My wife and I are into season 3 of Victoria, the Masterpiece Theatre series that seems as long as the queen’s monarchial reign. It’s a slow-moving narrative in which a tea cup is picked up, put down. Then, for dramatic tension, the camera pans to a terrier that, on cue, lifts a hind leg to squirt on the carpet—a barbarous display in the palace household. It’s a series that may continue without me, as I may succumb to boredom, the white flag of defeat raised on my chest. My last words: “The DVD is from the library—don’t forget to return it.”
But in one episode I was stirred awake when Queen Victoria’s ex-prime minister—what’s his name again?—appears ill in speech and in ash-colored makeup. He won’t last long, I understand—the cough, the squeak of violins behind the cough, his fish-pouting mouth, the poor posture in the velvet chair, along with the makeup, of course. A somber doctor stands before the former PM and declares, “Sir, you should put your affairs in order.”
That line of advice perked me up. I, ever forward thinking, have a living trust, a document that contains more boilerplate than inventive clauses intended to confuse the taxman. Still, it’s done, it’s filed away, and it’s what our daughter will search for when my wife and I are no longer. We will make it easy for her. We’ll leave a trail of Post-its on the hallway wall, which will lead her to my modest office, where a table lamp glows and a faint Erik Satie sonata plays on my second-hand Bose radio. The final Post-it will say, “The trust is here, darling.”
Our money in the bank and the mutual funds—or a third of it at least—will go to nonprofits, but the house and items inside the house—the possessions from forty-three years of marriage—will go to our daughter. She will have to declutter: out with the fourteen pairs of reading glasses, out with the dead batteries, the cotton balls and medicines, the everyday cutlery, the tennis rackets, the potted plants gasping on windowsills, the shoes moored like boats in our three closets. The boxed food in the pantry? To the Rescue Mission. The books that stand shoulder to shoulder at the front entrance? Perhaps she will divvy them up to those Little Free Libraries that stand in front of houses in Berkeley—some for you, she might sing, some for you, and you, and you. My attempt at playing filmmaker was short lived—one half-four production titled The Pool Party, on VHS cassette. I have plans for its destruction. I’ll run over it many times with my huge American car before I go.
But our art collection is worth pondering for its financial worth. Like housing prices, art has gone skyward. This causes worry. Have I hung them in a way that will cause fading from sunlight? Have they been nibbled by insects with a taste for finer things? I ponder, I muse, and I do sums on my fingers. This DeLoss McGraw, purchased in 2014, what would it fetch? This Rupert Garcia bought in 1984? The Carmen Lomas Garza? The Leo Limon? I’m sure that the works of these artists have gone up in value. A month ago I visited their websites and saw that they are honored and sought after, written about by scholars at universities that don’t need street addresses to get their mail.
The artwork, like the Japanese antiques and Mexican folk art, I value for the pleasure it provides. I see them as counterpoints to my poetry. I mean artists and poets should go side by side, right? I’ll buy your artwork if you, bearded portraitist with one ear, will drop twenty dollars to purchase a book of mine.
So what do exactly I possess? Several pieces by our favorite artist, DeLoss McGraw. From my couch in the living room I can see an irregularly sized pastel on thick paper, 7 inches by 5 feet, titled Alice in Wonderland. Alice is blond, fleet of foot, in a red jumper. In spite of the title, there are other figures—and mystical things—of equal metaphorical weight. There’s a dove carrying a three-year-old in a hamper-like black cloth; a boy, also blond, briskly walking; a red rocking horse; and yellow starbursts. The background is bluish, with banner colors of red and yellow, and black-and-white stripes that remind me of piano keys. Purchase price in 2014: $3,000. Today’s value? Let’s add a couple of zeros, say $30,000, excluding two-day shipping.
Beyond Alice in Wonderland, in our tiny, seldom-used dining room, are two sepia-colored paintings by McGraw. Each of these untitled and book-sized works beckons to be viewed. One shows a boy upside down, topsy-turvy, mouth open, surprised by his circumstance. He is flanked by a tall building that reminds me of the Leaning Tower of Pisa—plus a chair and a world that appears hoisted up by the powerful winds of a tornado. There is a balloon in the middle that says: “What is after the universe?”
On the other side of the French doors is its twin. While this one is mostly sepia-colored, here we have a spot of color; this boy is also upside down but wears a blue shirt. The top of the building is roofed in blue and what might be a moon—not a splotch—is also blue. The balloon in the middle says: “What was the right answer?”
The twin portraits were bought in 2006 for $425 each. I drum my fingers on my thighs, calculating a new price. In less than a minute, I come up with a figure. Value: $36,000 for the pair. That sounds about right.
Without pushing myself off the couch, I can view more of our art collection. If I swivel my head to the right I look upon two more fanciful McGraws, one of which is an artist proof, number 4. It features a boy, about age ten, dressed in a brown suit with fat, grayish rings around his thighs and knees. On his head a bluish cap, with red stripes, and, as a bill to the cap, what looks like a canary. There are green, blue, red and brown animal-like faces that could be masks; then again, they could be faces of quasi-humans who hanker to make the leap into the animal world. Purchase price in 2004: a gift from the artist! I munch on my lower lip and think. A few seconds and my estimate is tabulated. Value: $47,000. Who could argue?
And to the right of this untitled McGraw is yet another untitled McGraw done with pastels on thick paper. It features a young man who is two-thirds slender legs, a human giraffe if there ever was one. His pants are brown, his shirt red, and his cap of hair a light shade of brown. A few inches from his face he holds a stick with an animal mask—the face of a pony or the face of a bear? He’s peering through the mask at a bent-back man who grips a lumpish sack. Behind the man there is a red ladder—McGraw loves ladders—and near the top is a fractured house—McGraw loves houses even more. Purchase price in 2003: another gift from the artist. Without much pondering, my internal auction gavel comes down. Value: $145,000. To wit—poets and artists require three meals a day! And we do require our portion of wines produced in French regions that we’ll never visit.
Now I must get up from the couch and take myself down the hallway where hang two other DeLoss McGraw pastels. One features the most adorable couple on the face of the planet: my wife and me in our youth, in our beauty, in the spring of our lives. I am holding a house on fire, presumably lit by the bolt of yellow lightning just above our heads and presumably the sensual fire that we would create in our partnership. There are also a red rocking horse, a secondary house, a television on fire, a man-in-the moon face, a purple and yellow planet, and a whimsy of pinwheels—in short, a Magical Mystery Tour. The work is large—3 feet by 5 feet and, thus, almost life-size if my wife were to stand next to it. Purchase price in 2003: another gift! Current value: $229,000. Unfortunately for art dealers in New York and in Houston, this piece is not for sale.
Also in the hallway hangs a hand cut from thick paper and brightly painted—reds, yellows, blues and greens, primary colors that remind us of our first pack of crayons. The title: Hand. This image, roughly six times the size of an adult hand, has a map of lines on the palm. The fingers are numbered 1 through 4, and the thumb is numbered 5. What would a palm reader think? She might read the lines as a lunatic’s travails. She might need to bring out her tarot cards or blow the dust off her crystal ball. Purchase price in 2006: yet another gift. Current price: a non-negotiable $634,000. A steal for the hedge fund manager with untraceable inside knowledge.
In my office hangs, in semi dark, another DeLoss McGraw, also untitled, which features gouache images of a red triangle-shaped box, a purple ladder, an upside-down chair, a pair of two-tone shoes, a pair of arms, a cart with red-spoked wheels, and a poet leaning forward as if he is flying or falling. How do I know it’s a poet? Below the image is my poem “Moving Away,” a tender call to my older brother, Rick, to remember our lean years. I view this work daily; no, hourly; no, every ten or twenty minutes when I’m called to my office by the landline—telemarketers are relentless. Here, in this 2 by 3 foot piece, we have further evidence that artists and poets go together. Purchase price in 1998: a gift. Current price: $725,300. Buyer—corporation or upstart techy in jeans and T-shirt—think of it as an investment, and as dues paid to the creative world.
When I do a soldierly about-face, my eyes brighten on another framed gift from overly generous McGraw, Christmas 2016. It’s an 8-½ by 11 inch watercolor sketch inspired by William Shakespeare and me—yes, Shakespeare and me. Several years ago, I took a line from the Bard and built my own poem upon that line. Before the creative impulse ended, I had over a hundred poems, all of which began with famous lines, such as “All that glitters is not gold,” “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “We are stuff . . . rounded by sleep.” The book of poems, You Kiss by th’ Book, is still available. I have lots of copies in the garage; Chronicle Books, the publisher, has even more copies in its much larger garage.
Most of the poems in You Kiss by th’ Book are long, robust, bawdy, wise as Solomon, and teasingly romantic. DeLoss and I had plans to create an art book based on the poems from this collection. This proverb-length one, starting from Othello 1.1.63, caught his eye.
“I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
And up this sleeve is a trick or two.”
And what did my collaborator render on the page? A long, flowing sleeve done in yellow, with a red heart at the center, a white rabbit, and a pair of playing cards—the two of spades and the three of hearts. An errant blue drop is outside the subject. I appreciate the gift, but I may part with it if times get hard. Current price in Ireland: 132,000 euros. In the United States: $147,000. Insured shipping is available. Note: this artwork was done on typing paper and, therefore, has bubbled in places.
I sigh as I come to the end of the McGraws, and am nearly as ashen as that prime minister in Victoria.
It’s all over, I think, my artful excursion. Then I remember the file next to the living trust, the one called “DeLoss.” It contains ephemeral items such as postcards (with drawings), letters, a single strand of hair, catalogues, an essay, and also, now in my quivering hands, two rare originals: gouache paintings on watercolor paper. In one, a boy beams his large moon-like face at the viewer; in the other, a boy in a striped shirt looks out the window while the moon with eyes and ruddy cheeks looks in. I admonish myself—why didn’t I frame them earlier!
We have other art displayed on our walls too. We also have antique Japanese tansus, a few rare books, some one-of-a-kind prints and fine jewelry, and a wedding kimono purchased for my wife on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. For insurance purposes I should tally our valuables, lick the lead of a pencil and enter the value of each piece in a book that will be opened by our daughter upon our passing.
And my ghastly film on VHS cassette? After I crush it under the nearly bald tires of my car—light bulb here!—I’ll send the shards to DeLoss McGraw. Although our collaboration on the Shakespeare project didn’t pan out, maybe the sparks of a new idea will color his thoughts. He will pour the contents of my package onto his worktable and study them like a forensic specialist combing through debris. Under his breath, he’ll wonder, “Now what do we have here?”
Poet-friendly McGraw could do something with the shards, perhaps create ladders, houses, rocking horses, another Alice, another couple not unlike my wife and me, and moons—lots of moons—from those pieces of a crushed VHS cassette. I am certain that he would send me a shard creation, though I would insist that he permit me to pony up, for he has been so generous in the past! In a letter dated Friday February 6, he writes, “I really mean this—don’t buy my art. Save your hard-earned money. I will trade you. The trade could be more for the both us—if we make a show.” He knows that the imaginations of poets and artists are a naturally crazy fit.
As for Victoria, the series may go on for several more seasons. An audience exists for this sort of slow-moving history. The queen reigns, lives with (and without) Prince Albert, and obliviously walks in splendor beneath some of the finest artworks in her country. I realize that the art displayed in the series should be of its time or earlier. But think—just think!—of a camera panning a palatial ballroom past a Constable and a Turner to a wall of out-of-era DeLoss McGraw paintings! This would stop the wine-sipping audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
Now we’re talking value! Mucho dinero. I could shred my living trust and—like a prince—live comfortably ever after.
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