Fiction: The Teddy Bears [Laurie Fendrich]

Bear by Daisy Duckworth.

Our second installment of summer fiction is “The Teddy Bears,” an amusing short story written by artist and arts writer Laurie Fendrich  about a mid-career artist whose gallery closes unexpectedly. The story is loosely inspired by the one we posted last week, “The Unknown Masterpiece” by Honoré de Balzac. Fendrich thinks of “The Teddy Bears”  as a “fable of postmodern art” in the same way that Dore Ashton, who wrote a book on the Balzac story, considered “The Unknown Masterpiece” a fable of modern art.

——

Late in the afternoon on a humid August day, Dana Divort leaned back in the dilapidated armchair in her Brooklyn studio and stared at the large and very wet abstract oil painting hanging on the wall in front of her. She struggled to prevent the tears that were gathering force along her lower eyelids from spilling down her face, which was already damp with sweat. She’d been painting when Marcus Cole’s text message had popped up with a ding on her cell phone a few moments earlier: Dana dear sad news must close gallery permanently at end of month will talk next week. Marcus.

Dana read the message two more times. How could this be? How could he do this? Her show—her first with the gallery in four years—had been scheduled for the coming October, and she’d been working steadily toward it for more than two years. Just six months earlier, Marcus had taken her to lunch at Trestle to hammer out the show’s details—opening and closing dates, reception, number of paintings, what the press release should say—all that concrete stuff. They’d shared a fine cabernet with their arugula and avocado salads, and after they’d both become a tad drunk, he’d leaned across the table and offered a toast.

“To Dana’s next great show!” Marcus had said, sounding earnest and silly at the same time. Dana tilted her glass toward his and offered him a wry smile.  She’d just had her semi-annual haircut, along with a color job that covered the gray and included partial highlights. Her lips were carefully coated in Plum Purple Rose, a shiny lipstick that went especially well with her new hair color, and was guaranteed to remain in place for 12 hours. Wearing her favorite short, black silk and wool jacket, along with the jeans that showed off her still-good bottom to its best advantage, she was confident. The total package she was presenting Marcus was as perfect as she was ever going to get.

“Yes, and it’s about time,” she replied, taking another sip of wine before laughing. “Now that I’m forty-five, my days as a hot young thing are over.”

Marcus stiffened, and Dana realized instantly that she’d said the wrong thing. Her dealer’s elegantly coiffed, if thinning, white hair, as well as his handsome, professionally tanned face and gym-hewn body, were evidence that he was at war with having moved halfway into his sixties.  Moreover, only a few moments earlier, seemingly oblivious to the truth that she was nothing if not a “mid-career” artist, he’d declared yet again—as if it were an original insight—that the work of mid-career artists was the absolute hardest to move. What dealers really wanted, he’d said with a stupidly self-conscious chuckle, were either very young artists, preferably just out of art school, or very old ones—or, of course, very dead ones.

Dana steered the conversation back to the show. Marcus said he thought he could get the moderately conservative, but nevertheless respected old coot Henry Delancey—who’d favorably reviewed Dana’s work on two previous occasions—to write the catalog essay. Not just a glossy announcement card and an e-vite blast, mind you, but an actual bound catalog with color repros of every painting in the show. The thought of it all, heightened by the cabernet, turned Dana’s cheeks a baby pink.Now, Dana sat sweltering in the heat of her studio, almost ready to vomit and trying desperately not to cry. She began going over everything she could remember since the lunch meeting with Marcus. Had he dropped some clue about closing the gallery that she’d somehow missed? She had been in almost weekly contact with him—or if not him, with Kristine Amador, the gallery’s director. Not once—she was positive—had either of them even faintly hinted that business was anything but usual. Nor had anyone who worked at the gallery—the two leggy blonde gallerinas behind the counter, the registrar, the preparator, or the accountant—uttered anything remotely suspicious. Wasn’t it only a month ago that Marcus had emailed her asking for her approval for the press release he’d written?  Dana scrolled down through her old emails looking for it. There it was—yes, one month ago, to the day—Marcus’s slobbery, treacly prose describing her work as “a brilliant chromatic and brushstroke-driven exploration of the supreme joys of being in the moment,” that was “marked by both a deeply contemplative and profoundly emotional sense of chaos in deep tension with the certainty of an underlying spiritual order in the universe.”

Dana listened to the dull hum of the slowly turning ceiling fan. Why would Marcus close his wonderful gallery? Cole Fine Arts had one of Chelsea’s best spaces—an enormous ground floor showroom with one of those lustrous tung-oiled cement floors and a vaulted ceiling that was vaguely reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral.  With the two young and skinny arthandlers Harry and Sean continuously lugging large works of art in and out of the back room, the place positively reeked of profit. Even Dana, one of the least saleable artists in the stable, sold three or four paintings a year.  Granted, the money she brought to the gallery wasn’t great, but Marcus always reassured her by saying it didn’t matter, he was in it for the long haul. More important, sales from her paintings, modest though they were, covered almost the entire cost of her studio in Brooklyn, where she spent three days a week slathering paint around her canvases.

But it wasn’t enough to pay her share of the mortgage on the East Village apartment she shared with Jack, her dull but loyal long-time boyfriend, or to even begin to cover the rest of her living expenses. For these things, Dana had to do what she liked to call “real world’s work,” which in her case meant spending three or four days a week in the tiny room—really, even though it had a window, almost a closet—that jutted off the painting studio. There she’d sit at her folding table, her drawing board perched on her thighs, drawing teddy bears, each one on its own large, crisp white sheet of paper.

She cranked them out, supplying them on contract, to JoyCard.com, the online boutique that served as the trendoid source for women for whom money was no object when buying a present for a baby. She’d been doing this for—seven years, was it? Whatever, for more years than Dana cared to remember. On a good day, she could find her way to a zone where she’d draw for six or seven hours, thinking about, well, nothing, really, and taking breaks only to make cups of ginger tea or eat the sandwich she always brought along with her—all the while listening to The Tales of Hoffmann or The National playing in the background.

She’d thought up the teddy bear drawing while in high school, when her mother, who had always told her she was “talented,” had asked her to make “You know, something artistic like you always do,” for a friend’s daughter who’d just had a baby. The drawing, which she made using a Conté crayon, had been a lark for her—an image of a huge, ridiculous looking fat bear that she’d thought up out of nowhere. The friend’s daughter loved it, which led to Dana making more bears for even more friends of her mother’s. After she’d finished art school, when money would get tight and the legal assistant typing jobs dried up, and right after she and Jack got together, she’d begun selling the same kind of teddy bear drawing, through word of mouth, to friends, and friends of friends, who had little kids or babies. One day she’d answered a JoyCard.com ad she’d seen on craigslist, soliciting proposals for “custom gifts from creative people for creative people.”

To Dana’s surprise, Elena Harenson, JoyCard’s owner, immediately offered her a contract to produce bears on commission. The bears caught on, and by the end of the first year, Elena offered a new contract in which she agreed to accept, on a weekly basis, however many bears Dana could produce. If she hadn’t been so determined to stay the course as a serious abstract painter, Dana often ruefully reminded herself, she could havemade herself almost rich by setting up her own company and devoting herself entirely to drawing teddy bears.

Dana’s teddy bears were advertised prominently in a large blurb on JoyCard.com’s home page: “A professionally framed, fabulously adorable hand-drawn teddy bear, signed and dated in the lower right-hand corner by the artist Daisy Duckworth, this original work of art is guaranteed to brighten your nursery wall and elicit endless smiles not only from your friends, but most important, from your cranky baby or tired toddler.”

Dana started each teddy-bear drawing in the same way, using a light blue pencil to loosely lay out the large fat bear body and broadly delineate the placement of its paws, nose, mouth and ears on a sheet of expensive, acid-free 32 x 25-inch Arches watercolor paper. Immediately afterwards, she switched to a water-soluble graphite stick, in its dry mode, to vigorously lay out the tones in the bear.  After that, she did the hard part—applying a wet brush to carefully soften the graphite marks so they were turned into smooth transitions in the tones. The paper’s ox-like strength was forgiving of mistakes, and she spent a lot of time modifying marks or even rubbing them out. She always worked on the drawings three at a time, setting them to the side when they became too wet to work on. When a set of three drawings was about half finished, she would shift to a Conté crayon, which lent a texture to the underlying chiaroscuro created by the dried wet graphite. Along the outer edges of the bears, she would add additional crayon marks to the original graphite lines, making the bear look fuzzy.

Once the bear bodies and head finally appeared fully round instead of merely circular and flat, and the large ears appeared plump, furry and touchable, Dana turned to her smallest brush, dampening the tip with her tongue before dipping it into a pot of dry, black carbon, and then deftlylaying it onto the paper to finely define the teddy bear paws.  At the very end, she took a deep breath (this was the risky moment when one false move could ruin an entire drawing) before meticulously adding two eyes—black, silver dollar-sized, hand-drawn perfect circles, each with its own couple of small reflections that were actually two curving parallelogram-like shapes that came from leaving just enough of the underneath white of the paper untouched. Only then, with the eyes glistening and locked into place, did the large flat bears spring to full, three-dimensional life.

JoyCard.com charged $299.00 dollars plus tax for each framed teddy bear drawing. Dana got $100 of that.  Once in a while, when Dana would dwell on the long waiting list for her bears and feel a surge of resentment, she’d send a polite email to Elena requesting a larger cut, to which Elena inevitably replied, “Dear Dana: Thank you for your email. Please remember that advertising, handling, framing, insuring, and shipping are all considerable expenses that limit the company’s profit margin. Although I would like to increase your rate for the drawings, it is not possible at this time.” Elena would then close by reminding Dana that only because of JoyCard’s “economy of scale” (Dana’s teddy bears were only one of seventy-five products) could Elena afford to pay Dana a hundred dollars a bear.

So it was that Dana always returned with a heavy sigh to drawing the same old bear for the same old price, producing somewhere around a dozen of them a week (occasionally, when in need of extra cash, she pushed herself to come up with fifteen or even eighteen). When the bears were thoroughly dry, she stacked them carefully and neatly between acid-free slip-sheets inside one of two large wooden boxes she’d built expressly for the purpose, and on Monday mornings, at 10 a.m., one of the truckers from JoyCard’s framer picked up the box, leaving an empty one from the previous week for her to fill up.

Producing teddy bear drawings for the babies of rich people was not the worst way for a painter to support herself, Dana always liked to say to herself.  But when she was in the middle of concentrating on making the fur look fluffy, and feeling sorry for herself, she’d grumble out loud that given her lack of genuine skills at doing anything in the “real world,” she should count herself lucky there was a market for her bears. The real-world reality was that if Dana didn’t have the bears, she’d have no other options than to return to transcribing the words of droning lawyers or, worse, waiting tables.

There was no way around it: Drawing the bears was tedious, but necessary. The worst part of it, however, was that the absurd, unabashed kitchiness of the bears was a deep embarrassment to Dana. Ashamed to own up to her friends that she made them, she told them instead that she supported herself as a freelance graphic designer, always remaining vague about her clients. She was mortified at the thought that any of them—orworse, any dealers, collectors or critics—would discover that she, Dana Divort, was actually the Daisy Duckworth who made schlocky bear drawings.  In the end, the only people who knew about them were her mother, who adored them and bragged about them to her friends in Evanston, and Jack, who swore himself to secrecy on the subject, but who continually nagged her to go off and start her own business with them.

Dana could feel the sweat as it spread across her stomach underneath her damp shirt.  She leaned back in her chair and pressed the tips of her fingers together, trying to think what to do next. Her obsession with finishing the large painting in time for her show with Marcus, which had evaporated the instant she’d read his text, meant she was way behind in her teddy bear quota for the week. To deliver the minimum dozen bears for Monday morning’s pickup, she was now going to have to work straight through the weekend—no Friday night drinks with her painter friend Melissa, no heading out to the galleries with Sarah, no Saturday-night binge-watching AcornTV’s British murder mysteries with Jack.

Dana sat up and called Jack, leaving him a message to get back to her immediately. Next, she texted Howard Schultz, the only artist in the gallery she remotely considered a friend: Assume u heard news call when u get this. Then she bent forward at the waist, put her head in her hands, and gave in to uncontrollable sobs.

News that Cole Fine Arts was closing spread fast, and before Dana had a chance to speak directly with Marcus, her artist friends and, to her surprise, even artists she barely knew, began calling and emailing her their consolations. Or, more accurately, expressing their faintly disguised schadenfreude over the fact that she, too, had joined the legions of New York painters without gallery representation. Jack tried to comfort her, but knowing hardly anything about painting and practically nothing about the art world (he worked in IT for a business monthly), his efforts were both pathetic and futile. It wasn’t until the third week in September—two weeks before her show would have opened—that Dana finally managed to get Marcus to meet with her.

“You should demand that he pay you a shitload of money for cutting your throat like this,” Jack said the night before the meeting. It was hot, and the air conditioning was on the blink, so they lay side-by-side on the bed, buck naked, lights out, sharing a cigarette along with what was left of a bottle of tequila.

“Not going to happen, Jack,” Dana said, exhaling smoke. “That’s not how things work in the art world.”

“The art world!” Jack snapped. “Gimme a friggin’ break. You work your friggin’ butt off for three years and produce a complete body of work to hold up your end of what any lawyer would say is tantamount to a contract, and this motherfucker blows you off and walks away scot-free?”

“Look, Jack, I really don’t need this right now. You’re in computers, which is fine and all that, but it’s something I know nothing about. So what do I do? I respect you, that’s what I do. I respect your reality by leaving you alone about the world of IT. You don’t know diddly squat about the art world., so if you don’t mind, leave me alone about it.” Jack grunted and sat up to reach for the bottle and shot glass.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people in New York who call themselves artists don’t have a gallery, let alone a good one,” Dana said. “I was always grateful to Marcus for taking me into his gallery. Even if I didn’t sell much, he gave me real cred as a serious painter. Anyway, money’s not the issue. I earn plenty of money from those fucking stupid bears—and if I have to, I can crank up their production. But the bears aren’t my art, Jack. You know that. They don’t mean anything to me.”

“What I need now, and need fast, is a new dealer—someone who believes in my art and will get behind my paintings, someone who can promote me and do something like get me in a museum show—maybe even get me a ‘mid-career survey’ at some little college museum somewhere. Someone who can do better than Marcus, even—maybe sell enough paintings for me where I can live off them, and don’t have to make those goddamned bears any longer.”

Dana abruptly sat up. “The truth is, Jack, right now I need Marcus more than ever. I need him to call dealers for me. I can’t go out there and be like some stupid art school rube, hauling my résumé and images on a flash drive around to galleries.”

Jack knocked back another shot. “Oh bullshit!” he said. “Here you go again with that tired old crap about how an artist can never push back against this whole absurd set-up where dealers control everything.  Why can’t you get with the times, Dana?

For goodness sake, embrace disintermediation. Have the guts to sell your paintings on your own!

“Stop it, Jack. Seriously. Do you think your using that stupid, trendy word can somehow turn me into someone who doesn’t need a dealer? I’m an artist, not a salesman. I need a dealer.”“OK, OK, so maybe not that. But why can’t you walk in the front door of a gallery, like a normal person, and just plain ask the people there to look at your work. It’s not like you’re some snot-nosed brat fresh out of art school. You’re a solid, mature artist with a very nice c.v.”

Dana laughed. “Truth is, Jack—and this shows how really pathetic you are at getting what the art world is like—I’d be a lot better off if I were a snot-nosed brat just out of art school. My reasonable track record almostcounts against me.  I’m one of a million mid-career artists with reasonable track records, and we are, simply put, not news.”

Dana rolled out of bed and walked over to the open window, letting Jack’s lack of response hang in the air. She put on her shorts and then turned around to face him.

“Let me try again, Jack. Please listen hard. I’m just one more abstract painter in an art world where abstract painters are quaint little relics from a previous era.  Most of the art that gets attention nowadays has nothing to do with painting, let alone abstract painting.  I know you don’t follow the art world, but don’t pretend you haven’t seen what’s going on. The name of the game is identity art and/or art that’s gargantuan stuff that fills up whole rooms—video and sound installations that are backed up by heavy bullshit. And when the art is painting, it tends to be that tossed-around, poopy kind of painting, like that show I dragged you to last spring—the one with the paintings made by that geek who’d just gotten his M.F.A. from Columbia who knew jack shit about real painting.  Remember him? The guy who smeared those ugly blue blobs on those half-assed, warped canvases and thought he was too sexy for his shirt? That show caused a little stir, and more than a few collectors drooled over him. It’s absurd, I know. But he just got picked up by Perrigrew and Morton.

“And then there’s the new kind of art that’s made by aesthetically challenged wannabe sociologists or scientists who ‘conduct research’ into the sewage system in Caracas, or dark matter, and then, as a group, mount diagrams and texts that supposedly make some dissertation-sounding point about postcolonialism, or Einstein, or climate change, or whatever. I’m telling you, the curators and critics eat this shit up. Dumb regular abstract painters like me don’t have a chance in the face of all this.”

*****

The next day, Dana met Marcus in a downtown bar and, after their wine arrived, and they’d exchanged some forced pleasantries, Dana cut to the chase: “Why, Marcus? Why did you do this to me? Why are you closing? At least tell me why you didn’t tell me earlier, and why you kept acting like my show was going ahead as planned.”

Marcus put on a very serious look while caressing the rim of his glass of wine with his long, elegant index finger. “Dana, please, I’m not ‘doing’ this to you. The decision to close the gallery wasn’t something that was planned. In fact, it was more or less spur of the moment. There are a lot of reasons for this decision, Dana, and they all sort of tumbled down at once. I can’t go into them.”  Like all dealers, Marcus was adept at blowing protective smoke.

Suddenly he changed tack. “Oh, all right. You might as well hear it from me. I’m divorcing Martha, and yes, there’s another woman, whom I met, coincidentally, right when it became clear that my marriage to Martha was over. In case you’re wondering, however, yes, Lydia is age-appropriate. She turns thirty-five in less than a year, and is finishing up her doctoral studies at Oxford. We’ve taken a flat in London, and come December 1st, we’ll be moving in together.”

Dana rapidly tried to calculate the meaning of thirty-five as age-appropriate for Marcus, along with who this Lydia woman was, how many weeks in New York Marcus had left, how long she had to get her consigned work back, and where she’d find a place to store it. One thing that didn’t take long to realize, however—after all this time—was that Marcus, at bottom, was a selfish asshole.

“That’s wonderful, Marcus. I’m genuinely happy for you,” she said, her eyes full of watery appeal.  “But I do have a favor to ask, Marcus. I really, really need your help. You have to persuade another dealer—a good dealer—to take a look at my new body of work that, if I may remind you, is a show that’s ready to go right now.”

 Dana slid a piece of paper toward Marcus on which she’d listed the ten galleries she wanted Marcus to call on her behalf. “These are the places I think are right for my work.”

“Of course,” Marcus said, coolly pocketing the paper after glancing down at it briefly.

“Look, Dana, things are on the busy side right now, as I’m sure you understand,” Marcus said as he rose and buttoned his jacket. “Tell you what. I’ll get Kristine on this right away. She’s the one who does all the work with other dealers, the one with the real contacts and the schmoozing skills, not me. Besides, in her new position as head curator at Fredolies Collections, she’s got more pull with dealers and collectors than she had even when she was my director. Well, technically, she still is my director, until the gallery business is settled. In any event, I’ll tell her to expect a call from you tomorrow.”

Dana tried to digest the news that Kristine had already accepted a new job. This meant that when they’d last talked about Dana’s show, Kristine had surely already known Marcus was closing the gallery. The two of them were brilliant liars.

Dana stood up and gave Marcus a big, fake warm hug. “Good luck in London, Marcus.  You’ve been a wonderful dealer for me, not to mention a good friend. I’m going to miss you.” I’m not a bad liar, myself, Dana thought as she smiled broadly.

“Let’s stay in touch,” Marcus said. “And I want you to meet Lydia. Keep in mind that our London flat will easily accommodate guests.” Marcus waved a friendly goodbye as he left the bar.

* * * * *

 Dana took yet another rapid stroll around her overheated studio to check that everything was in proper order. She’d hung her enormous pink and red painting—whose final palette she’d lifted from a Lyubov Popova painting she’d pondered many times at MoMA—on her clean, freshly painted main wall, and adjusted the dimmer to the overhead floods. This was the same painting she’d thought was finished at the end of the summer, but it had been reworked countless times since then. Another painting, still wet, and way too heavy to be moved, was propped against the rear wall. The urge to quickly add a little more red to its bottom right corner came and went.

There simply wasn’t room on the main wall to show more than one painting at a time, so Dana was using the little room, the one where she drew her teddy bears, as a staging area. After folding up her drawing table and carefully packing into their heavy box the fifteen bears she’d finished the previous day, she dragged the box into the corner of the main studio and placed it next to the door, making it seem as if it were a table. The plan was to use the top of the box, which had the cleanest surface in the studio, as a place for Kristine Amador and Judd Kramer to lay their coats. As Dana imagined it, the two of them would then sit down in their allotted folding chairs that she’d set up ten feet in front of the pink painting hanging on the clean white wall, after which Dana would walk her paintings, one at a time, back and forth between the small room and the beautifully lit studio wall. This way each painting would be given its due.

How Kristine had managed to dragoon Judd Kramer into visiting Dana’s studio was almost beyond Dana’s comprehension.  Kramer’s was an elite gallery—easily among the top dozen galleries in New York—and now, for unfathomable reasons, its owner was coming to look at her paintings. It couldn’t be about sex, Dana knew.  Jud Kramer was clearly gay, and anyway, she was way past getting someone over to her studio for that reason. Nor was it because Kristine was hot, in that flinty sort of way that made gay men like her. Probably it had to do with Kristine feeling sorry about the situation—maybe even a little guilty—and this was some sort of payback owed her by Kramer, with whom Cole Fine Arts often did some secondary-market business.

Kristine had called to say they were running 45 minutes late, but that had been an hour ago. Dana lit another cigarette—her third for the morning—and then quickly stubbed it out. She swished a little Listerine around in her mouth, spit it into the paint-splattered sink, and applied some more lip-gloss.

When the studio bell rang at last, Dana fluffed her hair and glued a perfect pouty, anxious artist’s smile onto her face. She opened the door to find Kristine wearing a long black wool coat with an asymmetrical hem, a pair of deep crimson gloves that matched her boots, and carrying a large black and red striped tote over her shoulder.  Standing next to her was Judd Kramer—the real Judd Kramer whom Dana had seen heretofore only in photographs. He was taller and thinner and more handsome than photographs of him on the web suggested, and dressed in a camel-colored cashmere coat that was so long it brushed the tops of his chestnut-brown cowboy boots. After handing their coats to Dana, who laid them with a great show of attention and care on top of the box with the teddy bear drawings hidden inside, Kristine and Kramer sat down in their designated chairs

“Show us the best, Dana,” Kristine said. “Judd has only so much time, but I’ve told him all about you and your work, shown him your images and told him he’s in for a treat when he sees them in the flesh. He’s eager to see your recent paintings, especially.” She flashed Kramer a toothy, professional smile.

Dana inhaled and tried to sound at ease. “Mr. Kramer, I’m starting off with this pink and red painting, the one that was to be on the cover of the announcement for my show at Marcus’s—the show that never happened, of course.” Dana, who had planted her body in the ten-foot space that lay between Judd and Kristine and her painting, could feel her speech spilling out too rapidly.

“Please call me Judd, Dana. And would you mind stepping just a little more to the side so we can see your painting?”

Judd Kramer crossed his long legs and, having been reassured twice that there was no paint either on the chair on which he sat or the box on which his coat lay, appeared relaxed. His navy-blue jeans seemed to have been pressed, as if they’d only been put on that moment, and his cowboy boots looked to be at least a size 12. From the side, Kramer’s head struck Dana as having the exact same shape as Africa, although when he turned and faced her, she thought he looked a lot like a craggy-faced butler in an old BBC drama. His sharp cologne competed with the smell of oil paint and turpenoid.

For a full minute, Kramer gazed without comment at the large, lone, pink and red abstract painting. Dana stood off to the side of the painting, amazed as she listened to Kristine explain the exceptionally original manner in which her painting explored her own personal identity as an artist with a Dutch/French heritage, the relationship between Jungian archetypes and the subculture of forms, as well as her diversity of influences, ranging from Caravaggio to Joni Mitchell, Terry Winters and the subway system in New York, and the way in which all of this translated into a new 21st-century visual language whereby Dana created “a captivating hybrid of traditional, modern and postmodern meanings.”

While Dana listened to Kristine blathering away about the new forms of beauty in postmodern painting, as a good reader of faces, she realized Judd Kramer was deeply and profoundly bored by her pink and red painting. Quickly, she swapped it out for another, and then another, carrying the heavy paintings back and forth between the studio and her staging room, until finally, after 30 minutes, Kramer had seen all ten of her pictures. Although Kramer was polite enough to suppress his obvious desire to yawn, and glanced down at his phone a mere three times, his foot started tapping the floor while she was hanging the final painting on the wall. As soon as she’d stepped back from it, he stood up.

“Thank you so much, Dana,” he said.“And thank you so much for your visit,” Dana replied.  Her words tumbled out rapidly, without control, without any connection to the sharp pain of rejection pulsing through her veins. “This was so wonderful. I’m truly honored you came. It means so much to me. Really. That you would take a thorough look like this.”

Dana smiled a big, artificial smile, and turned around to pick up the coats.

“No, no, I’ve got them,” Kramer said, bumping hard against Dana’s shoulder as the two of them leaned over the box and tried to lift up his coat, whose soft luxurious threads had somehow caught on the corner of the box.

“Don’t pull it! Let me get it!” Kramer was almost shouting as he tried to shove Dana out of the way. Suddenly, at the same moment the coat came loose and flew up in the air, the top to the teddy-bear box slid off and toppled sideways onto the floor. There, in the box for all to see, lay a large, black-and-white ink wash and Conté crayon drawing of a teddy bear.

Judd, Kristine and Dana stared down at the bear.

“What’s this?” Kramer asked.

A thick fog rolled across Dana’s brain, and her face and neck turned the color of beet juice.

“Nothing,” she said.

“No, wait. Hold it up. I want to see this,” Kramer said, sounding almost excited.

Numb, Dana pulled out the bear that was lying on top and held it up in front of her body as if it were part of a sandwich-board sign that read, I AM A THOROUGHLY STUPID ARTIST.  Kramer, and then Kristine, both stepped closer to examine the bear. While Kristine fumbled her way into a string of sentences about appropriation, gender stereotypes, and animal rights, Kramer took out his glasses to study the bear more closely, and began using his phone to take pictures of it. Then he looked down at the box, where the next bear lay in wait.“Do you have more of these?”

“Yes,” Dana said.

“Show me a few. Actually, show me all of them.”

One at a time, Dana carefully took out the fifteen nearly identical bears that were in the box, one at a time, holding each of them up in front of her while Kramer’s eye surveyed them, and then laying each of them down on a new stack.

“How many of these do you have?” Kramer asked.

Stunned, Dana answered truthfully. “Right now, fifteen. But I’ll have fifteen more by the end of next week. And fifteen after that. I make them. Fifteen a week. For a living, that is. Not as art. I make them to earn money, so I can paint. A gift company buys them.”  It was strange how, after so many hears of hiding the bears, finally telling the truth about them felt so good.“Can I have these?” Kramer asked. “I’ll take them with me now. Kristine, can you please make up a receipt for Dana.” Who in heaven’s name is Kristine actually working for? was all Dana could manage to think.

Kramer draped his coat over one arm. He glanced briefly at his phone.

“Your paintings are very nice, Dana,” he said. “They really are very fine. Very felt. But these drawings—these drawings are something else. You’re onto something here. The paintings—well, frankly, there’s nothing I can do with them. They just don’t fit the program of my gallery. But I can move these drawings. I can make a statement with them. You’re on to something nobody’s seen yet. I’m convinced they’re important.”

 Dana stared at Kramer, still not understanding his meaning.

 Of course,he continued,they’ll need to be presented right—framed in thick gold, I’m thinking. Definitely something ornate. On second thought, maybe not. I’ll have to think. Maybe high-modernist black aluminum. I see maybe fifty of them, in a frieze wrapping the entire gallery. Or maybe on shelves. You know, I might be able to tweak this into some kind of subtle commentary on the way Irving Blum first showed Andy’s soup cans on those shelves at Ferus.”

Kramer looked down at the teddy bear lying on top of the pile stacked on the floor.

“Those eyes! My God, those eyes! So shiny! So blank! And those ears. So fluffy! The eyes and ears—so big! Those paws, too! Everything’s so—what can I say? Fuzzy, cuddly, furry and friendly—and yet, yet somehow, so dark and accusing! Yes, that’s it! Accusing. This is art about the moral challenges none of us are willing to face up to. It’s profoundly moving stuff, Dana—I’d say it both reflects and speaks to our times. People will be blown away.”

Kristine and Dana carefully restacked the pile of bear drawings in the framer’s box, after which they carried it out on a dolly to Kristine’s BMW X-5. Before he climbed into the passenger seat, Kramer extended his hand for Dana to shake.

“Dana, this has been a wonderful and unexpected find. I can’t say right this moment when your show will be. Let’s just say I’m pretty sure we’re looking at May. I need to know something first, however.”

Standing on the sidewalk without her coat, Dana began to shiver.“Can you deliver a hundred of these drawings just like the ones I’m taking now by May?” Kramer asked. “I’ll need fifty to make the statement that’s needed for the show and fifty for the waiting list. I can’t afford to piss off collectors who can’t get one out of the first show. You understand that without the commitment from you of a hundred bears, I’m not sure I can back this thing.”

Dana’s teeth were chattering.  A hundred by May? What a hilarious question. If need be, she could churn out a hundred in a week—perhaps a thousand by May. Ten thousand. However many Kramer wanted!

 She pictured her teddy bears hanging in Kramer Gallery, with its pristine white walls and trussed ceiling. She pictured herself at the opening, standing in the middle of the gallery, her mother beaming by her side, Jack counting the money in his head, and surrounded by envious artist-friends, the ones who had been secretly happy her show at Marcus’s had been torpedoed. She’d buy one of those black and drapey see-through blouses for the opening, and wear it with her favorite silver pants. Definitely have to buy some new platform heels—black, for sure. That $900 pair of Prada slingback pumps she’d seen a while back in the Soho store window might do. Before the opening, she’d get Brian to do her hair, of course, and spring for a spikey short cut with a full head of highlights.

“No problem, Mr. Kramer … Judd, I mean. Yes, it will be difficult to come up with a hundred drawings, but I’m an extremely motivated artist. When I have a goal, I go for it. Yes, no question. I can commit. I will definitely deliver a hundred drawings to you by May.”

Then Dana went past the point of no return, and took a wild leap straight into the abyss. “The truth is, Judd, these drawings actually are a deep expression of my true, innermost self, as well as an expression of my artistic intelligence that grasps how absurd the world really is.”

Suddenly she felt her words moving rapidly out into the air on their own, without her involvement: “Forget my abstract paintings,” she said. “I mean, I enjoy making them, but as you sensed immediately, they aren’t the true me. They’re something I do when I’m not fully involved. The drawings are where I’ve always explored my real ideas—about society, about things like the paradox of a woman artist in a male art world, about the essentialism that’s necessary to any real and deep understanding, about the way we live in a culture of replicas, and the way we treat animals. I truly want nothing more than to get these drawings out there for everyone to see.”

“Great. Dana, great. Truly great. Listen, by the way, no more of that commercial stuff with the bears, OK? Chuck that immediately. I mean totally. Make sure you get all the bears back and stop dealing with that company. Understood? I have to run, but it’s truly exciting to have found you and your work. Let’s keep in touch.”

“Sure thing, Judd,” Dana said woozily.

It was hard to see into the car as Kristine drove away, but from what Dana could tell, Kramer and Kristine were both on their phones.

About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University. She has been awarded a 2017 Brown Foundation fellowship for a residency at the Dora Maar House in Ménerbes, France.

Related posts:
Fiction: The Unknown Masterpiece [Honore De Balzac]Laurie Fendrich: How critical thinking sabotages painting
Art and Fiction: Petrushevskaya and the painter’s whirl

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4 thoughts on “Fiction: The Teddy Bears [Laurie Fendrich]”

  1. Like many “mid-career” artists, I can really identify with this story—except that I have no Teddy Bears with which to hide my love of the mysteries of painting. But the story of real interest would be in the next chapter when our heroine must live with her Faustian bargain, both physically and especially, mentally.

  2. It happened to me. I got a phone call on the day the shipper was coming to pick up the paintings. The story was uncomfortably gripping. I wanted to see it end with, “…and Dana got her gun.”

  3. Good story, Laurie.

    Having passed the “mid career” part, you’ve given me hope that my ship will come in as an “older artist.”

    But, it’s still fun in the studio.

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