down there as long as he can, because of his knees, because stairs. He leans heavily on counters and tables just to walk around a room. Descending the steps, he literally yells in pain.

Ascending a couple of hours later, he carries newly constructed frames so perfect, so beautiful, that I feel I’ve never really seen frames before. They are just squares and rectangles, pieces of wood holding air, empty space. Once fitted onto the artwork, they become necessary, almost invisible, essential as a body part.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top