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.

Song for Woody

This land is your land, this land is my land…

She had us singing it in second grade. Taught us to march onto the choir risers behind the flag, singing it. Kimberly got in trouble for marching in with the flag pointing down. Never hold the flag upside down! That’s like saying America should go to the devil, said Mrs. Lundgren, her curls shaking no-no-no.

The song was weird. Wasn’t this land just here, before anybody? Wasn’t it made for itself, maybe just cause it liked being mountains and forests and gulf stream waters, not for you and me? Isn’t that kind of selfish? And if it was made for anybody, wouldn’t that be the Indians, who were here first?

Later I heard it again. Not from a piano and thirty children’s voices, just one reedy voice with a guitar. Voice with a country sound, didn’t pound along like a machine, tempo-tempo; it wandered and emphasized and got louder and quieter. And there were verses she never taught us in school:

As I was walkin / I saw a sign there / And on that sign / it said “No Trespassing” / But on the other side / it didn’t say nothin / That side was made for you and me!

It was written at a time, in a place. It even had a stolen melody, lifted from an old Baptist hymn. Who knew? Why didn’t you tell us that, teacher? We just sang it, never learned it: Dust Bowl song, Depression song. For migrant workers, families who’d had their lives blown away, unwanted wherever they drifted, seeking, losing, starving.

In the squares of the city / in the shadow of the steeple / in the relief office / I seen my people

As they stood there hungry / I stood there asking / Was this land made for you and me?

A song for all the people. Woody would’ve wanted it for the native Americans too, don’t you suppose? And the Mexican Americans, Americans old and new. But I am quite sure, Mrs. Lundgren, it isn’t much about the flag:

Nobody living / can ever stop me / as I go walking / that freedom highway… (as I go crossing / that freedom border…)

Nobody living / can make me turn back / This land was made for you and me.