It was sitting atop a ledge outside a blue house: a brightly hued, well-executed, somewhat surrealistic painting of a wolf's face. It grabbed his eye -- how could it not? Between the striking image and just the sheer oddity of finding a fully completed canvas left above a water meter on the side of a house, it was eventful. There was a note attached: "For you, if you want it. Love, Allison."
The flip side of the canvas held more information:
Allison Reed, Night Spirit, November 2012, Arcata, CA
The last name was a bit scribbled so it wasn't clear if it was actually "Reed," but, either way, he knew no artists named "Allison"... or just who the "you" was.
The "he" in this story is my son, Dillon Wilke: a senior at Humboldt State University who lives in a quaint home close enough to campus to allow easy walking to and from. Given the repetitive nature of this daily activity with its typical dearth of any such similar discoveries, this one was notable. As an artist in his own right, Dillon had an immediate appreciation for the creativity of the piece and decided to bring it home to do some detective work.
None of the "Allison Reeds" on Facebook included the description of "painter" or offered enough information for a message, so Dillon posted the image on his own page, explaining the situation and asking for feedback, not completely comfortable assuming there wasn't a more specific "you" for whom the piece was intended.
Quite a few people weighed in, most remarking on the beauty of the painting and his luck in finding it. I suggested he tack up a note with his contact email in the location where it was found, but added:
"Maybe she meant it for the 'you' who found it, the universal 'you' who karmically stumbled upon it."
Not long after I left that note, a mutual Facebook friend, poet and art collector Steve Brackenbury, informed Dillon he not only knew the artist (she goes by the name Allison Curtis), he actually owns one of her paintings.
Steve shared Dillon's post with Allison, Dillon followed up with a note, and she quickly, and very sweetly, replied:
"Sometimes I leave little paintings around town for people to find because I think it's an interesting idea. I paint a lot so there are always paintings I have trouble finding homes for - so when they pile up, I hide them and let life take its course. The one I left is from a little series of animal spirits I made a while back. Last night I went to the pho spot across the street for dinner and I left it where you found it. Thanks for the note - it's fun to hear a tale of what happened to one of them!
Dillon felt as if he'd received an early Christmas present and I was touched, not only by Ms. Curtis's warm response to my son, but by her overall generosity of spirit in sharing her art. At a cultural time when the evolving world of technology - with its ease of online exchange and, too often, rampant piracy - has made the topic of how we both protect and promote our art a confounding one, there was something beautifully free and giving about leaving pieces to be serendipitously found. I was impressed.
I got in touch to let her know I was writing this story and asked if she'd share some thoughts about her work and philosophy. She did:
"I like creating little bits of magic that flow into people's lives - surprises in unexpected places. I also like to cause people to question what they find - is it ok to take? should they leave it for someone else? was it lost or stolen? why's it there? I always attach a note to the back saying if they like it, they can take it and enjoy it. Walking away from a painting after I have left it somewhere is always this freeing feeling. I have no idea what will happen to it, but I know it has the chance to make someone's day, and that makes it worth it, especially when the alternative is it sitting on a shelf in my studio."
As she continued, she spoke of the impact of art on her own life and how, particularly considering the diminished importance of arts education in too many schools, she hopes to make a personal contribution to the cause:
"I find the process of painting deeply meditative and I love the rush I get after painting something I didn't know I was capable of. I think art and making stuff is such an important part of the human experience, and it's sad to me that so few people really get into it. I feel that by abandoning teaching the arts to younger generations, our culture has created a situation where art is rare so it's always expected to cost a lot. That's why I like to give them away and leave them around town for people to find - for me it's just a little piece of wood with some paint and time spent on it, so that is easy for me to share with you.
"I have always enjoyed the street-art and graffiti idea of putting art in public for free, so I guess this is my way of doing something similar. It's also fun for me to think about what kind of story that painting might take on - where will it end up? I never know what will happen."
But this time she did! I asked if she'd ever heard back from anyone else who'd come upon one of her paintings:
"This is the first time I have ever heard from someone who has found one. I've hidden about ten of them around Arcata over the last year and have a box of them I am currently finding places for around town when I run errands or take my dogs on walks. Sometimes I leave them in the open, and sometimes hidden in bushes and places where you really have to be in tune with your environment to notice it. I like going back to see what happened to them, and I get a giddy kick out of it when they're gone."
I can only imagine the "giddy kick" the discoverers themselves have experienced... like finding the golden egg in an Easter egg hunt they didn't even know they were on!
As we wrapped up the conversation, I found it was Allison's summary on the topic of art that was most inspiring:
"A big part of it is just letting go of something you created and loved, letting life take its course, and knowing it will most likely end up somewhere good, and that it will connect with someone, somewhere, someday. That's the magic part."
Beautifully put. I can't help but smile thinking of the next beneficiaries of the very particular "magic" of Allison Curtis's random acts of artfulness.
[For more information and see Allison's work, go to www.allison-curtis.com]