Thursday, August 9, 2012

It Only Hurts When I Smirk: The Best Student He Ever Had

This prank evolved years ago from a comic con incident in Austin, Texas, thanks to the help of pop culture huckster, Denny. I had just scored a rare Alexander Gallery art catalogue on Frank Frazetta when Denny demanded to lay his hands on it.
“I can do a perfect fake Frank Frazetta autograph. I used to practice his signature night and day when I was thirteen,” Denny boasted. “Let me do it! Watch. I need a Pilot Razor felt tip pen, though.”
“I’ve got one. Go ahead, let’s see it,” I answered, immediately putting the pricey collectible at risk.
Sure enough, Denny had indeed mastered the flourishes of the fantasy master’s ornate signature -- it was perfect.
“The title page is lacking a certain something, don’t you agree? It’s a bit ‘blah.’” I teased Denny.
With that, Denny added the uplifting inscription, “To Don – you’re a God.”
A new tradition was launched. Anytime I’d buy an autographed copy of a secondhand book, I’d add the now-obligatory “To Don -- you’re a God” inscription above each signature. At book signings, I would wheedle authors like contemporary crime writers Greg Rucka or George P. Pelecanos to add it to the title page of the new novels they were hawking. Mr. Pelecanos inscribed and signed my copy of King Suckerman without protest.
I had the goofy conceit that when I dropped dead, the sharpies who raided my bookshelves would be beside themselves with awe and greed, “Wow -- all these writers thought this fellow Don was a God. He must’ve been amazing. Let’s highlight his library with a special gold ink section in our next sale catalogue.”
My brother fell for the original fake Frazetta inscription during one of his Christmastime visits.
“Do you really know Frazetta?,” he asked in wonder.
“Oh, yeah, he’s a really wonderful guy,” I lied.
I wrote my most inspired inscription at my college professor’s retrospective show, held in 2002 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary Museum. Karl Cornfield had retired from SMU, but back in the day he was a near-messianic mentor to countless acolytes. He had the most competitive “Advanced Drawing” classes in the Southwest. Cornfield’s courses, over three decades, grew legendary, and were deemed cornerstones of the BFA and MFA art degree programs.
Countess students passed through Karl Cornfield’s rolls. Most honed their skills, thanks to his tyrannical tutelage. In 1983 Cornfield wrote the seminal drawing text, Penetrating the Palimpsest, featuring candid photos of his tyros slinging compressed charcoal in the big art studio on the third floor of the Mudge Art Building. He proclaimed their Cornfield-goodness with his effusive case studies. Having a sketch selected for Cornfield’s book was his ultimate seal of approval. The best-selling blockbuster stayed in print for at least six editions, so Cornfield’s pupils had the chance to impress their own kids.
Cornfield motivated his flock by culling the few drawings he approved of, and pinning them on “The Wall” for impromptu class-wide commentaries. A drawing had to be “quite special” in order to make it up on “The Wall.” Cornfield’s drawing sessions stretched across three hour blocks, twice a week, and the each time the class would sketch itself silly to win a bit of that Wall-love. I certainly did. After a while, certain pet students would emerge, and they’d hog up more and more wall-time, with drawing after drawing, class after class, and semester after semester. These anointed few were praised to the high heavens, while the rest of us glowered, ego-starved for even a meager dollop of recognition from the great Cornfield. These class stars would be eventually be compared to “the giants of years past,” for Cornfield’s own “SMU hall of fame.”
I took Cornfield’s classes during the mid-to-late seventies, and the big Mudge art studio would be as silent as any sacred place, with the true-believers intent in their quest for Cornfield glory. The only sounds heard were those of nail-hard conte crayons and whispy vine charcoal sticks scraping across acres of 18” x 24” newsprint sheets, accented with the staccato whumps of Magic Rub erasers.
Once, I profaned this consecrated silence. I unexpectedly broke wind, thanks to the greasy fried salmon balls soaked in tepid tartar sauce, served for lunch in the University’s “crap-eteria.” I startled even myself when I honked out a fortissimo F# on my butt trumpet. Humiliated, I followed the stinky solo with a nervous horselaugh. No one else even snickered. Those zealots just continued hammering away at their gesture drawings in devout silence, charcoal dust flying everywhere.
My classmates were hell-bent on being picked as the cream of Cornfield’s crop with a fanatical focus. In a major buzzkill, an art student caste system had sprung up with those who were “the chosen” at the top, lording it over the others. Years later, after we’d all graduated, these Cornfield-fed hierarchies of hubris remained in place at all art openings and museum shows.
Here was my chance to topple the decade-old Cornfield dynasty at Karl’s museum retrospective. I’d arrived early at Cornfield’s show and was the first to buy his exhibition catalogue. I immediately rushed it to Karl and cajoled him to sign it.
“Hey, Professor Cornfield, just inscribe it “To Don, the best student I ever had,” I requested.
Karl, who often blinked when nervous, looked shell-shocked by my request, and made like a pepper-sprayed Shih Tzu. His writing hand was cocked mid-air and cognitive dissonance rippled across his confused face. Obviously, he didn’t agree that I’d been his best student and didn’t know what to write. At last, he just scribbled his name, and handed the catalogue back to me, wordlessly. He quickly spun about-face to start a new conversation with an admiring art matron.
Fortunately, I had loaned Cornfield the very pen that he used to autograph my catalogue. I slinked off to a corner, and added the missing inscription myself, neatly placed above his signature.
Then I lurked near the entrance, biding my time for the bona fide pack leader of my days in Cornfield’s class, super-sycophant Becky-Sue Butkiss, to make the scene. Sure enough, Becky-Sue soon showed up with an art school posse. I greeted them and waved the pamphlet enticingly, “Hey, Becky-Sue, check it out. The MAC published a full-color catalogue of Karl’s career retrospective.”
She gushed, “Oooh. Let me see. Are there any pictures of us (meaning her) in Karl’s classroom?”
Becky-Sue’s enraptured expression soon changed to that of a jilted lover’s, as she found my forged inscription. You could see her dismay, “What’s this? Don – Karl Cornfield’s best student? But that was me. My drawings always made ‘The Wall,’ not his.”
That was such a kick, after the miffed Becky-Sue thrust the catalogue back at me, I couldn’t help but share the “best student” inscription with every alumnus who visited Cornfield’s retrospective. Their reactions? Pretty much identical to Becky-Sue’s.

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