Purple Mask and the Stamp

Purple Mask

Many years ago, when I was at school, I really enjoyed art and poetry and literature.  Some of my teachers were quite dismissive of these subjects, since they were of no practical use; instead I was encouraged to look at topics in the field of science, or technical drawing, as a more sensible way to drive myself towards a successful career.
So I carried on studying art and physics, side-by-side, with no clear idea of where I felt my future lay. I had discovered early on that I had no talent for woodwork or metalwork. Unfortunately I was at a school in West Bromwich, where the boys would go to work at the Qualcast Foundry when they left while the girls went to Woolworth’s – that is, if they didn’t already have a young one to look after by then.

As part of my preparation for O-level Art, I had created a dramatic collage, using dozens of celebrity faces cut from the Observer Magazine, together with some illustrations of eyes, snakes, and a nest of baby rats. I thought it would make a tremendous impact on the examiners when they came to view the show, and spent hours carefully embellishing my very own Sistine Chapel.

We all dispersed; the next few weeks were a blur of revision and exams, and I decided to pop back into the Art room to pick up my portfolio.
‘Hi Miss’ I said, ‘Just thought I’d call in to say ‘bye and collect my pictures.’ She waved towards the corner of the workshop. ‘Everything’s over in that pile there.’
So, I wandered over to where thirty or forty large cardboard panels were propped up against the wall and began leafing through them in search of my masterpiece. After a few minutes I looked across the room to where the teacher was asked her if they were all in that area.

‘Oh yes’, she said smugly, ‘Every one of them is there.’

I resumed my search through the gallery, puzzled that my glorious creation didn’t appear to be among the collection. ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘I can’t find it.’

She walked over and began leafing through the pictures, finally stopping and pulling one out to show me. I stared in silent horror, as I realised that my vista of famous faces had been thickly smeared with purple and blue acrylic paint, the angry brushstrokes obscuring some of the celebrated smiles.

‘What’s going on?’ I yelled, ‘Who’s done this!’

‘I decided it wasn’t really finished, so I thought I would make it look a bit more convincing’ she said casually. I ranted and raved about how my work had been vandalised, and told her she was a terrible teacher who didn’t care about her students.

I was tormented by the idea that this travesty had been placed on display under my name, and without my knowledge. I fumed out of the building, determined never to show the faintest interest in anything vaguely artistic again in my entire life. And thus, I embarked on a career in the chemical industry, a journey which has brought me some very mixed fortunes.


The Stamp

I suppose it all started with Bette Davis.

As a bolshie teenager in the seventies, my twin obsessions were David Bowie and Salvador Dali; only several years later was I to discover just how little I knew about these two figures. My classmates were all into Blondie or XTC or The Police, but I was largely indifferent to pop music.

So when the art teacher told us that our next project was to be ‘Design a Postage Stamp’, people began eagerly suggesting footballers or guitarists, or (in one case) Patrick Steptoe. ‘I suppose you will be creating a Salvador Dali commemorative stamp, won’t you?’ was her only comment when it was my turn to speak. I said I wasn’t entirely sure, and decided to look through the pile of magazines for inspiration.
Leafing through one of the magazines I came across a review of some fashion photographer who had recently died; and to my delight, there was one of his pictures showing David Bowie, in a three-piece suit, standing barefoot on a raised gravestone. However, I realised that this image had almost no visual impact and was unlikely to survive being reduced to a one-inch square. So I turned to the next page and found a full-page black-and-white portrait of Bette Davis.

This figure intrigued me; I didn’t know much about her, but I thought it might be interesting to create a picture which would baffle the teachers (who might wonder why I had chosen this subject) and confuse my classmates (who would just say ‘Bette Davis? Who’s that, then?’)

So I started making a series of enlarged copies of this photograph in pencil and charcoal to work out where the shadows and highlights belonged; eventually I decided that one of them was suitably glamorous, and sprayed it with fixative ready to begin painting the next day.

I arrived in the workshop the next afternoon to admire my sketches; then I realised that I would still need to use the original magazine picture for guidance. So I went over to the windowsill where we kept the various glossy magazines. ‘Has anybody seen that Observer Mag that I was using yesterday?’ I asked. Nobody responded, so I checked in the waste bin – no sign of it there – and I looked on the teacher’s desk – again, no luck. And just as I was about to try the next classroom, I spotted my photograph. One of the other students had been making some kind of crowd scene, with dozens of faces and assorted pictures of wildlife or machinery all taken from magazines and stuck to a large sheet of card.
And there, looking serenely away to an unknown romantic Hollywood sunset, was Miss Davis, firmly stuck between Idi Amin and King Tutankhamen. I was furious: ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing! I was going to use that picture!’

My classmate shrugged, and said that he had just found the magazine on top of the pile so he thought I had finished with it. I was tempted to abandon my original idea and try another subject, but by then I had done so much preparatory work that it seemed a shame to waste it. So, seething with rage, I returned to my pictures and began trying different amounts of colour on them to create depth and shadows. The teacher walked past: ‘I like it’ she said, ‘are we doing an Andy Warhol?’

‘No, this is Bette Davis’ I said.

She gave me a puzzled look. ‘You do know who Andy Warhol is, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, course. He did that picture of a soup tin. And David Bowie wrote a song about him.’

‘Only you could come up with something like that’ she said; ‘I despair sometimes, really I do.’ And she went on to explain that Warhol had used a production line of assistants to create his pictures, and that he had specialised in using multiple versions of the same image – most notably Marilyn Monroe. I was sorely tempted to ask who Marilyn Monroe was, but I thought that would provoke an act of serious violence from an already annoyed Art Teacher. But she told me that it would be a good idea to submit all six pictures as a single unit work, and I felt a lot better about the loss of my original picture.
Until, that it, I overheard her saying that my idea for the picture of Bette Davis had actually been borrowed from the other student’s crowd scene picture. ‘Don’t worry’ she was saying as I came down the corridor towards the art room, ‘I’ll make sure that the examiners know that you created that picture first, and some of the others decided to copy ideas from it.’

I was unsure how to deal with this. If I complained, then the other members of staff – and the visiting examiners – would be forced to compare the two pictures; and, much as I disliked my classmate, I had to admit that his sprawling landscape of faces was a much more impressive creation than my own limited offering.

About a week before the exam show, I made my way into the art room. Several of the display pieces were lined up against the wall. My own collection of six portraits was clipped to an easel; I looked round and spotted the big picture of faces, which looked faintly different. After a few seconds, I realised that it had been set in a frame, giving it the air of an expensive gallery piece rather than a student offering.
This apparent favouritism (why had nobody else been invited to have their worked framed?) filled me with rage, and I was tempted to grab a craft-knife and slice through the grinning parade of celebrities. On the window sill – just next to the magazines – I saw two bottles of acrylic paint, and without really thinking, I grabbed them and squeezed each one in a frenzy of torment.
There was a faint ‘pop’ as the pressure released from the bottles, followed by two thick jets of blue and purple which landed on the parade of faces, obscuring the rich and famous and my own beloved Bette Davis. I dropped the bottles in the sink, and suddenly realised what a dreadful act of vandalism I had committed.
But it seemed feeble to just leave it as an unhappy accident, so I grabbed a brush and began daubing the bold colours across the collage. I quickly checked to see if there was any paint on my sleeves or shoes, and then rushed away from the room, hoping that I hadn’t been seen.

The Letter

13 Jun 197-

Dear Simon,

Thank you for inviting me to assist with the practical work assessment last week. However, you did ask for my honest opinions; it does the children no favours to tell them that they have talent when in fact that commodity is very much lacking.

There seemed to be a general lack of awareness – the students made no attempt to place their work in context. Some of the portrait work showed a degree of technical competence, but was not sufficiently engaging.

Perhaps I was too harsh in my comments about that picture – you know, the mixed-media panel with people looking out from gaps in a blue-coloured wall.  Whilst watching television the other night, I caught part of a documentary about chemical warfare. Apparently during the Vietnam conflict, the US sprayed the forests with chemicals called agent blue and agent purple. I don’t really understand the details, but these materials are thought to be responsible for some hideous birth defects among the local population.

Could this picture have been some kind of political comment? If so, we could adjust the grade up a couple of notches. I am always concerned that a promising career might have been damaged by a too-strict exam marker. But this part of the world doesn’t really need exam success, so we can’t really do that much harm, eh?

Give my love to Selina, look forward to seeing you both on the 18th.


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