I am up late tonight, tired, but I couldn’t go to sleep without writing down my thoughts.

Margaret and I, along with our friend Fred, went into the Master’s Show at the Salmagundi Club in New York City.  Masters Show is an exhibition by a hand selected group of artists from all over the country, many of whom are the top in their area of painting.  There are some really nice paintings in this show.

I’m amazed, every day, at the fact that I get to paint for a living.  And yet, there is that struggle that comes with being young, and making your way in the world.  By using the word “struggle” I don’t mean “hard times” necessarily, and I’m not alluding to finances or politics.  I’m talking about the uncertainty, the way in which life sometimes requires moving forward, even when there doesn’t really seem to be a path.  Standing in booths on sidewalks in the rain, brushing rainwater off of canvases that have been labored over for weeks.  Commissions that fall through.  Paintings that I store behind the couch, perchance they might sell one day.  I don’t allow myself to dwell too long on these things, I just have to dwell on the many good things that are occurring- the commissions that have happened, the paintings that have sold.  I think about the man who came out to my tent in the middle of a rainstorm, and purchased a painting with a smile and a warm conversation.  But as I wandered the Salmagundi Master’s Show, I was self conscious of the fact that my dress shirt was also my painting shirt, and that I had yellow ochre oil paint running the length of the bottom of my shirt.  This stained shirt somehow was a symbol to me of the struggle, and it made me feel like an outsider at this event.  I felt a bit like the mutt that wandered into the Westminster Kennel Club.

A good friend of mine, Fred, joined me as we walked around the room and looked at the paintings.  And then, a small painting grabbed me from the other side of the room- a beautiful, modest painting of a pink azalea in a blue chinaware vase.  It was so beautiful because it was so unpretentious.  It was vibrant, but quiet.  And it’s size was captivating- just the size of a postcard.  The background was a deep, vibrant brownish black, with a brilliant light emanating from the petals.  But, it was not sappy- it was understated and calm.  Just beautiful.  Eventually, my eyes wandered over to the name tag as I wondered who had painted it- it was David Leffel.  For those who don’t know his work, he is one of the big names in the art world.  For years, I’ve had the deepest admiration for his work.  I turned around to see that my friend Fred was speaking to David, and I was called over to say hello.

David was kindspoken, warm, and interested in what I had to say.  Margaret joined us, with Evan, and we all talked for a long time.  He described his years in New York City, his current life in New Mexico, his paintings.  But he never bragged.  He was even self deprecating.  He asked me where I exhibited my work- wryly, I replied “The prestigious venue of a tent on a sidewalk in the middle of this city.”  He smiled and said “Me too.  For two and a half years.  Same show, in a booth.  It was fun, it was hard, but I got my name out.  You have to keep going, that’s the thing.”  He went on to say that he had gotten his beginnings slowly, agonizingly slowly.  He smiled warmly, and encouraged me to continue.  “It’s what I had to do.  It’s what we all have to do.”  He signed a copy of his book with a thoughtful encouragement to me.  I was so greatful for his transparency, he could have acted proud and detached, but instead he was sincere and honest about his life.  That’s probably why I’ve enjoyed his paintings so much.

Afterwards, I read the first couple pages of David’s book.  His story begins with such a struggle- the struggle of trying to figure out what to do in life, the struggle to learn to paint.  He tells stories of innumerable rejections from galleries, grants, fellowships, etc.  He tells stories of traveling to Montreal, Canada for a hoped-for interview for a fellowship, being stuck in the streets, paintings in hand- all in subzero weather.  Every studio he had, in those days, was broken into and robbed, once while he was in the studio.  And he writes “Through these early years of learning, questioning, and paying attention to everything, I discovered that this is the essence of life.  External circumstances one makes of them what one will, but learning and paying attention, beauty is what living is.”

Returning to my friend Fred’s home around the corner, he played a Chopin Mazurka for us.  It was hauntingly beautiful, Chopin seemed to be contemplating the same thoughts that I contemplated tonight.  Watching Fred identify with this music, and pull the tune out of his Steinway, I suddenly understood, almost in an epiphany, the common human struggle.  Who was I to think that, tonight, I was the only one struggling in that room of people?  Each of us are unsure, each of us are so limited, and we plod along and pull pieces together slowly, steadily.  But in time we gain clarity, we gain understanding, and as we pull all of this together, out of this searching we find the art in living, a beauty in struggling.

David Leffel, Self Portrait


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