Cosmic Debris

Vagabond Artist

My life as a professional spray paint artist began at the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Oktoberfest, a festival less devoted to the fine arts than to German beer (which I like), all kinds of wurst (which I like but don't trust) and the chicken dance (which I like unless I hear it 18,000 times over the course of two weekends).

The festival started one autumn Friday eve at six. I showed up at three, dragging a footlocker full of supplies as well as a beach umbrella to protect me from sun, rain and sour kraut. The woman in charge of vending said that if I wanted a booth, I should have applied months earlier. I told her that I had no booth, just an umbrella. She sighed, smiled and let me set up next to a Peruvian couple who sold cheap jewelry and hash pipes.

The Peruvians were very impressed with my work, in part because it seemed to transfix their two young children, who otherwise would have been running all over the grounds exposing themselves to various dangers including, but not limited to, half-cooked bratwurst and drunken German chicken dancers. It was much better for them to sit by me, watch wondrous works of art take form and inhale spray paint vapor, which has a discernibly pacifying effect after a while.

My expertise lies somewhere betwixt art and craft. Using dog food and coffee cans, pot lids and pans, a full spectrum of Krylon spray paint and an OSHA-approved gas mask, in front of your very eyes, I turn sheets of poster paper into scenes of planets, stars, nebulae, comets and an occasional super nova. It's a performance art, the “cosmic landscapes” taking just five or ten minutes, depending on size.

Over two weekends of fair weather at the Oktoberfest, I grossed about $800. Subtracting my expenses: vending “booth” fee ($165), paint and poster paper ($10) and German beer ($82.75), I still managed to clear enough money to try this art festival thing again.

My Peruvian neighbors said that they were going to Palm Beach's Centennial Festival next and would lend me their spare canopy. Great. Once again the weather was fair, the crowds hefty and cosmic landscapes popular. I cut down on expenses by bringing a cooler with my own beer and cleared about $900 in one weekend.

I was really impressed. Here I was, a guy who can't draw a dog that doesn't look as much like a horse or cow as a dog, making wads of cash by painting. Here I was, a guy who normally shies away from the limelight standing before dozens of people at a time, performing five- or ten-minute shows and bowing to applause after scratching my nom-de-spray-paint, g.HARLAN, into the corner of my poster paper canvas.

I liked this art festival business. It sure as heck beat working. Except that this time, I had a canopy to raise, wire dividers to set up, a gallery of pictures to hang and tables, chairs and a beer cooler to lug around. And I had to awaken at dawn to get to the festival grounds to set up, which was way too workmanlike.

The veteran vagabond artists and craftsmen at the Centennial Festival nodded in approval at me. From the Chinese water-colorist to the guy who makes Mr. Potato Head-type sculptures out of coconuts, they all said I'd go a long way. And the papier-mache vegetable vendor, who said he had a PhD in something, proclaimed me a natural who could clear an easy fifty grand a year once I refined my booth and bumped my prices. I got serious. I bought a used canopy to call my own, traded for a banner and worked for weeks to build up my stock, some of which I paid good money to frame.

I finagled my way into Fort Lauderdale's prestigious Promenade in the Park as an “exhibition artist” and was told to set up any place where wafting clouds of spray paint wouldn't bother the fine art lovers.

I found a wonderful spot along an empty stretch between the funnel cake stand and the pig run, both of which attract the kind of art connoisseurs who most appreciate my stuff. I was set to break all records, to have a $1,000 weekend. Nothing could stop me!

Except maybe a little rain. Friday night, it drizzled on and off. Business was slow. Saturday was a monsoon. Business stopped. My new used tent leaked worse than a generic diaper. The Promenade in the Park turned into the Promenade in the Lake, and I never made it to Sunday. My career as a professional vagabond artist got pretty sketchy after that. Truth is, it's not the kind of thing you can do half-assed. Besides needing a reliable tent and assorted other gear, you have to plan ahead, researching and applying for festivals months in advance and always hoping that it doesn't rain.

Planning ahead has never been my forte. And with a wife and child to support, I couldn't see having to depend on the weather to make money, or for that matter, spending even clear weekends enveloped in clouds of Krylon spray paint. But I still performed on occasion: a sunset art show on Miami Beach, a couple of church fairs and on the Hollywood boardwalk.

I worked the Oktoberfest in following years, but it was never as good as the first. I’d still love to work another Palm Beach Centennial Festival, but the next one isn’t till 2094. The last event I worked was an Irish Festival, where the weather was clear but blustery. My latest canopy broke its legs in gale force winds, but I at least managed to make enough money to cover my Guinness tab at the beer tent.

Now, I paint in my own back yard. And as my days of being a vagabond artist drift further and further into the past, they seem more and more idyllic. The hard work, long hours and Krylon vapors fade away and all that’s left are rosy memories of smiling crowds watching you turn arts and crafts into a show, watching you magically transform spray paint and posterboard into wads of unreported income, watching you create new worlds in seconds and entire solar systems in minutes, watching you become the master of countless universes.

What I really miss most about being a vagabond artist is the people I encountered, all wandering around in their own orbits. In each passing face there is a universe of mystery and wonderment, a slice of life that might just dock in your sphere for a spell and share a piece of the human experience, which is really what art is all about.


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