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About this Painting

by Christopher Dow

Occasionally, I dabble with visual art, but not much—I simply haven’t had the time or energy during the past few decades. Art takes both and so does writing, and I chose writing. As an artist, my forte is collage, but I also enjoy painting. I like paint. I like smearing it and daubing it and blending it and experimenting with it. I like its smell. During my “artistic career,” I’ve actually sold a few pieces, paintings as well as collage, and if you want to buy one, I have more for sale, so get in touch.


But my purpose here isn’t to operate an ersatz art gallery. Instead, I want to tell you about the painting pictured above and what happened to it. It’s called, appropriately enough, Wildfire, and it’s 20" x 24", enamel on masonite. I painted it in 1981, and there is a good chance that the person who now possesses it thinks it’s worth a lot more than it really is.


In 1984, a colleague and I started a video production company, and that kind of enterprise is about as time- and energy-consuming as you can get. Although we often operated on shoestring budgets, we managed to eke out a sketchy living for five years before I returned to my first love, publishing. Those five years spanned a time during which our home city of Houston was in the throes of a crash in the oil industry, and times were tough. In the midst of that localized depression, I would have gladly sold more of my art than I actually did.


After about two years, my partner and I joined forces with another small-time video producer. Or should I say, studio owner. My partner and I were creative but had very little equipment, and this fellow had lots of equipment and a studio, but no creativity. It was a good match, at least at first, but I won’t go into the details of how our little enterprise eventually disintegrated. Suffice it to say that soon after my original partner and I moved our operation to the studio, we realized that it needed a bit of sprucing up. He suggested that I bring in some of my artwork to hang on the walls. I liked the idea. Even if I wasn’t selling it, at least people would see it. Among the three or four pieces I hung was Wildfire.


The studio actually consisted of two studio spaces—one larger and one smaller, each with its own glass-fronted control room. We occupied the larger space and rented out the smaller space to a small production company that produced local programming. We were on good terms with the people who ran this other production company, and we occasionally hired their personnel as crew on shoots that required more than the six people we had in our own company, and we worked on some of their projects, as well. But even if we liked and trusted them, you never could tell what sort of client might walk through their door—or our door, either, for that matter. Low-rent video draws all kinds of oddballs, fly-by-nighters, and sleazoids as well as the honest and upright. Incidentally, we were cheated by lawyers more often than by any other type of client, and the cheapest client we ever had was one of the wealthiest doctors in a city full of wealthy doctors.


One of our clients was a pretty famous car dealer who owned a dozen or more dealerships, mostly in Texas and California. I won’t name names, but he wore a big cowboy hat and had a dog in most of his commercials. We didn’t do his major commercials—those for new cars. We were the second string, and we shot the used car commercials. He ran a different one each week, and we’d shoot two, back-to-back, in one afternoon every two weeks. Or rather, I shot them because I managed to master the funky panning technique required.


This was the way these commercials worked: On the morning of the appointed day, the lot's car jockeys would line up the ten used cars the company planned to feature in the first of the two commercials. This row was located in the back lot, with the dealership building in the background. The cars, even the cheap ones, always looked so nice and neat and shiny sitting in their row. That’s because they’d just been washed and waxed. What television viewers didn’t see, however, was that about half of them had to be pushed into position, and the dealership had a tire repairman on hand to replace flats that wouldn’t remain inflated long enough to shoot the footage.


These cars were lined up in a particular order that corresponded to descriptions on a prerecorded voice-over audio tape that the car dealer, who lived in California, would send to the manager of the Houston dealership. The descriptions went something like, “Look at these great deals! Here’s a 1981 Chevy Nova with factory air, only $2,999. And how about this 1979 Dodge Dart, fully loaded, only $3,199! Or this Ford Pinto. . . ,” and so on until all the cars had been described. To reinforce the great deal, the price of each car was laid out in large red numerals on its windshield. The big, bright lettering helped mask any crack in the windshield glass.


My task was to synchronize the camera with the prerecorded spiel, and although I mastered it, it wasn’t easy at first. The dealership manager would bring up a nice late-model used pickup truck with a sliding rear window from the lot, and I’d load my camera and tripod in the bed. Then, the manager would slowly drive the pickup along the lane in front of the line of used cars, playing the taped spiel through the open sliding windo, and I’d have to quickly but smoothly pan from car to car as we passed them, keeping each in frame just long enough for its description to play before quickly but smoothly jumping to the next. All this while trying to keep the tripod—and myself—from jerking, tilting, or tipping out of the bed as the pickup rolled over irregularities in the pavement. We’d usually do three takes, and then I’d sit around and wait for half an hour or so while lot jockeys moved the first line of cars and replaced them with a second. Then, with a second audio tape playing, we’d do it all over. When we were done, I’d give the video tapes to the manager, who sent them to the dealer owner in California, who had the editing and postproduction done there. Then, for the next couple of weeks, I’d see my nifty camerawork on TV, and soon after that, a check would come in the mail.


One day while I was off on one of these shoots, a group of visitors came to the studio to participate in a shoot by the production company that rented the smaller studio space. While the visitors were there, one of them, a middle-aged woman, commented that she liked Wildfire and asked if it was for sale. One of my colleagues stupidly quipped that it was by a famous artist and was worth $10,000. That price was apparently too high for the woman’s budget, and that seemed that. When I returned from the car lot, long after the visitors had left the studio and passed into anonymity, my colleagues told me about the encounter.


They thought it was funny, but as you can imagine, I was somewhat pissed. If my colleague hadn’t been so quick to joke but had gotten the woman’s name, I may have been able to sell Wildfire to her for a few hundred much-needed bucks. As it was, all I had was the vague satisfaction that someone had been interested enough in one of my pieces to inquire about its price, but praise doesn’t pay the bills.


The next morning, I was feeling a little more mellow about the affair. After all, praise isn’t entirely worthless, and validation is encouragement that future sales might be in the offing as well as the notion that my art—at least this piece—was admired by someone. As I passed Wildfire in the hall, I looked at it a little more lovingly and thought, yeah, it’s not so bad. Little did I know that would be the last time I ever laid eyes on it.


Several busy days passed during which we spent most of the time on location shoots, and I wasn’t seeing much of anything besides video images and the roads between locations. When I finally had time to notice that anything was different about the studio, I saw that the wall where Wildfire had been hanging was bare.


In short, my painting had been stolen.


Generally, when people are robbed, they become upset. That’s the way I’ve felt two of the three times I’ve been burglarized. The third time, I had insurance and got all new stuff while the burglars got a bunch of old crap, so I didn't feel so bad that time. But the theft of Wildfire was different. It made me feel good. It made me laugh. I liked the painting, but I like even more the idea that someone out there stole it thinking it was painted by a famous artist and is worth $10,000. I hope they have it in a nice, expensive frame hanging in a prominent location in their home. I hope they brag about its value to their friends, or at least feel smug that they are big-time art thieves.


So, if you happen to see Wildfire in someone’s home or business, please don’t let on that the current owner is deceived. I’d hate to see my tiny moment of fame shrivel as suddenly as a dotcom stock. I want them to continue thinking that a Christopher Dow original is valuable. And if you are reading this and you are the person who stole Wildfire, don’t worry that your investment in guilt was completely wasted. Instead, tell everyone you know to check out my website. If enough people read this and buy some of my books, then maybe Wildfire will gain sufficient fame that it actually will be worth $10,000. And if that ever happens, I’ll be glad to legally sign it over to you, and we can both laugh about how you got an artistic bargain and I sold a lot of books.

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