Monday, November 10, 2008

Other Artist Friends, pt. 2

Oliver Smith is another artist friend of mine. He lives in Atlanta and his birthday is also June 27, like Susan Mastrangelo's. In my opinion, people born between June 23 and June 30 are often particularly creative. I met Oliver at my second real job, back in 1987 when I lived in Atlanta. Oliver was my first and only real drinking buddy, though he later went cold turkey and stopped, which is very impressive and marked the end of a long bad patch for him. He took me to some great bars in Atlanta, with good juke boxes and cheap whiskey, and one time an honest bar fight broke out.

Oliver was the advertising artist at the Decatur News/Sun, a group of five suburban Atlanta newspapers where I was the promotions director. He taught me what I know about layout and helped me learn to use type and make in-house ads with clip art and put together flyers for sales events. Mostly, though, we spent hours talking about Woody Allen and music and art and just anything that came into our heads. Oliver was born and raised in Savannah, and dipped below the Georgia state line to attend art college at Ringling College (of circus fame) in Florida, then moved to Atlanta. He sometimes used to drive up to the little towns and farms around Athens, Georgia, to see the work of Outsider artists like Howard Finster. Unlike the gallery people who went to rip them off, however, Oliver just wanted to sit and talk to them about making art, and to walk around and see what they made.

When I lived in New York he came to visit me. He'd been to New York once before, with his friend Saul who was from there, but they hadn't really gone anywhere or seen anything. I took Oliver to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it's an experience I'll never forget. Before that, Oliver hadn't really been in a great art museum. He hadn't seen the originals of the paintings he'd studied in college. This was something that had stunned me when we first went to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. I'd expected, well, the Art Institute of Chicago. I'd grown up with a world class art museum in my backyard. The idea that they wouldn't have room after room of Monets shocked me. Atlanta was a big city, after all. This museum was written up all over the place. Art, and the presence of an inland ocean like Lake Michigan, were things I'd taken for granted up to that point. Oliver and I went to the High Museum many times, and I was always disappointed. Particularly by the exhibit of framed wood with the knots painted different colors, and the exhibit of altered photocopies of Elvis and the Mona Lisa.

I was really happy when Oliver came to New York and we could go to the Met. Once there, he could barely focus, and kept pointing and saying, "That's a really famous painting. . . That's a really famous paint-- oh look, that's a really famous painting." He stood for awhile before a painting by Van Gogh and said, "Van Gogh stood before this same canvas." He had a game for us to play. In every room we picked out the piece we would most like to have. It sounds simple, but it had never occurred to me to do that in an art museum, and it is really fun.

Although I've lived in New York, Chicago, and Long Beach, California, I hardly ever saw celebrities. They were probably around, but I just didn't notice. But I'll say this, a great place to see celebrities is in art museums. (One highlight like this was seeing Elvis Costello get thrown out of the Art Institute for touching a painting. He was in the Medieval Art with us, while everyone else was looking at the Monets.) And every time I've gone to an art museum with Oliver, we've seen a celebrity. In the Museum of Modern Art at a Francis Bacon show, Richard Gere walked right in front of me. Oliver, who thinks celebrities are everywhere in New York, was not impressed. In Los Angeles, at a Modigliani show at LACMA, we saw Peter Falk. That was cool.

We used to joke that the newspaper office where we worked would someday return to its original calling as a bowling alley. Someday, we knew, it would close for good. When it did, Oliver went back to school for an M.F.A. in printmaking. He makes prints now, and teaches part-time at Georgia State, and also does a lot of experimental work with video and film. When I visited last Spring he took me to the gallery that shows his work, and the owner was very solicitous of him. Oliver, as always, was exceedingly modest about the whole thing. We walked around and picked out our favorite in each room. We also drove by the old Decatur News/Sun, which is a South Asian jewelry store. In the old parking lot they've built an Indian grocery that was hopping the day we were there.

Last year Oliver also bought a house, in an almost rural neighborhood in Decatur. And that's saying a lot because Atlanta is one of the least rural places in the country, it seems to me. They can't develop it fast enough. It's like ring upon ring upon ring of exurbia with a flashy splash at the center.

Bob Sauro, who I stayed with during my visit, lives in Alpharetta, and is a lawyer in downtown Atlanta. He lives in a large new house in a subdivision in one of the farthest circles. Oliver lives close in, in a working class African American neighborhood. His driveway is at about a 75 degree angle, and his house is well below street level, with a creek in back. He said his neighbor across the street asked him, "How do you like living down in the Hole?" The house is adorable, and he's fixing it up, and being true to its character. The walk-0ut basement is a great studio, filled with layers of equipment and experiments. Both Bob's and Oliver's neighborhoods had the same number of vacant or foreclosed houses. But in Oliver's neighborhood, the abandoned house next door had a tree lying on the roof that no one seemed anxious to remove. In Bob's neighborhood, the vacant new townhomes had security lights on them at night.

I was working in Midtown Manhattan when Oliver visited, and he picked me up early one day from work. My boss, Alan Smith, who had been a vice president for Hill and Knowlton and now ran his own international public relations firm, was telling me something at the front desk when Oliver came in. I hadn't noticed before how strong his Southern accent was. Alan looked at Oliver, looked at me, and his eyes got large. It was not unlike my father's reaction when J.T. Berkley came to our door. But he didn't realize that Oliver is like magic, really. We left the office and went to the Plaza Hotel, where Woody Allen's movie Alice was playing in a little theater on the side that didn't allow refreshments. When the movie was over we walked across the street to the Central Park Zoo to see the seals, where one of the scenes in the film took place. Although I grew up near Chicago, with all that art and all that water, I was really a suburban girl who didn't expect to make it very far from where I started out. I knew there was more out there, but I wasn't sure I'd get the chance to experience it. That's what made and makes hanging out with Oliver special. We both knew right then and there in Central Park we'd made it somewhere we hadn't ever expected we could go.

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