Velvet Elvis

by Paul Lamb

I knew I'd hit bottom when they put me by the toilets.

Sure, there were years when I owned the best spots: at the entrance where fair goers were fresh and flush; at the nexus where everyone had to pass to get anywhere; across from the food tables where folk sat on the rickety chairs devouring funnel cakes or undercooked brats and contemplated my paintings.

I was golden. The innovator of the moment. The one everybody copied, following the non sequitur that I must be doing something right if I was so successful. I was the Young Turk of the art fair circuit. I paint Victorian ladies, in flowing dresses with bunches of lace and impossibly large hats, clutching folding fans or nosegays, often swooning on plush settees amidst aspidistras and oil lamps and framed daguerreotypes.

My paintings evoke a golden age, far too distant for the shuffling fair goers to notice any errors in the details. What they see, instead, is a time before their grandmothers' time, when social roles were clear and clothing was beautiful, when leisure seemed commonplace and one might actually visit with lady friends for afternoon tea and genteel conversation. They see the people they wish they could be in my paintings.

And for a while they loved my illusions. They convinced themselves that if they hung one of my paintings in their living room, they might call it a parlor, or if in their bedroom, a boudoir. They imagined themselves furnishing a room to mimic one of my paintings, in the same thorough detail, somehow re-creating they didn't quite know what, but wouldn't it be nice? An atmosphere, perhaps, or a retreat, or maybe just a fantasy, but a good fantasy, one they could pretend to live in as they gazed at my painting on their wall.

And for a blessed, blessed while, I couldn't keep up. I'd sell out most of my inventory. Take commissions. Work late into the nights. Be interviewed by the local press. I won Best in Show one year. Got invited to some of the better fairs, where they have real artists. Other vendors queued up at my booth, as casually as they could make themselves appear, and, oh, offhandedly asked my opinion about this or that or ever-so-reluctantly allowed themselves to be photographed with me.

And then they would copy me. By the next season, Victorian ladies were appearing on slats of wood salvaged from weathered barns or were being sculpted in bronze. Victorian-seeming snuff boxes and wall calendars and hat pins and parasols and lace gloves abounded. Sepia-toned photographs in ornate frames became a rage, and a staggering, quite lucrative number of fair goers donned antique clothes to have their portraits taken. At the bottom was my innovation: my paintings had started the vogue.

Yes, it was a wonderful time for Turk, and I rode my Victorian tiger for as long as I could, but it didn't last. After only three short seasons, my vision fell out of fashion. The public had had enough of my paintings. My fellow exhibitors were already in quest of the next new idea. I found my imitators fleeing, my sales suffering the vapors, and my booth position at fairs creeping closer to the fringe. I was not bitter; it was inevitable, though I wished it hadn't come so swiftly. The long-observed truth, though, is that we art fair artists are endlessly searching for the new icon, the one image that will resonate and endure and become ubiquitous. We each want to create the next Velvet Elvis, that Mona Lisa of the art fair universe, but since that was already done, we flop around, trying this and that. Copying if we can't create or abandoning if what we do create doesn't stick to the wall.

It's all kitsch. No one has any illusions. Most of us bank on it. We know our work will never hang in a gallery or be featured in American Art Review. Our art demands no more from a viewer than money. Sure, we call our work "accessible" and praise buyers for their egalitarian taste. But the goal, when we admit it, is to make a pile of cash and retire to our own Villa Velour and maybe then try to create some "real" art or maybe just spend our days sipping Piña Coladas.

Naively, I thought my Victorian ladies might carry me there. Where they carried me, however, was to the booth closest to the Porta-Potties. Now when fair goers pass, they are in haste, with modern plumbing in mind, not rose-colored images of an ultimately inconvenient era. Or they're already in art fair overload, and they jabber into their cell phones or tap away at the devices, barely glancing at my booth. Laptops in bags slung from their shoulders. Bawling babies in buggies before them.

Yes, I had hit bottom. After nearly two decades of struggle, of increasing sales, of cajoling juries, of progressively better fairs, of working till my fingers cramped and my eyesight blurred, I knew that my ride was about over. Too late to find a new vision, all I had hoped for any longer was to recoup expenses. And at nearly every fair someone came along who had never seen my ladies and bought a piece. A couple of those in a weekend made the trouble worthwhile.

But smelling portable toilets cooking in the sun does not.

The avenue leading to the toilets is where misfits go. Some are newbies, given the chance to display their stuff and see if the public shows interest. If so, if their sales are brisk and there is buzz about their art, they have a better chance of getting accepted at other fairs. A few on the avenue are hard to classify. One woman, several booths up, melts old wine bottles into impossible shapes then puts live goldfish in them. It's not sculpture, really. It's not glass art. Not kinetic art. The patrons, especially the kids, are showing some interest, but few are buying, and I think her goldfish are dying out in the sun like that.

The remainder on this avenue, however, are losers like me, our vision fading and our sales swooning. We've fallen out of favor and are mostly allowed in merely to fill empty slots so the public thinks the fair is bustling.

The guy next to me is a painter, too. His specialty is vaguely Amish-looking children with large, haunted eyes. He's technically accomplished but creatively bankrupt. The Amish art genre peaked a decade ago, but he doesn't have anything else in his bag of tricks, so he keeps cranking it out, hoping to sell a couple and make the rent.

"What do you call the day after two days of rain?" he calls to me.

"Monday," I call back.

He drifts over occasionally. We commiserate about slow traffic and slower sales, unfair juries, exhibitors we envy and hate. I watch his booth when he trots off for a hot dog or to visit an old fair friend who hasn't yet slipped into our place in the hierarchy. It's bad to leave your booth untended. Patrons walk on by. Or worse, they walk off with your work.

"I had some paintings exhibited in a hotel once," he said the other day. "The manager called one morning to apologize. Someone had stolen one of my paintings. He was terribly sorry. I was flattered. Someone thought enough of my work to steal it!" I nodded my head, doubtful that he'd ever see that kind of flattery again.

This season the reigning queen is Amanda Zeller – A to Z Creations she calls her outfit. Bombastic, don't you think? She has the booth at the nexus. She has crowds and buzz. She has sales.

Her gimmick? Scented paintings. Unless she stole the idea from someone (they'll never find that body), her innovation was to infuse her paints with essential oils. Patrons stepping up to her paintings can actually smell the pine forest. Or the roses. Or the bowl of lemons. Or the mug of root beer. The first painting she sold this weekend was of cinnamon rolls. Of course she's not sharing exactly how she blends the scents with her paint, but if you peak behind her booth, as we all have, you'll see cans of air freshener lined up. Whatever her method, it's a novel idea, and the public is much taken with her paintings. She's been selling like crazy, and I heard she had to ask buyers to leave their purchases in her stall until the end of the fair so she'd have something left to show as the commissions rolled in.

Patrons crowd her booth. Her paintings let them imagine their living room really is a pine forest, that their bathroom is a rose garden. Never mind that this makes no sense. They want their fantasy, and A to Z Creations is the one providing it this year. Next year everyone will be copying her.

Patrons near my booth don't smell baked bread or gardenias. They smell portable toilets. I've often wondered if the Victorian ladies and gentlemen in those pre-air conditioning days wore so much clothing not because they had greater fortitude or because they were willing to endure discomfort to honor some standard of respectability but because everyone actually stank. If they had to boil their bathwater on the stove, it's no wonder they only bathed once a week. So they piled on layers of clothing to hide their unfortunate body odors. And, thus, when patrons see my Victorian ladies and smell the nearby Porta-Potties, perhaps they make some unconscious connection. Instead of giving them an avenue into an imaginary life, it reminds them of the rudeness of real life.

Had that been the end of the story, this might have been my last season on the circuit. A visit by Amanda Zeller herself, however, sparked a revelation in my weary head, and tables have turned.

Amanda strode up to my booth late in the afternoon, when the sun had sufficiently heated the toilet ovens, her fawning entourage wafting behind her like the scents of her paintings. She was talking earnestly into her phone. Making some deal or accepting some invitation or chatting up the adoring press. Or giving the impression anyway. Her imperious majesty was on tour, drawing attention to her new-found loftiness and humbling those of us who had fallen from such heights. It's possible that she had no glimmer of the likelihood she would be among us in a few years. The headiness of any success in our business is intoxicating, and she may have been oblivious to the ironic turn that will come.

Regardless, she was queen of the season, and she was wallowing in it.

"Turk?" she said, feigning surprise, but not very well. "Why, what in the world are you doing here by the toilets? You should be at the nexus, at my side."

She knew what in the world I was doing there by the toilets. I was about to be flushed down them. She had wandered by not merely to confirm my location and its implications but to contrast it oh-so-coincidentally with her own.

I was about to respond when her phone rang. She looked at it, then raised a finger and said, "Excuse me, Turk. I have to take this."

It's an old trick, and she can't believe I didn't know it. Get someone to phone a few moments into her visit so she has a convenient exit. She can stop by long enough to sniff her disdain, then leave without retort. More likely she did realize that I knew what she was doing, which would make it sting even more.

Amanda Zeller wandered off, cocooned within her phone conversation. I once wondered how we ever got any work done in the days before cell phones and email. Now I wonder how we ever get any work done with them.

Yet an idea blossomed in my head then, one that I'll never acknowledge was planted by A to Z Creations, but I think it was.

I looked at my Victorian ladies and found a suitable one. Then I grabbed my small toolkit of paints and brushes – I keep these for tinkering and for ambience. When patrons see the artist at work, they feel more involved in the art, welcomed into that special place that supposedly only creative people can enter. They linger when I'm dabbling; I look up with a pleased smile and we chat about technique and where I get my ideas, and sometimes this leads to a sale.

There would no chatting this time however, and not merely because so few patrons were passing. I was focused, transfixed with inspiration. I painted through the night, my canopy glowing in the early morning hours with the light of my spots and the burning intensity of my creative frenzy. I hadn't felt like this in years.

This morning, I was too excited to notice the exhaustion of my long night. I paced the empty fair grounds, impatiently stalking the aisles between the shut-up booths in the hours before the patrons arrived. A pair of crows that were picking around by the food tents floated away when I approached. I sniffed the air around Amanda Zeller's booth, a whiff of the contrivance that served her so well reaching me. We would see about that. I don't begrudge her one moment of her success, but we sit on precarious perches there at the top.

When the patrons started arriving, I was out in front of my booth, a big smile and a glad hand ready for the newcomers who didn't yet know we were the misfit aisle and who couldn't yet smell the toilets in their brief retreat after the cool night.

I made a quick sale for a thousand dollars, and word raced through the fair. Soon other exhibitors were clustered before my stall, elbowing with the patrons, all eager to see the new rage. I didn't have much ready for them, having only the dark hours of last night to work in, and I asked my purchaser to please leave her painting with me until the end of the fair.

They marveled and cooed. "Isn't that clever!" And "That's so perfect. It just comes upon you as a happy surprise." And "Turk, you old dog. I wish I had thought of that!" And, best of all, "Will you paint one for me?"

In loftier circles what I was doing might be called "participatory art." I called it raking in the bucks. I discussed options with buyers as they selected one of my paintings and imagined what might be done with it. I praised them for their suggestions. We dickered about price. I gave timelines and tapped email addresses into my laptop. My phone was ringing.

Presently, and exactly as I hoped, Amanda Zeller arrived with her posse. No diversionary phone calls this time. No opportune interruptions. The many people gathered before my booth sensed the import of her appearance for they parted and allowed her to walk directly to me.

"Turk, what's this I've been hearing about you all morning? You're suddenly the talk of the fair." She didn't say this with amazement or delight but with consternation, for I had dethroned the queen.

"Look for yourself," I said, sweeping a hand toward my thousand-dollar sale. "But you'll have to excuse me," I slipped in, having readied my exit words long before. "I need to discuss some sales with several insightful buyers."

I stepped away, but I kept an eye on her, waiting for the moment when she realized the ground had truly shifted beneath her.

She looked at the thousand-dollar painting. "I don't get it."

But then she did.

The changes I had made were subtle. And yet, they were revolutionary. My Victorian lady lay in a swoon on her plush settee, a hand held to her head, her gaze far away. Just as she had the day before. But not just as she had.

In the hand held to her head she also held a cell phone. Completely out of place. A thorough anachronism. Never mind that it made no sense; it captured the viewer's fancy. I could see Amanda Zeller's eyes as they traveled across the painting. There on the damask-covered wall below the ornate writing desk was an electrical outlet that shouldn't have been there. And from that came a cord leading to a closed laptop on the desk where the daguerreotypes were all painted away.

With only a quick glance you might miss these. But once you see them, they draw you in. They give you access to the work, a fresh, tangible avenue into the fantasy. You can more easily imagine yourself in the painting. And the people clamoring before my booth suddenly loved my paintings. They were waving fistfuls of cash at me.

Amanda Zeller completed her review. I could see in her eyes that she knew. In a few seasons, her scented paintings would be competing with toilet smells. She leaned toward me to whisper her judgment, though before she could, she turned and smiled as a photographer took our picture.

"It's specious and meretricious," she murmured through clenched teeth. "It won't last."

I thanked her graciously, letting those around us think she had just complimented me on my innovation. She did not like this.

"It's only a gimmick," she spat, and then she pushed through the crowd. Several of her retinue lingered, alliances now in flux.

Of course it's a gimmick. But it's my gimmick. It's my Velvet Elvis.

BIO: Paul Lamb lives in Kansas City, but he retreats to the Missouri Ozarks whenever he can steal the chance. He recently completed a novel about art versus mundane life and the strange demands that can result when they intersect. His work has appeared in Danse Macabre, The Platte Valley Review, Midwest Literary Magazine, Present Magazine, Crossed Genres, Mirror Dance (twice), the Beacons of Tomorrow second anthology, and Wanderings. He will have a piece appear in the upcoming issue of The Adroit Journal. He scribbles a writing blog at Lucky Rabbit's Foot. He rarely strays far from his laptop.