April 13th 2014
Photo: The Magpie Mobile Mercantile
Ten years ago, after reading Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie, I decided to buy and convert a truck into a painting studio. I found an old USPS mail truck on ebay in which I fitted RV windows, painted green, and dubbed the Magpie Mobile Mercantile. With a peddler’s permit I’d set up around Bucks County in spots where I could paint a scene and cause a scene. In addition to my artwork I also carted around vegetables and cut flowers, CDs from musician friends, handbags made by another friend, and, oddly enough, an array of mismatched bathing suits that I’d been given. I particularly liked the way that the produce and paintings mingled, giving the artwork some humility and made the veggies and flowers even more visual. Now as I’ve recently sold the truck and put an official end to that experiment of gallivanting I’m reflecting on the experience.
The Merc (as it was affectionately called) was equal parts studio and gallery. As a gallery it was a lot of well-intentioned schtick—compromised and quirky but no less able to create some meaningful interactions. As a studio it gave me the hermit crab experience of moving my home base along with me. When one goes outdoors to paint the work is somehow always referencing the studio to which it returns at the end of the day, as much as it is its creator. This is because painting is laborious, and more so when it takes place in a temporary environment. This means that the effort it takes to launch an excursion determines the distance the artwork may travel before exhausting, hence shaping in some part what the artwork will look like. With a studio that can travel along with the artwork, the launch distance is shortened and the artist can have greater control over their endeavor.
As much freedom as the Merc provided me, it was also limiting in terms of the place where a sixteen foot vehicle could physically and respectfully fit. This meant I was always trying to scout for locations that had inspiring scenery, permission to park and would be inviting to onlookers. This recipe would yield interesting results that were never ideal but neither disappointing. I felt like a fisherman trying to situate himself in the stream where he could catch two very fickle species. I neither wanted to go unnoticed nor be an eyesore—neither wanted to be ignored nor distracted from painting, but this is true of an artist’s life in general.
One of the occasions that stood out to me was at the end of a particularly broiled summer day over by the quarries in Wycombe. I was painting Davis Feed Mill as it mingled with a languorous sunset when I heard a slow labored breath behind me. A large man who had been working in the quarry all day had emerged from the crater right at the point where the Merc and I were parked. We exchanged the subtlest of nods and then he continued to watch me paint for a while. He wore a suit of dust from head to foot and, like me, was sweated through his clothing. I don’t know if he would have stopped to observe if he hadn’t been so exhausted but I think my easel and I offered more of a place to rest his eyes than invigorate them. Either way he seemed to watch the painting completely disarmed. Often having eyes on me as I try to paint causes me to tense up or feel that I’m performing in some way, but in this case I was quite at ease. He stood by until the twilight had enveloped us and as I packed up my gear he lumbered away without making a comment.
The Merc played the part of ombudsman to many interesting people while we prowled the county but this wordless encounter has resonated for me more than others. I reckon it was the feeling of simpatico with someone else who had also spent the day wrestling with the landscape and sharing the sort of wonder that comes after the summer heat suppresses all other thought.
With the company of my truck, like the so-called “trusty steed” I didn’t just paint the landscape but was able to embark upon it and know it as in an adventure. With the days rumbling along on a romantic and youthful project I redrew the map of places I thought I had known with new familiarity. Even as my artistic ambitions outgrew the truck I have savored the knowledge gained in those days, which was not of technical proficiency or even aesthetic refinement but an understanding for how to find intimacy with my surroundings.