In highschool I knew a kid named Tim. He was thin and wiry, and had a thick Russian accent to match his thick black hair. He had nearly no interest in school, and got an abysmal score on his SATs. He discussed this low score with me as we walked from the bus to school one day, worrying that he wouldn’t be able to get into any college whatsoever. I recited that rumor I’d heard, that you got 800 points just for signing your name. “Maybe I didn’t sign my name, I don’t know,” he mused. But whatever disinterest he had in school, he had an inverse amount of enthusiasm for art. He was a fantastic fine artist – paint, mixed media, whatever he threw himself toward became gorgeous, troubling, and provocative, in a seemingly effortless way.
I knew him because he lived in the same town as me, over an hour and a half from school by multiple buses. Only three kids in my school lived in that town, and our bus rides would occasionally coincide almost all the way back home. (It was quite surprising there was more than one person from there – I was born and raised in Berkeley, but in highschool I lived in a town in Contra Costa County with fewer than 12,000 people.)
It was through these bus rides that I learned a little bit about Tim, over time, and his curious relationship with everything. He loved the disturbing side of art, and was particularly fond of the numetal shocker album covers of the time, and art the likes of which you might see in a Tool music video in the 90s. It was the 90s, after all. I was in a band, at the time, and he promised to do my album cover for free – or maybe for a percentage.
His social graces were not 100% in accord with the norm. He once invited a girl over to his house to show her his art, and she agreed to go (“to be nice,” she later told me). Once he got her there, he asked if he could make a nude cast of her body. She was…understandably distressed. So was Tim – he really, truly could not understand what had gotten her so upset. After all, she had agreed to come to his house, and he swore it wasn’t sexual, it was purely about the aesthetics (I almost believe it).
One incident in particular sums up his art for me, though. This incident surrounded our school’s annual art show. For two months, maybe more, he had been painting a very tasteful nude of a woman reclining on red silk, using oils. It was frankly shockingly good, no matter the age of the painter. I’d been studying art history at the time, and this was pure realism if I’d ever seen it. The teachers agreed, and chose to make his piece the star showcase of the event. It was meant to be covered in a white cloth and unveiled before the teachers and students in attendance for the fundraising gala, held in our school cafeteria, which looked rather like a 50s deli, with black and white checkerboard floor tiles. It also doubled as the location for school dances.
The idea of being put on display in this way really burned Tim up.
“They just want to use me to look good for the parents,” he fumed to me one day, his accent thicker as he got angrier. He didn’t like the idea that the piece on which he had labored so hard could be considered property of or representative of the school, rather than as art to be appreciated on its own merits.
The day of the art show came, and I decided to go check it out, since it was being held at the school, and all I had to do was stay way later than I normally would, which had a certain rebellious appeal to me. (I can’t quite explain that one, but somehow being at the school after its official grip on me was released made me feel as though I had more agency and power over it.)
Tim’s whole family came to see the spectacle, knowing that he was to be the star of the show. His way-too-attractive mother was helped out of the passenger’s side of an SUV by her limp extended hand (SUVs were the new thing at the time). She was wearing a giant fur coat, sunglasses, high heels, a form-fitting white dress, accented by her resplendent blond hair. She waited in the main reception area with a glass of wine. I wandered the grounds, feeling king of the school.
As I gallivanted around the school plaza with some pals, I noticed a short, brutal tree trunk of a man with a buzz cut and a very nice suit. He stood with his back to the wall at all times, arms folded. His spine was so straight it might have been in a brace. Everyone else, outside of Tim’s family, was dressed quite casually, so I subconsciously connected this living cliff face to the fur-coated mother. After asking a few people who this guy belonged to, it was Tim who answered me. “That’s my uncle,” he says. Long pause. “He did some bad things in Russia.”
“Whoa, that’s cool!” said I, an unconscious 17 year old with visions of videogame heroes and villains dancing in my head. “No, it’s not,” he asserted.
Around then it came time to unveil the best of the art pieces, covered in cloth, as promised. After their unveiling, the students could speak about them and declare their artistic intentions.
That’s when I noticed that Tim was not standing by his piece, he was in the audience, with the rest of us. The main showcase was no longer Tim, but our resident graffiti artist, Derek. What the heck happened? Tim spoke to me conspiratorially, as the others presented. Turns out, in his anger at feeling used by the school, he had – the night before – taken some cheap white acrylic paint, and whited out almost his entire painting, leaving only woman’s mouth, breasts, and crotch exposed. Perfect circles around each.
At the end of the night I was one of the few people who got to see it in that form – it’d been discovered, and thus hidden away in the art room. It was completely absent from the event. Tim was mightily proud of himself, though he’d hoped he wouldn’t be discovered until the cloth was removed, his crippled painting the antihero of the gala.
What he did was crass, it was brash, and it was uncouth. But as an art statement, I am glad to be one of the very few who got to see it. I wonder what his fur-coated mother and “bad things in Russia” uncle thought of the situation. I never asked, and never learned.
The last time I saw Tim he was working at a Circuit City, wearing a faded red blazer in the final months before the business went under. I don’t think he even does art anymore. But for one brief moment in 1998, he was the best artist I’d ever known.