This story is by Philip J Palmieri and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I am finally going to do it. For the past twenty years, I have been imagining that I would gain acceptance in the art world of New York City. Art connoisseurs would gush over my creations on the walls of a prestigious gallery. I only had to walk into that gallery and ask for a show.
Over the years I read books and listened to countless seminars on making it in the fiercely competitive art world. With each, I would build up a confidence that fled the moment I crossed the threshold of these hallowed art institutions of commerce. The whole process rendered me as vulnerable as if I stood naked in traffic. I was convinced I would experience the most excruciating humiliation at the hands of a curator the moment I showed them my work. A humiliation from which I would never rebound.
I meet with an art advisor who asks, “Why do you want a gallery to represent you? How much money do you want to bring in from your artwork?”
I say “I don’t know. I make decent money at my day job now. I just feel a need to create paintings, and now they are all languishing in closets and in my basement…”
“So, you want validation then?”
“Hmmm, I guess I do,” I say and think “Doesn’t everyone?”
I listen to his lectures. He says “Make art so good it can’t be ignored. Build meaningful relationships. Overcome your tendency of introversion and put yourself out there.” This last one is the hardest. I just never could.
I confide my fears to my eldest brother. He, an engineer, is much smarter than me. He says not to worry. “We are all an irrelevant spec in the vastness of the endless universe. Rejection in the grand scheme of things is meaningless…everything is relative and eternal…even time.” He speaks of the continuum of time as a relative concept. “Light from the earth reflects out into the enormous black void…and if there is intelligent life to receive it, they are seeing Earth’s past reflections in their present. Just think, they could be seeing the Roman Empire right now.”
I am more confused than comforted.
I turn to the biographies, memoirs and coming of ages stories of creative people for inspiration and introspection. I am drawn to the outsider, the misfit, and the vulnerable who unapologetically see the world in a different way. Weren’t all the greatest writers, painters, actors and musicians misunderstood humans, prevailing over rejection, starting somewhere at the bottom long before their masterpieces rose to the top? What artist hasn’t been told van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime?
It is with this mindset I get into my car and drive the three hours to NYC to seek my fortunes in the art world. I have The Bell Jar on CD and inset the first disc. I listen to the beautiful words written by a dead woman, being brought back to life in the reading by a Hollywood actress. The irony is not lost. As I drive south to NYC, Esther Greenwood, Plath’s protagonist, has just arrived there, searching for her literary fortunes, still young and hopeful before her descent into madness.
When I arrive in the Chelsea art district, I park and stop the audiobook. I haven’t been here in two years. Not since COVID. Prior, I had come frequently, visiting galleries to just look at the work of other artists.
Despite the bright sun, it looks like a ghost town. Many of the smaller galleries, the ones I hung my hopes on, are gone. Abandoned or replaced by new high-rise condominiums with pretentious names. The Residencies at Covington or Kensington or Cortland. The biggest blue-chip galleries remain, showing gargantuan works by the few chosen art stars. I look closely at the paintings. I compare my work against these. Mine look stale and amateurish. My resolve dissolves. I berate myself for holding foolish, arrogant ambition.
As I walk along the deserted streets between galleries with growing despair, I see ahead of me the shadow of a young man, wandering these same streets. I study this mirage and realize it is the ghost of my younger self, bright ambitious and hopeful, going in and out of all these now defunct galleries. I see this bright reflection of my younger self dim as the dark ghost of doubt follows, overcomes and devours my shadow.
I turn away from the bloodless assault. Further ahead, my young ghost reappears and enters a Chelsea street market. This young ghost is perusing the oddities and hoping to bump into Andy Warhol or Greta Garbo. My ghost looks through the art books and buys a secondhand copy of Montgomery Cliff’s biography. An actor who so mesmerized my young self that my young ghost would go all the way to the Upper Eastside and stand outside 217 E 61st St, the address where Cliff died, to see if the actor’s ghost still hangs around. My young ghost spots Cliff’s and Plath’s ghosts, chatting on a street corner. He approaches, seeking advice, but they only want to complain about their bad choice in men.
I clear my head. I turn back from the market and see a familiar gallery. I walk in. A young pretty blonde woman asks if she can help me.
“Yes, would you be interested in reviewing my work for your gallery?” I want to ask, but I don’t.
Put yourself out there. Make connections
Instead, I say, “The last time I was in here, I remember seeing interesting works by an artist who painted with bubble wrap.”
‘Yes, that’s wonderful you still remember…that was quite some time ago…it just happens the artist is here today.”
Build relationships. Put yourself out there.
“Really?” I say. Ask to meet him. Put yourself out there. Make the connections. My stomach tightens. My mouth dries. My mind is racing. Just ask to meet the artist. Meet the gallery director. I am paralyzed. I feel dread. Doubt. They will expect me to buy his work. I don’t have the money. Since when do you care about money? Since always. Shut up. Remember why you’re here. It’s your work. My work? But my work is crap. Go ahead, open your trap about your work, and you will humiliate yourself.
I say nothing. She doesn’t offer an introduction.
I hear noisy conversation in the back.
I say, “He must be busy. It was nice to meet you. Thank you,” and walk out.
I start my drive home dejected. I waver back and forth between “I will be dead and forgotten” and “Why do I care? I will be dead.”
After Esther’s first round of electric shock therapy, I turn off the audiobook. I listen to the classical music station. It is one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. The one rejected in his job interview with a prince. The announcer cuts in. Louise Fletcher has died. She says the actress had put her career on hold to raise her children, only to win an Oscar upon her return. I wonder what good is that statue now that she only exists as a shadow on a movie screen. Did the Oscar bring her more joy than the act of acting? Than her children? And what about Montgomery Cliff? Did he despair at losing so many times? No, his despair was for other reasons. Despite the rejections, he continued making movies.
The sun is setting. The sky is turning an inky blue. As I head north, more and more stars come out of hiding. I reflect on the day. I think of the sidewalk ghosts and wonder if they do see each other. Talk to each other. Encourage and comfort each other. I think how sunny the day started. I think maybe the light from today is now reflecting back out into the black vastness of the universe onto some distant planet and maybe my reflection from today is running into those past ones of Vincent van Gogh’s or Sylvia Plath’s or Montgomery Clift’s. The reflections of when they were young and still hopeful, before the pills and booze and suicides. Our reflections share a beer in a gay bar then rent One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They tell my reflection not to worry, to go home and paint if only because that is what I love to do. They are saying this because they know the here and now is the only thing that matters. That once you are truly a ghost, you can no longer do what you love. And maybe, just maybe the next time they run into my reflection, they will give it the push it needs to open the door and finally ask.