By Michael Willard
Since 1975, a total of 34 Van Gogh paintings have been stolen. I’m not complaining, but why in Sam Hill hasn’t a single art thief attempted to steal at least one of my nearly 400 moth-munched canvases.
After all, they’re easy pickings. A rank amateur with a cowbell and wearing an Elvis suit could easily walk away with them while riding on a fire engine and singing at the top of his voice Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”.
I am disappointed at the lack of enterprise shown by today’s art thieves. They have neither moxie nor foresight. I guess they have a commercial sense of market place worth.
Such has rarely interested me, which might be obvious. I’m more a dreamer, a crusader, and, at times, a wanderer.
Some of my paintings are in a garage that belonged to my ex’s parents, others in the apartment of my sister-in-law, and a bunch is stacked on top of one another in a dacha situated near the sunflower swept hills of central Ukraine.
I have visited them on occasion and even managed to bring several to the U.S. my last sojourn that direction. It wasn’t easy. The customs folks mistakenly thought they might be of value, like an icon I suppose.
It has been a couple of years now since I last picked up the brush, and the memory of many of my earlier works is fading. They still, however, remind me of my novice days, painting on my live-aboard boat as planes flew over the Washington Monument in DC.
By happenstance back then, I had meandered into an exhibition of Egon Schiele’s works at the National Gallery. Before the day was out, I was on a holy mission to purchase all the trappings needed to complete a masterpiece.
My man Egon, an Austrian who sadly died at the age of 28 in the 1918 flu epidemic, was my talisman. It was a few years later I became enthralled with color and embraced Matisse and Van Gogh. Monet, in my view, was too wimpy.
The Gangplank Marina is no longer an address due to the dictates of waterfront progress. During that time, though, it was my cramped 39-foot long studio where I slapped oil on canvas. My expansive palette was the federal city in all its glory.
On weekends, I walked around D.C. with a sketchbook in hand, making crude drawings of most everything I saw, while still keeping a rather dull day job with a PR company that kept track of time to the half-hour.
My mother, who had keen eyesight, visited once and mistook a painting of an old man as that of a dog smoking a pipe. Since I wasn’t a surrealist, I knew then there was a wide gulf between mere hobbyists and artists.
There is a difference, of course, between a genuine Van Gogh and a Willard. Mine can be fenced at Joe’s Pawnshop for a buck or two while Vincent’s are hard as hell to unload because, for obviouis reasons, they are rather famous.
Hence, art thieves are often disappointed.
Serious collectors know they can’t show purloined masters in public while mine could be shown at most any flea market, though I strenuously object to them being displayed among those campy dogs playing poker on velvet blankets.
Vincent went through his whole life nary selling a painting, except in exchange for rent. The highest price for a Van Gogh was $82 million back in 1990 when that was a lot of money. Today, it’s a little more than the cost of a Senate campaign.
By way of comparison, the highest some collector felt compelled to pay for a Willard was $2,500. I also promised the gentleman I would mow his lawn and walk his dog.
I have often made the argument that collectors should support artists who are upright and gulping air. The dead artists don’t need the dough, and their places in history are secured in some museum of marble and granite.
A few years ago, after painting every weekend for 20 plus years, I walked away from the smell of linseed oil and turpentine. I moved on to writing more books and composing the lyrics and music to songs.
I initially didn’t pick up a brush until I was 49 years old. I hope one day to return to the craft, which is the nomenclature I give it. A craft is something to which you dedicate time, energy, and study. After some years, it can be called art.
In truth, I’m probably not there yet. But trying keeps the juices flowing, whether in painting, writing books and songs; or, for that matter, plucking a guitar.
If there is a moral to this story. it was discovered long ago by a lady writer who went by the name George Eliot, Her wise thought: “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.”
If I have a motto, that’s it.
(Photo: M. Willard landscape)