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soul of fine art

The Man with the Dog

Act VI: Wonder Land


“Sir, my supervisor will help you,” said the Sally Field type airline attendant. I had nearly forgotten about the regulation carrier problem with Larry. She had returned as promised. She forced a smile, then marched off as if she’d made a tremendous contribution to airline security. This was years before 9/11 and TSA security that made you remove your shoes in case they contained a bomb.

Her supervisor was in his late twenties, balding, and wore a uniform-type blue vest, black pants that were too short, and shoes with thick crepe soles.

“Are you the man with the dog, Sir?” he said.

“I am the man with the dog,” I said, pointing to Larry in his tote.

The man frowned, then seemed to make a calculated decision. “I’m sorry, Sir. That’s not a regulation carrier. We have to follow FAA rules.They’re very strict about these things.”

I said: “Look at the tag. I paid for his fare in Los Angeles. Your own airline agent put the ticket on the bag. He didn’t say it wasn’t a regulation carrier. I always fly with him like this.” I admit it. I was stretching things. Using the makeshift nylon tote as a kennel carrier was my fault.

He looked at me, one eyebrow arching toward the truth. “Sir, I’ll have to get my supervisor. Please wait here.”

“Wait here? I can’t miss the plane. My other dog’s on board and my mother’s waiting in New Jersey. My blintzes will get cold.”

He shook his head. “I’ll be right back.”

Larry was a good traveler and remained quietly stashed under the seat whenever I flew. After take off, I’d remove him from his regulation carrier and place him in my lap. I’d cover him with a blanket and he’d go to sleep, no one the wiser.

The nylon tote was a last minute improvisation. I had drawing pads and color pencils in the tote. In a last minute decision to avoid canine bloodshed, I dumped the art supplies into my suitcase and stuffed Larry into the tote when we got to LAX.

Larry and Beau are prone to attacks of jealousy and fights. My plan was to tranquilize the dogs and put them both in the regulation kennel carrier. There was plenty of room for them, and the carrier would fit neatly under the seat in front of me. When the airport shuttle van drove up to my place in the Hollywood Hills, I started to put them in the carrier, figuring the tranquilizers had surely sedated them by now. They attacked each other, their version of “Die Hard with a Vengeance.” The pills had done nothing. The dosage was most probably too small. Time, maybe not waiting long enough. Solution, try these unknown variables before D-day. Don’t rely on the Vet’s best guess; test dosages and the time it takes for it to work. Option? I had none. No going back. I shoved Beau in the kennel carrier and decided to deal with Larry at the airport.

That’s how Larry came to travel in the nylon tote.

The airport Shuttle rolled away from the house on Wonderland Avenue, a street aptly named as my life had undergone a miracle there. The experiences spun around in my head. There was the tempestuous and gorgeous prima donna who loved sex; the countless meetings with movie people, some well-known, some even sane, the perennial “cast of thousands” called wannabees; and the hundreds of writers and their screenplays—many of which I read. Most important of all was the awakening of my purpose, my dharma, in this life.

God had taken me by surprise.

The van moved along the narrow winding road, past the neighbor who sang opera and fought with her lazy fat son over house chores, past the blue and red-haired people with fancy cars, chauffeurs and no discernible means of support, past the duplex of the gorgeous porn star I’d interviewed for a magazine article.

“This is my last porn flick,” she had told me on a remote Malibu set as a girl covered the star’s entire lithe body with tan make-up. “I’m focusing on a career in mainstream movies.” I don’t know if she was able to ever cross that acting bridge. She did buy a few items at my garage sale.

On the drive down the hill, I whizzed past memories of the ups and downs that had tested my character that had forged my faith over the past five years in Los Angeles.

I had actually arrived in LA with a job, a feat that would have made my ex-wife of years back more receptive to a move. Timing is everything. I was the packager of two erotic letters magazines for a New York publisher. The letters were presumably from readers who shared their sexual escapades and secret desires. We handled everything via Federal Express. I’d send the publisher both magazines on a removable storage cartridge; in return, they’d send me a check. This was a natural freelance job for me. I worked well with no supervision.

Over the years, I had sold my writing, overcoming the reliable steady stream of rejection by not taking it personally. I knew writing assignments were all too often handed out incestuously among a small circle. My experience had taken me on both sides of the publishing fence. As the former managing editor of Hustler and editor of Entrepreneur, I had been in the position of assigning freelance articles. Persistence from talented writers was the key to getting an assignment—simple as that.

Larry and I were living in the one bedroom apartment in Brentwood; this was before the O.J. Simpson affair had exploded onto the international scene. I later learned Ron Goldman who had been murdered along with Nicole Simpson, lived in my former apartment complex, which was two blocks from the Mezzaluna restaurant on San Vicente, the tree-lined, jogger filled Boulevard that ran all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The area of Brentwood I lived in had its perks. You could walk to the supermarket, the California Pizza kitchen, shops, and a new Starbucks had opened across the street. The downside of my location was its proximity to UCLA. Graduate students who never slept surrounded me. All night parties were common, apartment doors opening and slamming shut at three o’clock in the morning were predictable, and cars honking at all hours were annoying. Where did those grad students come by $60,000 cars?

My artist mentor and I fell back into place—he the teacher, I, his friend and student.

One day while we were having a cappuccino, the artist took me off-guard with the question: “Did you ever feel that you’d like to be an artist?”

“What a question? Sure, often,” I said. “Especially after watching you paint.”

“Why would you want to be an artist?” he said, one eyebrow raising upward, pressing for more.

“It would be like a dream come true,” I said, shrugging off the idea.

His eyes twinkled. “That’s the right answer, but wrong attitude.”

I squirmed.

“How do you know if you don’t try,” he added. ”Who knows what wondrous worlds you carry inside your soul. You may pick up where Kandinsky left off.”

Indeed, how do you know if you don’t try. In a moment of passion, I ran out and bought an easel and art supplies. As a writer, I had always faced the empty page head on. To confront the blank paper on the easel took another type of guts. Fearful of failure, my art materials began collecting dust.

After a year in Brentwood, I placed a personals ad in the LA Weekly. Bingo. I met the prima donna, a vivacious raven-haired beauty from South Africa who had danced with the Royal Ballet in London. She had grace and charm. She moved in with me. Good idea then, bad idea in hindsight.

Two months later.

“Darling, my love,” the prima donna purred in my ear, “if we could just simply find a nice quiet place, away from all this noise. We can’t sleep. I’d be happy and I’d make you very happy.”

I agreed. Living would cost a lot more. I figured we could pool our resources and make it work. I had my freelance magazine packaging income, and she was, for the time being, earning money giving barefoot dance classes in Laguna Beach.

Beginnings are exciting, and, as Goethe said, they have magic in them. Yet beginnings are a double-edged sword. We rarely see what’s coming. Maybe that’s the blessing.

We were soon living on Wonderland Avenue in a Hollywood Hills house, high above Sunset Boulevard. That first November we went to Ireland, the emerald isle where words and the turn of a phrase are jewels to be savored, and stout means a pint to be savored. On the return leg of trip, the prima donna and I flew into Kennedy. We drove to visit my darling mother in New Jersey. We ended up retrieving Beau, the Yorkshire stud who had been my present to Mom. To spare her cat a painful illness a year earlier, he had to be put down. I felt Beau, who I got from a breeder in the California desert, would be a great companion for her. Beau was too much terrier for her to handle … a five-pound hoodlum who would now share a house with Larry in Los Angeles.

After a year and a half of fights and making up, I had to give the prima donna her walking papers.

“Don’t bring your self-important act into this house,” I’d say. “Keep your pretense out there. Be the lovely lady I know you can be here with me. It’s safe.”

I didn’t mind living with a diva, or even her arrogance ... as long as it was all done with a loving sensibility. She didn’t listen, feeling I’d follow the pattern of all the other men in her life. I did love her and I had to save myself. She became history.

After her white Honda drove off down the hill for the last time, I stood in the house with Larry and Beau. She was gone and I was stuck with a big monthly nut. Soon after, my freelance magazine job came to an abrupt end, a marketing decision by the publisher with no reflection on the quality of my work. Bottom line: big expenses, no income.

What now my love? I began writing queries for books I’d like to write. Nothing. The mixed blessing of credit card advances for cash saved the day, for the moment.

In the meantime, months flew away and I was still hurting, too. I missed the dancer. She called and wanted to meet. I had to say no. Sure, it was hard to say no. But I could sense nothing had changed. Then the love letters came. These were serious love letters. After my mother read them, she said to me, “Axel, I don’t know how you resisted. If I were a man, I don’t think I could have said no to her.”

I knew the prima donna was a test. Had I learned anything? Did no mean no, or just maybe? I’d made the mistake of saying yes to a former love in the past. A mistake. Saying no takes strength. I moved on, second thoughts evaporated into the ether that held unfulfilled promises.

Then, a miracle happened in the Hollywood Hills on Halloween Eve, 1994. The paper on the easel I’d been looking at for nearly two years called out to me. My body rose, my hands got out the oil pastels and color pencils, and I went to work. Colors and shapes on paper appeared. At first random, then meaningful and clear, the images were looking back at me. The art was acknowledging my presence. A doorway had opened; a breakthrough of enormous spiritual proportions. I knew what I was looking at, and it knew me. I worked on that painting all evening and well into the morning. I didn’t sleep; the adrenaline rush kept me high. A messenger from above had come to me in a dream with a gift. Suddenly and quietly, I understood a new form of expression, a new language called art. In an intuitive flash, I knew everything about art. I’m not referring to art history, or technique or style, but the wellspring of art. I more fully realized why I had been drawn to the artist. It was one thing to see someone else communicate with God; it was something else to find myself in that same position. It was art communion with the spirit, the soul, and the direct connection to God that I had been seeking on my odyssey ever since I could remember.

God had, indeed, taken me by surprise. I would never have predicted that there was a fine artist inside me. This was synergy in action. There’s no way of predicting the whole or its behavior by examining the individual parts. For me, all the parts now came together in concert, unified for a greater purpose than I could ever have imagined.

I was an artist, a painter, and a creator. From years of exposure to fine art, I knew what was what. I knew I had been blessed with the genuine gift.

There had never been any question. I had been certain that writing was my form of expression. As it turned out, my writing was a medium, a discipline that had been leading me toward an expanded awareness. I could live without writing; I needed to paint. For the artist, it’s all up for grabs. An artist has no medium. My canvas was anything I chose ... painting, drawing, writing too, or setting a dinner table a la Cézanne.

A gift from heaven came to grace my life. Who would believe it? I said nothing and went to work, creating art, creating prayers. I felt invulnerable. I was saved. My wanderlust was satiated. My searching for meaning had paid off. I had hit the jackpot, the karmic wheel of fortune. The art was the window into spirit and the collective unconscious. What could be more wonderful than to be in direct contact with the Great Creator?

I hadn’t seen my art self coming. In retrospect, I could see that my metamorphosis had been a potential in my genes. For as long as I can remember, I had always seen visions everywhere: faces in carpets, angels in plants, or lions in the fold of a shirt. But I didn’t know why. I thought everyone saw what I did. Now it all made perfect sense. I had always been an artist with a unique vision but didn’t know it. I worked on my art every day wherever I happened to be. I took my studio with me … paper, color pencils, ink pens—there was no down time for this comeback kid, this late bloomer. Now, I thought, that I had found my purpose in life, I have to find a way to earn a living, until my art could support me.

I rolled the dice again, betting credit card advances to start an independent film company with two other artists. The concept was sound and the climate was right. Savvy artists with various talents bringing money and talent together for the movie business seemed a winning combination. Corporate mergers of the large studios had left opportunities for independents to fill in the gaps. I met all sorts of Hollywood types, entertainment lawyers and agents in charge of the deal prevention department, and the parade of walking, talking, and breathing clichés we’ve seen portrayed in the movies. I scored a minor deal; a bigger film with a well-known auteur director fell through … ego problems. The clock was ticking. Bills had to be paid. I had to buy dogfood. I had to shed my business partners; they had become weights around my neck. My film company went: fade to black. Still, for two years straight, I did art everyday, at meetings, at lunches, at Starbucks, no matter what.

My days in LA were about to end.

This time I was coming home with the prize. I was returning transformed, a fine artist who could now speak to God in good faith. Art was our medium of communication. I had found what I was looking for. After ten years of on again, off again comradeship with the artist, another breach and, I felt, most likely the last. I was no longer apprentice to the sorcerer. We had served each other well. No one can teach you to be an artist, but someone can unleash it as my artist mentor had done.

It was time to move on.»

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