The orbital sander buzzes, sawdust flying everywhere, making me wonder how my odd journey brought me to this moment. I’m a middle-aged bald guy with two teenagers, living in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, a former art gallery owner and art dealer, wearing a respirator and headphones sanding a lowly piece of poplar, not cherry or walnut or even maple – poplar, the weed of the tree kingdom – and loving every second of it.
My wife is a very successful artist. Her works have been exhibited in Aspen, Vail, New York, Houston, Geneva, Gstaad, Singapore, Mexico City, Toronto, Laguna Beach, San Francisco, Miami and many more fancy cities. Am I bragging about her? Of course, what kind of husband would I be if I didn’t. The thing is, her works are complex, really complex. They are essentially layers of antique objects, butterflies, doll furniture, clocks, toys, silverware, wasp nests, eggs, bones, shells, sand, beetles, and whatever else she thinks of, sandwiched between sheets of acrylic. I tell you all this, because I am the one who gets to make the boxes and frames that hold them all together. And I do mean “gets to,” because even though I can’t tell anyone, I secretly love it.
Since I was a kid, I loved to build things—and ahem—take things apart. I took lots of things apart, things you aren’t supposed to take apart. I grew up in a time when TVs were giant polished wooden boxes that took two strong men to lift, full of burning-hot tubes, leaky capacitors, heavy transformers, and scary warnings on the back that said, “Danger High Voltage, Do Not Open.” Yep, I opened the TV, took all the tubes out without any clue how they were supposed to go back. Dad loved that when he got home to sit on the couch in front of the TV. I took apart the clock radio, the mechanical curtain rods, the door locks, the iron, the car door, the coffee percolator, my bicycle, the lawn mower, the electrical outlets (zap!), and anything else with screws or bolts. Most of it I got back together before mom found out, except for some things that went over my head, like the TV.
Have you ever seen those books “How Things Work?” I never read those books. Instead I reverse engineered everything to learn how it worked, I guess I still do. I have a curiosity about mechanical objects, especially broken ones. I am sure everything can be fixed with enough patience and superglue. But I grew up and taking apart the toaster is not much of a profession. Instead, I joined my father in his gallery in New York, then went on my own,for over 30 years now, showing and selling fine art. Don’t get me wrong, I get a charge out of that too. I really love great art, fall in love, heart pounding passionate love with it. How do you mix these two opposites together? Lots of patience apparently.
My wife wasn’t an artist when I met her. She worked for me at my art gallery in Aspen, where we fell in love at first sight. Yes it happens, and it happened to us. Her parents are artists and so it was logical for her to work in the arts, sell it if you can’t make it. She did this with me until her 39th birthday when she woke up one morning and said, “I have to create something or I’ll explode.” I didn’t want her to explode, so I cleared out the garage and told her to go for it. Next thing I know, she’s selling masterpieces and I’m sanding poplar.Now here’s the secret part (well not anymore, I guess), that juvenile-delinquent mechanical engineer was still living inside me. And he was anxious to start taking stuff apart again. Oh sure, I got to fix the vacuum cleaner once in a while, but that’s pretty pedestrian, pull out the dog hair and they call you a genius. My wife’s art is way, way more satisfying than that, like when she decided to put a music box in the middle of one of her pieces. Which has to work, you know, wind up and play. It’s buried inside a work of art, two feet away from the edge of the frame and has to be wound up! I grumbled out loud about the misery and tedium of making something so preposterous work, but inside, I rubbed my hands together in pure mad-scientist glee, carefully containing the sound of my insane laughter.
One of my favorite pieces, called “Cherished Memories of Cornell’s Lost Muse” has a whole set of doll furniture along the inside bottom edge of the frame. How do you get toothpick thin table legs to stay on a piece wood that has to be turned upside down, shipped, handled, and horror of horrors, possibly dropped? “This is madness!” I say out loud. But inside the crazy nerd declares, “No, this is Sparta!” and makes it work.
So here I am enjoying my life so much, I feel guilty most of my waking hours. It’s called work isn’t it, drudgery, miserable, horrible 9 to 5 torture. So I fake it, complain that it’s hard or tedious. That’s what you say so no one knows how friggin awesome your job really is and tries to take it.
Oh, and 600 grit sandpaper makes wood way smoother than a baby’s butt, even if it is only poplar.