An Art Trip To Iowa City

Dmitry Samarov

On a Thursday morning I throw a dozen or so paintings and a couple changes of clothing into the car, load an audiobook version of “Moby Dick” on the iPod and drive west on I-80. I’ve never been to Iowa City. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Iowa, even though I live in Chicago, a mere two hours or so from the state line.

A woman named Chris Ameling who follows me on Twitter invites me to come. She wants to turn the front room of the real estate firm where she works into a gallery; the first show there will feature my work. Most artists don’t have the luxury of turning down exhibition opportunities; I know I certainly can’t. The fact that it’s only a few hours’ drive makes the decision a no-brainer.

There are several tiers of prestige in the art world: at the top are museums and other venerated institutions, below that, established galleries, lower down, up-and-coming and not-for-profit exhibition spaces, then, far below those, the walls of bars and restaurants, craft fairs and everything else. It’s a mostly closed system where you have to be part of this or that club to even participate, let alone be celebrated. I’ve never been much of a joiner and have rarely longed to play in those upper echelons. The reason I paint and draw has little to do with gaining approval from the gatekeepers of culture and those gatekeepers have, for the most part, reciprocated by ignoring my work.

A few times a year Iowa City holds an arts walk. A couple dozen businesses put up paintings, photographs and other art in their windows and on their walls. They make a route map, advertise in local publications and print an oversized punch card for people to carry from stop to stop – get your card punched at 10 participating places and you’re entered to win a pair of tickets to a concert at the Englert Theater down the street. The newly named B Gallery – the little front room of Ms. Ameling’s firm, Barker Financial – is on this map.

Queequeg and Ishmael haven’t even boarded the Pequod yet when I get into town. Barker Financial is located on the second floor of a building on College Street – which is a pedestrian mall – so the people walking around and lunching al fresco are a bit put out to see my car creeping carefully along their quiet plaza. It’s the only way to unload my work without running a block back and forth several times. After the task is done and the car is properly parked in a municipal garage around the corner, I take a look around.The second floor of 114 ½ East College Street houses a variety of businesses, each behind a door with an over-sized transom above it. I could imagine a down-at-the-mouth detective hanging his shingle here in bygone days but now it’s home to several art studios, a messenger service, a taxi company, several vacant offices and – directly across from Barker – a tattoo parlor. I spend a couple hours hanging my oil paintings of bookshelves and gouaches of taxis in the little front room, battling the close, humid June air, the intermittent buzzing needles from across the hall providing a backing soundtrack.

A book reading has been set up for me at Prairie Lights bookstore but I’ve got a little time to kill before that so I wander around downtown Iowa City for a bit. Before leaving Chicago I’d asked people for recommendations and was told to go to George’s Buffet. George’s Buffet has no buffet but does have a Hamm’s Beer waterfall sign behind the bar. A woman with a leg in a cast invites me to take the barstool next to hers, finds out the reasons for my being in town and introduces me to her drinking buddies, one of whom is a sullen, aging history student who moonlights as a cabdriver. I order a cheeseburger and my new friend instructs me to ask for horseradish on it (which isn’t listed on the menu). There are a dozen types of potato chips for sides. I ask the bartender what Sterzing’s are like, and she says they’re the local brand and twice as greasy as the major brands, making my decision easy.

After washing down the cheeseburger and chips with Wild Turkey, George’s starts to feel like home, but it’s time to head to the bookstore so I say my goodbyes and walk the few blocks back to Prairie Lights. In the window display they’ve got a bunch of my books and an old photo of me behind the wheel of a taxi, to advertise the reading. A large poster for Dan Brown’s latest provides the backdrop for the whole display.

The reading, while sparsely attended, goes well. The University of Iowa is between semesters, so the students whose attendance at readings is practically mandatory, aren’t around. All you can ask for is for people to listen and to ask good questions, and I get both, so there’s nothing to complain about. Afterwards my hosts take me out for more drinks. They’re buying, so I order a bourbon a notch above Turkey. It feels good to be the guest and to have the bill taken care of because they’re happy to have me in their town. It doesn’t happen that often but I could certainly learn to get used to it.

***

Friday starts with breakfast at the Bluebird Diner. The host is an exasperated-looking David Cross type, all the waitresses have tattoos and most of the waiters are very obviously gay. Maybe it’s big-city prejudice but I’ve been struck since getting to town with the very prominent gay/lesbian presence in this little place. My hosts tell me that the lesbians paved the way and that Iowa’s early passage of gay marriage has a lot to do with it. Having spent some time in the restaurant racket, the vibe of the Bluebird feels very familiar, almost nostalgic to me. The art walk doesn’t start until 5 p.m. so I have a few hours to wander and see what else there is to see.

It turns out that this art walk I’m part of is a kind of add-on to a larger art fair. Several of the streets on the main drag are blocked off and a music stage and rows of booths are being assembled as I amble around without any particular destination in mind. Vendors unpack plastic bins and cardboard boxes full of jewelry, ceramics, macramé, paintings and all manner of crafts and creations all around. Street fairs always bring on a low-level malaise. Thinking of all these people doing so much work for so little reward, the sheer volume of handmade products is overwhelming and dispiriting. I keep walking, thankful not to really be part of it. The selling and showing of artwork has always been my least favorite part of the whole process, be it in a pristine white-walled gallery or a temporary tent down the street from where they sell the corndogs.

I get back to the B Gallery a little before 5 p.m. Chris is putting out strawberries, cheesecake bites and mini bottles of water in the back room for the prospective art walkers. The tattoo shop isn’t part of the festivities but stays open for business anyway. The daughter of one of the tattooists wanders about listlessly, cradling a very real-looking bloody, bandaged leg, waiting, apparently, for the evening to end so she can go home. David Barker – whose firm is hosting my show – comes by with his family and buys one of the cab paintings. It reminds him of his time at the University of Chicago. His purchase makes this whole two-day out-of-town trip worthwhile. A couple dozen other visitors come through as well. Most are bent on getting their cards punched and only give cursory attention to the artwork. The ones that do linger get a look of recognition on their faces as they examine the cluttered bookshelves and parked taxis that populate my pictures. That look tells me that what I’m doing is worthwhile and valued, even if it’s not valued enough to crack a checkbook open very often. As for the rest, the ones that start stretching out punch cards to be attended to before even coming all the way into the room, I do my part to make their stay as brief and painless as possible. I stand holding the hole-puncher, ready to dispatch them on to their next stop with a smile on my face. The ones that figure out that I’m also responsible for the artwork pause a moment or two and glance around politely before lowering their eyes and moving on.

I buy a breaded tenderloin sandwich from one of the vendors around the corner from the parking garage around 9:15 p.m., get in my car and turn “Moby Dick” back on. Ishmael and Queequeg are still negotiating the terms of their employment and haven’t even met Captain Ahab yet as I pull into my garage back home in Chicago some three and a half hours later.

Notes From A Retired Cab Driver

I quit driving a cab in Chicago a couple months ago after nine years on the job. Do something 12 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week for that length of time and there’s no way it won’t shape your relationship with the world. I’ve spent these recent weeks recalibrating because I no longer wanted my life to be led from behind the wheel. Closing that driver’s-side door has been eye opening.

A cab driver’s life is unlike most others’. He spends hours and hours randomly looping around the city, punctuated by the lucky short spurts when he’s got a fare. Then the meter goes on and he’s operating at the passenger’s pace. Of course there are drivers who subject people to their own itinerary and rhythm, but those guys rarely last, burning out from running too hot or being asked by the city to seek alternate employment for any number of possible transgressions – from crashes to badly-thought-out scams. The alternating aimlessness and concentrated activity over the daily 12 hours or more makes for an often-chaotic personal life. You end up fitting all other chores and pleasures around time in the taxi. You pay to rent these vehicles so when they sit idle it weighs on the conscience. In a certain way it never feels like you’re truly off-duty because at any hour of day or night you can walk out to the cab and be back on the clock.

During most of my nine years, I worked from the afternoon until late into the night. The only time I saw the sunrise was at the end of my shift, just before my head hit the pillow. Now I wake a little after my girlfriend has gone out to give the dog his morning walk, typically between 7 and 8 a.m. For all those years, I was on a diametrically opposite schedule from much of the world; now I’m trying to run along with the rest of the pack. It’s novel to wake in the morning and go to sleep at night the way most other people do.In the cab I dealt with the public all the time. Dozens of small social interactions every day would pass without a second thought. Now I rarely see anyone I don’t know. Most of my hours are spent in the house and when I leave it’s usually with my girlfriend or to visit friends. A cabdriver’s city is necessarily vast and unpredictable whereas most others’ is confined to their daily routine –the commute to and from work, their neighborhood and the occasional foray to a restaurant, bar, theater or ballgame. Given the opportunity to go where and when I want for the first time in years, I’ve chosen not to go out much. What might strike most as a mundane existence is a welcome change of pace after all that time flitting about at others’ biddings.

I haven’t quit driving completely. My girlfriend has a car and enjoys having me chauffeur her around, but driving a car is nothing like driving a cab. The ecosystem of the road is made up of a variety of species: large and small, predator and prey, strong and weak. In the cab, that blacktop was my territory to fight over, whereas now it’s merely a way to get from one place to the other. I notice the attitude of others toward me is different as well. There’s a well-earned weariness to drivers who spot cabbies in their path. They almost expect to be cut off or otherwise impinged upon or inconvenienced.

Knowing that others perceive him antagonistically weighs on the cabdriver and alters his driving style. Some become over-aggressive while others lapse into stupor-like slowness. It’s all a reaction to the constant stress of the occupation. A cabdriver has to be aware and respond to everything else that happens on the roads he travels. Not taking this care may result in accidents and a loss of income.

Now when I get behind the wheel the stakes are much lower. I’m not compelled to go fast or hold grudges against other motorists as I used to as a cabbie. I laugh as cabs zip in and out of lanes, tailgate and blare their horns, passing drivers like me as if we were standing still. I’ve gone from being on the track to practically sitting in a lawn chair on the sidelines, watching the racers roar by.

Better still are the times I take the Rock Island Line train downtown and look out the window at the standstill on the Dan Ryan. I used to have to sit in that gridlock daily, but now it’s someone else’s headache. It’s such a luxury to have someone else get me where I want to go for a change. Even more than whether I’m driving or being driven, it’s a pleasure to be going where I choose rather than getting others where they want to go. When you’re the traveler rather than just a transporter of others you can look forward to getting to this destination or that. A cabdriver can’t do that other than waiting for his shift to be over.

When I quit many people asked me what I’d do, what would I paint and write about? Driving was always a way to pay the bills but someplace a few thousand miles in, it began to inform my art and my thinking as well. It became a way to see the world. Despite the weight gained and the nerves frayed, I’ll always remember being a hack with a measure of gratitude. I won’t miss it though. Closing that driver’s-side door has given me my own place to go.

A Reluctant Artist Finds His Way In Florence

To say that I’m a reluctant traveler would be to vastly undersell the case. When asked to take a trip out of town my gut reaction is to blurt out WHY? as if I were being threatened with banishment for committing some wrong. So when my parents asked me and my girlfriend to join them in Florence for a week and I agreed, everyone was taken aback…myself included.

My girlfriend is a planner. In the weeks leading up to our departure she immersed herself in guidebooks, maps, internet searches, and even Italian language lessons on tape. My seeming lack of curiosity or interest in involving myself in these preparatory studies irked her relentlessly. She wanted to know whether I even wanted to go on the trip at all. I’d tell her I was looking forward to being in Italy with her and to seeing my folks. This was a vague, unsatisfactory answer in her eyes but it’s all I could say.

A sudden storm delayed our takeoff from O’Hare some two hours so instead of Chicago-Zurich-Florence it became Chicago-Zurich-Frankfurt-Florence. Mercifully, walking off the plane to meet my waiting parents took mere minutes.

Florence’s airport would fit inside of O’Hare a dozen times over, and soon we were squeezing a rented Audi around cars, scooters, bikes, pedestrians, and other less-classifiable modes of conveyance in the narrow free-for-all of Florence traffic, a steady chorus of vaffanculos raining down on us from impatient Italian motorists throughout. We were headed into the hills above the city, to Fiesole, where my folks had rented an apartment in a farmhouse set in an olive grove; part of Italy’s agriturismo program.

My parents have vacationed here for three of the last four summers, coming back for the vistas of lush hills, interrupted every so often by red-roofed villas; for the relief from summer heat that this altitude afforded; and, probably most of all, for the locally grown and produced food and wine. Waking the next morning and looking out the window, I could see why painters have been painting this landscape for all these many centuries.The center of Fiesole is home to a beautiful monastery, and we peeked through the barred windows of the ancient cells to reveal tiny spaces filled with one or two pieces of furniture-a desk with a cross most often-where it was hard to imagine a person could stand up and stretch, much less spend years.


One evening we drove to San Minuato del Monte-a stunning 13th Century church-which afforded a clear view of the center of Florence. I was taken enough with the place to return a couple mornings later and paint a watercolor of the setting, backlit by a steady stream of weary tourists stopping on their journeys. We knew that our few days wouldn’t allow us to take in even a fraction of the architectural, artistic, and religious treasures one stumbles over around every other corner here so we were content to linger in the places that drew us and not to worry about missing the many wonders we’d doubtless miss.

On a lark one steaming afternoon we got in line for a look inside the Duomo. We thought it’d be a quick look upward until we saw the sign by the cashier’s window warning those with heart conditions to turn back. We climbed over four hundred steps up to the top of the dome, with respites on two catwalks for views of the tremendous Vasari mural, and the hike culminated in a view of all of Florence and the surrounding hills. It was the exhausting, exhilarating, and unexpected highlight of the whole trip.

Before we left I spent a couple hours sitting and painting outside the door of my parents’ place up in the hills. I’ve always heard that the point of a vacation is to get out of your routine, to do and see things you wouldn’t in your workaday world, but for a painter, those everyday sights form the vocabulary of what he does. If I stayed in this place longer I’d have likely remained in this courtyard with the olive groves, painting and drawing and trying to get a better sense of the place than a week could possibly hope to afford. This is what stopped me from traveling more over the years, the sense that nothing but a scratch of the surface could ever be had from these excursions.

As I told my girlfriend before we went, I was glad to be in Italy with her and with my parents but getting these glimpses of a world other than the one I knew proved more worthwhile than I would have ever suspected. In a way those red roofs, hairpinning, blind roadways, and green hills will stay with me for a while.