Patron of the Arts

Phoebe Millerwhite

We’ve been collecting art for years, my husband and I. It’s different these days though, with the political climate such as it is. Now what we bring into our home needs to be more than just pretty, it needs to mean something. Example: my newest painting, just installed in the main living room, is a splendid piece by an emerging young artist. And what do you suppose the subject is? A maid! She’s in a grey uniform and her face is obstructed so that she could be any woman.  And she’s vacuuming.  It’s inspired. The social commentary is astounding.  Sometimes I just sit and stare at it. It goes without saying that I’ve never expected Lena, our housekeeper, to wear a uniform, that would be too Upper East Side circa 1985.

I’ve always felt very close to Lena, we’ve even let her come on vacation with us once or twice over the years. I would go so far as to say she’s one of the family, practically, and I feel this new painting has brought us even closer together.

The artist capable of creating such a tour de force used to work in a warehouse, so he really understands what blue-collar employment means. Now he’s making something of himself by representing, through his art, the kind of people he used to be. It also happens to be a great investment, the prices for his work have increased exponentially in just the last couple of years. And the museum shows! Too many to count.

I don’t know if Lena has noticed the painting, although she has to clean around it so I suppose she must have. How proud she must be to work in a home where her employer would spend –well, I won’t divulge how much, but a significant amount of money, six figures, for a piece of art venerating someone just like her.

These days all my friends are buying politically and socially conscious art. Art with a message, that’s what we all feel connected to. One dear friend recently acquired a piece from Los

Angeles; a huge mural painted on the side of a liquor store. Layer upon layer of graffiti on top of this old peeling stucco.  If the owners had had their way, it would have been painted over because it was technically “vandalism.” The neighborhood didn’t appreciate it either, something to do with gang affiliations or some such. Luckily my friend saw it for what it was immediately: Art. Pure and simple. He had the whole wall removed, just sliced it right off the rest of the building like a mole and shipped it to his penthouse. It looks spectacular – the stark white walls and floor to ceiling windows contrasting with this gritty urban masterpiece. Stunning.

Speaking of recognizing art out of context, my husband brought home the most wonderful sculpture not long ago. Two worn leather shoes – they even had holes in the toes – which looked like they had been worn for years. Really authentic. The stories those shoes could tell.  He bought them off a homeless man, although the man couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) understand what gems they were. Since it was snowing my husband offered to buy him some slippers from the nearby Duane Reade, on top of the more than generous $20 he gave him for the shoes themselves. My husband is very conscientious – frostbite is no fun. The shoes look simply darling on a custom-made pedestal positioned just so in our foyer.

It may be a cliché, but life sometimes does imitate art, even becomes art. Not long after purchasing the painting of the maid, I walked into the living room and what do I see? Lena, right in front of the painting, vacuuming. Imagine! So meta. It would never even occur to me to ask her to wear anything other than her usual jeans and a t-shirt, however the idea of seeing her in a matching grey uniform going about her tasks with her immutable counterpart in the background, honestly it gives me chills. I would never ask her… well, perhaps one day, just for fun…

Phoebe Millerwhite is an artist and writer living on the outskirts of Los Angeles. She has degrees in Writing, Literature, and most usefully, Folklore. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Once upon a time Phoebe was the manager of an art gallery.