Free spirits and spectators

There’s a Sesame Street segment from back in the 1970s, maybe even the early 60s:

Children paint alphabet letters and animals on glass, and enthusiastically discuss the results. The camera films from the other side of the glass, so the kid watching from home sees not only the painting, but the child’s face and arm painting it.

As a five-year-old, I was entranced. (As an adult, I am also in love with that girl’s awesome cat-eye specs.) The transparency, watching forms appear midair, brush bristles wet and creamy with color, sliding around, only mostly controlled. I loved art already, but assumed that painting on glass was a craft reserved for children who lived in the magical world of TV.

That skit didn’t cross my mind for years, until the day I was gliding a rigger loaded with One-Shot in loops across a wide, clean, plate-glass window, and saw a kid looking through from the inside, transfixed. This happens all the time now… and not just with kids.

The spectator sport element is one of my favorite parts of being a window artist. It’s immediately rewarding, as passersby exclaim approval, strike up conversations, or watch quietly while trying to avoid my noticing that they are watching. (Doesn’t work, guys: glass reflects!)

This last foggy Friday, I was painting a Valentine’s scene of bluebirds unfurling heart-shaped ribbons around the jewelry display cases at R.P. Ellis Fine Jewelry. The store is right downtown, next to a peculiarly Missoulian institution, the coffeehouse/tchotchke shop/alterna-hangout, Butterfly Herbs. It was the perfect spot for engaging the early morning culture of Higgins Ave.

First came Paris, a Deadhead-looking guy in his sixties, sharing stories of traveling the USA with his buddies. “Just a couple of Fitch brushes in my pocket, and when we ran outta money, we’d find a store, say ‘Hey man, your sign looks like hell,’ and fix it up.” Paid by the acre, his friend would joke. “Like Woody Guthrie,” I replied. “Did you know that he was a sign painter during the Depression?” “No joke?” said Paris. Nope, no joke.

One of his drawings, I think an illustration in his autobiography
One of Woody’s drawings, an illustration in his autobiography, I think.

From there it was a string of commuters, wanderers and homeless people trying to stay warm via walking and coffee, and people with ideas for future window designs. You’d be surprised how many people know about this supposedly dying art form. “Isn’t it supposed to be 54 degrees out to put that stuff up?” (Yes, but if it’s seasonal, it’ll last just fine.) I’ve met pinstripers, tattoo artists, other signpainters, and lots of regular folks. In Americus, Georgia, I loved the company of older folks who had plenty of time to watch and chat. Sometimes it seemed they didn’t have many people to talk with, and it was good to listen to them as I worked.

After putting the finishing touches on the ribbons, I popped into the shop to check in with Rich, the owner. When I came back outside, a guy was pushing a shopping cart away up Higgins. Piled atop his load of possessions, probably all he had to his name, was my dropcloth, my mallet, and a quarter pint of red One-Shot. I went into autopilot: caught up to him, said “That’s my stuff,” and grabbed my supplies. He began hollering at me, called me every four letter word known to humankind, including, bizarrely, racial slurs: “You should be ashamed of yourself, you *@&^#! Stealing from a homeless person!”

The sad part was that, as a parting shot, he yelled, “You took my blanket!” And I realized he was talking about the dropcloth: damp, paint-spattered, none-too-soft. I almost gave it back to him, then reflected that he was cussing me out and had tried to make off with my gear– not behavior I would like to encourage. I don’t know what he wanted with the oil paint or the mallet, but no good could have come of it. He certainly was not in the frame of mind for a rational conversation. This was the first time in six years I’ve had any trouble. I dunno, friends… would there have been a better way to handle this?

As it was, I packed up my stuff and stepped inside Butterfly Herbs to thaw my bones. Their staff was kind enough to let me keep my paints warm behind the counter while I worked out in the cold. I wanted to give them a little business as thanks, and get something to warm me up en route to my other job. Lucas Phelan— an inventive, talented artist himself, also apparently at his other job– toasted a delicious cream cheese sesame bagel. Everything tastes better when you’ve been out all morning doing something you love. That’s a lesson learned hiking, but widely applicable!

Oh, and without further ado, here are the cavorting bluebirds:

r_p_ellis_fine_jewelry2 r_p_ellis_fine_jewelry

P.S. If you can’t get enough of the adorable children of Sesame Street giggling at glass, there’s another video here. Enjoy.

P.P.S. This blog has been brought to you today by the letter B.

3 Replies to “Free spirits and spectators”

  1. I’m glad you didn’t let the homeless guy take your stuff! I don’t know if I would have handled it any better or differently.

    So cool to realize how many people have made their livings through their art. Love the Woody Guthrie story.

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