Reluctant Romantic

Jeffrey Barken, Contributor

13 October 2018

Why can’t I remember his name? I quote him often…  

I’d gone West after graduating. It was election night, 2008, and Jackson Hole Wyoming was a tiny blue dot in a vast red state, landlocked yet suddenly swallowed by tidal blue. When official news broke, our cheers shook the apartment.  

Drinking at altitude triggers a buzz that hits hard and then accelerates. When I struck up conversation with a local photographer who worked for one of the galleries in town, he suggested that I was an unusual character passing through. He wanted my portrait—black and white—for the series he was working on. I agreed, and we set time, “tomorrow.” 

As the night wore on, all the talk was bright with hope. I asked my new-found friend what he thought the greatest challenge facing modern artists was—and this is the part I’ll never forget, the bit I quote—he answered with one word: “Obscurity.”

The next day I met him at his studio for the shoot. While he prepped his camera, he let me flip through a book of his latest work. He’d been hanging out in the alleys behind restaurants snapping shots of workers on their smoke breaks. I asked him what features and expressions he sought to highlight in the different people he photographed.  

“To be honest, it’s not about them, it’s about me,” he said. 

“Isn’t that a little selfish?” I asked.  

Perhaps I’d crossed a line. When I reached out to him later for copies of my portrait, he didn’t reply. I’ve never seen the photos he took, and now I don’t remember his name.     

I expected a similar outcome when I lost touch with Casper Duizer.  

I kept going East after my about-face in Jackson Hole. I did a stint in New York—height of the recession. Late 2009, when I was beat and burned out on hope, I flew to Israel. There I landed a volunteer’s post on Kibbutz Dorot. I was happy for room and board and some work to pass the days. Duizer had arrived shortly before me. He’d hitchhiked from Denmark clear across the Arab World. Put us in the same boat, we’d both washed up in the Holy Land for a little R&R. 

I can’t say we grew close in the few months we knew each other. To tell the truth, I never knew Duizer was an artist, never saw him sketching or dipping a brush in paint.  

The thin blonde Dane was younger than me, and a little less jaded. Once he put his wet laundry on top of mine and I threw a fit. When one of the volunteers moved out, leaving a vacant apartment, we quarreled over who got to keep the couch. The best thing we ever did together was go on Col Ha-Negev, a little late-night radio show one of the Israelis we’d met used to host. I smiled the whole time as Duizer recounted all the kindness he’d encountered on his journey to the East.  

Then Duizer pulled a crazy stunt. He had a friend coming to visit. Some Danish lingerie model he’d grown up with. Casper finagled two weeks advance on his kibbutz stipend, then hit the road with his girl for a holiday trek in Jordan. He was gone nearly a month. The night Duizer and the girl finally wandered back to the kibbutz, his boss, a heavy-set South African named Stan gave him the boot.  

“But Stan, you don’t understand!” Duizer pleaded over and over again to no avail. Those were the last words I thought I’d ever hear him say. Turn the page …  

“Late 2009, when I was beat and burned out on hope, I flew to Israel.”

Graduate school brought me to Baltimore. I spent the next three years working on a collection of short stories inspired by the experiences I’d had in Israel. In the Spring of 2013 I self-published the work, printed a thousand copies and shipped the books to Israel where I planned to spend a year on book tour. Every day I’d set out on the train from Haifa to Tel Aviv, linger on the platforms of different stations, and introduce myself to strangers awaiting transport. I’d address people in Hebrew, ask if they liked to read in English, and then show them the book. In addition to Israelis, I met people from all over the world this way. I could move about 10-15 copies a day.  

Then, out of the blue, I received a message from Duizer. “Greets, I have your book,” he wrote via Facebook. I couldn’t believe his story. Duizer was in Paris studying under a masterful French artist. He was preparing his first major exhibition. When he walked into a used bookstore and saw one of the copies I’d sold in Tel Aviv sitting on the shelf, he recognized my name. He took a guess what character he had inspired. We had a laugh about the coincidence and agreed to keep in better touch, but we didn’t meet in person for another year. That meeting came in New York.  

I’d found a job working as a legal recruiter—high-stakes sales and a lot of cold calling. My office was on the 75th floor of the Empire State Building. In late 2015 Duizer wrote to me that he was headed to New York. His shows in Paris and London had been a tremendous success. He planned to rent a studio in Brooklyn and trek west on a Great American Road Trip once he’d bitten into the Big Apple.  

We met at my office. I took him down to the 73rd floor where they were renovating, and visitors could take in a 360 degree view of Manhattan. The space was abandoned, save the Union worker on his lunchtime snooze. Duizer and I looked out the East Face toward the Chrysler building and the fog-swallowed bridges. We discussed his art. Then I invited him to illustrate a short story I was working on. When we were done, Duizer asked if he could stay to muse on the 73rd floor for a bit before he showed himself out. Later he sent me this sketch:  

 

That’s me, or my shadow—top right—wearing my old traveling hat. Casper sits on a stoop, bottom left-hand corner. 

Collaborating via Facebook over the course of the next year, Duizer supplied ink illustrations to accompany my short story, Fading ManhattanThen he set out on his most ambitious adventure yet, a meandering trek from New Zealand, through India and Asia.

Not long after, my wife and I decided to leave the City. We bought a house in my home town, upstate—a real fixer-upper built in 1931. The most exciting feature was the garage that we planned to convert into a pop-up gallery space. I wrote to Duizer and asked if he could find himself stateside in the Summer of 2018. I suggested we could do an exhibition at my place and then take the artwork to New York for a second showing. A few days later Duizer replied. It seemed another Great American Road Trip was in the cards. 

 Images of his latest works began popping up in my inbox at unexpected hours. Duizer also shared stories describing the lengths he’d gone to acquire paints and canvas; the lonely Laos hotels and river skiffs where he’d holed up to shed the colors, shades and shapes that preoccupied him. He’d been arrested for vagrancy in Japan and made me laugh when he recalled how he’d wound up sipping midnight tea and eating sushi with the policemen who jailed him. 

 Around the same time, I began writing poetry. As a novelist, this was a new literary frontier for me. Seeking feedback, I enlisted the help of an anonymous poet whose work I admired on Twitter.  

My poet describes the desire to remain obscure as follows:

…I don’t want
to climb the trellis
like the immodest morning glory

I want to remain
a lowly violet
hidden in the half-shade

where I won’t be plucked
by the bloom like a rose
or at the roots like a weed

 I’ve always thought the reason to write is to find out who you’ll meet along the way, build lasting connections; “climb the trellis,” if you will, and to leave the dark of obscurity behind. Now the poet challenged me to respect boundaries, take pictures without making assumptions and through this process reveal only myself, to myself, as though I were that photographer back in Jackson Hole, snapping the fadeaway glances of anonymous strangers. 

I began to wonder what had driven Duizer to venture so far away, and for so long, especially when he’d experienced such early success as an artist. Did he still desire recognition? What dreams were calling him back Westward to do the shows with me? And would he follow through? 

I’d send my finished poems to Duizer to pair with his paintings. In time, we decided to title the show, Reluctant Romantic after Nick Carraway’s observation that Jay Gatsby possessed “a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” Does it follow that the rest of us, I asked my collaborator, at best, are merely Reluctantly Romantic?  

In June, I received word that Duizer had skipped the slough and was finally Stateside. He planned to visit some friends in Los Angeles before venturing East. He arrived at our place in early July. That night we spread his paintings out on the floor. Even in the dim light of my living room the images radiated. The large weathered canvases consolidated the sensory overload of distant and unfamiliar places. The traveler’s shifting moods had found expression in the faces and postures of his characters. Slowly, rich scenes emerged—some summoned by bold, warm colors and decisive black lines, others obscured and depressed by mellow blues. 

We spent a lovely weekend planning for the shows. There were touch-ups Duizer needed to make on some of the paintings. Carried in his rucksack, the rolled and folded canvases had succumbed to friction, stressing, chipping and fading some of the brush strokes he’d made in acrylic. We went shopping for supplies and then sat out on the grass in my backyard to patch the paintings. We had brilliant weather. My daughter toddled about, mesmerized by the colors. Duizer let her dip her hands in the paint and make a guided swirl here and there before her bath.  

“I’ve always thought the reason to write is to find out who you’ll meet along the way, build lasting connections…”

By the end, all was ready save the framing. The plan was as follows: Duizer would return to New York and order the parts we needed to stretch the canvases. Thereafter he had business in London and Berlin. Perspective buyers wanted to meet him. Then he would return to Paris, rendezvous with his new girlfriend, and find a flat where they might live together. Late August, or early September he’d return to New York and then come North to make final preparations for the show. Afterward, he’d stay on hand for a month, helping me publicize a follow-up opening in Weehawken.

Duizer experienced one last burst of creative energy before he left New York. He sent me pictures of wild parties, and images of three new paintings. He promised we’d catch up properly once he was in Paris. But something was off. The distance was increasing. Suddenly the time differences we’d always found a way to manage rendered phone calls near impossible.

Finally, three weeks before the gallery opening, I pressed Duizer for details concerning his travel plans. Cornered, he confessed. Upon his return to Paris he’d hit rock bottom. His paintings weren’t selling, and the down payment on a flat was far more than expected. He was nearly broke. To subsist, he’d taken a job teaching drawing. He wasn’t coming.

“Life sucks at the moment,” he wrote, “but I’m struggling, fighting to succeed.” I found it difficult to muster any understanding until he added, “at the moment I have no money for canvas, I paint only on cardboard again.”

In a rush I jotted down these lines:

“Pause”
he cried

mystic canvas
on the wall

who is fair
can paint them all

for color is
a noble cause

We admire great art because we recognize the artist’s sacrifice. To create, one must wrestle with and overcome the world’s tyrannical demands—find the time and space to be obscure.

As frustrated as I was—that the project felt unfulfilled, that no matter how the shows went I’d always wonder what could have been—I saw the undeniable beauty of Duizer’s paintings. The life and friends I’ve chosen reveals a preference for strange and unanticipated encounters. If obscurity must be the relegation of writers and artists, then coincidence and quandary is the essence of collaboration. To that end, we are reluctantly romantic.

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