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Don’t Bleed on the Artwork: Notes from the Afterlife

Issue 124, Spring 2024

1800s Empire, 2014, gold leaf, wood, paint, and composite, by Taylor Holland. Courtesy the artist and Galila Barzilaï-Hollander, Belgium

I’ve been dreaming, I’ve been paying dues
I’m not one for the glory
And I’ve been falling, won’t be landing soon
It’s not the end of the story

–The Revivalists, “Good Old Days”

I don’t want to hold back
I don’t want to slip down
I don’t want to think back to the one
thing that I know I should have done

–Cake, “Love You Madly”

Months into my new art-framing job, the stacks awaiting me on the worktable each day still feel like a miracle, a surprise party just for me. The art is piled neatly between empty frames, matboards, sheets of glass, foamboard, giant vinyl portfolios. I turn the pieces over one by one, each a puzzle. Glass, paint, wood, canvas, paper, ink, cardboard, silk, wire, tape, staples. Dog hair. Legos. A golf ball. A recently filed legal brief—just a little stapled booklet—for a federal case about protecting immigrants’ rights. (The young attorney who brought it in explained when I asked, his face full of pride.) A century-old studio portrait of a small boy in a sailor suit, smiling out from under his bangs, taken the year before he died, a faded note handwritten on the back: The brother I never knew. I use my phone to take a snapshot of these words. Later on my computer I’ll enhance it, print it out, then slide it into an acid-free sleeve to be taped onto the finished piece’s back, as the customer requested. The original note will remain, too—sealed safely and invisibly inside the frame. Maybe for another hundred years.

We are not a museum, just a tiny, scruffy, neighborhood frame shop in Evanston, Illinois, a Chicago suburb known for Northwestern University and the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, for its commitment to social justice and the arts. As in most places, that commitment often fails when it meets reality, but still, Evanston is fierce and beautiful where you least expect it.

At my job, for instance. The art is unrelenting.

Landscapes and dreamscapes, towers, harbors, mountains, forests, icebergs, beloved anonymous houses, beloved anonymous pets, psychedelic visions and graffiti, diplomas, hockey jerseys, vintage bicycle parts, photographs of every possible object or being, doing every possible activity. A little pencil line drawing of Warhol’s famous Absolut vodka bottle, his signature scrawled at the bottom. A dentist’s certificate of appreciation for his work caring for “the oral health of Holocaust survivors.” An orange cartoon brontosaurus riding a tiny scooter through downtown Chicago. A pack of fierce-faced bicyclists racing along a cliff, in an advertisement for the 1953 Tour de France. Director John Waters grinning in his favorite pink Comme des Garçons jacket (“that looks like your aunt’s bedspread with the little balls on it,” he told GQ). A tasseled table-runner from Turkey, a Dave Chappelle poster, a disintegrating page from a 1904 Chicago newspaper found under someone’s bathroom floor during a renovation. Lots of Phish posters. An anonymous, headless female nude painted all in rich, egg-yolk yellow. An 1871 textbook illustration of a uterus embellished with flowers. A Japanese golfer painted in broad calligraphic black brushstrokes. A cowboy in full dress, rodeo number pinned to his back, standing on a diving board over a swimming pool. A child’s felt-scrap collage. Autographed photos of Billie Jean King, James Brown. An Alaskan indigenous formline hummingbird, a Hebrew mandala, a Frank Lloyd Wright window. An aerial view of Machu Picchu, glowing gold and black against a bright orange sky, as if the whole world is on fire.

When I get home at night, I collapse in a chair, mute and unable to move. The art feels like a tornado whooshing through me. I feel euphoric and empty, cleaned out. Words and thoughts blasted away. My eyes scoured clean.

I love the art so much I sometimes weep. I try not to let anyone see. My boss works in the basement building frames, and the only other employee works mostly on days I don’t. When customers come in, I can’t look up at them right away anyhow because I’m handling glass or razor blades or using some sharp tool I never knew the name of until now. (For the first time in my life, I own an awl, a sleek little wooden-handled model sheathed in clear vinyl. My boss gave it to me, said to keep it secret, write my name on it. This felt ceremonious, initiatory, though I think he just wants all our awls to quit disappearing.)

I have no training for this work. I got the job by bringing in my posters to be framed, things I bought in the 1980s at Chicago’s famous Wax Trax record store, now closed: David Bowie’s Lodger album cover art; a Roxy Music concert poster from the band’s 1973 German tour; Tom Tom Club’s Tina Weymouth standing naked in a swamp, strategically smeared with mud, electric guitar strapped across her chest.

I got the job by asking the frame shop guy—my boss—if he needed an assistant.

My life has gone off the map, it seems. Possibly also off the rails.

In 1989, in my early twenties, I fled Chicago and moved to the American South, where I hoped to spend my entire adult life, writing and teaching and teaching writing. I planned never to return. Chicago was cold. My parents were difficult and made mistakes. In North Carolina, I lived at the actual beach. I won awards, I published books, I got tenure—I showed everybody, didn’t I? I got cancer; I recovered, surrounded by friends. I survived hurricanes.

Back home in Chicago, my parents grew old. I didn’t see this happening and neither did they. They were busy birdwatching, attending new plays, trying new restaurants. Our relationship had mellowed and warmed with time. But then my father, my sweet, strong, and only father—he began to die, and then he died. Words that still don’t sound true five years later, as I type them here.

I stopped caring so much about words. In Chicago, my mother, now alone, began to lose hers. She fell, and didn’t remember falling. She said she never fell, and if she did, she certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone. She had no family left in Chicago. She agreed to move into Memory Care. I decided to move back north.

Why? Why did I leave you many years ago? wrote the artist Marc Chagall in the 1940s, in a letter to Vitebsk, the Russian city of his youth. He imagined that the city understood and forgave him: Maybe the boy is crazy, but crazy for the sake of art…he is still “flying,” he is still striving to take off…

I had flown. Now it was time to migrate back.

I did not yet know what else it was time for.

At the frame shop there is so much beauty, it can’t be real. Maybe this is the afterlife, I think. Or purgatory.

The work is taxing. I stand all day, or walk around and around the worktable. I carry huge sheets of glass to a cutting machine and cut them. I smash unusable pieces loudly into a metal bucket, then tote the bucket to the dumpster out back. My hands grow strong and scarred.

A few blocks away, my mother dreams, awake or asleep. She plays Uno with an aide or naps in her wheelchair, wearing one of my old sweaters. Hand-me-ups, we joke. She can still joke. But I don’t understand how she can forget so much of her life so quickly. Or where a life goes after you forget most of it. She hasn’t forgotten me yet. Not yet.

The assignments on the worktable each morning have been set aside for me because they’re easy and I’m a novice, or because they’re complicated and there’s a skill I need to learn, or practice. Or because my boss knows I will love them—though maybe I’m imagining that.

Once, early on, I drilled a screw into the back of a frame and it came out through the front, a bad mistake. The frame had to be rebuilt. I arrived at work the next day to find twenty identical manufactured frames from Target or Walmart, allegedly brought in by a customer who wanted only new hangers installed on the backs. A strange order. I spent the day drilling forty holes, installing forty screws, twisting forty wires. My hands hurt for a week.

I work six or seven hours without breaks. I can’t seem to explain this to my friends. Momentum, focus. While I’m cleaning glass, inspecting endlessly for specks of dust or lint, using a marker to cover a flea-sized chip on a frame, time falls away. Everything outside the moment falls away, like a blurred background in an Impressionist landscape. No, I don’t want lunch, no I don’t want to sit down.

My boss is in the basement building frames. Sawing or chopping long pieces of wooden moulding, joining corners with a compressor-powered pneumatic machine that seems to breathe on its own. It’s dark and dungeony down there, cement floor and cinder-block walls, accessible only by rickety wood plank stairs. The basement runs the length of the building, filled with machinery and racks upon racks of uncut wood, organized in a system only my boss understands. Ash, oak, pine, eucalyptus, ramin. Finger-jointed wood, wood made of milled scraps. Narrow, wide, flat, scooped, beveled, painted, stained. My boss knows them all. He knows what each wood will do, and what it won’t. One crumbles so easily he calls it “cornflakes.” Others are impossibly hard. He hates maple.

(Why? Because it builds like shit, he says. Maple is hard. Plus its shade varies and might not match the sample the customer viewed. Whenever maple is mentioned, my boss starts giving everyone dark and desperate looks.)

He has been making frames since the 1970s. He sort of is the 1970s. He’s Wolfman Jack, WKRP’s Johnny Fever; he’s Oscar the Grouch with the worst smoker’s cough I’ve ever heard. He keeps smoking anyway, even inside the store, though none of his legions of customers seem to notice. He’s a rebel, an old hippie, or maybe a young one? A long-hair, not a suit. No framers are suits, he tells me.

He once hoped to become a comic book artist. He loves vintage sci-fi comics and Robert Crumb and Lichtenstein and Dali and Hieronymus Bosch and has adorned the store’s walls with samples of their work and lots of other dark and strange images, showing off our frames. My boss quotes randomly and significantly from Dune. (It’s best just to nod.) When he’s in the basement, thumping bass and psychedelic reverb waft up the stairs into the store from his beloved Hawkwind CDs, faint behind the blare of our workspace boombox.

Yes, we have an actual boombox, its radio dial set to Chicago’s WXRT-FM, the alt-rock soundtrack of my youth—how does this station even still exist? (And why is it still playing Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”?) Soon I’m humming along with Black Pumas, Tame Impala, Teddy Swims, Cold War Kids, the Revivalists. Also Cake, and Beck: Things are gonna change, I can feel it.

And yet, here in our shop, they haven’t. Our customers seem to love this about us, our indie small-business vibe. We are falling apart in so many ways—our bodies, our tools, the glass-cutter’s blade holder. Our two-sided tape gun is held together by one-sided tape.

The store’s front room is no bigger than my apartment’s living room, an open space with high whitewashed ceilings and bright track lighting to illuminate the worktable, around which everything, and everyone, revolves. Our picture window directly overlooks the sidewalk and busy street, nothing but glass between us and the pedestrians rushing by or stopping to look in. Lots of people know us. Customers love to tell us how long they’ve known my boss. It’s not that they want special treatment. It’s like they want to be part of us in some way.

When my boss works in the “cellar,” as he medievally calls it, he stays down there as long as he can, because of his knees, because stairs. He leans heavily on counters and tables just to walk around a room. Descending the steps, he literally yells in pain.

Ascending a couple of hours later, he carries newly constructed frames so perfect, so beautiful, that I feel I’ve never really seen frames before. They are just squares and rectangles, pieces of wood holding air, empty space. Once fitted onto the artwork, they become necessary, almost invisible, essential as a body part.

At the frame shop there is so much beauty, it can’t be real. Maybe this is the afterlife, I think. Or purgatory.

Sometimes customers actually gasp when I show them their finished framed piece, or even when they see a frame sample held against some artwork. Maybe the art doesn’t look like much, or even like art. Maybe it’s a mass-produced postcard or a child’s crayon scribble. The frame changes everything.

When my boss stomps up from his frame-building cellar and sees me, he always barks: Are you still here? Which is literal, because I’m new and only working part time, but also existential because how am I still here—or back here? It’s been a year since I returned to Chicago, but it still doesn’t feel like real life.

My boss is laughing, of course. His long gray mustache covers the corners of his mouth, so it takes me some weeks working there to realize he’s smiling. Later I learn where on his face to look.

Get back to work, chop-chop! he yells. He talks to himself all day, even in the restroom, not that I’m listening on purpose. The glass cutter is right outside the bathroom, so close it’s necessary to shout a heads-up before going in or out. Glass always gets the right-of-way, says my boss. He sounds like William S. Burroughs, that lazy ironic drawl. Other times he sounds exactly like Mystery Science Theater, erupting into rapid-fire joyously sarcastic commentary on everything. When I run to answer the store phone, I hear him in the background: She’s running!

It’s just hard not to be happy in this place.

Are you still here? My mother doesn’t remember I now live in Chicago again. So she is always surprised and happy to see me, happier than I’ve ever known her to be. Is this your last day? she asks, beaming up from her wheelchair. Let me know when you’re coming back. She has forgotten all her grudges. Well, most of them. When I sign in at her facility’s front desk, the receptionist says, Oh, you’re Mrs. Brenner’s daughter? Are you the good one or the bad one?

I never thought you would turn out so well, my mom tells me. Her formerly sharp face is soft and full of light. Her dated mom perm is all grown out, thanks to COVID, and she is actually beautiful.

No matter what time I visit my mom, I end up helping her in the bathroom. But that’s okay. I know these days won’t last forever.

Other ladies who live on my mom’s hallway sometimes cry at the breakfast table, or yell for help from their rooms. Often ignored by overburdened nurses. One woman’s eyes look like they’re bleeding. In Memory Care, one sees and hears many things one wishes to forget. But my mom says she feels safe here, says there’s nowhere else she’d rather be.

When winter comes, I drape my long wool scarf around her neck because she’s always cold. That’s how you can tell we’re sisters, she says, her eyes shining. My mom doesn’t even have a sister.

On my drive to work, I pass my old high school, which I’d hoped never to see again. Across the street from my apartment, improbably, stands a perfect half-scale model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, built in 1934 by an American guy who evidently just loved the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In the 1980s, my mom and I often swam laps at the Leaning Tower YMCA—now closed and slated for demolition. The Tower itself still stands tall. Well, leans tall.

My apartment is beautiful to me, with its ten-foot ceilings and original recessed canister lighting from 2007, and the floor-to-ceiling red silk living room drapes the previous tenant left behind, far too dramatic for my mismatched old furniture. I’d planned to take the drapes down, but after I move in they seem perfect. They make me feel like I’m at the ballet, or possibly a puppet show. They give my old furniture a weird new beauty.

Like putting an ordinary postcard or snapshot into a giant gilded frame—ironic but also not. Everything transformed and elevated. The whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The frame shop is housed in a rundown mid-century brick two-flat, its purple-painted front door decorated with Andy Warhol photos and quotes: ART IS WHAT YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH, and THE IDEA OF WAITING FOR SOMETHING MAKES IT MORE EXCITING. Some previous employee did this decorating, my boss tells me. Not that he has anything against Andy.

Inside are multitudes of everything: the rainbow of four hundred frame samples on the walls, those upside-down V’s we all recognize; a long side counter covered with tape guns, staple guns, spray bottles, glass gloves, art gloves, rolls of brown kraft paper and plastic bags and hanging wire, labeled and unlabeled drawers of hardware, hangers, screws, tools—and everywhere, littered about the store like ballpoint pens on every surface: razor blades. (In fact, we frequently run out of ballpoint pens, but we never run out of razor blades.) Soon I am grabbing blades casually, as all framers do, to pop a speck out of a mat, shave off excess paper or tape. Soon I have Band-Aids on all my fingers.

Our store is not yet computerized, so work orders are done manually on paper forms, which become crowded with numbers and notes in different colors and handwritings as each piece moves through the framing process. In the margin, we always add a quick description of the art, so we don’t accidentally put something in the wrong frame. The artwork’s title is not enough, as many pieces are untitled, or their title is unrelated to the image itself. Our descriptions are quick and literal: BIRD ON BRANCH. HEBREW LETTERS IN A CIRCLE. DANCERS. WOMAN PASSED OUT IN CHAIR.

This last was for an exquisite realistic painting of a woman, possibly a model, in a sleek black minidress and matching stiletto heels, sitting in a straight-back chair with her head thrown back, her slim knees knocked together. Her face isn’t visible, just her elegant neck and jawline. But she is clearly not unconscious—her hands grip the edges of the chair, as if she’s just taken a wild ride. The room is Edward Hopper dim around her. Only when I look closely do I see the glass tumbler, a half-finished drink, set on the floor before her, and the bar in the background, behind which a bartender works, his back turned, business as usual.

There ensues a lively debate between my boss (who wrote the description) and everyone else who sees WOMAN PASSED OUT IN CHAIR as to whether the woman is indeed “passed out.” (I later learn she is one of artist Nigel Van Wieck’s famously and ambiguously sexual characters, hanging out at the edges of the dark, just before some kind of wanton act, or just after it. Predator or prey, unclear.)

Once, early on, when I was feeling discouraged by how slowly I was learning, how many mistakes I made daily, I arrived at the shop to find a work order for TALKING POTATOES. (This was also written in my boss’s cartoonist hand, all caps and somehow funny. Can handwriting be funny?) TALKING POTATOES made me decide to stick around a little longer. Literally, I did not quit my job because my boss wrote TALKING POTATOES on a work order form. I wonder if he knows that.

Although there are rumors we will soon abandon these antiquated forms and move to a computerized workflow, my boss’s big desktop Dell in the store’s back room goes mostly unused for now. We clock in and out on it, or when his knees force him to sit, he smokes and plays virtual solitaire, or reads trippy articles in online science magazines and leaves all his tabs open. What was it like when no stars yet existed? After the hot Big Bang, it took minutes for atomic nuclei to form and then hundreds of thousands of years to make neural atoms, but the first stars wouldn’t form until nearly 100 million years had passed.

Reading this, I picture our customers, generation upon generation of people floating through the ages with their infinite torrent of saved stuff, their evidence of life, the photos and flags and newspapers, their kids’ drawings and baby teeth, their dead pets, their flower crowns, their diplomas and vintage candy wrappers. I love them so much, these people.

Framing is alchemical, but it’s also just a series of steps, straightforward as a recipe. First, you measure, cut, build, and join the four sides of the frame, using an electric saw or manual chopper, and a joining machine or miter vise to attach and secure the corners. Then you cut the chosen matboard, glass, and backing to fit, unless the art will be framed with no mat or glass, as is customary when framing paintings on canvas, so that the canvas can “breathe.” Then you putty the frame—i.e., smooth and mask dings or irregularities in the wood, and fill, or appear to fill, any visible gaps in the frame’s corners using special putty that exactly matches the frame’s color and texture (which you may have to custom-mix in advance, no big deal, just keep an ice cube tray full of blobs of every possible hue stored under your worktable, and be careful to keep your putty away from the art, best to set up a kind of paper-covered putty station as far away from humanity as possible, where you can work in peace and safety, making sure to check and wash your hands, clothes, and body before re-joining your coworkers). Now place your finished frame face down on the worktable, clean the glass with non-ammonia spray and microfiber cloth—always wear glass-handling gloves for this step, do not bleed on the artwork—and then, finally, making sure you have the correct side of the glass facing outward, place the pane gently into the frame, brush it free of lint, then place the artwork in there (which you’ve attached securely and not crookedly to its mat with acid-free tape, which might take more than one try, or maybe the mat is off by one or two sixteenths of an inch and needs to be recut). Finally, place the backing foamboard on top, and use your point gun to secure everything in place with framer’s points, so that you can turn the whole thing over and inspect for lint, specks, hairs, or other glitches you may have missed, and, when you find these, open the piece back up by removing the framer’s points with pliers or your fingers—you may choose to open only one side or corner of the work if you’re optimistic—and slide your finger or a special eraser or a razor blade in under the glass to remove the debris, wear gloves or not, just don’t bleed on the artwork, then close up the entire thing with the point gun again, roll a two-sided adhesive tape gun over the outside back borders of the frame, cut and attach brown backing paper, shave off the excess paper with a razor blade, then drill holes for the hardware that holds the hanging wire, making sure to first assess the width, depth, and weight of the entire work and the length of the screws you’re planning to use, measure where you want the hardware placed, and make starter holes with an awl or a manual hand-drill before using your power driver to drill in the screws. When your drill slips and punctures your backing paper, use brown paper tape to cover the hole, and it’s a good idea to put matching tape on both sides of the frame back even if you only fucked up one side, thus giving a symmetrical, intentional look. And then you just attach and twist the hanging wire. Use needle-nose pliers or brown paper tape to tamp down any errant wire so the customer doesn’t puncture a fingertip. Don’t bleed on the artwork.

I’ve omitted some steps, above. Like chefs, framers never share all their secrets.

After my father died, my mother chose only two pieces of art from our old house to move to her new room in Memory Care. Both are mid-century modernist prints, by Marc Chagall and the Bolivian artist Graciela Rodo Boulanger. Neither is rare nor particularly valuable. I don’t recall either having any special meaning to my mom. They were just always there, in the background of my childhood.

Both are full of color and movement and light. In the Rodo Boulanger print, dated 1977, a young girl holds a long horizontal pole on which six large flapping birds are precariously balanced, three on either side of her, in an explosion of patterns and colors. In Rodo Boulanger’s work, children are often aloft: riding bicycles or animals, leaping after balloons, sitting on high ledges, their feet always dangling above the ground.

The Chagall lithograph, from 1960, is titled La Jongleuse (The Juggler). A woman in a bright flowered dress—a circus acrobat—appears to be dancing in air, the audience, animals, and other performers all falling away around and below her. Chagall famously loved the circus, and the theme of flying. In his vision, our sky is never empty, but always full of men and women and horses and angels, all swooping and soaring about up there amidst waves of color, in ecstasy, in love, in a dream.

When I ask my mom why she chose these two pictures in particular, she smiles and says she doesn’t know. She says, They just make me happy.

My boss calls me down to the basement one afternoon and asks me to carry up a bunch of newly built frames. Take as many as you can, he says. When I think my hands are full, he tells me to hold my arms out straight like branches, and starts hanging more frames on them. I can hold about twelve or fifteen—they’re not terribly big, or heavy, or even fragile. Still, I move gingerly, not wanting to do any damage. The frames clank a little against each other, but I don’t drop them. I look back and see my boss right behind me, grinning under his mustache as we make our unsteady way up the dark steps, ascending into the light of day. 

When he takes the frames off my arms, I feel like I can fly.

Wendy Brenner

Wendy Brenner is the author of two books of fiction and the recipient of an NEA fellowship. Her work has appeared in The Best American Essays, in The Best American Magazine Writing, and on National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts. She is a contributing editor for the Oxford American.