February 7th, 2001


opportunity lost?

For about a year and a half, in 1989 and 1990, I had a gallery in a small space on the north side of the Congress Hotel, in downtown Tucson. It was a wonderful space, with 15’ high windows facing the old train depot. I spent a lot of time painting there, and managed to break even financially, which was unusual for the fledgling and now defunct Arts District. One of the series I worked on in that space was built around geometric designs inspired by Native American textiles. The paintings were not copies of native designs, but an interpretation of them, a homage, if you will.

One day, a Native American man came into my shop. I could smell the alcohol on his breath. He had obviously just come from the bar at the other end of the hotel. I smiled and said hello. I had learned to accept all sorts of visitors in my shop, and welcomed all. After all, art is about the viewer, not the artist. He began asking me pointed questions, almost, but not quite accusing me of ripping off or defiling Native American symbolism. I patiently explained my purpose to him, and he seemed to accept it. Despite his breath, he didn’t seem drunk at all.

He came in several times over the next few days, asking me all sorts of probing questions. One that stands out in my memory was, “Would you rather be famous or rich?” I answered rich. At some point, I learned which Nation he was from, but I have since forgotten.

Around the third or fourth visit, he asked me if I would like to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony. It was a ceremony for the children of the tribe, but an honor nonetheless. I would be the “colormaster” at the ceremony. I hesitatingly agreed, but my hesitation made him turn away, saying, “never mind, you don’t want to.” I urged him to tell me more. He said it would involve drugs of some sort, although he was not specific, and he said it could be dangerous, that I might not come back, but that I would see colors I had never imagined. Now, I have done hallucinogenic drugs before, so that aspect of it was maybe less frightening to me than it might have been to some people, but his seriousness sobered my enthusiasm, even as I accepted his offer.

For the next week or so, I had numerous Native American visitors to my little shop. All of them walked around, looking at my work, rarely asking questions. One day, I arrived at the gallery, and, on the sidewalk outside, was a grasshopper unlike any I have seen, before or since. It was huge, at least three, maybe four inches long, and all the colors of the rainbow. It just sat there, outside my window, as I squatted down and examined it. I know it wasn’t my imagination because several other people saw it

Soon after, my friend, who’s name I can no longer remember, came in again and told me when and how it was going to happen. I would be picked up at the gallery, and taken up to Octoberfest on the top of Mt Lemmon. While there, I would be given something to drink. I was to drink it all at once, and follow the person who gave it to me. I would run for a long way through the woods, maybe a couple of miles, until I reached the site of the ceremony.

I should tell you at this point that he had sworn me to absolute secrecy about the ceremony from the very beginning, saying he would know if I told anyone, and that everything would be off. I was really nervous, though, so the morning of Octoberfest, as I was leaving for the gallery, I told my girlfriend what was going on, just in case.

I was not in the ceremony. I never made it to Mt. Lemmon that day. Maybe I misunderstood, and I was supposed to get there on my own, or maybe he knew I had told my girlfriend. Or maybe I just missed my ride. Around mid-morning, a Native American man came in to my gallery and asked if I knew a place where he could crash. I took him to a vacant house I knew of. It is possible that my ride came while I was gone.

I am not sure what happened, but I believe I was offered a great honor. I often wonder what I missed. Did I let them down, or was this just not meant to be? Was there a last minute change of plan that I don’t know about? Did they find someone more suited to their needs? What I do know is, that I never saw another Native American in my gallery, or at the bar in the building.