Happy Scanlon saved my life, not once, but twice. We don’t discuss the first occasion, but the second is different. I’m equally grateful to her for both, and since the second one involves a painting, I’m going to tell you about it.
Happy is a woman well-named, a delightful friend, light-hearted, mischievous, funny, smart, playful. However, her mood was anything but happy when one morning, she phoned me, and threw a lifeline. For several weeks she had been designing and decorating the new office of an executive in a cosmetics company. Her client was satisfied with the draperies, the rug, the desk and chairs, the colors of the walls, every detail except an all-important finishing touch– a painting that would hang behind his desk. “It’s the last piece of the puzzle and then I can be done with this guy– forever,” she told me. “God, you won’t believe what I’ve been through! He turns his nose up at everything I’ve suggested or shown to him. How can you not like Impressionism? He doesn’t like Impressionism. Nor anything else. The frustration of not being able to please this man is making me crazy.”
Would I mind talking with him? Inviting him to visit my studio? Perhaps I could suggest painting a special commission for him? “He may not like your work, Michael, and all this may come to nothing, but I’m desperate. Can I give him your phone number?” I don’t think she knew how desperate I happened to be at the time. I didn’t have to check my bank statement to know how much money I didn’t have, so I thanked her and said yes. Later that afternoon her client’s secretary called to arrange for a visit, and two mornings later, I welcomed Richard Wallace into my studio.
He was polite but nervous and reserved and not interested in my offer of a cup of tea. Handsome, well-dressed, gray suit, Rolex on wrist and gold on fingers, probably in his early fifties, silent as he glanced at the paintings on the walls, careful to evade a palette of wet paint, but gradually becoming less uncomfortable as I showed him my current projects. He told me that I was obviously a talented artist, but my work was “perhaps a bit… intense” for his office. Happy, however, had mentioned to him that I might be open to doing a special commission. Definitely possible, I assured him. What kind of painting did he have in mind? “Well, it would have to harmonize with the office as she designed it– the furniture, rugs, et cetera. But the most important is: I’d really like it to be an expression of me, or maybe, a reflection of me.”
I said that since I hadn’t seen his office he needed to tell me something about himself. There was a long, uncomfortable silence. He said he didn’t like talking about himself. I pointed out the obvious: if I were to paint something that was a reflection of him, I would at least have to know something about his life. I couldn’t stifle a smile when he reluctantly admitted that he liked to play golf. Not much to go on. More tense silence. I felt the commission trickling away. But then, to my surprise, he suggested that we drive to his office. That way, he said, we could talk on the way and I could also see the layout of his space. His secretary would drive me back to my studio.
Weaving his silver BMW west through freeway traffic towards the ocean, Wallace discarded his aloof persona, and in what I can describe only as a meltdown of emotions, he revealed more about himself than probably either one of us was prepared for. He said that for years he had been living a double life and he hoped that since I was an artist, I would be sensitive enough to understand. In one life he had had a wife and a teenaged daughter, neither of whom had suspected that, in his second life, he was having affairs, and not with women.
Life number one began to unravel when he fell in love with Rick, an actor. A divorce from his wife followed. “In my new life we were Rick and Rick, happy together. At least at first.” But a couple of years later, another unraveling. Rick had fallen in love with a choreographer. Richard was still trying to cope with a bitter lawsuit over property that he and Rick had once owned. Also, his former lover took a perverse delight in tormenting him in the middle of the night with “vile and menacing” phone calls. As if all that were not enough, he added that his superiors in the corporation were unhappy with quarterly profits and that his job might be on the line. We pulled into his parking space at company headquarters, which overlooked the harbor. “I’m afraid my head is on the block. You can see the bags under my eyes, can’t you? I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in months.”
Normally I would have been refreshed by the presence of the sea, but I felt dejected. In my studio I had thought there was a thin chance of being able to paint something suitable for Wallace. But now? What could I possibly paint for a man in torment? I felt like a sleepwalker as I surveyed his office, and measured the space on the wall behind his desk. The morning fog had lifted, sailboats rocked in their moorings. I wished I could pry open the windows for a breath of the ocean and to hear the cries of the gulls. I was in over my head without a clue about a painting. I went through the motions of making notes in my sketchbook about colors and textures, but my heart wasn’t in it. What did it matter if the carpet was grey or gold or the drapes blonde or beige? I hadn’t the remotest idea of what kind of painting would enliven this space, let alone give comfort to the despair in this man’s unhappy life. His desperation had made Happy desperate and now his contagion had spread to me. The lifeline she had thrown seemed like a phantom.
“Well, what do you think?” Wallace wanted to know. In a complete loss of inspiration, I was about to suggest painting sailboats and seagulls, but he interrupted. “Actually, I’m not really interested in your ideas. Just do the painting you know how to do. I’m sure that whatever you come up with will be splendid. How long will it take?” At first I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You are asking me to do a painting for this office and you’re telling me that you will accept whatever I paint?”
“Don’t look so surprised. Happy has told you about my hates and dislikes, but don’t let that worry you. In spite of mistakes about people like Rick, I’m usually a good judge of character and I can tell from the couple of hours we’ve spent together that you will paint something I will like. Now, tell me, how long will it take?”
“Six weeks,” I stammered. “As for the money, usually, the client pays half now and the rest when….”
“Let’s do the full amount now, to get all this on the books, alright? Charlotte will cut you a check and drive you back to your studio. Keep me posted. I can’t wait to see the result.”
The lives of artists, like the lives of almost everybody else, revolve around money. A constant worry for me was, how am I going to pay the rent for the studio? Now I had in my hand a check for well over a thousand dollars for a painting I had not only not painted, but had not even imagined. Where does money come from? Where does inspiration come from? I wish I knew. In this case, inspiration arrived in the shape of a bird on a morning when I was meditating, thoughtless, in front of Wallace’s blank canvas. Suddenly I was flying high above a river of clouds in a radiant sky dissolving into the vastness of space. Below, on the left: freeways and the edge of the sea. On the right: a bleak desert. In between: mountains and the river of clouds. The bird sang like a philosopher: “Blues and greens from the sea out of which all of us are born, passing into siennas and ochres of the desert where we will all die. Everything in between is mountains shrouded under clouds, just like life.”
The singer disappeared but the vision remained: I was going to paint a work that would elevate Wallace so far above his problems that he would not even be able to see them. It took five weeks to complete. On the day of delivery I wrapped it in plain brown paper and took it to corporate headquarters. He was even more nervous than he had been in my studio and I too felt a heavy knot of apprehension. Would my vision touch him? I asked him to leave the office. With the help of a maintainance man we hung the work behind his desk. After he returned with Charlotte and another secretary, I removed the brown paper and got out of the way. He stared at the painting for what seemed like a long while. I held my breath. Then he took out a handkercheif and dabbed at his eyes, embraced me with a blissful smile and went out into the hallway to summon people from other offices. I left a few minutes later. On the way out Charlotte caught my arm. “Congratulations. I never thought I would see him so enthused.”
At this point one would think the story had a happy ending. For me, yes, it did and I assumed the same for Wallace. But then two months later he phoned.
“Bad news. Your painting didn’t work.” Searching for words, I must have muttered something or other. “The painting was supposed to give me a place of rest above all the awful things in my life, right? Well, it didn’t work. Three weeks after you delivered it, I lost my job. Yeah, the board fired me. I lost the BMW too; it belonged to the company. But you know something, Michael? It’s not all that bad. I’m sleeping at night, at last. No more bags under my eyes! How good can you feel after the worst happens and you’re still alive? What a relief to not have to worry about losing a job, hahah.”
Only one regret, he told me: “The painting. I really miss it, but it belongs to the company. It put me next to heaven and now I can never see it again.”
We began this story with Happy, so let’s end it with her. She eventually married Robert Moore, a pharmacist, delightful, like her. They visited me and Connie in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and bought one of my prints. As they were leaving my studio, she flashed one of her mischievous winks and said to me, sotto voce, “just so you know, I’m Happy Ever Moore.”