How to listen to what a fish is trying to tell you

Last Friday, at approximately 4:27 am, my water heater decided to commit suicide. As luck would have it, I suffer from occasional insomnia and I happened to be wide awake at my desk which is next to the water heater in my loft. So I heard the telltale dripping and investigated before the deluge got to biblical proportions.

Zoe Strauss: 10 Years So, instead of spending a relaxing day immersed in artwork and a visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum to see the new Zoe Strauss exhibit, I toiled away at plumbing. This of course is much harder than it sounds… I had to make room to do the work by removing a huge metal legal-size filing cabinet that weighs about the same as a small Volkswagen even when it is emptied of all the files and drawers. Of course, I had help too. I hired some friends of a neighbor to make the connections, but I had to go and buy the replacement water heater, and somehow get it up to my loft by myself. You should’ve seen me trying to wrestle a 40-gallon water heater up the spiral stairs to my loft.  But I did it. Never underestimate the will of a poor artist who really likes a long soak in a hot tub.

And now, the weekend is over and I can finally take a hot shower again. I still have to dispose of the body, by which I mean the now superfluous old water heater tank. Which again, is much easier said than done. First, there’s the task of lowering the hulking beast to the ground level. The old one is much too big to go down the spiral stairs. I’ve bought some rope and pulleys and I’m going to construct some sort of rudimentary dumb-waiter for the task. But for now, the carcass is sitting between my desk and the new water heater, in place of my filing cabinet. Like a warning to the new recruit: the proverbial head on a spike. Or like the carcass of a giant dead whale…

But that’s not what this post is about…

This post is about the drawing I found wedged in the back of the aforementioned filing cabinet. I had forgotten all about this drawing I made sometime around 1988-1990. I made it for no other reason than because I wanted to, and I like fish. Although the construction paper is beginning to yellow, it survived the decades pretty well tucked away in a forgotten folder at the back that filing cabinet.


Seeing this drawing again made me happy, because it reminds me of a time when I could spend an hour or two doodling away at my desk on something for no other reason than it made me satisfied to do so. This was a time before I had a computer at home; although I was using one at work and learning how to do “desktop publishing” (as we called it then) using programs with funny names that always had two words smushed together like Aldus PageMaker and WordPerfect. The hand-lettered word in the background is evidence of my blossoming interest in graphic design, and now I’m fascinated at how much the hand-drawn letters look like one of my favorite fonts: Impact, although I’m sure this was done years before I’d ever used Impact.

He’s not a real fish, either. It’s a fanciful one… sleek and fast, he reminds me of an ocean-going sailfish or salmon. He’s awfully colorful, and maybe a little sad… kinda like me. (Naturally, I am a Pisces.)
Poster: The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife I’m also reminded that around the time of this drawing, I made a giant fish for a theatre production I was involved in. (The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife, words and music by Sam Shepard and Catherine Stone.) That show was a surreal musical tale of Pecos Bill and his wife, Sluefoot Sue, who rode the waves of the mighty Rio Grande River on the back of a giant catfish. The fish was made of canvas, stuffed with packing peanuts which gave him a rather lumpy skin. But I painted him with a fantastic array of metallic and iridescent pigments. I loved the music of the show, but our production of it was perhaps a little too low-budget. Instead of an orchestra or even just a guitar, we had an electric piano. There was no set. Our Pecos Bill was the late Tom Reaves, who was wonderful and beautiful and macho, but as queer as a three-dollar bill. Our Sluefoot Sue was Audra Hans, who was beautiful and had an amazing voice. I sometimes still find the melodies haunting me. (I couldn’t find any videos online to link to, but here’s one of the songs from an Australian production of the show.)

Here’s the poster of the show that I designed. It’s too small to see in the picture, but the poster was studded with sequins and glitter, because you know, it just wasn’t gay enough already. We paired the show with another one called Savage/Love that was really just a string of monologues. I have no idea why we put these two shows together.

A few years later, I had decided to leave my career in theatre (at 24, I’d already been doing semi-professional theatre for 10 years and it had yet to pay off) and go into art school. One of my first drawing class assignments was to create a 3-D drawing using any media and any subject. Since I loved that show and never was really satisfied with the poster I designed for it, I decided to tackle it again for this assignment. I illustrated it in pencil and oil pastels, and mounted the pieces on foam-core to create the dimension. I really wanted to keep it flat like a drawing, but make it pop-up like a theatre set. (I remember my classmates and instructor being wowed by it; while I was disappointed that the rest of the class seemed to misunderstand the assignment… most of them painted a shoebox and glued crap to the inside of it.) It was bigger than it looks here… about four feet wide and three feet tall. That’s Sluefoot Sue herself, just before Pecos Bill shoots her to save her from an eternity of being bucked as high as the moon by her horse.

The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill

I guess the moral of this story is that you never know when some fish is gonna show up and take you for a ride, but you should hang on tightly because he’s mighty slippery and it’s gonna be a fun ride!

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