Years ago I worked with a guy named Jerry at a winery in Monterey who had the soul of an artist. His world would have been a happier one if his artistic abilities matched his leanings. His was drawn to composing pencil drawings of people, an attempt at capturing faces in pencil that took on photographic qualities though his output was often closer to a simple sketch. With a lot of dark angry shading. The biggest problem with his portraits, however, was that he didn’t seem to be able to draw any person’s face without making the eyes look slightly crossed in a Barbra Streisand kind of way.
Jerry was a street artist without a street. Instead he preyed on visitors to the tasting room, busily sketching when he was supposed to be pouring. Sooner or later a customer would take note of his efforts and would, having already sampled a bit too much of the grape, hire Jerry to draw his wife, girlfriend, or weekend shack-up. A bit of a freak, Jerry only drew women. Which went a long way in satisfying his other than artistic needs since he rarely scored one for anything other than a portrait session.
Jerry’s second favorite passion was masturbation. And he’d willingly and quite enthusiastically regale you with his mastabatory tales that often involved unsuspecting women who’d became the victim of his fantasy; what really got Jerry off was to wank one off over some broad who wandered by in a public place never knowing Jer was busy stroking himself just out of view. Jerry was twisted enough he could easily have become a well-known and famous artist if it just weren’t for that Barbra Streisand thingy. Even then, his customers always seemed pleased with his work. Even though the poor woman who was his latest subject – for both the sketch and an orgasm I suspect – always ended up looking she was channeling Jack Nicholson doing his “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” bit in The Shining.
Jerry’s persona more than his artistic abilities has stayed with me over the years. So I always get a chuckle out of street artists, regardless of how talented they are or how life-like their portraits appear. I try to control my laughter though: generally, artistic people do not appreciate you finding humor in their work. Fortunately, the sheer number of portrait artists working Chiang Mai induces a sensory overload that stays my laughter. Besides, unlike Jerry, a lot of their work is really quite good.
I’m never quite sure if those who draw from a photograph are only mechanically skilled or if they actually have artistic talents. There are plenty of other artists around town who produce original works, so maybe the sketchers merely practice that trade to pay the bills. I’d like to think they also allow their artistic side free range outside of their street-side studio, that instead of only transferring a photograph into a pencil drawing they also let their heart soar. Or that at the very least they occasionally score a woman as a customer who is hot enough to provide them a good orgasm later when they get home and get to stroke over the memory of the customer who paid them to put their pencil strokes on paper.
There is a large gaggle of these artists at Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar, headquarters seems to be at the front of the basement of the Kalare Night Bazaar building. Lots of the work they have on display to entice a commissioned piece out of passerbys is instantly recognizable: Bob Marley hiding behind a cloud of ganja smoke is a perennial favorite, that iconic National Geographic photograph of an Afgani girl’s hypnotic green eyes is a staple too even though it loses a but of intensity when done in black and white. Anytime I visit the Night Bazaar I take time to visit the artists and watch while they create a new piece, though I’ve never bought any of their work. Art makes for a good souvenir. I’ve bought more oils, water colors, and even pencil drawings from my travels around the world than I have wall space for. But the only piece I’ve ever purchased in Chiang Mai was done by an elephant.
I’m never quite sure where the division between art and craft is, but believe both tend to stem from the same part of the soul. Whether it is selling to touri or not, I think craftsmen make a better living out of practicing their skills than artists do. For years the street markets in Thailand that cater to the touri crowd have been filled with booths selling those little flowers carved from soap. The carvers re-create duplicates of each type of flower over and over again, so it seems less like art than craft but that they are skilled at what they do can not be denied. At most markets you only get to see the result, actually watching the craftsmen (or woman) create those little piece of art is not as common as seeing their work for sale. When you do stumble across one, watching him makes you appreciate his creativity and abilities even more.
One night I ran across one of these master carvers busy at work. His stall at the Night Bazaar was filled with his work, which had nothing to do with carving. He reproduced paintings by Picasso, with a slight Thai flair, offering his work both on canvas and on t-shirts. Neither was selling well, and disinterested in making a few baht he was busy creating a carved flower out of a small watermelon. He caught me watching him out of the corner of his eye, smiled, and went right back to work.
I watched him for a while and when he looked up again asked by gesture if I could take his picture. Nodding in agreement, he went right back to carving his masterpiece. The next time he looked up to see if I was still enjoying the show I nodded toward the piece he was carving and asked, “For sale?”
He smiled ruefully. “No,“ he said shaking his head. “Dinner.”
I guess sometimes you can feed your artistic soul and stomach at the same time.
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