The weather turned ugly as Julia and I headed back south on Newfoundland’s Viking Trail. What had been warm sun on bright sea only a few days before had turned to gray skies and wind-lashed foam.
Pulling off at tiny Port au Choix, I did my level best to find a free place to camp, but with the wind blowing up a storm, I couldn’t light the pilot on the refrigerator, plus I was really hankering for a protected campsite and a nice electrical hookup.
Julia was stoically silent as I fretted and fussed and eventually found a tiny campground down the road with wi-fi and super-reasonable rates.
The wind blew and the rain lashed the trailer all night. Port au Choix looked dismal in the morning.
I ditched our plans for a museum visit, but took a little stroll through town while Julia happily facebooked. (Can that be a verb?) The rain had slowed to a drizzle; the wind was still blustery. Port au Choix looked like a wet alley cat with no place to hide.
And frankly, I was finding no place to duck into that looked interesting or even open, until I wandered to the end of Fisher Street and into the parking lot of Ben’s Studio.
Score! A homegrown gallery on a rainy day in Newfoundland. I love places like this in which creative people pursue their unique and sometime quirky callings. I love to hear their stories about how they got started and why they persevere.
This guy’s work was colorful and interesting–wooden half-figures set in typical Newfoundland scenes: fishing, iceberg-watching. At the back of the studio, a middle-aged man was painting tiny black panes on tiny white windows.
I wandered in with a fool’s grin on my face. I can’t remember how the conversation started–How are you? Crappy weather.
Since there was no mistaking me for a paying customer, I quickly became a receptacle for Mr. Ben’s vitriolic upchuck that morning.
“What are you doing? Are you writing this down?” he challenged me right off the bat. “If you are, you should have asked me.”
Out of long habit, I had indeed pulled out my tiny, dog-eared notebook. Now, feeling like a dog that was standing in its piddle, I put it away (and scribbled down the rest of the conversation as soon as I walked out the door).
“I’m done with tourists,” he said. “They don’t spend any money. Had a tour bus in last night. Bunch of them come in and they love the stuff. They go back and get their friends. I see them come in–two and three walking arm-in-arm.
“They didn’t buy a thing. Wasted my time. Kept me up til 10 at night.
“Any time a tour bus comes up, first thing they ask is, ‘Where’s the restroom?’ I don’t know what it is about old people, but they can’t hit the toilet. Pee all over the floor.”
I digested this nugget for a minute and wondered if he realized that in an eyeblink, he’ll be doing the same geriatric peeing himself.
“They just want little things for the grandkids. Billy and Jeannie. They whine, ‘This won’t fit on the wall. Why don’t I make smaller stuff?’
“I don’t want to make smaller stuff. I want to make my work bigger.”
Mr. Ben dreams of playing with the big boys–with an “elite clientele.” The kind who recognize his gift and are willing to pay for it. The kind who don’t quibble about size or price and who would never be caught peeing on the floor.
“I’ll close my door, and you’ll have to make an appointment to see me,” he fantasizes. “That’s a real studio.”
I hated to tell him that that train had left the station about 20 years ago and that few of the “elite,” whatever that meant, would be willing to travel to his little workshop in a Newfoundland outport.
Although apparently, E. Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News, did. She even bought one of his big pieces. But she was on her way to Gunner’s Cove at the time, to write her best-selling book set in Newfoundland.
Mr. Ben’s been having elite dreams ever since.
The litany of grievances went on and on. He had been written up in lots of magazine–even paid a bunch of money to get professional photos of his work for one spread. He’d done the Christmas shows for several years in Toronto.
“What’s a guy like me doing on the 401?” he asked rhetorically.
His own website had become an object of his wrath. “I don’t need a g-d website. People come in, maybe they like a piece, but then they think, Oh, he has a website. I’ll go home and order it later.
“Then, the credit card bill comes and they forget about the Newfie and his $500 work. If I didn’t have a website, they’d have to buy it right then.”
By now, I’d heard enough. Foul as the weather was outside, it was worse in here. There would be no browsing, ogling, questioning, photographing, or amiable conversation at Ben’s Studio this morning.
But the man was in full throttle. As I backed through the door, he said, “When I started this, everyone said, ‘Oh, the tourists will come.’
“Here I am, eighteen years later. Nothing.”
I looked at three neatly wrapped packages leaning against the doorframe, apparently ready to mail. I looked around at the cheery work and the cozy studio, so at odds with the disposition of the man who made them.
Yet, in some backward way, I understood. How often had I sent my own unchampioned, unagented work into the world with the crisp and hopeful SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), and the pre-spell-check-perfect typewritten pages–to one of those faceless publishing behemoths whose very existence, it seems, is to quash the naive dreams of suppliants just like me. Inevitably, my crisp and perfect copy limped back, months later, in my now-battered SASE.
Only the brilliant and the lucky “make it” in the world of creative endeavor. And that particular road is littered with the corpses of those who starved to death while never giving up.
I have probably practiced all the mental gymnastics that Mr. Ben has, from the “never, ever, ever give up” school of thought to the dark cynicism and even despair of finally realizing that whatever modest success you may have earned, you no longer have time to scale the wall by sheer force of will. That the world has moved along and a new batch of the brilliant and lucky are sucking up all the oxygen on the stage.
Somehow, you just have to make your peace with that. You have to settle for a life lived as well and fully as possible.
And I ask you, Mr. Ben, what’s so wrong with that?