Avant ‘Tard

Mario knew he wouldn’t be able to reach terminal velocity in the short hallway, so he started his sprint from the center of the building. He’d planned pretty well. The blank canvas panel was firmly attached to the emergency exit door at the end of the hall. The jars of paint were open and ready in the atrium. Clean towels were waiting for him in the stairwell next to his second set of clothes.

What he didn’t plan for was the hapless freshman coming out of room 812. I was running late as usual, so I guess I didn’t notice the hallway floor had been carefully covered with newsprint. In my defense, I wasn’t expecting to collide with a streaking Spaniard covered in glitter and acrylic paint.

“Oi! Oi!” was all he had time to shout before he hit. For my part, I was only beginning to process the freakish image of a naked man sprinting toward me.

Avant ‘Tard

He did knock me off my feet, but again in my defense, his success in doing so was most likely aided by my subconscious desire to minimize our contact. My books flew in every direction. My glasses were knocked from my face. Paint splattered on the walls, the doors, my clothes.

By now, as I started to pick myself up, my brain had assessed the full situation. “What the hell is going on?” I asked, taking a small comfort in the fact that my vision was very bad without my glasses.

“What’s going on?” he mocked. “You weren’t looking where you were going. That’s what the hell is going on.”

“Well,” I responded, “I guess I was really expecting this” I waved my arms about, indicating the absurdness of the situation. “I didn’t see a ‘naked dude crossing’ sign or anything.”

My rebuttal seemed to remind Mario that he was indeed starkers in a public space. Without another word, he trudged down the hall toward his clothes. I didn’t watch him go. Instead, I began to search for my glasses and the stuff I was carrying.

— — —

Ms. Watts taught ART 206. She was fiercely unconventional and process-oriented. It was well-known in her department and among the students that she gave little consideration to the product. Unlike the other professors at her teaching level, she was also well-exhibited and published. If you could think of a new, creative and dangerous way to produce dreck, you were guaranteed a good grade, and—even more valuable—her approval.

ART 206 was “creative composition in modern style”. It wasn’t required but a lot of art majors flocked to it for the challenge and the opportunity to prove their edginess. Half the students dropped out in the first week. My guess was the lack of structure and amount of lab time was not thought to be worth the reward.

Anyway, that was how I blundered into that close encounter with Mario. I was coming out of 812—Ms. Watts’ office—after getting her signed blessing to take 206. I’d been on the waiting list for over a week, so I’d needed her signature.

So, after investigating the commotion in the hallway, Ms. Watts merely offered me a friendly shrug, welcomed me again to her class, and went back into her office.

I should mention here that young artists are hopelessly competitive. Clearly, Mario the streaker was something of a top pupil. I couldn’t let him remain the king of the hill. I was going to take his title. I had to.

(Besides, he’d ruined my best Hawaiian shirt with his paint.)

— — —

ART 206 was exactly as advertised: a bunch of disaffected artists taking cues from whichever avant-garde nut who’d made it to the police reports that week for “challenging the norms of art”.

In her defense, Ms. Watts was often called upon to manage the dementia and defuse the schemes of some of her more overzealous students. One guy’s idea of painting with his own semen was thankfully vetoed. Another student’s idea of covering all the shrubs in the courtyard with plaster was ruled out because of possible conflict with the Horticulture department.

All the girls loved Mario. He was tall, dark, and self-absorbed. He didn’t notice how they all stared at him when he spoke with his Spanish accent. If he had, I’m sure he would have created a monument/installation with all the wet chairs he’d caused.

So (speaking of chairs) I planned my usurpation of his throne. My final project would put me beyond the top. I’d be a legend in my time.

(Besides, Mario was a cubist disciple, and I belonged to the surrealist school. I had to take that little Picasshole down.)

— — —

That semester was a study of inane one-upsmanship. For the midterm project, I created a 3D collage of papier mâchè and fish guts. Ms. Watts was impressed. Mario wowed her with a sculpture made by dropping rusted drill bits from the Eighth floor balcony into a tub of modeling gel. Round one was his.

Finals week arrived quickly, but I had a great piece planned. The muse of the avant-garde was smiling on me. I gathered the materials I’d need: several sheets of coloured clear plastic, lots of rubber cement, tile cutters, and a bottle of lighter fluid.

If it had worked, I would have been hailed as the most creative artist the University had seen in a long time. As it went, I became popular, but not in the way I would have preferred.

It wasn’t so much the fire; it was the smoke. Setting fire to 30 sheets of cemented plastic in the hallway was, in reflection, not the best idea I’d ever had. The sprinkler systems went before the alarms. The closest of them had put the fire out almost immediately, but as the noxious smoke spread along the ceiling, they all started in a cascade that I had to admit was quite stunning. (I wish I’d filmed it.)

What happened after that was pretty much a blur. As the students and teachers left their classes and started to evacuate, my first thought was to blend in, joining them in their surprise and annoyance. Oh, what the hell. Did one of Watts’ dumbass students try to burn the place down? What kind of jackass would set fire to plastic inside the damn building? Etc, etc.

In my defense, I didn’t do that. I ran down the stairs to fetch the building manager, and told him exactly what had happened on the eighth floor.

Well, when the smoke cleared. I faced an academic dismissal. Somehow, I managed to talk the dean into just giving me a year’s probation. For the rest of my time there, I would manage to avoid that level of trouble.

— — —

A week later, Ms. Watts invited all her students to one of her solo exhibitions at a local downtown gallery. We were all excited to go, since we’d spent so much time discussing our mutual love for progressive art.

Ms. Watts’ work, it turned out, was far from the advanced, process-oriented art I expected. The pieces were all the same: framed blue denim with silly bleach-worn heart shapes in the center. When she mentioned that the weathered look of the pieces was done by leaving them out in the rain, the attendees all responded with awe, except for me.

My behaviour, and that of my peers suddenly no longer made sense. We were all in open competition for the respect of this teacher. We risked life and limb slamming ourselves into rigid canvases, setting fires, and dropping dangerous objects to win her approval. We’d pushed our creative minds to dangerous territory for a professor who created cute little hearts?

After that realization, I sought out my neglected sense of aesthetics. I turned away from Ms. Watts’ school of thought. The final product just had to make the process worth the time, or else the artist just ends up with trite work whose processes need to be explained in order to justify its existence. The product, I decided, should be worthy of the process. I never sought the approval of a mentor again. That experience turned me into my own artist and I have become a product worthy of my process.