On a small beach between towering rocks around the corner from Cabo San Lucas in Baja, Mexico, I set up, shaded and alone except for an occasional beach walker and the skimming pelicans. A 20″ x 24″ proceeded, not bad, I thought, considering the wind and the blown sand. Leaving my easel (I call it my “office” in places like this), I joined our friends on their grander beach, discussed lunch, had a Coke, then returned to the office.
The painting was gone. It might have been whipped away by a gust, I thought, but a search higher up against the rocks proved nothing. As I was some distance from the water’s edge, it seemed unlikely to have floated up and away like a parasailer and was now somewhere over the Sea of Cortez. It had to have been stolen.
Funnily, though, the thieves overlooked the Toshiba laptop that had been under my folding stool. Were these perhaps high-end bandits, ones with some taste, like the nipper of the Mona Lisa, or were they just local riff-raff who might sign the work and make a quick peso in the local market?
I began to think my painting was the best thing I’d ever done, unrepeatable, irreplaceable. The more I thought about it, the more I boiled. Unlike the fish that got away, the art we make is part of us, part of our very body, and unless we willingly sell or give it, losing it like that is a supreme insult.
Then I began to think otherwise. Wasn’t this just like any other painting I had never properly painted? Wasn’t it just an exercise, its own reward, a faltering, inadequate plod toward improvement and nothing worth fussing about? I had thought to run an ad — “Painting lost — reward offered,” but I cancelled my thought. No, my painting had floated off into the great art diaspora where they all ultimately go. Or maybe it was now an angel in painting heaven where sins are forgiven, where human effort lives on in anonymous eternity, blessed with being neither seen nor juried.
I thought again. My little moment of ecstasy on a private beach was something I might secretly cherish as from the fruit of my youth, better than reality, passionate, brilliant. In fact, for one tiny moment I was a major performer in Western Culture, a regular Lothario of the brush. I’m sticking to that.
PS: “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” (G. K. Chesterton)
Esoterica: When all is only exercise and experiment, where questions give more delight than answers, and results are the lesser of process, we are given a special kind of energy. It’s shifty sand, though. Joy can be stolen because an artist has to put enough technique under the belt to be simply confident. To see a painting that never was, as it is to hear a tree falling in a forest, witness is during, not after. What happens after is really someone else’s business. And one mustn’t be fooled, as I almost was, that it was some of my business where they all end up.
Theft of moldy paintings
by Lorna Allan, Auckland, New Zealand
I had a few paintings that I was going to throw out, not good ones and had found that they had some sort of mucky stuff spilled on them during a house move and the mucky stuff had gone moldy. Talk about stink! Whew! I threw them in the ‘hard pick up’ – the council picks up stuff that won’t go into your rubbish bag a couple of times a year. There was a heap of all sorts of household refuse at the side of the road from a number of houses and amongst it my smelly bad paintings. Guess what was first to be picked up by the scroungers that go around these heaps looking for stuff? Yes my smelly ugly paintings! All I can say is that I am glad I hadn’t signed them!
by Russ Wagner, San Rafael, CA, USA
How does an artist kill a bad painting if their studio is on the ground floor? Out the window is probably the kindest way, but it would still be waiting outside. Often too big to put in my garbage can and it is a bit too violent for me to slice it with a razor. If I leave it outside my studio, my neighbors will think it is drying and pity me for creating it. I thought of donating several of my biggest failures to the Museum of Bad Art. But, I don’t think this is the type of fame I am looking for. I’m not sure how, but to let it be stolen is a great solution for me. Maybe take out an ad on Craigslist?
School art scavengers
by Kathy Weber, RI, USA
When I was in college, my professors hung a number of paintings in the halls and lobby of our building because we were being visited by an accreditation team. One of mine, 12 x 16 inch oil on canvas that I had painted in an hour as a study for a figure painting, and that I really liked, was near the door. There was no security in that building, and, no surprise, I walked in a day or two later and my painting was gone. Of course, it remains in my head as one of the best things I ever did.
The ebony effigy
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
When I was young and a student at NYU, we had an art exhibit at the student center. Needless to say, in our innocence, who would think unfinished or student art works would be stolen. There was no guard and sculpted pieces were not encased. My piece was a half finished deep relief carved in ebony which chipped many a chisel. I had worked painstakingly on it during my summer tutelage under a Dutch sculptor living in Michigan. It still leaves a bittersweet taste in my memory. My gut feeling was that the person who lifted it was the person who gave me the piece of ebony. After that, Pinkerton was hired to guard the works of students.
Book stolen and reprinted
by Jane Champagne, Southampton, ON, Canada
It’s not a good feeling to have a painting appropriated whether by the wind or a thief. Last week I had a similar experience, when I found my book, Painting the Ontario Landscape, advertised on ABEbooks.com by BCI International, a publisher I had never heard of, declaring that the copyright had been cleared with another company I had never heard of, and anyone could order a copy for $90. Since I own the copyright, which had reverted to me from the publisher, I was astonished to read that the copyright had been “cleared by UMI special order” which was news to me. Turns out BCI is a POD — Publish on Demand outfit, and there are many. UMI clears usually academic copyrights; in this case, without permission. I wrote both companies, plus the original publisher, and received a reply from BCI promising to remove the ad, but have yet to find out who authorized the so-called “clearing” of the copyright. It reminds me of your columns on unauthorized copying of paintings.
Haunted by past paintings
by Cheryl Braganza, Montreal, QC, Canada
Your lost painting made me think about a moment of intense emotion I recently experienced where I took a knife to one of my paintings and sliced into the canvas until it was in shreds. This was all related to a fractured relationship that I was trying desperately to salvage — a powerful, passionate act of despair, one that I never imagined possible. I see the painting now in my dreams, in sand dunes, in waves of the ocean, in the bark of the coconut trees, in the red mud of Goa where I am presently living. But I know it is lost forever, irrecoverable, as a part of me is, and I continue to pine. Unlike your angel in painting heaven, due to the nature of the act, mine is probably hovering in purgatory or awaiting a decision of the gods. Will I see it again when I die? Am I then Shiva and Vishnu all rolled into one?
Looking on the bright side
by Sue Martin
I used to feel that loss when my parents no longer displayed the favorite painting I created in high school; when they left it in a pile for the thrift store when they moved; and when I went to thrift stores and saw paintings for $25 that some artist had no doubt valued as a masterpiece. Then, a friend of mine who enjoys shopping yard sales bought a gorgeous, original watercolor, dirt cheap, and hung it proudly on her living room wall. I thought, here’s an art lover who will no doubt spend a lot of money on art in her lifetime, but for now she and her husband are working hard to put two daughters through college and why shouldn’t she take great delight in an art bargain at a yard sale. I no longer perceived it as de-valuing the painting, but giving it new life with someone who loves it as much as if the price had been $2500 rather than $25.
Clearing art clutter
by Anne Hightower-Patterson, Charleston, SC, USA
Like so many of us, I am usually unable to discard reasonable efforts at study. While unworthy of gallery exposure, most assuredly these little parts of me cannot be sent to the trash can. Last year, as I cleaned my studio, the number had really become overwhelming. So I devised a plan. At Christmas, as I gathered with my dear friend, I laid out the paintings on the bedroom wall and floor and bed assigning each a number. As the friends arrived, I gave each a paper and pencil and asked them to list their top four choices and place the slips in a basket. Later in the evening, I selected the slips one by one and announced the winner of each piece of art. They were delighted and so was I. Each work had a loving home and I had happy friends. It worked so well, that I plan to do it again on the 4th of July. Not with new work, but with the ones filling my rented storage building.
Innocence lost to geisha
by David Paul Wesson, Kanabi, Japan
A similar thing happened to me in Kyoto when I went to use the john for a minute. IN KYOTO!!! If our art isn’t safe on Kyoto streets, where is it safe? As it was, no one was on the street except two amateur Maiko ( practitioners of Geisha to be) and I doubted highly it was either of them. Though one did look back. The world’s changing, though, as are our images of right and wrong and who would be right or wrong in character. Integrity is something you read about in a Louis La’Mour Western novel. I hear some of these same Maiko who, acting the sweet and pure by day are making extra fast cash as call girls in the Cabaret by night. Could they be thieves?
by Ron Ukrainetz, Great Falls, MT, USA
Years ago, when I was just starting my art career, I was attending a hotel show in Washington State. The hotel providing exhibit rooms was under construction at the time, so there were probably a lot of room keys floating around the construction crews. At some time during the second night, after closing, about 20 rooms were raided by art thieves, stealing some $25,000 worth of art. Naturally, I was concerned, so when the police asked me to open my room and take inventory, I was dismayed to find that the thieves didn’t even like my work enough to steal a piece! Nothing was missing!
Donated to the winds
by Sara Poly, Arlington, VA, USA
I am a professional artist also and teach many outdoor workshops and classes and do a zillion demos. Last fall I did one of my best demos… really labored over it. I chose a particularly difficult scene to pull off, sun coming directly at us through the clouds and an amazing reflection on the water, etc, etc. I was thrilled and so were they… took over an hour. So then I laid it down on the ground and went to have lunch with everyone… got distracted with teaching… eventually gathered my gear and we all left… the painting still on the ground near the water! I didn’t realize until the next day. I called the marina but it was gone. I had a very similar set of thoughts as you did… and felt happy in the end for a job well done and a donation to the winds.
Joy of art
by Susanne Kelley Clark, Dallas, TX, USA
While painting on a beach in Mexico a woman came up and sat beside me. Occasionally she would gesture with her arms. Then another woman sat down near me and said, “She wants your painting, don’t give it to her, she’s crazy.” “Really?” I said. She told me that she consistently did things like this to make money. Being in a place where I did not understand the language, nor the customs… I thought, well if she likes it that much, if it gives her that much joy… because she became more excited as I worked… I did give it to her. She lifted it up, danced around smiling and laughing, the other woman who was trying to help me, shook her head. But I have to say it was very satisfying watching someone become excited about having the small painting. Then later the maid in the motel room became very interested in the watercolors themselves, again I could not communicate with her. She looked at the tubes and the palette with excitement and longing. After she left, I went through the pack of supplies I had brought with me, made a pack including paint, brushes, paper and a small palette and gave it to her the next day. She almost cried. The realities I encountered there were so extreme. Somehow my experiences in Mexico made it clear why I am making art and also what an amazing form of communication it is. On my return, it made it easier for me to show it, sell it and give it away.
Life is terminal
by Susan Crouse-Kemp, Berthoud, CO, USA
I often tell people that I am not concerned about the loss of my work, as in a fire or robbery. It’s my perspective that I will always have another piece of art lingering in my head, so in some way it is all replaceable. Yes it would all be different, hopefully our path as an artist is always evolving, but truly we are the lucky ones. Artists actually leave behind a part of them every time they create, so they attain some amount of tangible eternity that many others aren’t as fortunate to realize. Of course when we’re gone, we won’t know if it mattered. It makes me recall the quote: “Life is terminal.”
Stolen by a friend
by Peggy Guichu, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Didn’t you find it fascinating and shocking how many thoughts ran through your mind at the moment that you realized your painting was stolen? The feeling of not understanding what you aren’t seeing, the sadness, then anger and finally followed by the feeling of being violated were probably felt in less than 2 or 3 seconds. Several years ago, I had just moved into a cabin in the woods and had to leave quickly for an emergency surgery. While I was away the water pipes froze and broke completely flooding my garage. I didn’t find out until I arrived home 2 weeks later. In the garage were boxes I hadn’t moved inside yet filled with my watercolor paintings. All of them stained by the water. I wasn’t supposed to do any lifting so a friend of mine came over and cleaned it all up for me. He said all the paintings had been destroyed and he had thrown them away. Several months later I visited him and there, tucked behind a piece of furniture in the corner of his living room was a pile of my paintings. When I asked what possessed him to take my paintings his response was that he didn’t think I would care because they were damaged and if I ever became famous he would have something valuable. I took my damaged paintings back home, made a big bonfire fire behind my cabin and slowly burned them. Needless to say, the friendship didn’t recover from the fire, either. If he had asked me, I would have given him the paintings, but he violated me in a very profound way.
Enjoy the past comments below for Painting lost; reward offered…
Taos Spirit Wind
watercolour painting, 15 x 11 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Donald Demers of Eliot, ME, USA who wrote, “I lost paintings off the deck of a sailboat once. I searched endlessly for those two paintings. Eventually gave up and my painting friend and I had a drink in the cockpit of the boat while I waxed philosophically about my loss. The day was the reward, not those paintings. I believe that I have gained more in their loss than in their possession.”
And also Paul de Marrais of KY, USA who wrote, “Your initial anger hits at an artist’s ambition that each attempt might create that special painting we have all eagerly anticipated, the one that will have a thick red velvet rope around it at a museum.”
And also Otis Goodin of Franklin, TN, USA who wrote, “Think of it as the ultimate compliment. Someone admired your art so much they had to have it, even if it meant stealing it.”
And also Merlin Miller of Mobile, AL, USA who wrote, “Don’t despair, you may get it back yet and like most of us, your best painting is probably still in the box.”
And also Billy Mangham of San Marcoa, TX, USA who wrote, “Every now and then my past work, or the work of some of my many potter friends, shows up in Goodwill or someone’s garage sale and what a treasure it is to find. Wouldn’t it be great to come across that work again in some totally unforeseen context?”
And also Ted Peterson who wrote, “If the painting washes up on the beach here, I will promptly return it to you.”
And also Dena Crain of Nakuru, Kenya who wrote, “Whether the work sells, is donated, gets stolen or destroyed by fire, we, the artists, retain forever the best part of it. We own the soul of the work, and that is something no one can take from us.”
And also Sam Liberman who wrote, “I have had a couple of paintings stolen, but never on the beach. One was being returned from a gallery in Buffalo. The circumstances suggested someone at UPS had simply taken it out of the packing, which was returned intact but empty. The gallery owner had underinsured it, but UPS paid the claim.”
And also Haim Mizrahi of East Hampton, NY, USA who wrote, “You should consider this incident the highlight of your career.”
And also Gwen Purdy of Seattle, WA, USA who wrote, “In my 81 years of living, I have learned that we ‘own’ nothing; we just get to use it as we go about our actions in life.”
And also Mark Day who wrote, “It could have been a seagull, the most powerful and willing thieves of the beach… they’ve tried carrying away towels, pots, etc from my campsites. Perhaps it was Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”
(RG note) Thanks, Mark. The painting was too large for even two seagulls working together to carry away. I rather lean toward a Pelican. After all, “A wonderful bird is the pelican, His bill can hold more than his belican, He can take in his beak, Food enough for a week, But I’m damned if I see how the helican.” (Dixon Merritt)