August 15th finds me surrounded by curious (and possibly hungry) sunfish, as I sit and write in a little pond off of the Snake River in something called “The Magic Valley” in Idaho. Things must be pretty slow in the pond because my toes have the attention of half the fish here. (They’re literally at my feet, you might say...)
Anyhow, my story today starts way back when I first met Violet. One of our very first conversations was about a book called Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon. She wanted to give me her copy of it, but I scrawled down the title on the first page of this journal and told her I’d look it up. I did finally buy it in Wall Drug (of all places) but never got around to reading it for awhile. Now the other night, I was telling a couple I met in Utah about my trip and he said it sounded like I was doing the same thing as the guy in “Blue Highways” and he asked me if I’d read it. So last night, as I was about to go to sleep on a gravel road off the interstate, I decided I’d better give this book a little look. I’m now only a dozen or so pages into it, but I know that this is gonna be a good book. He’s checking out America by taking all the older highways and being ultra observant of every road and small town he comes to. And he makes a point of talking to the people he sees.
So I decided I’d best make a point to talk to the folks more.
And so it was that I saw a sign on a house saying “Calico Art Studio.” I had gotten off the interstate to go through Twin Falls, Idaho. It was just past ‘Twin’ and after a smaller town of Buhl that I saw the sign. As usual I was already past the place when I decided I should go back and check it out. I did and met an older lady named Norma Romero. She wasn’t too interested in me but loved the chance to tell me about her studio and most of the rest of her life. All I told her was that I was a traveling artist and hoped to get motivated by seeing how her studio was set up.
And off she went. She said she was a Christian and her and her friend prayed for a place to teach out of. In a couple of weeks, her friend called and said she found a garage, and that’s where she is set up now. After we got the sales pitch out of the way (for her art supplies), I asked to see some of her work. She told me how she loved to teach her students how to paint (average age: 11 to 75) but couldn’t make herself do a workshop.
“What’s a workshop,” I asked.
“A workshop is the biggest moneymaker,” she said. “All you have to do is come up with a method. A gimmick is all it is. You come up with a quick and easy way to paint a pretty picture and you got it made. You get some people to show up and pay about $65, or so, each. You give them a canvas and some paint, or have the art store you’re teaching at sell them supplies, and then stand up and paint your picture and they are set up behind you. They just copy everything you do. And at the end of the day they have a pretty picture that they painted. They haven’t learned anything and they probably won’t be able to do it again. But they come out in herds every time. You can make a lot of money and travel while you do it. I’ve been offered a couple times to do a workshop but I won’t do it.”
I must admit that this workshop thing did get my mind going but I told her that I didn’t know if I could do it either. Then, after mentioning how she used to live in California, (and would go back if she had the $) I asked her, where? And off she went again.
“If you’re going to travel down the coast, you have to go through Santa Barbara and Ventura, both beautiful beach towns. We lived in Santo Paulo. Take the drive around from Ventura to Santa Paulo. It’s beautiful. And go to the College Heights Church and tell Pastor Garrell that I sent you. They give a wonderful Sunday session.”
I told her I might just do that. She talked about a million other things and never once asked a thing about me. But that’s all right. I need to meet the talkers to learn anything. When I left, she said goodbye and muttered, “God Bless.”
Oh, and about this little part of the Snake River, I was looking for a place to go swimming (it’d been 2 days since my last shower and gas station restrooms only do so much!). I saw a couple of places advertising hot springs, but their hot springs were indoors, somehow. They had outdoor swimming pools also, but you had to pay for those, too. I went farther into “Magic Valley” and found a sign next to a deserted little house saying, “Thousand Waters Home Sites.” I drove down to find a lot of fine gravel roads going round and round the ponds and river’s edge. By the little pond I’m sitting in, there’s a little fire pit with one sandal, a bra and a pair of nylons, along with the usual smattering of empty beer cans. The place may not be Thousand Waters Homes, but it’s a perfect party spot.
It turns out that the Thousand Waters Homes was to be a housing project across from the river from the Thousand Springs Outlet. They discovered that it would be impractical to hook up the sewage systems for all the houses. But it seems they figured this out after they had built a lot of nice roads around the ponds and lots there.
I just passed a bar in Bliss, Idaho, called the Don’t Ask Bar. I would’ve went in, but I would’ve had to ask.
Later that day, I was in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, where I’d found—after a lot of checking—a guy who would set the ignition timing on the van. His name was John. He really knew his shit when it came to cars, something I realized while watching him check out a noisy car. When he got to my van, he said that the motor was worn out, maybe not the original, but that it was not about to fall apart—this after listening to it run for about 15 seconds. John was an easy going, mellow kind of guy in his 30’s. I asked him what he thought of Glenns Ferry.
“It’s both quiet and pretty wild, at the same time,” he said.
I told him that I was a traveling artist from Minnesota.
“We’ve got two artists in town here,” he said. “One’s real good and the other’s not quite as good, or a little newer at it, anyways.”
“Yeah, I’ve talked to a couple of artists on my trip so far,” I said, hoping to get him to tell me more about them.
“Well you should talk to Don Black. He’s real good. He does a little bit of everything. He bought an old school and lives in that with his wife and kids. It’s like living in a 50 room house. He only paid ten-thousand for it a few years back. I think he’s probably paid more to keep it heated, since then. It’s down in Hammett and you could go over there and see him, if you’re into socializing.”
I told him I was and he told me how to get there. I headed west toward Hammett into a beautiful sunset and saw a double rainbow.
I had to ask directions again in Hammett from a woman in a little hotel and a girl at a gas station, for it was now dark. It seemed everyone knew of Don and his school. I had forgotten how small these towns were. In the dark, the school looked pretty eerie with a lot of old trees out front and big spiders around the door. But I found Don to be real friendly and his school real livable inside. Not real fancy, more like a typical “party house.”
I introduced myself to Don, a man in his early 40’s (?) with a thick beard, a balding head with long hair. I found it easy to talk with him. He took me upstairs into his main studio in the gymnasium of the old school. And like John said, I saw a variety of paintings, from a sign, to Western art, to surrealist works.
I was totally impressed with Don’s set up and his artwork. He worked mostly in oils, but had done some airbrushing with oils back in ‘81. We talked about a lot of art related stuff: galleries, East and West Coast differences, attitudes, fine art vs. abstract art, San Francisco. He said I had to go to San Francisco and spend some time there. He explained how colorful and neat it was to have so many crazy people there. (Gotta look at that positively.) A laid-back art community of artists doing what they want at their own speed. Lots of good museums and galleries. He said to go there and talk to as many artists as possible.
Both Don and his wife said I had to meet James Redo. He’s really into his art, but I shouldn’t let that scare me away. James knows everyone in the art scene, and can introduce me to them and tell me about places to live (very important). Don said I probably won’t get past San Francisco, but also said you can’t camp there. He also reinforced a lot of my views on art. And I have to send him a card from SF.
I think I could have talked with Don all night, but I could tell that I was keeping him from his work. He said a gallery in SF wanted 3 more paintings by the next week. He just paints them and sends them off and some gallery sells them. Such a deal.
Don said “People ask how I come up with all these weird things. That’s not the problem. The tough part is how to pick which of the things I see to put on paper.”