Times have been tough lately.
I’m 64 years old now, and there just isn’t the same demand for wildlife paintings and woodcuts as there was when I was 25. Income has been scarce and I’ve had some close calls with paying the bills. Many times these past few months have I considered hanging myself in the garage, but I can’t work up the courage, so I sit and paint pathetic, morbid little pictures depicting death and suffering. My daughter thinks I might actually be able to make more money selling those than my wildlife pictures but they are too private for anything like that. They strike me as being a bit too modern, which goes against the principles I’ve always stood for with my paintings. I started painting wildlife scenes because they are essentially timeless; a picture of two ducks swimming in a pond could be set in 1915 or 2013 without being explicitly modern or old. I pledge allegiance to no period in time. The only concession I’ve made to the modern age was hiring someone to make a website advertising my work. My daughter posted the link all over the Internet, and there was a small spike in business for a little while, but eventually things settled back into a rut.
So imagine my surprise when a young man by the name of Chris Brown sent me an email asking me to paint the cover to his new album. I had never heard of him before and immediately decided to turn the offer down. I typed out a cordial refusal, but before I sent it I started to think that I was making a mistake. Even though painting an album cover would be against my principles, it would be brainless of me to say no when I needed the money so badly. I accepted the offer. Mr. Brown was ecstatic. He told me that I was his last hope, that nobody else would take his business. He didn’t know who else to turn to. We seemed to be in similar situations. He needed me and as much as I hated to admit it, I needed him too. I emailed him and asked him what he had in mind for the cover, and he replied immediately, sending me a mock-up that he personally had drawn. “It’s rough,” he said, “but I hope it gives you an idea of what I’m looking for.”
I had many questions for Chris after seeing the image, but I managed to condense them all into one word in my reply: “What?” He asked what he could do to help me understand the concept. I asked him to redo the picture with real photographs compiled from the web, and he said he wouldn’t mind but it might take a few minutes. I sat back trying to envision what he had in mind without much success. Who was Rihanna? Vietnam clowns? Did that mean Vietnamese people dressed up as clowns? I forced away thoughts that said I was making a mistake and waited for Chris’s reply. Five minutes later he sent me the image.
It was a little better but I still needed some clarification; as if Chris was reading my thoughts, he sent another message immediately after the first: “So the clown soldiers should be Vietnam-style, like I had on the first picture. And they should be smiling really menacingly. I want you to paint a smile on those clowns that says, ‘If you look at me the wrong way I will beat the shit out of you.’ And the top right corner should be really strong babies. I mean, really fucking strong, like those babies are Hulking the fuck out. That’s meant to convey, like, you know, I might hurt you but if I do it’s not on purpose. I’m just a cuddly baby who doesn’t know his own strength, right? I tried to tell them that but they wouldn’t listen.” I didn’t know who he meant by “them” but I kept reading regardless. “The middle of the picture is a big sexy picture of my head. Don’t paint me the way I look there; I only used that picture because it’s fucking great. I want two Chris Browns on my shoulders, kind of a devil and angel thing going on. Like, Devil Chris Brown is telling me to beat the hell out of my girlfriend and Angel Chris Brown is telling me that it’s a bad idea but he’s also sort of smiling, like he sort of agrees with Devil Chris Brown and thinks his girlfriend deserves it. Does that make sense?”
It did make sense. He had given me a lot of material to work with. I had never listened to Chris Brown’s music, obviously, but it sounded as if he touched on momentous themes: good, evil, love, hate, and other opposing forces constantly at work within us. I chided myself for considering turning down his offer. With a new-found eagerness not felt since I started my first woodcut of a turtle basking on the banks of the Potomac River, I sat down and started to paint, working into the wee hours of the morning before I finally stopped and went to sleep. In the morning, I called my daughter to tell her the good news.
“You sound unusually happy,” she said. “What’s up?”
“Well, you’ll never guess. I got an email from a guy named Chris Brown. He wants me to paint the cover for his new album. It’s going really well; I’m about halfway done.” She was silent for a few seconds. “Honey?”
She finally said, “You mean the Chris Brown?”
“I suppose. How many are there?”
“The Chris Brown that beat Rihanna?”
“Beat her at what? Singing?”
“No, he beat her.” Surely she was mistaken. The Chris Brown I had talked to the day before seemed to be an extremely nice young man. Sure, the themes at work in the image I was painting pointed to a few inner demons, but as a lonely, suicidal old painter, who was I to judge? I decided to defend him.
“Chris Brown,” I said, “is my friend. I’ll not have you disparaging him when you talk to me.”
“Yeah well, I hope you’re getting a good amount of money for working with that scum.”
“Blood money,” she said, and hung up.
Even though I had defended Chris, the conversation was still very disconcerting. I emailed Chris and asked if he had a phone number where I could reach him directly. He replied an hour later with a cell phone number. I called him at once.
“Hey, man,” he said. “How’s the painting going?”
“It’s going really well, actually,” I said.
“That’s good, man, that’s real good.”
“I have a question though.”
“Hit me. Just kidding.”
“Hitting me. I found out recently you can press charges against someone if they hit you, so I wouldn’t do it if I were you.”
“Oh…okay. I wanted to ask you if you beat Rihanna.”
“Hey man something just came up,” he said loudly. “Gotta go!”
“Keep painting. Peace!”
I decided that it didn’t matter if he hit his girlfriend or not. I needed the money too badly to consider such things. I checked my email one more time to make sure I hadn’t missed any details about the painting and saw that Chris had sent me a short message that I had missed earlier. “The lawyers who work for my record label told me I should change the title of the record. So now it’s called F.A.M.E., which stands for Forgiving All My Enemies.” I started again to paint and didn’t stop until nightfall. Stepping back, I surveyed the painting and decided it was done. After I emailed Chris with the news and a picture of the painting, I went to bed and didn’t wake up until noon the next day, when the sound of my phone ringing forced my eyes open. It was Chris. He told me the painting was amazing. He loved it, the label loved it, everyone loved it.
“Dawg,” he said, “your turtle woodcuts are mad good, but I think this just might be your masterpiece.”
I couldn’t help but agree. He promised to send me ten free copies of the album, and I took pleasure in waiting to hear what would surely be an amazing musical accomplishment to match my best work ever.
[F.A.M.E. is out March 18 on Jive Records.]