John was nearby and so I asked him about the discount painter. "Mike’s his own man," John said. The two young women, who also work for John, nodded—a little tentatively, it seemed to me. There were a couple of beats of silence. Then John said, "He mumbles."
I wasn’t sure where the conversation was going and I noticed that the two women weren’t saying anything either. John looked at them. "Don’t you think so?" he asked. They nodded, but what are you going to do? This was the boss asking. I looked at John. He looked at me. A moment of silence. "Do you think anyone else would have a clerk who mumbles meeting the public?" Turning to the women at the counter he said, "Go on. Show Richard how he talks." No takers. They weren't doing impersonations, at least not right then. So John demonstrated. It wasn’t very good. I didn’t even need to know Mike Lay. The women were smiling again. "And he doesn’t give compliments, either," one of them couldn’t resist saying.
By now, I had a portrait of a sales clerk who mumbled and, furthermore, who didn’t hand out any strokes to customers, either. At this point, John still hadn’t cracked a smile, and I was beginning to feel perplexed. There had to be another side to this story and, by God, I’d simply stand there until someone tipped their hand. John must have read me because he finally added, "But I like him." It didn’t really clear a lot up, but at least it allowed there was a lot more to the story and now I was really wondering "Who is this guy?"
I looked down again at the little portrait, and at the little note. The handscrawled $48/obo had been crossed out. $37.50/obo was written in beside it. "John," I said, "do you think he’d take a little less?" My attempt at a joke.
"Why don’t you ask him?" John said with a straight face. "But you’ll have to come back. He’s not here today."
A couple of weeks later I was back. Mike was there. A slender young man came over and I introduced myself. He was reserved, true. Mumbled? Well… I could see why John and the others had said that. I told Mike I was interested in his painting. He was non-committal. "I see how you’ve marked the price down there," I said.
Maybe I gave something away with my expression, because this got a big laugh out of Mike. He could see that I got it: the subtext, the general pathos of the unenfranchised artists across the country, the pathetic impulse to become another marketeer. It was a feeling I knew myself. Lay’s little handwritten sign: $48.00, and then its markdown to $37.50—was pure poetry, I thought—better than anything I had ever done in that benighted territory.
Lay used to sell his portraits on eBay when he lived in Maryland, he told me. The bidding started at one dollar. He got commissions sometimes, too. A painted 8 by 10 would go for between $20 and $60. But he’s not doing that anymore. "I’ve got a show at Boontling Gallery (4224 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) right now," he told me. I went down to see it. It was my first visit to the gallery. Mike Simpson and Derek Weisberg, the owners, were both there. The place had a contagious energy I hadn’t felt for some time. Ten or twelve acrylic portraits by Lay took up two walls. "Not bad," I thought again and, at Lay’s prices, I couldn’t resist buying another one. A similar number of drawings and paintings by Vincent Perea took up the other two walls. I found myself lingering. The place was refreshing. While I was there, a young man, Obi Kaufmann, came in with issue #1 of a new visual arts magazine SWEE[t]ART. Looking through it, I couldn’t determine who the editors or publishers were. But there are more important things, right? That’s the beauty of it.
Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.
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