Pushing paint in Highland Park5/1/2013
“Pushing paint” doesn’t much sound like how a masterpiece is created. You push the grocery cart at Hy-Vee. Or you push your bike up the hill. Or you push your stalled car. When you push something, there is a grunting sound you make, like when you are moving around heavy crates in a warehouse. It’s what you do to get through the unruly crowd — you push.
Artists are the opposite of pushing. They exist in a world of delicate flowers, soft sensibilities, pastel vases and easily bruised fruits. Artists are the beautiful goldfinches of the Iowa countryside. They sip a little absinthe, they wear funny hats and they are languorous in their desires. Sure, periodically they cut off an ear, but no one would think they push anything.
Or, do they ever stop pushing?
Jim Calhoun is a big man. He out-greets the best with his large, open smile and extended hand reaching out from across the room. And as he gets closer, you suddenly realize this greeting might turn into a bear hug that will involve throwing you into the air and twirling you around while you squeal. You need a father figure? You might consider his application first.
A house painter by trade, Calhoun will paint your house indoors and out. Having done it for nearly 40 years, he knows what he’s doing. And he looks every bit the part. White painter pants speckled with various colored paints. Old sweatshirt thrown over a stretched polo shirt. Eyes creased with laugh lines and slightly squinting from too much sun. And a bald top with shaved sides and a tightly trimmed goatee. A typical house painter.
Calhoun’s life is settled at age 59. He lives in a comfortable home in Highland Park. He has a wife who still loves him and two successfully grown kids. He has given long stints of his life to his church. He is a good man by any measure. But, in 1993, Calhoun had an epiphany that didn’t involve wife, kids, painting houses or the church. He was visiting an artist’s studio, and he decided he wanted to paint.
“When I saw the studio… all the latent things in me to be an artist started bubbling,” he said.
No training in art. No courses at DMACC or at the Art Center. But, what the heck, it’s Iowa, and he wanted to be an artist. And as we all do when we are going to take that path less travelled in our life, we buy the gear. We purchase a new outfit for the yet-to-be-prepared big presentation, or new running shoes for the fitness program we’re going to start once Dahl’s stops making creme-filled pastries or a pedicure before the job interview to drive a big rig.
Calhoun was no different. He went to an art store. Unfortunately, this was not a world he was used to frequenting.
“I buy paint in five-gallon buckets,” Calhoun said shaking his head. “This was crazy to pay this much for a little tube of paint.”
But being resourceful, he saw a box of damaged paint tubes in the corner.
“The owner sold me the whole box for 20 bucks,” he said with a laugh. And so he began.
“I would paint down in the basement. I’d sit on a five-gallon bucket and do the painting,” he said.
Every night, he’d set it all up. And every night, he’d put it all away. He painted 30 paintings over the next seven years from his five-gallon bucket.
Kids grew up, left home, and an abandoned bedroom became his studio. Calhoun needed a little elbow room, it seems. Thirty-five paintings that year. He was off and running.
Now he sits with 350 or so paintings from ballerinas to fishermen to golfers to portrait after portrait. And what does he do with them? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!
“I would sell them if anyone had an interest. I’ve never been invited to a show. I don’t have connections. I sometimes give these away. The paintings find a home over time,” Calhoun said with a smile, a little embarrassed.
And what about all these portraits of folks? Don’t they pay a commission?
“All these portraits are about my relationships with these people,” he said. “When I paint them, I think of the pleasure of that relationship.”
In other words, Jim Calhoun doesn’t make a nickel.
If no one is buying these, and he has no art shows, why’s he doing this?
“Listen, my enjoyment of art is simple,” he said. “I love the actual pushing of the paint.”
So, there you have it. A portrait of the artist. In a garret in Highland Park. On the left bank of the Des Moines River. Pushing paint. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.