It’s Just A Life. 12

12. Why For Art Thou

I found my calling at J. Cunningham & Co. in the late 80’s…well, one of them. Working with Bunny Jean Cunningham was probably one of the luckier things to happen to me in my life. When she was my mentor, I could never actually call her Bunny Jean like all of her friends and co-workers do, it would have felt impertinent. I was too much in awe of her to be so informal, and, amusingly, I wasn’t aware that Bunny was her first name anyhow. Bunny is not a name I would have pinned on this funny, irritating, sometimes scary, force of nature that is Bunny Jean Cunningham. I still think of her as just “Jean”, which I hope doesn’t insult her, but to this day the old habit clings.

I worked at Jean’s shop for 4 years, 4 years in the late 80’s. 4 years of perms…3 to 4 perms a day. God, the humanity. For some reason, though I loved where I worked, and I was learning and growing professionally, my friend Alison and I had the wacky idea to open our own salon. We got pretty close. We were trying to secure funding, and were about to tour storefronts; we even had some drawings in process, when for some reason we stopped. We both seemed to reach the conclusion that maybe this was more than we bargained for. After the idea of a salon dropped Alison somehow convinced me that I should work with her at a JCPenny hair salon, very near where my wife Laurie, new son William, and I lived. The thought of having a regular income, health benefits, and literally a 5 minute walk to work, was too good to pass up. As we often learn in life, something that’s too good to pass up, should often be passed up. I managed to convince myself that this wasn’t a major downgrade in my workplace and reputation, and that I would be busy enough to make a good commission on top of the minimum wage I was being paid.

I learned a tough lesson on considering all of the angles working at JCPenney. Overbearing bosses, unpleasant clients, and absolutely shit wages, those were the angles I hadn’t wanted to see. I’ll admit I’m still learning the finer points of “watch your ass“, the exciting life skills game for all ages.

The thing that makes JCPenneys popular is their affordability. That means that most things there are cheap. That means no matter how hard you try, you can’t make enough money to earn commission and raise your pay above minimum wage. At least that was my experience. Well…at least I had the benefits, right? Sorta. If I earned enough money to justify full time sure. Ya, that wasn’t gonna happen. Why would they want to book you full time if you would then get benefits? It was a no-win game, and I wasn’t willing to play it for long. So I took the last $500.00 left on my only credit card out in cash to pay the first month of rent at a Davis salon that I would work at, and at times own, for the next 15 (on and off) years.

I stayed there the first time for about 5 years. I was pretty happy, but that commute seemed wasteful, and my Sacramento clients were really whiny about driving all the way to Davis, never mind that I did it every single day. So when a friend of mine opened her new salon in Sacramento, I jumped at the chance. There you go again not checking all the angles. I didn’t consider the fact that my Davis clients wouldn’t drive to Sacramento. I was shocked, I learned a lot about business, and the difference between work/friend relationships. I lost almost half of my clientele.

I should have expected it. After 10 years working there I had heard hundreds of times, “Oh no, I never drive into Sacramento. I hate driving over the causeway.”

So, finding myself with a bit of free time on my hands, I decided maybe I was ready for a change of career.

I had enjoyed spending the last few years landscaping our cottage in East Sacramento. As it turns out, I loath grass, and I won’t take care of it. Reminds me too much of mowing the lawn at 6 o”clock in the morning in the summers at our Mesa, AZ house when I was growing up. So the small putting green Pete and I acquired in the side yard of our new house became a rose garden, the back dog-run was completely redone three or four times over the last 20 years with nothing but perennials (ok a few ornamental grasses, but I don’t have to mow them), we eventually replaced the rose (and daylily by that time) garden with french doors and a patio of my design off the dining room, and so on. I had some failures, but felt I had actually become a gardener.

Well maybe, I thought, if I enjoyed it so much I should become a professional. Do what you love, right? So I went back to school to study landscape design, and I really liked it. I loved learning about horticulture, I really enjoyed the people in the classes. I took drafting. I thought, “This might work“. Right up until I had a friend use one of my designs for her back yard, but completely mess up the installation.

I still have the original drawings. They felt like art to me, and they had been distorted to the point that I didn’t even recognize it. In that moment I knew that I would have to be in charge of the whole enterprise, a contractor, but that wasn’t really what I had in mind.

I had decided somewhere along the way that it would be a good idea to learn some basics of drawing. Since I couldn’t even draw a very interesting line drawing I thought it would be nice at least to learn how to produce a rough sketch to sell my ideas. As it happens, I hated the teacher, but I loved the class. It gave me an excuse to draw, fail, learn from it, and draw some more. The true benefit of an art class, of any kind, is that it forces you to produce work that you might give up on in other circumstances. It allows you the permission to work on something that you know you might likely throw away. It helps you push yourself where you would not normally go. Despite what that inept art “teacher” thought, it turns out I’m not bad.

I had flirted, briefly, with the idea of a life of art as a child. I remember the time I spent living with my Nana. It was for about 6 months when I was 13. She was a painter. I came across her paints and easel at some point and asked her to teach me to paint.

There had always been something magical about exploring Nana’s houses; it always brought back the memories of spending summers and Christmases with my sisters and cousins at her two story house in Westwood (Northern CA, not Southern). That house had a truly magical, to a 7 year old, closet that continued, unfettered, from one end of the house to the other – like a storybook secret passage – on the second story. There was an identical one on the opposite wall if I’m not mistaken. Those dark, musky closets scared the hell out of me, and to walk from one room to the other in one of these closets was something I don’t think I ever managed. There was an inky dark space from door to door, cluttered with unidentified flotsam, and who knows what nasty creatures, both possible, and mythical. I don’t believe there were lights in the closet, but that could have been my sisters and cousins tormenting me as usual.

In later years I would ask my Nana to teach me how to use things I found in the hidden corners of whatever house or cottage in which she was currently residing. It’s the reason I asked her to teach me to sew. I couldn’t resist the antique sewing machine in the corner of the room I lived in for those brief six months. Well, though she seemed to do a good job teaching me to become a seamstress, when I asked about the painting supplies, she would prove to be a terrible art teacher.

She set me up with the paints and easel (I couldn’t tell you if they were oil, acrylic, or water) in the back yard, and said, “Paint what you see”, and walked back into the house. I stared at the blank canvas experiencing the overwhelming dread of infinite possibility, tried a few half-hearted strokes on the canvas, realized I knew zero about what I was doing, decided I was not a prodigy, and never tried another art project again until the day I had no choice in a classroom full of amateurs and another dreadful art teacher.

After a few figure drawing (the best class in the universe, I could easily sit in a figure drawing class for an 8 hour day), and painting classes (very close second, but I can paint at home, so…)  my painting hobby began. Unfortunately, I tend to be a little light on the manic and heavy on the depressive, so I don’t produce much. Shame on me, no talent should be wasted. But I have to be creative all day being a hair-color and cutting specialist, so get off my back.

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