Monday, September 17, 2012
Outsider Art Outside
He appeared on Solano Avenue—the main shopping artery near my house—perhaps two years ago, but he disappeared for several months. I know, because I kept looking for him. He is back now and spends the day on the street, bending wires with a small pliers and hammering bits of soda cans: creating birds and bugs, flowers and assorted objects. When he is finished he attaches the objects to the trees, bushes, and traffic signs around him. I walk past him several times a week and always wish I could interact with him. I'd like a bird, maybe, or the black bug I saw recently. He has rigged up a "donation" box, so I thought he might be open to selling a piece. But I don't want to insult him. A friend said just ask if his work is for sale.
As I walked to his perch—a ledge by the side of a bank—I wondered if I had created a magical person in my head that didn't exist in reality. I wondered if I wanted to keep him mysterious. But he is a real person and he deserves his dignity. Next to him sat a cup of coffee, or an empty cup, I wasn't sure.
"I like your work," I said. He was holding several thick coat hanger wires twined together. I broke my usual rule when asking people about their art and guessed. "Is that a bird?"
"No, it's an arm," he said. I felt his impatience, his grumpiness with me. I had interrupted him.
"Well, I enjoy looking at it." I pointed out the various pieces I could see attached to trees. He pointed to another one, also affixed to a tree. I saw that he was making human figures now. I geared myself up to speak again. "Do you sell your work?"
"Why, can you sell it for me?" His voice was somewhat fierce. I felt sheepish.
"Oh, Oh, I can't sell it. I was just thinking I might like to buy one." I felt embarrassed; in this situation, I couldn't do much. "Well, anyway, I'd like to give you a donation." I found a five in my wallet and put it in his makeshift cardboard donation box. I started to walk away.
"Here," he said. He intended for me to stay. He threaded a wire through one of three holes in a folded piece of pierced soda can while I watched.
"When did you start making these?" I asked.
He took the wire out through the end hole. The middle hole was empty. He stopped and looked around. There were screws and bolts and odd pieces of metal on the ledge next to him. There were more coat hangers on the ground. He wasn't finding what he wanted. He held the object out to me. I did not guess what it was. I did not say, "tell me about it." I just accepted it and thanked him.
As I walked home I thought about making things: where they go, what they are for, what they mean, how they connect to reality. I thought about bringing him a handmade book, but imagined it cannibalized, bits of it ending up as other objects.
My little piece is infinitely simpler than the birds and bugs and flowers and assorted objects that he usually makes, and I don't know what it is, but it came with a story, and I'm happy about that.