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?”
“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)
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?”
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.