I’d been working on a difficult assignment to create sixty small but complex illustrations for a client. To shed the confines of working small I decided to create a massive composition unlike anything I’d done before, not an illustration but a huge work of art. The painting was approximately fifteen feet wide and twelve feet tall. I ordered the exceptionally large bolt of canvas from a supplier in New York, emptied our savings account to afford paints and brushes, and labored for two years to make my vision a reality.
I’ve always been drawn to painting people and I wanted to create something that allowed me to depict as many human expressions as possible. Since scale and perspective would be involved, I resolved to paint a group of characters on the steps of a building so the figures in the foreground wouldn’t block those behind them. I came up with the idea of a “protest.”
In the finished painting, a mob of people come together on the steps of a bank-like building. The media is present, along with the police. A bag lady happens onto the scene but isn’t really participating in what’s going on. The fellow at the center of the composition looks slightly like my dad. He also resembles the man in Norman Rockwell’s famous Freedom of Speech. I could go on and on about the details that consumed me while creating this painting, but the question most people asked when they saw it was, “What are these people protesting?”
At the time (this was painted eleven years ago) I decided it would be clever to not reveal the subject of the protest. The banner behind the main character doesn’t offer a clue. My intention was to let the viewers participate in this imaginary event by deciding for themselves what this protest was all about. I’m not certain this was such a good idea because many people have found this painting confusing.
Which brings me back to the Wall Street protests. The movement confuses me, much as my painting confused many who have looked at it. I want to know precisely what is going on. I want to understand how people hanging out in parks thousands of miles from Wall Street can affect the greed of corporate banks. I want the same information I denied those gazing at the last painting I ever created.
When I finished The Protest I didn’t have a clue what to do with it. The rooms of our modest house were too small to accommodate it. Galleries weren’t interested. Hoping there was a big empty wall somewhere in the city where my picture could be displayed, I phoned our city’s public arts commissioner, a gruff old woman named Margaret Zorn. Ms. Zorn agreed to visit my studio to check out my painting.
She was shriveled with age, bent, and wore a bright red wig, and in her voice I could hear every cigarette she’d ever smoked. Although the painting covered an entire wall she rasped, “So where’s the painting?”
I pointed to it.
She pulled a cigarette from her purse, lit it and studied my painting, a picture that, at the time, I felt to be my masterpiece. I waited patiently, watching ash from her cigarette fall to my paint-stained floor as she frowned at my painting. Finally she said, “Nope. Can’t hang this in a public building.”
Trying to conceal my disappointment I asked, “Why not?”
“It isn’t suitable,” she said. “It’s too busy. And the subject matter is disturbing. Many city employees are disturbed enough already and we don’t want to hang anything that will make them want to “off” themselves. You got anything quieter? Maybe in nice pastel colors.”
“No,” I said.
“Too bad.” Before heading for the door she said, “So tell me, what are all those people in your painting so upset about?”
I don’t know where the words came from, maybe the despair I felt about finding a home for my ridiculously big painting, or the regret I felt for wasting two years of my life creating a picture no one wanted, but I blurted out, “They feel hopeless.”
Eleven years have passed since my meeting with Ms. Zorn. Today I don’t need to ask myself: what are all those people in our parks and urban centers so upset about? I know the answer.
They feel hopeless.
The Protest never did find a home. I removed the canvas from its stretcher bars, rolled it up and stored it in our garage. Years have passed since I’ve seen it. Maybe the time has come for me to brush off the dust and prepare my painting to once more see the light of day.