hallelujah, i’m a colony bum

yaddo is a superselective artists colony in saratoga springs, new york with a nutty name and an unparalleled reputation. yaddo alumni include john cheever, leonard bernstein, langston hughes, milton avery, philip guston, and truman capote. and me! in the summer of 1987, i pulled some heavy duty strings (through a risd connection i knew board member louise bourgeois) and finagled a guest residency. i had a huge, high-ceilinged atelier with northern light, which is every painter’s fantasy. but that was just the beginning. mornings, all the resident genii would meet at the mailboxes. what’s in the mailbox? only love letters and grants. that was a real yaddo joke. it gets better.

 every day, furtive, crepe-soled lackeys delivered a tasty lunch outside my studio door, and then crept silently away. at night i’d dine “en famille” with the most brilliant minds of the day, followed by poker and casual sex. the guy i chose was a successful young author who liked to chew on huge wads of paper while he worked. you have to have an affair at yaddo, or you haven’t really yaddoed. it was just plummy. and it was free!

yaddo’s waiting list is several years long. the mcdowell colony’s is somewhat longer. do you really wonder why? they wouldn’t take me back. i tried. i had caught the colony bug. i became a colony bum.

 although doggedly working as an illustrator/designer since getting a bfa (in painting, by the way) from risd in 1977, i’ve always had marketing problems with that pesky slash between the illustrator and the designer. it confuses some people, but for me it’s the only way. i was in most of the departments at risd at one time or another, and twenty–four years later i still haven’t decided what to “major in.” frankly, i feel confident as a designer, an illustrator, a painter, a writer, and a comic. i feel cheated if forced to choose, and i know i’m not alone in this. unfortunately, design schools are the only places that haven’t realized that departmental boundaries (partly due to “crossover” technologies) no longer exist in real life.

to me, drawing and design are inseparable. nobody called cassandre or paul rand an “illustrator.” i’m very militant about this, so don’t get me started. i don’t think illustration should be taught in schools. everyone should draw. if you want a career as an illustrator, you just go out with a portfolio and get it. people say “draw this” and you draw it. there’s nothing to learn about illustration. some illustration is “concept” oriented, and some isn’t; in my case they usually just want things that look “cool.” the creative part is fun and easy; it’s the business part that’s hard. perhaps all those illustration majors would do better with a degree in marketing.

design has lately become so technology oriented that people are hired for their expertise with programs and machines, rather than their original ideas, or artistic skills. these powerful programs are using people, not the other way round, and that’s why everything looks alike now. illustrator 9.0 wants to do certain things, and not others. flash 5.0 wants to do certain things and photoshop? oh, please. where’s the humanity? in my opinion, when you get your hands dirty, there it is. so that’s what i do. it’s not the fashion, mais je m’en fou!

i’ve worked freelance on and off for fourteen years as an editorial designer at condé nast, an on-air designer at nickelodeon, created logotypes, designed typefaces (“loupot”, for font bureau) as well as several restaurant identities and a whole lot of packaging, so don’t tell me i’m a illustrator, just because i can draw, too. when did this become a liability? illustration is at the very bottom of our food chain. designers look down on illustrators. admit. in my career that skill has just “caught on” a bit more; ideally i get design projects that also include drawing. ideally.

i’ve never had commercial success, but i’d rather do work i believe in than be successful. and yes, it’s a choice.

i am barely working now, and have never been fully employed. i used to call myself the word’s most commercial artist. in fact, the opposite is true. i’ve got ayn rand’s “howard roark” attitude. “i don’t build to have clients. i have clients so that i can build.” a sign over my door once said, “i can’t afford to waste my time making money.” indeed. to complicate matters even further, i’ve been painting “seriously” for the last seventeen years.

it gets worse. for many years i have taught at parsons school of design. i am a very good design teacher, but i realized that teaching was becoming an outlet for standup comedy. so, in the last four years, i’ve devoted much of my time to humor writing, and have also been performing comedy at caroline’s, stand up new york, and the gotham comedy club, among other venues, with amazing success. the audience doesn’t have to learn anything about kerning, serifs or leading, and it’s gratifying, (as well as extremely embarrassing) for a visual nerd with stage fright to be doing this. standup comedy is a drunken, worthless, repulsive frat-boy art form, but not the way i do it. unfortunately, this art form is even less remunerative than illustration, which hasn’t been a good way of making money since daguerre. comedy’s like prostitution without the sex, or the money. you just rake in cash for the clubs until you’re “discovered” and thrown on some idiotic sitcom, and that’s not what i want. i do it just for fun.

so how can i possibly take time off? well, i own my loft, which i bought cheaply with money willed to me by my grandmother in 1982. also, i don’t have a family to support. also, i live modestly. also, i’m nuts.

two summers ago, in ’99, i was stuck in new york without enough work, which was not at all unusual, considering. i had hired an assistant, who somehow made more money than i did, which was. regretfully, i let her go, and started the aimless city wandering that is my specialty. my inner colony bum asserted itself. without thinking about it, i wandered into 79 fifth avenue. i knew the foundation center was there because i carry around many addresses, names and numbers in my head, and i never forget. i am a maven, and am good at referring anyone toward anything. if you need a good haircutter in paris, or an agent in tokyo, or a publisher in berlin, or a boyfriend in new york, ask me. on my own account, however, i am usually helpless.

i wandered out of the foundation center with a list of e-mail addresses for fifty-odd art colonies both here and around the world. “what the hell”, i thought. i sent a mass e-mail. the phrase highlighted in bold type is “kind of a lie.”

it went exactly like this:

may 26, 1999

so and so foundation for the arts

wherever in the world

dear artist residency program person,

my name is laurie rosenwald and i am a painter. do you have any artist-in-residence opportunities available for this summer? that is to say, now? i will be happy to send transparencies of my work, but i do not expect to receive any stipend. i am happy to pay.

all the best,

laurie rosenwald

strangely, i got back an immediate response from an obscure artists residency in sweden that (in english) sounded something like “constipated.” i went to their web site and found, among other things, a picture of a toilet. this was rather alarming, because, with over one hundred studios, this photo seemed to be boasting “we have a toilet.” it turned out later that maria, who is in charge of public relations for the place, was not aware of the presence of the toilet, nor could she find any explanation for it, and subsequently removed it from the web site.

when i got there, i looked for the toilet. i was glad to find an enormous number of fabulous toilets in good working order, but never that toilet. as my father would say, it remains to this day, “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.”

back to my “application.”

i believe that the operative words were: i am happy to pay.

swedes are seldom happy to pay. they are willing to pay, but not happy. the rent for the atelier with kitchen and separate bedroom was 4600 swedish kronor a month, or about $475.00. i loved the fact that nothing belonged to me: not a single towel, not a pot or pan. everything came from ikea, circa 1985. freedom. i sublet my manhattan loft (luck) for considerably more than i pay, and, loaded down with pearl paint’s finest linens and oil colors (i’d heard supplies were expensive) i hightailed it to gothenburg, a city with which i was wholly unfamiliar. i must add, at this juncture, that i have been to sweden many times. i was married to a swede, but all his friends (who i adore, by the way) lived in either stockholm or skåne, the southern part of the country. this was the wild west.

gothenburg was another kettle of torsk, and i liked everything about it. torsk means codfish, and this is one fishy town. it’s the biggest port in northern europe, complete with russian trawlers, container ships, communists, waterfront dives, and finnish longshoremen.

the first night i arrived, i got insanely drunk with my neighbors; stefan, a mad pianist, and claes, a painter who was just mad. sometimes i wondered if people liked me only because i was from new york, and then i was sure they did, but so what? by the time of my birthday (june 16) i’d made enough friends to celebrate with. nearly all of the hundred plus studios were used by swedish artists, writers and musicians living elsewhere in town. there are only five “official” living spaces there, but that didn’t stop anybody from living. some people think an art colony is like a school, but this is not the case. working (or not) was a matter of choice; at an art colony, nobody cares what you do.

it used to be an epidemic (tb) hospital in the nineteenth century, which explains its dreadful name: “the art epidemic.” a sprawling collection of mismatched brick and wooden buildings, it sits atop a high hill, in between the botanical garden and the city park. i rediscovered nature. i grew a tomato plant and tended a sunflower. enormous hares hopped about, and strange foreign berries grew outside my window. there was a dangerous invasion of slugs. people showed up, or they didn’t. sometimes they left a note on your door. there wasn’t a lot of telephoning. i let my e-mail go unchecked for weeks. in the drugstore there were eighteen kinds of shampoo, not eighteen hundred. eighteen’s enough for anybody. there were trams, not subways, and you could see everything. a breakfast special included an egg, a cheese sandwich, and oatmeal, with a strong but mellow kaffe. there were just a few good restaurants; gyllene prag (the czek “la coupole” of göteborg, where the old hippie artists hung out) café japan for sushi, and “klara”, if you were feeling yuppie. there was the irish pub or “jasså”, the jazz bar, or “louice”, the “recycling center” for the divorce crowd. but “nefertiti”, the nightclub, was the hippest hot spot.

i got english books on tape from the library, and listened to “whisky galore” and “gorky park” while i painted. i painted. i made a lot of good paintings. twenty! i ordered some wood. i melted beeswax into the paint and made thick thick paintings of letterforms, among other things, and painted on the wood. wood is good. i made portraits of the restaurateur at the local café, and felt like van gogh. i painted nils, virginie, heidi, eva, and stefan. i tried to paint the giantess maria naked, smoking her little cigars, but that failed. i bicycled everywhere, even to the beach, with its archipelago of a million stone islands. i ate fisksoppa (fish soup) and bought kräftor (crayfish) at the “fish church.” i gave a real “kräftskiva”, (a traditional crayfish party), complete with the special stupid hats and lanterns.

i made friends with a fellow guest artist from dijon who i called “mustard girl.” i inspired her to recreate, in video form, my neighbor nils’ version of hamlet, where naked men thrash each other with salmon, and hamlet stabs polonius with a herring. nils’ freckled, orange-haired daughter, tove, looked just like pippi långstrumpf. i had a crush on nils, but didn’t everyone? during a torrential rainstorm we once got naked and jumped around in it, but that’s about it. at that moment i felt wonderfully far from the “design community.” nevertheless i managed to do some commercial jobs here and there; my shakespeare book jacket illustration (little, brown), drawn on a kitchen table, on paper towel, got into the aiga “fifty books” exhibition, and i did some work for chronicle books and neiman marcus. the fedex man had no uniform, no waybills, and arrived in an unmarked pickup. occasionally, he would lose things. i met musicians, film makers, photographers, schizophrenics, antiquarians, weavers, korean barbecue chefs, architects, painters, performance artists, jewelers, rhodesian ridgebacks, hedgehogs, museum curators, biologists, psychologists, environmentalists, goth chicks, alchoholics, potters and sound engineers. even illustrators and designers! for some reason, all the potters were into salsa, but my friend eva studied belly-dancing instead, on the tiny island of styrsö. there was also a great african choir with no africans in it. children are respected in sweden, and original things are created for them. there was a superb children’s theater there, and i learned a little swedish from some five year olds. mostly, people wouldn’t let me try. everybody over eight and under ninety speaks english as well as i do. they never dub, and they import the worst television shows america ever produced. i told you, they’re cheap. i lived in a rerun nightmare of “remington steele”, “barnaby jones” and “the streets of san francisco.” i took swedish lessons with fourteen au pair girls from estonia. i gave a huge drunken dance party where i dj’d until six in the morning and two hundred people showed up, and really danced. they loved my funky new york soul music. everybody was making out.

three months went by, and then i had to go home. there were tears all around. i felt popular.

back in new york i illustrated a silly poetry book and made ten thousand dollars. i designed some greeting cards for a cable tv company and they changed all the colors and i didn’t say anything. i worked on my web site, rosenworld.com. i wanted to go back.

so i went back, in january, 2000, and spent nine more months at the art epidemic. all together, i took a year off. it was completely different than that first summer. for one thing, it was winter, which in sweden lasts from october till june. in january, it’s pitch black by four pm. people light candles, bake bread, read, and procreate. somehow, i managed to smuggle in my cats. sweden has a serious quarantine, but i flew to denmark and snuck them on the car ferry over. they loved it there, and caught birds and mice in the great swedish outdoors. pretty slick, for black cats from queens! they met some cool swedish cats, and made both enemies and friends, which were indistinguishable.

sometimes it was lonely; somehow it didn’t matter as much as in new york. good paintin’ weather. my crush on nils disappeared and i developed a new one, on a neighbor who created loud, kinetic sculptures that resembled rube goldberg’s wildest work, but made loud, crazy dance music. everybody started sleeping over at my house. either lene, the talented danish illustrator or pierre the unbearably handsome student pirate, but it’s not what you think; we’re all just friends. i traveled to prague with a bunch of old, drunken hippies and the finnish longshoreman. they used to complain “when we were here in ‘69, beer was two cents! now it’s up to five!”

i taught my world renowned “anti problem solving” design workshop at hdk, the art school. they responded magnificently to backward thinking. they got their swedish handerna very “smutsig.” i made even more paintings and had an exhibition last june. thirty-five paintings! where i’ll show them in new york, i haven’t got a clue, but i am proud of them. for an un-young heterosexual woman who’s never even been in a group show, and doesn’t paint with urine, that isn’t going to be easy. apparently, if i’m still undiscovered at ninety-five, i’ll have a good shot at fame. look at alice neel. those last two years must have been very special.

spending countless hours bent over a computer is not my idea of a fulfilling life. i’d rather have an eventful day. i still need new york. it’s my home town. plus, i still have to pay the maintenance (1300.00 a month) but why go too much further than that? you need a low overhead if you have high ideals; i’m trying to lower it all the time. up with downward mobility!

once in a while, i get a really fun job and they don’t kill it. my old stationery said “rosenworld: the little house that kill fees built.” i have wonderful friends here, too. unfortunately, some of them like to plan way ahead and make lunch dates and things like that; where has the spontaneity gone? don’t e-mail. just buzz the door. this is my shtetl mentality. new yorkers may be more accomplished than gothenburgers, but they’re not nearly as accessible. all of them work, most have kids, but they still seem to have time. rents are low, taxes are high, but daycare, education, and health care are free, or nearly so. all of the painters earned their living exclusively by selling paintings. how many in new york can say that? when i came back, my new york, friends asked me why i love gothenburg. i answered, “because nobody has anything better to do than to chat with me!”

there’s no moral to this story, and no conclusion either. this may (2001) i’m returning for the summer. it won’t be the same, because nothing ever is. if there is one advantage in not having a “normal” family (what i still hope for, of course), it’s that you can create totally abnormal ones whenever, and wherever you want. when i was a child, i envied grownups their freedom. i wondered why they didn’t have more adventures, more fun. they could do whatever they wanted! i still think that way, and i’m a grownup. i do have fun. i do have adventures. i do whatever i want. je ne regrette ingenting.

©  laurie rosenwald