I saw someone familiar in the obituaries today. It took me a while to place the face but it finally came to me. Years ago she came regularly into the jewelry store I managed at the local mall. She never bought anything, but she was a pleasant widow and I’d clean her jewelry. I’ve always been chatty and let it slip that, in addition to managing the store, I was an artist and my work could be seen around town.
One Saturday afternoon in 1989 she came into the store and said, “I was downtown yesterday at the Oregon Biennial. I saw your work.”
My illustrations were beginning to show up in local newspapers and magazines and people often told me they’d seen my work when I suspected they hadn’t. Usually when people claimed to have seen my art they said something nice. This lady did not say anything nice, and it was unlikely she’d seen my work at the Oregon Biennial because I hadn’t submitted anything.
“You’re an artist, aren’t you?” she asked. “Didn’t you tell me you painted?”
“Yes, I am.” I answered.
She scowled her disapproval at me.
“What did you think of the show?” I asked. “Did you see anything interesting?”
“Most of the work was too modern, but your picture was...quite revealing!”
The way she glared made me feel uncomfortable. I decided to dash to the art museum and check out what was hanging with my name on it.
The Oregon Biennial was an artsy-fartsy juried show designed to showcase intellectual experimentation every two years. The art selected didn’t reflect mainstream taste. One didn’t find well-staged landscapes and penetrating portraits. I wandered through the various rooms, one devoted to minimalism and another to nihilism; there was a room of non-objective paintings and another filled with constructivist sculpture that looked like kindergarten blocks. One by one I eliminated the rooms until I came to the last. I peeked inside and knew the instant I laid eyes on it that I’d found what I was looking for hanging on the far wall.
I approached cautiously, as if the picture were on loan from Chernobyl. Several art enthusiasts shushed me when I moaned, “Please dear God; don’t let it be this one!”
I approached a life-size charcoal drawing of a man vaguely resembling me. The figure was nude and drawn from behind, presenting his backside to the world. His head was tucked between his legs and he was leering at the viewer—a self-portrait…of the artist’s asshole. A nearby placard gave the artist’s name: Stephen Hayes.
I had no right to be enraged, but I was. If this artist had been standing beside his picture I’d have kicked him in the pucker chute he’d drawn so well. I felt like I’d been robbed of my dignity, along with my name. With several different ways to spell “Stephen,” why couldn’t this guy have spelled his name differently? In addition to feeling angry, I burned with shame because another Stephen Hayes was having the artistic success that so far had eluded me. I took this as a wake-up call that I’d better get moving before yet another Stephen Hayes crawled out of the woodwork. I was the one who needed a swift kick in the butt.
Eventually, I quit retail and launched my career as a professional illustrator. I did moderately well for myself, as did the other Stephen Hayes whose reputation as a figurative painter continued to grow. One day I received an invitation to join the faculty of one of the most prestigious art schools in the Northwest. I suspected they’d sent the invitation to the wrong guy, which is what I told the hiring committee during my interview. They thought I was quirky and wanted more money. My reluctance to sign a contract goaded them into wanting me even more. They raised their offer and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I finally accepted. For eight years my fellow faculty members believed I was the other Stephen Hayes.
Not bad for an asshole.