The only class I looked forward to at Wilcox High School was art class. I didn’t draw much attention my freshman year, and then I decided to get noticed. But someone was standing in the way to me becoming the next Picasso. Her name was Karen Kleinfeldt. Karen was two years older than me. She already had experience with perspective and oil paint. Miss Veasie, our art teacher, was helping her develop a portfolio to submit to art colleges. I needed to take Karen down. But how?
Karen could take a photo from National Geographic and transform it into an oil painting, which was more than I could do. The school provided a modest assortment of supplies but I wanted to practice at home and begged my penny-pinching mother for money to buy paint and brushes. To my amazement, she opened her wallet.
I should have started with something simple, but my first attempt at oil painting was inspired by a classical painting of Adam and Eve I found in an art book. My copy was awful. I couldn’t draw the figure properly and my flesh tones were sickly. Instead of looking like a robust Adam, my figure resembled Casper the Friendly Ghost. My Eve would have convinced Adam to remain a virgin for the rest of his life. I checked more books out of the library, books on human anatomy and perspective, and gradually my work began to improve. Not that Miss Veasie noticed right away. She gave my work a cursory nod while reserving her praise for Karen.
One day I noticed something interesting about Karen’s work: all of the figures she drew or painted were standing in tall grass or high shag carpet. I asked Karen if I could see her portfolio and, sure enough, I couldn’t find an image of the human foot. As an artist, Karen’s Achilles heel was that she couldn’t draw or paint feet. Of course, neither could I. So I pored over anatomy books, studying the foot like a future podiatrist. I made numerous drawings of the twenty-eight bones that make up the human foot until I could depict feet convincingly.
Miss Veasie asked us to do a painting of a famous person; I chose Winston Churchill. My Winston looked more like an angry potato than the former prime minister of England, and I’d depicted him standing on the White Cliffs of Dover in his bare feet. Miss Veasie had begun to notice me and interpreted my picture as an interesting psychological exercise showing Churchill’s inner vulnerability by rendering him without shoes.
I tried to look modest as I accepted her compliments, and her smile was so broad when I told her she’d guessed my intentions perfectly that she looked like she had a coat hanger stuck in her mouth. Karen’s depiction of the late JFK, with his feet concealed in the bottom of a sailboat, wasn’t singled out for as much praise as she was accustomed to, nor were her next few assignments.
Another time, we were asked to paint a seascape. Karen must have sighed with relief, safe in the knowledge that I’d have a difficult time including a foot in a scene of waves and rocks. So that’s exactly what I did. I painted a typical coastal sunset with a wave breaking over a rock, but instead of a rock I had the foamy wave crashing over a stone foot. Miss Veasie said my painting was peculiar and gave me a C, leaving Karen to feel smug with her muddy picture of a cypress tree on the coast near Carmel.
Karen might have redeemed herself and renewed her position as Wilcox High’s greatest artist except for what happened next. Mr. Genovese, the biology teacher, happened by our art class when I was adding the finishing touches to my “footscape.” He pronounced my picture the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life! He offered to buy my still-wet painting. I’d never sold a picture before and didn’t have a price in mind. I turned to Miss Veasie for advice and was surprised when she suggested a ridiculously low amount—ten dollars, not enough to cover the cost of materials. I turned to Mr. Genovese and boldly said, “One hundred dollars!”
Miss Veasie burst into laughter, but her smile flatlined when Mr. Genovese pulled his checkbook from beneath his lab coat and scribbled out a check for a hundred bucks. I barely had time to sign my masterpiece before he picked it up and walked off with it. I later learned that Mr. Genovese wasn’t so much impressed with my painting skill as he was with my subject matter. He was caught burglarizing the neighborhood and it came out that he had a foot fetish. A search of his apartment turned up nearly two hundred pairs of stolen women’s shoes…and my footscape.
Karen Kleinfeldt must have been disappointed when I deprived her of Wilcox’s Outstanding Artist of the Year Award. She graduated and went off to art school someplace in the Midwest where, presumably, grass grows higher than the ankle.