The New Studio Gallery

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
— H. Jackson Brown

Me and Chris outside our new building just after the offer was accepted.

First day inside.

Bad beginnings make for happy endings. Im pretty sure I’ve read that somewhere. If not, I’m making it my mantra. On Halloween morning 2018 my partner Chris and I started the move from Toronto to Wallaceburg. It’s about a three hour drive South West of this city I’ve lived in since I was 19. Big contrast. From a crowded metropolis of 2.7 million to a sleepy town of just over 10k. Chris is from Montreal but he’s always lived in busy urban areas from New York to Osaka. It was an adjustment for both of us. But this place. This place. We found a converted bank from the late 19th century that a family of artists had restored beautifully. The main floor was a finished gallery with commercial zoning. The top was a residential 3 bedroom loft with large windows overlooking the Sydenham River. It was so spectacular that we called the broker without even looking at the location. But then we realized it just happened to be down the street from my dad! We weren’t looking anywhere specifically. For weeks we had just been searching the net for unique properties. The fact that my family, who I happen to love so much, lived THAT close was just one more huge incentive.

A view of the work space

Makeshift work desk until the new one arrives.

Moving day morning we got up at 4:30 AM to get an early start. I had come down with a really bad cold the day before and Chris had thrown out his back so we were relieved that we had hired movers. My dearest friend Tracey came with us and arrived at the truck rental place at 7:30am before realizing they opened at 8. It was cold and raining so we walked 5 blocks to find shelter. By the time we found a coffee shop we had to start walking back. No cab or Uber would pick us up because it was such a short distance. 

We had reserved a 26 ft cube truck because there were two apartments to collect. However, it turned out that the closest one they had available that morning was in Ajax. The biggest vehicle they had available was 20 ft. We hoped it would be sufficient. After loading half of Chris’s belongings I realized we wouldn’t have enough space, so we were forced to walk six more blocks in the rain to rent an extra cargo van. Tracey was helping us that day and she dropped her phone en route so we had to retrace our steps to find it. Thankfully a nice older lady had picked it up on the sidewalk and held it for us. Then we realized the truck they gave us had an empty tank and we almost ran out of gas on the DVP.

This tile is the original flooring from around 1880.

I got this incredible setee on auction from the famous Mott estate courting suite.

My Toronto apartment was on the top floor of an old 1920’s walkup. 6 flights no elevator. I called my landlord to ask if he could prepare the front doors to stay open and he informed me that the doors had just been broken and we would have to use the side entrance. I told him that side door was much too small and he said, “Well I’m not going to break the door down for your couch, Troy.”  

We figured out a way to prop the two front doors open and the movers were fantastic. Chris stood inside the cube truck and layered everything like an Olympic Tetris champion. There was not an inch of wasted space, just a tightly braided wall of stuff.

The main safe at the back of the gallery space is so heavy it almost takes two people to open the door.

Safe guts.

Once we managed to get everything in the two trucks we thought the worst was behind us but by that time we were just hitting Toronto rush hour so we sat in traffic for almost 3 hours before actually leaving Toronto.

With Chris and I driving the cube truck and Tracey driving the cargo van, we decided to stop for something to eat in Cambridge. I locked the keys in the cube truck with my little chihuahua, Phoebe, inside. We stood for two hours in the parking lot without our jackets while it gently rained on us, waiting for a locksmith to show up. Two different truckers tried to jimmy the door open with their personal locksmith kits, but to no avail. When our official locksmith finally arrived he looked 12 years old. We stood watching him for another hour as he attempted to loop a wire around the door handle with all the precision of a baby standing for the first time. Phoebe slept comfortably swathed in a crocheted blanket on the passenger seat. The extra cargo van and the locksmith doubled our carefully planned moving day budget. 

The last hour and a half of driving we moved at 30 km/h because of a thick Halloween night fog that I’ve only seen in Vincent Price movies. It was like driving through an alien landing. I couldn’t see 10 feet in front of our tightly packed Tetris truck. 

Edison bulbs and this building are like peanut butter and chocolate.

The floor is split between both the original hardwood and tile.

I told my dad to expect us at about 4 or 5pm. We pulled into his driveway close to Midnight. Three Zombies. The next morning I woke up feeling relieved that the sun had set on such a miserable day of unfortunate events and that nothing else could go wrong. I reached over from the pullout couch to grope for my phone on the nightstand but it wasn’t there. We found it, later that morning, in the driveway, sitting in a pile of wet leaves as the unbroken stream of rain continued to fall through the second day of moving. I tried putting it in a bag of rice but my phone is a paperweight now. 

I guess my favourite part of the whole day was my shooting diarrhea that only stopped when I finally had access to my own bathroom. But enough about that. We’re here now and this building is a dream come true. The first night in the building Chris, Tracey and I got Irish drunk and they watched me go from room to room in the spirit of being overcome with gratitude and the luxury of screaming without bothering the adjacent apartments. I completely let loose in the new Troy Brooks Studio Gallery.

  • This is probably a good time to mention that this will not be a traditional gallery space open to the general public. It will be more of a place for me to work, schedule visits and sell to patrons directly, as well as having the occasional opening. If you’d like to schedule a visit please do feel free to call directly at 1-833-482-7665

ADDENDUM

In July 2017, nine months after my mom passed away, I was having lunch with some friends at Sin And Redemption, across from the AGO in Toronto. A dark haired gentleman walked over to our table and started telling me he was an intuitive and that my mother was “jumping out at him.” My mother’s death was still very fresh. I felt stuck between wanting it to be real and reminding myself that we’d just been talking about her passing at the table. I sat there quietly as he told me what she was communicating and handed me his business card. He told me to reach out for a session. I never did, but immediately paid a visit to his website. There were videos of him stopping people on the street, giving them cold readings. The rest of the day I had a knot in my stomach over the thought of a stranger seeing my grief as an opportunity. More than anything though, I wanted to believe it. But I couldn’t. Here’s what he told me, “She wants you to be very careful with your heart health. Heart disease runs in your family. In November you will get everything you ever wanted.”

This November, I moved into my dream home with a gallery attached, closer to my family with someone I love with all my heart.

The previous owners drew us a really nice chalk board welcome message.

Big hands like bull.

My dearest friend in the world. My Catfish Girl, Tracey.

No human size smile will suffice.

Drunk with power inside my brush forest.

A Requiem For My Mother

In this sleep of death what dreams may come...
— Hamlet, W.S.

"What Dreams May Come" • 24" x 20" • Oil on canvas from the news series SHINIGAMI

 In 1976 I saw The Wizard Of Oz for the first time. I was 4 years old. It came on once a year, back when there were only a few channels, and before everybody starting buying VHS machines. That movie made a huge impression on me. So much that I actually reenacted it at school during recess every day, all the way to second grade. I remember taking my huge pink and blue Easter basket for long walks through the field across the street from our house, looking for tornados. I would have settled for an alien abduction, or anything that preempted school the next day. I spent so much time in that field, skipping and singing full blast, that finally, Mr. Provost, who lived two houses over, phoned to ask my dad if “that kid with the pink basket could please stop dancing on my crops.” 

First day of school

1977 Me, Mom and my Wonder Woman doll, trying to smile with the mumps.

“In moments of deep reflection, whenever I begin to trace the fountainhead of any sense of well-being I’ve managed to assemble, I find it tethered to her, coiled up like an artery. No place like home.” 

I feel relieved that I was born before reality TV and social media grew like weeds around everyone’s ankles. It just so happened that the cheap television programming of the 1970's was old movies, which sort of set the stage for the tonal quality of all my work. I was a 10 year old classic movie buff. Watching those film noir Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck movies was something special I shared with my mother while we made art together in the afternoon. I used to collect huge books of classic hollywood stills that I was always drawing from. If a career in art hadn't worked out I think I could have been a film historian. It's a testament to my mom that in spite of all my weird eccentricities, and all the trouble I had fitting in at school I managed to somehow scramble together a decent amount of self-esteem early on. Mom focused on the special traits of her children with real conviction. Someone believing in you, and relentlessly rooting for you like that, is a much bigger deal than you ever realize at the time. 

 One day in 1976, after watching Bette Davis die into a vaseline smothered lens in Dark Victory, the reality that my mother was going to also die someday fell on top of me all at once like a windswept house. She found me crying alone in the back of the hall closet. Let’s freeze frame here because that’s a big brick wall of foreshadowing. I was hiding in the back of a dark closet, where I would occasionally sit with a shirt on my head, flipping it like long hair. In a closet. I think that pretty much sums it up.

One of my earliest oil paintings - 36" x 72" - Oil on canvas

When I informed my mother in tears that she was going to die someday she would sigh patiently and nod like she did when I ruined the punchline of every joke I ever tried to tell. She’d say, “Not for a long long time, sweetie.” Up until my 40’s I managed to be a virtual stranger to death.

 Mom was the oldest of seven sisters. No brothers. Her father had died when she was very little. She was surrounded by incredible women and a strong matriarchal mother they all adored. I love and admire all of them and I'm always moved by how they rally around each other in good times and bad. Nothing comes between them. I used to love reading about the seven sisters of the Pleiades when I was little. The oldest of the seven sisters was named Maia, meaning mother. The month of May was named after Maia, which coincidentally was when my Mom was born. Myths have always been a huge component in my work. Some of my earliest attempts at drawing were sketches of Medusa and Artemis. It just so happened that the last painting I was working on before Mom passed away had an Asian influence, so I started looking into Eastern myths surrounding death. That was when I discovered the Shinigami. It's sort of a Japanese version of the Grim Reaper. I started imagining these Anna May Wong sort of characters existing in the space between life and death. That’s exactly where my head was and I couldn’t focus on anything else. It really felt like the past couple of years has been a confrontation with death. It’s been everywhere. In the news, more so than usual it seemed, and in my own life. Before 2016 I'd been to just one funeral. This year I've been to six.

Mom and Dad, 1958.

My favourite photograph of us, 1983

 The youngest kid in a big family usually gets the unfair advantage of a more relaxed parenting style, and I definitely came down hard on the backs of my three siblings. I was a mixed salad of chronic illnesses and awkward social tendencies that sucked all the oxygen from the rest of our family, and pretty much monopolized Mom's attention. My acute asthma meant that if I coughed while you were anywhere near my crib, Mom would lash out at you like sheet lightning. This is what I've been told by my oldest sister. “We all hated you!” she likes to remind me. Fair enough. I think I probably would have hated me too. I was allergic to just about every kind of food, so feeding me was another nightmare. Then there were the variety of skin diseases. I was your basic mammoth pain in the ass. 

Of course, Mom had an early awareness of my special challenges that the other kids didn't seem to have. Like when I used to run for shelter like a wild animal whenever company came over. The sound of car wheels on the gravel driveway would send me scurrying for refuge like a mouse under a fluorescent bulb. She would find me hours after everyone had left, hiding under my bed, asleep with a fist full of cornflakes. 

"Nebula" • 12" x 16" • Oil on panel

"Shinigami" - Oil on canvas - 24" x 20"

 It was her nature to worry and I gave her a lot of material to work with. Some of my issues she could relate to, some she couldn’t. But there was always a profound empathy. When I was 8, the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet began to tear away like wet cellophane. I had to be greased up like a channel swimmer with thick buttery salve, wrapped up in a blanket and propped in front of the TV like a giant fajita. When I turned 11, a bunch of small bumps started appearing on my stomach, growing up my chest and neck. Suddenly there were about thirty or forty of them scattered across my torso. As soon as Mom noticed them she brought me to the family doctor. I can't remember what it was called, but I do remember him telling me that if those bumps had reached my head they would have choked and blinded me. Thanks Doctor Assclown! I'm officially a hypochondriac. He used a special round scalpel like a tiny ice cream scoop and dug out each bump. I'm guessing this was before cryotherapy. It was like being stabbed forty times. Mom stood beside me, cutting the circulation off from of my wrist. It’s hard to explain, but the look on her face practically willed me away from being afraid. To this day, the memory of her in that moment still affects me.

In a photobooth at the Bloor subway on one of her visits to Toronto.

My portrait of Mom

1998

 Mom was always worried that I spent too much time alone drawing. When I was much older she told me about the day she decided to drive to my school during recess to see how I was fitting in. I was in the 3rd or 4th grade and I guess she saw that I was sitting alone on the playground, off to the side, and it really bothered her. She stormed up to the reception desk and started pounding her fist on the counter, "I need someone to talk to about the fact that my son is alone out there." I'm not sure what she expected them to do about it, but she was just always in my corner, trying to make things better for me. In my head it plays like the "give my daughter the shot" scene in Terms Of Endearment. I do remember the art teacher suddenly and mysteriously asking me if I'd rather sit in her class room and draw during recess. 

 In October 2016, I got the phone call I had always dreaded. “There’s no easy way to say this,” my sister told me. I knew immediately it was either about Mom or Dad. I'd imagined this call so many times because, like most things I'm afraid of, I somehow imagine if I'm ready for something bad to happen, it won't happen. No one really close to me had ever died. I've been able to keep death in the abstract for the most part. My creative work is where I turn to where other people would religion. At the end of the day, I think the closest thing I’ve ever felt to what people think of as god has been through my mother's maternal instinct. It's an energy that was bigger than she and I. Muscular and elemental. Inexhaustible. That force ran robustly through my mother, and it left a deep, permanent fingerprint on my life. Whatever that was, it was a higher force. It gave me my footing, my foundation for everything, and I was shaken at the thought of losing my connection to it. In moments of deep reflection, whenever I begin to trace the fountainhead of any sense of well-being I’ve managed to assemble, I find it tethered to her, coiled up like an artery. No place like home. 

"Requiem" • 24" x 36" • Oil on canvas

 "Mom is sick and she's not going to get better," she said. My sister sounded hollow. Even though I clumsily groped for the right words, I found I couldn't say much. I'd suspected for years that Mom had been hiding an illness from everyone, and she was. My family lives three hours southwest of me and I immediately started planning to rent a car.

 "Which hospital is she at?" I asked, "I'm on my way right now." 

 "She's not seeing anyone," my sister said, "Stay there until I call you." 

 I had literally just wrapped up my B-girls series the day before and shipped it to Los Angeles. I had nothing to do but sit, stare at my phone and ruminate.

 "But I want to be there," I said.   

 "She doesn't want everyone descending on her at the hospital all at once," she said, "Don't worry, she's not going to die tomorrow."

"Aureola" - Oil on panel - 20" x 16

"Lightning Seed" - Oil on panel - 24" x 18"

 I spent a week in limbo, not seeing anyone. Finally I just decided to make my way to London whether she liked it or not. I didn’t know what kind of shape she would be in and my palms went clammy when I walked up to the hospital entrance. When I got to her room, she looked a little worn out but fine, and smiling. The weird thing was that I didn't ask her any questions and she didn't offer any answers. I avoided speaking about anything I thought would make her uncomfortable. My mom felt guilty about anything and everything so I was very careful with my words. I just sat with her. I showed her photos of my new B-girls paintings. She told me she was proud of me for the last time. Dad and I took her for a wheelchair ride to the cafeteria and when we came back, there was something sparkling red on her bed. It was a pair of ruby slippers. The woman in the bed next to my mother had been wearing a pair and Mom had commented how adorable they were. That woman's bed was empty now and I guess the family bought a new pair for Mom. She put them on and I took her picture. Surreal.

A week before she passed, wearing the ruby slippers someone had left on her bed.

Mom’s ruby slippers.

 It was a good thing I came when I did because in spite of being told that we had a few months left, she was conscious for only a few days after I'd arrived. She asked Dad and I to not come everyday because she couldn't rest with us there. So the next day we stayed away and that was the day the cancer reached her brain stem and she lost the ability to say words. She could still speak but the words were gibberish. Then I noticed she was putting things in her mouth and trying to eat everything. Soon after that she had to be heavily medicated. I wish I'd have come sooner but I had two precious days with her before she was no longer conscious.

"Vespertine" - Oil on panel - 11" x 14"

 I've thought a lot about what I would have said to her in that flicker of time if I'd have known that was all we would have left, but I felt inept. We made small talk. It felt like reciting my grocery list on a roller coaster ride. We were both terrified and trying to hide it. Everyone thought she'd be coming home, and there was more time. She died on the morning of November 5th, 2016.

Nimbus • 16" x 12" • Oil on canvas

"Ectophiliac" - Oil on panel - 20" x 16"

"Vanta" - pencil on paper

"Wilt" - pencil on paper

 After her passing, I spent a month living with my Dad and helping to plan Mom's Celebration Of Life, which turned out to be a lovely ceremony. At one point I looked back and saw the entire hall filled with people who had loved her.

 After the ceremony I flew out to LA for my B-Girls opening, and then came back to be with my family for Christmas. It was two months before I finally returned home to Toronto. I didn't quite know what to do with myself. Part of me was desperate to get back to painting but my girls just stopped showing up. For some reason I'm not totally clear about, the only thing I felt like painting were fish bleeding underwater. 

The last girl I was working on before getting that call from my sister was an asian woman. During a late night net surf, I came across the myth of the Shinigami. A Japanese version of the Grim Reaper. After reading about them the work started flowing and the girls came back with a vengeance. To be honest, I really haven't dealt with my mom's death at all, but I couldn't help but paint where I found myself. This process of articulating a knot in my stomach with creative work is a ride I've taken many times and, in writing this, I can't help but think of all those trips I took with my Easter basket in the field across the street from our house, searching for OZ. With age, the hunt just naturally turns inward. Everything I've experienced and everyone who's ever made an impression becomes immediately available to me when I create a series. This one was like escaping the realities of death by seeing a movie about death. I wanted so much for it to be right, probably because it had connective tissue to my mother.  

As I sat silent with her, I felt death in the corners of the hospital room. That thing I have always been so mortally afraid of was slowly coiling around Mom like a mystical serpent. That was how it felt to me and, finally, that's how it came through in the paintings. I don't know if this series was therapeutic but it was definitely a way to keep moving forward. 

Grand Illusion • 24" x 20" • Oil on canvas

The look of the Shinigami girls was inspired by Anna May Wong.

Serpentine • 14" x 11" • Oil on canvas (in progress)

Last Friday I saw the Wizard Of Oz again for the first time in many years. It occurred to me that the whole thing is basically about being homesick. It was always this comforting thing to me, now it's hard to look at. Things are different. Home has shifted permanently. I know how fortunate I am to be happy and healthy, to be living out my dreams, to have fantastic people around me that I care about and my father is still with me. But there's this thing here now to contend with. A new blank spot with it's own gravity. She was always the first person I called with good news. And in the bleakest times, her voice was like a tuning signal, sending out reassurance from anywhere in the world. Now it's a radio station that just plays itself softly in the background. I'm sure it will play me out. If there was a ever a person in my life that felt like home it was her. No place like home. No. Place.

The Shinigami reception will be Saturday August 12th, 12-4pm.  The show will run from August 8th to 19th. 

The Red Head Gallery 

401 Richmond St. West Toronto • (416)-504-5654

 

ANATOMY OF A PAINTING

All painting is an accident, but it’s also not an accident, because one must select what part of the accident one chooses to preserve.
— Francis Bacon

"Persona" Work in progress shot

Source Material for "Persona" (film still from "Double Indemnity" 1944)

Source material for "Persona"

Source Material for "Persona"

Source Material for "Persona" (Jean Harlow)

Source Material for "Persona"

Source Material for "Persona"

"Persona" (early version and revised) 22" x 28" Oil on canvas - This painting started in 2011 (Left) but was wrapped up and put in the closet for 4 years until I found and finished her for my Veiled Hearts series in 2016.

I started work on "Persona" in 2011, but she just felt unfinished and was never shown publicly. Instead, she was wrapped up and put in a closet for 5 years. When I found her again in early 2016 she was ready for a new pair of shoes. There was a lot of source material that went into this painting. Often times I'll use an old film still as a starting point. That photo will be the general scaffolding of a piece and then I start to gather specific source material for the different visual elements I want to add. One of the biggest challenges is to try an blend all the elements into one integrated scene. This painting ended up being one of my favourites from the Veiled Hearts series. I think what made it special for me was how the veils made these two women look like giant chess figures.

In the first version, the city lights in the background window were brighter, more stylized and out of focus. I decided to paint over it with an elaborate city skyline, (see detail below). I think I went through an entire 14 hour audiobook just painting the city lights in all those buildings. 

"Persona" -detail

Kelly Grace posing for me at her studio.

Slow Burn, 24" x 30" (final)

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"Resurrection" (first version)

 "Resurrection" (Final)

"Resurrection" (Final)

The painting "Resurrection" (above) started out with a photograph of a solitary figure in a field. I wanted a moody sky but it ended up looking like a greeting card. As I was painting it I couldn’t decide whether it was good or horrible. Usually not a good sign. Sometimes after logging in a lot of hours on a painting that isn't working, it gets hard to be objective because you don’t want all those hours spent trying to make it work be in vain. When I feel this happening, I have to just stop and put it away. Sometimes for a few months or even years. Otherwise, as in the case of the tacky sunset above, the whole thing turns into a demented Bob Ross moment. Finally, in total frustration, I showed it to a friend and she said, "That sky is way too fucking happy." Yup. I had no choice but to go back and rein in that crazy colour palette. After realizing that it should be a night scene, I had to set about putting a dark wash over all that finished grass, I decided to have her hands morph into foliage, growing inside the car and twisting around the handle. That, for me, made the image start to come alive. My friend Chris does CGI in films and he suggested I bring out the headlights of the car and that gave the piece exactly the kind of tension that I'd wanted in the first place. Sometimes it takes a village. Actually, I don't usually show my unfinished work unless I'm totally lost. 

SCENT OF THE MUSES

Throughout history artists know that they must incorporate a female principal into themselves to really see the universe as it is. The truly visionary perspective on the universe comes from a male incorporating the female perspective into himself.
— Camille Paglia

Sunburst And Delirium • 18" x 24" • Oil on canvas

Still Life - 2015 - 20" x 24"

Amy posing in my studio

To Quote The Killing Moon - 2013 - 16" x 20"

For "Maybe I'm The Afterglow" (below) I wanted a certain sort of child-like glow that I had a hard time coming up with, so I ending up using an actual child's face. 

Maybe I'm The Afterglow - 16" x 20"

Guinevere Van Seenus

Lauren Bacall

Lady Lazarus - 2011 - 22" x 28"

EXODUS was a piece that came out of an improvisational photoshoot with my friend, artist Kelly Grace, at her studio in April 2014. I rented as many vintage dresses as we could carry. It was one of those paintings that should have taken me about three weeks, but instead it took three months because I started to paint shadows behind each butterfly. It made sense visually at the time, but half-way through painting all those butterfly shadows, I realized it made the image much too busy. The whole thing ruined the soft glow of the spotlight on the wall behind her. I had already painted a fair number of butterfly shadows, so I had no choice but to repaint the wall behind her. I almost gave up on this painting. Blending a perfectly round soft hazy spotlight is challenging enough, but painting it AROUND a gazillion red butterflies was a nightmare. Cadmium red has a way of eventually bleeding through anything that gets painted over it, so I had no choice but to paint around the butterflies, unless I wanted to start over. This girl came so close to rolling over onto the graveyard pile, but she stuck it out. 

Kelly Grace

Exodus (detail)

Kelly Grace

Exodus (detail)

Kelly Grace

Exodus - 2014 - 24" x 30"

MIRROR (below) was from my 2011 series, Colossus. These paintings were based on the poetry of Sylvia Plath. She told stories about the hurricanes her family experienced when she lived with her grandmother on the coast of Maine. She had memories of waking up to find sharks washed up in the garden. 

Grace Kelly

MIRROR - 2011 - 18" x 24"

Here's another piece from my shoot with Kelly Grace. It was a simple concept with all the detail of the image going into the lace stitching of the vintage dress we’d rented that day. 

Kelly in one of the vintage dresses I rented for the shoot.

"Certain Sacrifice" - 2014 - 16" x 20"

FOR YOU, TO JUSTIFY MY LOVE

Many times I have been a victim of my own optimism.
— Elizabeth Gilbert

In December 2013 I received a Facebook message from a friend with a position at Hard Candy Fitness here in Toronto, a global luxury fitness brand in partnership with Madonna and New Evolution Ventures, asking if I would be interested in hanging my work at "Madonna’s gym." They'd recently opened clubs in Rome, Sydney, Mexico, Russia and Berlin, and this was their first, and only, North American location. 

I replied to my friend that I was completely tapped out of available work at the moment. Also, my gallery contract wouldn't allow me to show at a gym, so I had to pass. But before thanking him and signing off, I joked, "feel free to pass on my website to Miss Madonna."

He replied, “Who do you think chose your work?” 

"Um... What?" 

“Why do you think I’m reaching out to you?” he replied. Just like that. Like I was supposed to know he and Madonna were looking for artists online together. 

“She wanted to show some art work in the green room of the gym," he continued, "So I presented her with 10 of my favourite Toronto artists and she chose your work.” 

The truly weird thing is, I don't think he would even have mentioned Madonna if I didn't make that lame joke about passing my website on to her. Talk about burying the lead.

I shamelessly plied him for her exact words and I won't be so lame to repeat them here, but let me assure you, it was enough to make me call my mother. 

He asked me to come to his office so we could talk about it. He told me that I was going to have to sign a non-disclosure agreement before we went any further. 

I was a little confused. What could she possibly have in mind that would necessitate a non-disclosure agreement? “Her people will draw up a press release,” he told me. A press release? This is when I started hearing the voice of Ricardo Montalban welcoming me to Fantasy Island and that Hawaiian music playing on a constant loop. Would I somehow be involved in the visual concept of her next video? Is Jean Paul waiting to hear from me? Listen, I know that sounds ridiculous, but cut me some slack. At this point my heart had shrivelled up into a little gay raison. I hadn’t quite gotten used to the fact that Madonna had actually paid a visit to my website. 

I was your typical garden variety 80's gay kid who loved Madonna, so being objective in this situation was out of my grasp.

He asked how much my paintings sold for. I told him honestly, without any upgrading. Then he said that she wanted me to do two new paintings for her ART FOR FREEDOM campaign. "It's an initiative for visual artists to submit work that expresses what freedom means to them." Well... that was a bit of a buzz kill because for my work to be any good it has to happen on it's own. Interpreting someone else's social cause is not exactly my forte, but he told me to just go to the Art For Fredom website and try to let it inspire some new work. So I did.

For the next two months I worked long, intense marathon sessions. I slaved some seriously long hours, 6 or 7 days a week on the first of two new paintings with the incentive that it would be judged by the object of my teenage worship. But you know, no pressure or anything. 

Yes, I visited the Art For Freedom website. Yes, I tried my best to let it inspire me. But what ended up happening was that I launched into one of the most ridiculously ambitious paintings I'd ever attempted. It was just too complicated and not from my gut. There was a baby wrapped in a black veil, held by a woman in a Martha Graham pose, standing in a dark cornfield with a human head growing out of the dirt. It was fucking crazy, even for me. I had to stop. I started another new and completely unrelated painting to clear my palette and untie the giant knot in my head. This painting became "The Wallflower Opus." Nothing to do with Madonna or Art For Freedom. Just one of my girls. But I think she accurately expresses my frame of mind at the time. (Below)

"THE WALLFLOWER OPUS" - 18" x 24" - oil on canvas 

Come February, I received an RSVP invitation to the big Hard Candy launch party where Madonna was scheduled to make an appearance and take part in an exercise class. I don't really enjoy crowds and this event sounded like it was going to be a zoo. Unfortunately, due to all the time my insane Martha Graham painting ate up, I didn't have any finished Art For Freedom inspired pieces to show her yet, so I didn’t RSVP. 

The day of the event, I got a message from my friend. 

“You’re coming tonight, right?” 

“No,” I replied, “It sounds like it's gong to be really crowded and I have nothing completed.”

“What?” He shouted, “Dude, her assistant just called me to confirm that her paintings will be there!”

“It hasn't been long enough!” I said, “I only have a bunch of works-in-progress. These are oil paintings remember, not sketches!”

“Well…” he replied, “She’s expecting to see something. You don’t have anything new?” 

I had nothing except the Wallflower Opus painting. It wasn't finished, and it was wet. I fumbled around in a panic. “I guess I have one," I said, squinting at the wet painting leaning against the wall, "but it’s not finished, and it’s still wet!”

“Bring it!” he said, “If she likes it she’s going to take it with her.”

It was 11 AM. He wanted the painting there by 5 PM because she would be coming at around 7. After I hung up the phone I ran around my apartment in a panic. I grabbed the wet painting and sat it in front of a portable heater. Then I ran downstairs to the teeny tiny parking lot behind my building to set up a small folding table. I had to spray paint the frame black to match the painting. It was sort of snowing, but whatever. Luckily, I had recently found a beautiful antique frame with just the right dimensions. It needed a little refurbishing, but no time for that now! I ended up spray-painting that frame black lacquer in a gentle snow fall. Then, trying to balance it by the wire on the back, so as not to get any paint on me or the stairwell, I slowly carried the wet frame up 4 flights (I live in a walk up) and set the whole mess in front of a heater, hoping it would at least dry to the touch by 4 pm. It did, kind of. I bubble wrapped it gingerly and cabbed it over to Hard Candy.

I walked through a gathering of fans and press waiting in the lobby. Once I was finally inside the empty gym, I carefully handed the painting to my friend who led me over to the area where she would be making her entrance. There's something strange about a red carpet and velvet rope through the middle of a workout facility. He disappeared with the painting and then came back with a few drink tickets.

“So I’ll be meeting her, right?” I asked.

“No, she’s not meeting anyone, not even me," he replied. "She’s just coming, doing press, joining the class, and going.” 

“What?" I said, "But I was summoned like a towel boy. She’s not even going to say hello to me?” 

“Sorry." 

Well that sucked out loud! “Someone should tell her to be careful with it,” I muttered, deflated, “it’s still wet.”

After all my talk about not wanting to be an old groupie, I ended up waiting there for 5 hours. I'd found some friends that happened to be there and I figured since I made it this far I should probably stick it out. I had to admit I was excited to see her close up. When she finally appeared, instead of walking the red carpet, she decided to trot like Rocky Balboa, with her entire head and body buried in a fur-lined parka. I saw a split second of the tip of her nose flash past me and run into the aerobics room. That’s it, I thought. I'm out of here. What a letdown. I got my coat and stepped out into the frosty night air, feeling uneasy.

Late that night I got a text from my friend. “Madonna flipped out over the painting. She loved it! She even carried it out of the building herself, and It’s going in her NY apartment.” 

My heart started pounding. Then 10 minutes went by and I realized he was finished messaging me. After the excitement of hearing that Madonna loved the painting, I started to think about what came next. We'd talked about how much my painting was worth way before I went to work. I waited for him to message me to come pick up a cheque. Radio silence.   

Finally I texted him, “This might sound like a dumb question, but is someone going to pay for it?” 

A lot of time went by before he answered. Finally he texted, “I made it clear that it was a gift.” 

My stomach did a full back dive into my groin. No press release. No nondisclosure agreement. No payment. So that was it. All done. I spent two months working day and night for what I thought would be some sort of once in a lifetime opportunity, only to get a glimpse of the tip of Madonna's nose.  Forget that this is my only income. Forget that two months of my life was just handed out as a parting-gift to a Forbes cover girl, and forget about the press release. The truth is, I would have been thrilled just to meet her and hear her say that she liked my work.  

It took me a few days to come out of the funk I was in. Once I did, I had no choice but to chalk this up to a learning experience. To this guy, saying “If she likes it she’ll take it with her,” was the same as saying, “Whatever you paint for her I will present as a gift.” But I didn't ask anyone to show my work to Madonna, or request that someone please leave one of my paintings somewhere she could see it. Sure, I got swept up in the excitement of the whole thing, and in the back of my head, maybe I thought if I asked the wrong pushy question it would all just go away. I texted him back, “This was definitely a miscommunication. I didn’t think I was working on a gift. But regardless, I appreciate you introducing Madonna to my work.” 

A few weeks later I posted a pic of the painting on Facebook with the caption, "This is the painting Madonna took home with her." That was my only recompense for the work.

The next day, the owner of the gym I go to, whom I've never met and have no connection to whatsoever, pulled me aside and asked if I'd met Madonna. Wow. That didn't take long to make the rounds. 

I actually have no way of knowing if Madonna even received my painting. If all this is true, did anyone tell her it was still wet? It may have gotten smeared or damaged in transit. I never did get a chance to varnish it. That painting probably has a very uneven finish. The antique frame was a little crooked, but hey, I had to be resourceful in a limited amount of time.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thrilled that she responded to my work and that she may have it hanging somewhere. The truth is I don't know exactly what happened to that painting. And if I'd known all that work was going to result in absolutely no compensation at all, I probably would have respectfully declined.

So, now when anyone asks me if Madonna bought one of my paintings, I just say, "As far as I know, it's in her NY apartment," and leave it at that.  

My wet painting sitting in Madonna's dressing room, an hour before her arrival.