Famous Potatoes

I was often asked “What brought you to Boise Idaho?”. As though such a reason could be summed up in one sentence. The expected answer was, “a job” or “school”. But I had no stock answer. I was an eighteen-year-old who was restless to get away from home. I was not interested in traveling and seeing the world and how other cultures of people lived, instead I was interested in being close to unspoiled wilderness. I felt much as John Muir did, a religious connection to land unaffected by our own species. Looking on a map I saw that Boise was very close to some of the largest tracts of wilderness in the country. I formed a plan to strike out on my own, rent a place there, find a job and live for a while there. If all went well I would have time to explore some of this land

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I had originally planned to only stay through the winter and one summer. After that I would return to California and attend Chico State. Not that such plans excited me, I had very little interest in a formal education. Chico State seemed like an easy step until I could figure out the next one. I even took the SAT in Boise, scoring in the upper 90 percentile in both math and language. I took a Calculus course at Boise State to keep up with my skills. But beyond math, the academic world did not call out to me. Frankly I viewed it is a form of brain-washing. “Here is how we want you to think. Show us how well you have learned to think as we have trained you. If you perform well you will be rewarded with a good paying job and life will be very comfortable for you.”

That however was not the path I ended up choosing. The path I did end up choosing was a very convoluted one. It lacked a clear way forward, it was more of stumbling in the dark kind of path. It was however an inspired path and that was the most important thing for me. In retrospect I can see it was very similar to the path chosen by many artists I have known.

I met a woman in Boise and fell in love her name was Sandy. Maybe it was this relationship that gave me the courage to pursue an unprescribed endeavor. In high school I had a vague idea that I wanted to become a writer, based more on a feeling than any inherent skill I possessed. I had only a foggy notion of how I would accomplish that goal. In Boise I developed some more concrete ideas: I started a business of selling used books, I thought this might be a way of connecting with the literary world. It ending up being a lot of shelf building, box hauling, estate-sale-ing and sitting around. Then I tried a printing business, at first it started as a way of putting out a literary magazine, but then I realized I could make some money doing printing work for others. It ending up being a lot of machine moving, ink cleaning, paper hauling, trouble shooting and chemical smelling. Maybe I would have stuck with one of them if I could have earned enough money to make a living but in that sense I was a failure at both things.

I credit Kenneth for starting me on what eventually became my career path. He is the one who gave me a job in his picture framing shop; The Frame Job. At the time I felt like it saved my life. I felt a sense of heavy failure after my attempts to make a living in the book trade or the printing trade. At the same time I had grown out of my relationship. It was still very loving but I felt trapped, wanting out but unable to see a way out. I was at a low point in my life, honestly wondering if I should go on. Looking back from a distance I’m easier on myself for what I perceived to be failures at the time, and much more aware of the overblown dramas of our youth. It is an age when we tend to take ourselves too seriously. So at the ripe old age of 25 I put my two business failures behind me and began to learn the craft of picture framing.

My first impression of Kenneth was of a soft-spoken man, balding with a beard. He was in his late thirties about ten years older than me, but seemed older than that. I had met him a few years previously when he ran an art gallery in downtown Boise. Sandy was very outgoing in making acquaintances with interesting people. I would often tag along when she visited her latest acquaintance. Kenneth was one of them.

Chautauqua Gallery is what he called it. He had a lot invested in that name and was eager to tell the story of where that name came from. There was no Wikipedia in those days, information was still mostly a person to person way of connecting. As he described it, Chautauquas were basically educational gatherings which took place in the early 1900’s. They started in upstate New York and spread widely but remained Back East for the most part. I imagined a kind of gathering of people who were excited about new ideas and proposed new ways of doing things, but also had a sort of religious revivalist spirit connected with it. TED Talks sound like the closest modern-day equivalent.

Coincidentally, a couple of years later I met a woman who was born and raised in Chautauqua, New York. By my guess she was in her seventies at the time. I told her about Kenneth and the Chautauqua Gallery, she knew Kenneth and was also very familiar with the Chautauqua movement. But she wasn’t the source of his name, he came up with it independently.

Kenneth spoke with a quiet eagerness and surprising openness. He talked about how he was making very few sales in his gallery. How his landlord was willing to take a percentage of his sales as rent. I remember how he spoke in a quiet outrage about the fact that 50,000 Americans were killed in the Vietnam War over ten years but every year 50,000 people are killed by cars. This came up because he had brought his favorite country into the conversation; Holland. He was organizing a bike tour of Holland for that summer as he had done for the past few summers. Sandy always expressed a child-like excitement when she spoke to people she was interested in. This was always very effective in getting people to talk even more, it wasn’t her intention necessarily it was just her nature. He seemed to go on and on about Holland and what a great place it was and how he would live there if only he could. In the end Sandy thought I should go on this summer tour ( I think it was about a two-week tour) with Kenneth, she didn’t even ride a bike so she couldn’t go. I remember being drawn to Kenneth in a positive way. His soft-spoken demeanor matched my own and his outlook on life seemed very similar also. But I was not as excited in traveling to another country as Sandy was for me. It seemed like such a hassle to me.

It was a couple of years later that I met him again. Again it was Sandy who brought us together. Through a mutual friend she had heard Kenneth was looking for someone to help him out at his new picture framing store. He had started The Frame Job with Jim and they had decided to go their separate ways. Jim was the husband of the owner of a small gift shop; Mother Hubbard’s. It was located in downtown Boise on one of the few fixed up blocks of the downtown area. Much of downtown Boise was in a kind of permanent limbo, because of a long stalled redevelopment project. Jim had originally started his picture framing business in the basement of Mother Hubbard’s. Kenneth and he had gotten together and opened in a new location on lower 8th St. That’s where I first talked to Kenneth about working there. The pay was $4 an hour which was fine with me. He didn’t give me a really good idea of what I would be doing but I was confident of my ability to learn and adapt.

I remember the smell of that old shop on 8th St. It was right next door to a good-sized commercial printer. In fact Kenneth subleased his small space from them. Printers had a reputation for being big smokers and these printers were no exception. So the Frame Job always smelt of stale cigarette smoke that must have gotten trapped in the wall and slowly worked its way into our space. When I walked into work on my first day, Kenneth was busy talking to a customer. I waited for Kenneth to bring the conversation to an end and give me some direction. But the conversation seemed to go on and on. It was a young woman he spoke to and I sensed there was probably some mutual attraction. I started to look around to see if there was anything obvious I could start work on. There was a little back room with a chop saw in it. Aluminum shavings were piled high on the counters and the floors. I picked up a small Dustbuster laying nearby and began to vacuum up some of the aluminum shavings. After about 20 minutes went by, the woman left and Kenneth hurriedly came into the saw-room to tell me that the Dustbuster shouldn’t be used for vacuuming up the shavings, it wasn’t heavy-duty enough. He didn’t make any other recommendations about what I should use to vacuum up all the shavings. The piles of mixed aluminum frame cut offs and silver shavings was just the normal state of things. I soon learned to see as part of the natural terrain as well.

This pattern of Kenneth talking in length to the customers about things which had nothing to do with framing and a benign neglect toward organizing was a pattern which continued for entire time I worked at the Frame Job. There were days when I think he spent the entire day just talking and then at night he would try to catch up on all the work he missed doing throughout the day. Or I should say there were days when he didn’t spend the night trying to catch up on the work he missed doing that day. I often walked in to work and was amazed at what Kenneth had accomplished during the night. Telling me he hadn’t slept at all and then he just continued working throughout the day. Of course if someone came in he would always strike up another long running conversation.

Kenneth’s tone of voice was difficult for me to read at first. I thought I could tell most people’s’ feelings toward whom they spoke with from their tone and their facial expressions. Kenneth’s tone of voice was very understated, never rising or falling with emotion, but with an ever-present depressed quality to it. His excited tone was just a bit above his depressed tone. His excited tone seemed to peek out from behind grey curtains waiting to be covered up again as soon as the conversation ended. His facial expressions matched his tone of voice, a kind of consistent sad puppy dog look which would brighten just a bit on occasion.

It turned out Kenneth disguised his dislike well, because after nearly every long drawn out conversation he would turn around to me and start complaining about the person he was just talking to. He directed most of his complaints toward fellow artists. I can’t think of a single artist/customer he had much respect for. “He could have been a much better artist himself; if only.” He never said it, but that was the logical inference. I never could judge what kind of an artist he was. He talked about color and texture being the basis of all art, but I only remember seeing one piece of his work. It was a small watercolor figure drawing. It was a picture of a man facing sideways. It didn’t contain the detail of a realistic work. He had created the figure with patches of color. In my recollection it was reminiscent of that Renaissance artist who drew pictures of people by composing them of different varieties of fruit.

Spring by Giuseppe Arcimboldo circa 1550

Spring by Giuseppe Arcimboldo circa 1550

It seemed that Holland was his ideal of a place to live. I became used to the frequent references to how things are done so much better in Holland. I’m a person who tends to be loyal to the place where I am living and I liked living in Boise, but Holland did sound pretty ideal with Kenneth’s telling. The fact that most people rode their bikes to get around was just the start of it. According to Kenneth the natives had a very tolerant and accepting attitude toward people of different habits and beliefs. He also seemed to think they had a greater appreciation of art and other non-material things. Of course like all ideal societies they were much more egalitarian. This is how he told it anyway. The obvious question which came to mind was, “why doesn’t he move there”. I remember a couple of other mutual acquaintances voicing the same thought. In fact Kenneth even said he would love to move there and never mentioned what kept him from leaving Boise, a place he seemed to have little regard for.

The story of how he came to be acquainted with Holland unfolded over many tellings. Apparently Kenneth was stationed in Holland and Germany during the Vietnam War. He was drafted, but because of his art background they put him to work as an illustrator. An illustrator who looked at satellite photos and did renderings from them. He used to talk about how much could be seen with those photos and this was back in probably the early seventies. He described one satellite image of a Soviet ship, where they had a photo of a Russian sailor jumping overboard and committing suicide. Apparently this was used as some kind of Cold War propaganda. I don’t recall him ever describing any satellite photos he worked with that were particularly significant or any work he did that was particularly useful to the war effort. That fact tended to color Kenneth’s attitude toward the military, a bunch of people doing redundant unnecessary tasks.

Kenneth’s cynicism and disgust rose to a new level when he spoke of the military and his experience with it. He said that once you joined the army you became the property of the US government and they could do anything to you they wanted to, “cannon fodder” was his word for it. At one point while he was in the army his wisdom teeth became impacted and needed to be extracted. The oral surgeon was young and inexperienced and maybe not even an oral surgeon at all. He had to press his foot on Kenneth’s leg to get the leverage needed to remove his teeth. Kenneth said the oral surgeon “stood” on him W.C. Fields style while he was trying to pull out his teeth and he had bruises to prove it the next day. The pain was with him for days but still the army made him get up and perform his redundant duties regardless of his pain.

Kenneth rarely spoke of his wife. I was never quite sure if it was because of unhappiness between them or that was just part of his nature. After working at the Frame Job a few months, one of Kenneth’s fellow Holland bike travelers came in. Apparently he had been on the last summer’s tour of Holland with Kenneth. Kenneth had described that tour to me already. His description had alternated between a longing sigh and an ongoing complaint about one of the tour members that made life miserable for everybody else. I gathered that this visitor was not the one who was the source of everyone’s misery. Kenneth seemed glad to see him and they spoke in length. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation the man mentioned “so have you broken up with Susan (Kenneth’s wife) yet”. Kenneth’s sudden uneasiness and eagerness to change the direction of the conversation, told me a lot. Apparently at one point he had considered ending the marriage but somewhere along the road there was a change of heart. Kenneth had no need to fear I would pass any information on to his wife however, I knew a sensitive secret when I heard one, and knew when to keep it to myself. He was probably more worried about me passing it on to Sandy, who’s openness ran roughshod over quaint worries about privacy.

I eventually met Kenneth’s wife who was also a friendly soft-spoken soul as well. My first impression; she was a good match for Kenneth. Her appearance was healthy and wholesome looking. She worked as a school teacher and I got the impression that her income paid for most of their mutual expenses. He talked rarely about her work in the schools though I do remember him mentioning that a few parents, who were “religious nuts” made the school system very difficult for everyone else.

It turned out I was very adept at picture framing, it required a balanced skill set that suited me well. I started off by mostly cutting glass and fitting. Fitting is the final stage of the framing process when the glass and artwork is put into the frame, it is held in place with nails or springs as the case may be, and then a paper backing, and finally hangers and wire are installed. If there is a speck of lint under the glass, it often requires the need to take out the artwork and reinstall it. It is not the type of work for those who are impatient or easily flustered. It also requires a high degree of focus. We cut glass by hand at the Frame Job. Kenneth bought it in pallets of 3ft by 4 ft glass. A large truck equipped with a crane hoist would drop it off on our front step. Kenneth and the driver would then proceed to open the crate and then sheet by sheet bring it inside and set it on a rack, Kenneth had made for storing the glass. If any sheet was handled carelessly or bumped against a door frame it would shatter and break into pieces, possibly cutting the person handling it. Mostly it was the driver who ended up breaking one or two sheets in the delivery process, and usually the glass fell harmlessly to the floor.

I was impressed by Kenneth’s dexterity when taking on picture framing tasks. He cut glass without marking it and scored it in such a way that it broke almost silently. I learned that one could tell a lot about the quality of the glass cut by listening to how it broke. Kenneth often cut the excess foam core backing off a matted piece of art, without the help of a straightedge, something it took me years to duplicate. Back then we used a table top mat cutter which cut one side of the mat at a time. When and how the mat cutting blade was inserted and when it exited was very important to achieve a cleanly cut mat. A beginner like myself often created hooked or over-cut corners, or simply measured incorrectly. Kenneth rarely needed to re-cut a mat due to a mistake. But while trying to concentrate on fine measurements, careful cuts and handling delicate artwork, at the same time a customer might walk through the door to pick up their artwork or drop something new off. This required Kenneth’s attention and sometimes my own if two customers overlapped. It dawned on me that this is why Kenneth so often worked late at night, so he could work uninterrupted.

It was not a formula that was good for his health and it showed. His face was often pale and he had bags under his eyes when I came in for a day of work. He dragged himself around the shop the rest of the day, reaching down toward his crotch to push in his hernia which was one his of persistent ailments. I can picture him rubbing his hand over his bald head often and commenting in a self- denigrating fashion about his premature baldness. But there was something else about his head that seemed to bother him more than just baldness, he described it as a kind of burning sensation; “monkey fever” he called it. He claimed it began after the glass from the monkey cage fell on his head when he was working at the zoo. I assumed it was when he still lived in “Miz zer uh”. I think it was St Louis he where he grew up. He said the glass shattered and cut him, leaving him with a monkey contagion that had bothered him ever since.

This was not the only accident he told me of which nearly killed him. The other one he never mentioned until I worked with him more than a year and it was one I never heard him relate to anyone else. I felt like I had earned his respect and trust over those months. By that time I was working with customers confidently helping them decide which mats and frames looked best on their artwork.

He was driving through the Colorado Rockies with his wife as I recall. I think they were headed toward St. Louis on their way from Boise. They were traveling in one of those square back VWs and I’m imagining this took place in the mid-seventies. That would have put him and his wife in their late twenties. Of course it was a long drive and of course they were pushing themselves. Kenneth was driving, it was dark and raining and he became too sleepy to drive safely so they switched drivers. Kenneth was in a deep sleep when it happened but in the darkness. Susan had steered the VW over the side of a steep cliff. The car rolled over and over down the side of the cliff. The car was flattened like a can of sardines, but somehow they both lived through it. Kenneth claimed that if they had been wearing the shoulder type of seatbelt they would have died, they lived only because their bodies squeezed into the small protected part of the car. Their injuries were few considering how bad the accident was, but Kenneth’s back was never the same. As he told his story I sensed he still held on to some resentment against his wife even after all these years.

Kenneth’s VW bus is melded with his own personality in my mind. I can picture him driving into to work on one of those icy mornings when the air stung your nose if you breathed in too deeply. Turning the steering wheel around and around as he parked. His “bus” and the work he was doing on his bus was another one of his favorite topics. Apparently, because they had an air-cooled engine they had no heater so I remember a lot of discussion about the type of heater he had installed in his bus. It was not something relevant to my own life, so his description did not stick with me. The whole set-up sounded finicky and a little dangerous. I think it burned some kind of fuel but don’t know how that would have worked without filling up the interior with carbon monoxide. He did a lot of his own repair work when he had time but took it to a mechanic for more difficult items. Thinking back I remember him doing an awful lot of repairs in just the year and a half I worked at the Frame Job. But maybe a lot of that was just futzing around as owners of certain motor vehicles are prone to do. He took it to his mechanic when his CV joint needed to be replaced which was the most expensive repair that I recall. His mechanic had it for at least a couple of months before he finished it. Kenneth was very patient about it even though he needed it for work. I figured he must have been getting a really good deal on the work to let it slide that long. When he finally got his bus back he spoke with that kind of tamped down excitement I recognized as Kenneth’s enthusiasm, like a teenager who is really excited, but tries not to show it because he doesn’t want to seem like a kid anymore.

I lived at the north end of 8th St. in those days so I walked or rode my bike the 8 or 9 blocks I lived from work. Kenneth’s house was about four blocks over from where I lived with Maggie so it was about the same distance, but he drove every day. When his car was in the shop his wife dropped him off at work. I knew he didn’t have the extra time to walk that far everyday, but I often wondered why he never rode his bike. One day, he did ride it in and I could see we each had a different attitude toward our bikes. To me a bike was something to use to get from one place to another. Where mine was functional enough for travel, it had lots of chipped paint and tattered handlebar wrapping, his was really in pristine condition. I don’t remember a lot of details, it except that it looked well suited for the wide flat bike paths of Holland. It had fenders, something that was just extra weight in the dry climate of Boise, but would be a nice convenience in rainy weather to keep the rain water from splashing all over your back. Generally it was a comfort bike with wide tires and a little rack in the back.

Kenneth had some unexpected connections among the local community. In Holland he was taken with the Christmastime tradition of a candle lantern parades. Families would get together and make paper lanterns which glowed through their sides when a candle was placed inside. Then they would walk through the streets at night to show off their work. John Singer Sargeant did a gorgeous painting of children carrying candle lanterns titled Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. So Kenneth organized a candle lantern parade in Boise.

Candle Lanterns by John Singer Sargent

Candle Lanterns by John Singer Sargent

I did think it was odd that Kenneth would be the organizer of this event, because he displayed no interest in children during the entire time I knew him. But as he pointed out it wasn’t just for kids and he described some of the intricate candle lanterns he had made in years past. I was taken with the idea and thought it would be fun to create my own candle lantern. But it remained only an idea for me. I would have felt much too awkward participating in a parade that was made up of mostly families and their kids. Kenneth did have a side to him that I could see being good with children. His sense of wonder still burned within him. His brand of quiet understated excitement is very appealing to the more quiet, artistic kids.

As the parade approached, there was organizing that needed to be done. And that organizing involved meeting with a planning committee, something Kenneth spoke of with dread. He met with a group of women at the Frame Job two or three times before the event in order to plan it out. From his description it was a group of about 3 or 4 middle-aged women who were still connected with their German Heritage. Apparently candle lanterns were a German tradition as well as a Dutch tradition. And interestingly, after Kenneth started the candle lantern parade he learned that it had previously had a history in Boise among earlier generations of German immigrants. Kenneth called the women in this planning committee “The Nazis”. I was always afraid he would call them that in earshot of someone who knew them.

As I grew comfortable with picture framing work, Kenneth relied on me more and more. Usually I dealt with smaller less demanding work and Kenneth still handled the bigger items where an error might damage the artwork or require materials to be reordered. As the months went by I was handling some of the more difficult tasks such as vacuum mounting posters and joining the corners of frames together.

To join the frame corners we used four corner vises on a level table. The frame moulding was first cut to size with 45 degree angles. The vises only held about a ¼ inch of the bottom part of the frame so a nail could be placed above where the vise held it. First we took great care in aligning the corners in the vise so the corners fit snuggly with no gaps. Then we pre-drilled holes in the bottom and top of the frame so the nails could not be viewed when the picture hung on the wall. We used very thin drill bits which would snap easily if your hand wasn’t completely steady. After drilling we took one piece of moulding out of the vise at a time, adding glue and placing it back exactly where it was before. Now the frame was ready to be nailed, they weren’t nails really but very small brads with finish heads. After tapping the nail in with a light hammer, being careful not to dent the frame, we used a nail-set to put the small head of the nail below the surface of the frame. Nail hole filler matching the color of the frame was the finishing touch.

Kenneth’s approach to picture framing pushed some of the traditional rules. He set prices that were accommodating to a middle-income customers and many artists. Traditionally picture framers tried to appeal to the elite customer spending large sums of money on contrived framing jobs. He was able to keep the prices low by keeping things simple and trying to purchase lower cost materials. When making frame and matting choices he directed the customer to simple classic looks, making the artwork the main attraction not the framing.

Kenneth also liked to vacuum mount most of the artwork that was on paper. This was very useful when it came to posters printed on thin paper, which were a large part of the work we did. This process actually required more work and skill than simply sandwiching the poster between glass and backer and then putting a frame around it. The poster which is sandwiched between glass and backer will inevitably develop ripples over time as the surrounding humidity changes. Whereas a poster that is vacuum mounted will remain flat indefinitely because it becomes permanently and completely attached to its backing board. Kenneth used a liquid paste and a large vacuum press to accomplish this mounting as opposed to many picture framers who used dry-mounting film or spray adhesives. Spray adhesives dry out over time leaving bubbles in the mounted work and dry- mounting film requires heat to operate which can often damage artwork. Kenneth’s vacuum mounting process had its drawbacks as well; liquid glue tends to expand paper which can cause wrinkles meaning the framer has to work quickly. The layer of glue needed to be applied evenly and at just the right thickness. It also needed to be free of small pieces of grit or lint which might show through on the front as a small lump. Our vacuum press was basically one very large piece of glass held in place by a large metal framework. The framework could be lifted in the air with the help of two gas springs. Underneath was a matching sheet of rubber and around the edges was a foam gasket. When a compressor pump pulled the air out, the sheet of rubber pressed the poster (which was usually mounted on a thin sheet of paper covered foam called foamboard) up against the glass until all the air bubbles were pressed out.

There was a controversial element to vacuum mounting. The predominate school of thought in the world of conservation picture framing says; a framer should never permanently attach artwork to its mounting board and only conservation materials should be used. It’s not that mounting artwork damages the artwork in any way, it’s that it damages the monetary value of the piece and in a sense transforms it from its original state. So a poster or a map where the owner doesn’t care about any resale value but is more interested in having a well framed art on their wall would be fine to vacuum mount. A rare document should not be mounted permanently. A piece of original art where the artist decides to have it mounted themselves would be fine as long as conservation materials are used, because the artist has chosen to make that part of their artwork. But there was a lot of gray area in-between and Kenneth tended to push the gray area towards vacuum mounting. He hated people bringing framed art back that had become all rippled inside from changes in humidity.

Probably Kenneth’s biggest weakness when it came to his business was his lack of discipline when it came to organization of the workspace. He did keep a good schedule of whose work needed to be done and when it needed to be done. He never called customers when their work was finished, he gave them a date when they placed their order and had it finished for them most of the time. However when the work came in he put it in a folder and placed that folder somewhere on the many flat surfaces we had in our workshop. Often that folder would get buried under other work that came in after it or one of Kenneth’s many orders of posters he never really sold. Kenneth had a weakness for buying posters from catalogs. Sometimes a customer would come in wanting a certain poster for their wall or they would just look through the many poster catalogs we kept in the shop. If the customer placed an order for one item, Kenneth usually added another half-dozen posters to that order so he could meet the minimum quantity for a wholesale order. Those half-dozen extra posters usually ended up in folders floating around our workshop. We had space for a few in a small display rack we kept in our shop but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

On one occasion our UPS driver ordered a poster from one of the catalogs, it was captioned with “Slippery When Wet”. It was a picture of a woman dressed in nothing but a clear rain coat looking very seductive, with fantasy breasts. Kenneth added his usually half-dozen posters, which were always reproductions of serious paintings when placing the order. His taste at that time tended toward more shapes and colors such as Kandinsky, Delaunay, Rothko or Pollock though he also appreciated much more realistic artwork. He did try to buy things he thought the customers would want, which tended to be more interior design style (conservative color without sentiment or a statement). The UPS driver never paid for or picked up his “Slippery When Wet” poster and Kenneth was stuck with it. He called him “Randy Andy” and grumbled about it every time the driver delivered us a package. Apparently the UPS driver had taken up with a serious girlfriend and couldn’t have that kind of thing in his house.

Our shop was filled with all types and sizes of folders. They were kept both under the counters where they belonged, and on top when that was the only space available. Finding a particular piece of artwork that needed to be framed sometimes required a kind of archaeological dig. Though Kenneth never lost anything except countless hours searching for work buried underneath layers of other work. On one occasion this cost us one of our most regular and consistent customers. Kenneth dreaded the “duck stamps”, they required double mats. each with a window cut for the larger print (a well executed very realistic painting of some duck in a kind of misty-eyed Audubon style) along with a tiny window for the stamps. Duck hunters bought these stamps as permits, and I guess for some extra money they could get an art print with it. The Nature Store just a block up the street sold a lot of these framed pieces. It was a kind of traditional men’s den sort of artwork. Between the frames being difficult to assemble and the mats needing to be cut flawlessly, Kenneth tended to put this work off until the last-minute (usually a long working night). I never framed any of these duck stamps they were too demanding for my skill level at the time. The owners of the store had dropped off one set of duck stamps a couple of months earlier and came in wondering when they would be finished. They were quite reasonably demanding that they be finished soon. So towards the end of the day Kenneth started looking for where he had put them so he could work on them that night. But when I came in the next morning the entire shop had been cleaned up and he still had not found them. The owners came in that day and were highly upset, there was no yelling, Kenneth always kept things from going there. Still they made it clear they would do no more business with him. Kenneth did find the duck stamps later that day and completed the framing for them. They picked them up but never brought us duck stamps again.

We sometimes listened to music while we worked, Kenneth would usually tune into KBSU, the college radio station. The alternative to KBSU was, lots of country western stations, 50’s schmaltz, or pop. Kenneth listened to KBSU but he wasn’t a fan of the DJ’s. He hated their smart-ass comments between songs. He thought they were immature, and thinking back they really were, but then I was immature myself. I thought of their comments as more witty than smart-ass. I had always listened to this station at home. It was usually a smörgåsbord, though they had their jazz, classical and blues shows, during the day it was run by the younger DJ’s who played more cutting edge stuff, what they used to call alternative rock. Bands like REM, U2, Sting, and the Talking Heads were fresh then. They also had a show called “Fossil Flashbacks”. Now when you hear the phrase “songs from the 60’s”, you think “not again”. But back then, that was music that hadn’t had any radio play for a long time.

I had Kenneth pegged for a jazz guy myself, jazz along the lines of Miles Davis. CD’s were just coming out and Kenneth invested in three or four to give us a break from the dj’s at KBSU. His CD’s were mostly Windham Hill recordings and one Cat Stevens Greatest Hits type of thing, but no Miles Davis. I liked his choices, the Windham Hill recordings were good frame shop background music, mostly all acoustical so you could concentrate on your work without the words distracting your mind. I didn’t know who Cat Stevens was because I had never paid any attention to who sang any particular song. When I listened to music on the radio and it never mattered to me. After hearing his CD’s though I realized that those were some of my favorites. Songs like; Morning has Broken, Peace Train, Moon Shadow, Another Saturday Night, and Baby It’s a Wild World. Kenneth had that habit of putting a CD into the play and forgetting about it, just leaving it on to repeat over and over. With the Windham Hill recordings you almost didn’t even notice that they were repeating over and over. But one day he left that Cat Stevens Hits CD in for almost the entire day and it has been hard for me to hear those songs in the same way ever again.

In spite of Kenneth’s poor time management skills, it became clear to me that the Frame Job was a thriving business. Kenneth was doing something right. When I spoke to a mutual friend (another artist) about Kenneth’s success he seemed as surprised as anyone. He had known Kenneth from the Chautauqua Studios days, and wasn’t impressed with Kenneth’s business savvy though he did respect him as an artist. Kenneth had the ability to systematize his plans and follow through, which is an uncommon trait for an artist. This is what I attributed to the Frame Job’s success. But Kenneth knew the pace of his work at the Frame Job could not be sustained. He hesitated to hire anyone else for several reasons; training would take up even more of his time and there was no guarantee it would be worth the effort, it would cost him even more time in book work, the new hire might never work fast enough to pay their own salary, and they could make mistakes that would work in the opposite direction. So Kenneth’s way out was to find a buyer for the Frame Job. He never mentioned it to customers but he spread the word through his own private grapevine and a think he placed an ad in the Idaho Statesman. At one point it looked like he had found a buyer. It was a local accountant who wanted a business for his wife to operate. He met with Kenneth a number of times and planned for his wife to come in and check out the place. Kenneth first talked with me to see if I thought I could handle the transition. The accountant’s wife had no experience in picture framing so I would have to take on all the work and most likely teach her at the same time. Not knowing any better and having a distorted view of what I was capable of, I said I was up for it.

The accountant’s wife came in one day without her husband. She spent around an hour there as I worked and Kenneth showed her around. She was very positive and very engaging. Her customer relations skills would have been excellent. She was also young (though she had about five years on me) and very attractive. But the thing I remember most about her was what she wore. She wore a white, semi transparent blouse and it was clear she wasn’t wearing a bra underneath. The redness of her nipples could be easily seen but not the details. I thought I might really like having this woman as my boss. I imagined myself eagerly coming into work each day wondering how she would be dressed and working beside her. It would definitely be a nice change from Kenneth and his downward pressing energy.

But alas it was not to be. A few days later the accountant looked over Kenneth’s financial records and told him the deal was off. He would not have his wife working full-time for what little pay Kenneth was taking home. It was a big let-down for Kenneth, he kept talking about how much this woman seemed excited about the business. Though I thought it was odd Kenneth never mentioned how she was dressed or at least how attractive she was. I never said anything because I didn’t want to seem like I was lusting for her and perhaps it was the same for Kenneth. In retrospect it was just an attractive woman showing off a bit; normal human stuff. But it did seem like something Kenneth and I should have mentioned between us.

After the sale fell through Kenneth began to look for some more help around the frame shop. There was a couple that came into the frame shop often, who seemed to be good friends with Kenneth and his wife. They knew of a man who was looking for work and had an interest in art. His name was Chris and he soon began working with us at the Frame Job. He didn’t seem like a good fit to me from the start. He had the air of a ranch-hand. He was older than both Kenneth and I, probably in his forties and still single. I sensed he was not happily single, he seemed to have a negative attitude around women, as though there was some history there. He wore rugged looking clothes and he was not an attractive soul. He spoke slowly with an unrelenting sneer as though he was searching for words to show his contempt. Where Kenneth’s contempt for certain kind of art was humorous and came from a well-studied background (he had a master’s degree in fine art), Chris’s contempt just seemed ugly. He spoke of working at the Boise Museum of Art, I assumed it was as a volunteer, and he did have a pretty good knowledge of art history. However he did not catch on to the skills of picture framing quickly. His dexterity was average and he was slow to understand the various processes involved in picture framing. But Kenneth stuck with him as he stuck with most things. We did keep him away from the customers, as he seemed lost when dealing with the clientèle.

Chris started working at the Frame Job just before our big move. Kenneth’s friend Andrea owned a beauty salon just a few buildings down from us. Her father owned that building which housed her salon and another he wanted to renovate and rent out. We were needing more space and so was the print-shop we were subletting from. The print-shop was just getting into digital typesetting and needed more space. Andrea was a very sweet soul who took up art as a hobby. She and Kenneth were good friends who appeared to have known each other for years. I’m not sure how they met but a mutual interest in art kept them together. Kenneth was at his best while speaking to Andrea, he seemed to light up and drop his cynicism while in her presence. She was a physically unattractive woman but seemed contented in her own body. I only remember her being unattractive because another woman took a serious romantic interest in her. When we moved into our new space, Andrea lived upstairs and our workshop down below. Andrea’s visitor had to come through our workshop to enter her space up above. This bold lesbian kept showing up despite the fact Andrea clearly voiced her lack of interest. “I don’t see why she has any interest in me, considering what I look like.” The other woman eventually gave up and Andrea seemed relieved.

Andrea’s father was a “Constitutionalist” according to Kenneth. Being a Constitutionalist is the Idaho version of eccentricity and apparently there was a good-sized group of them in Boise. It was a fundamentalist take on citizenship. If it wasn’t spelled out specifically in the US Constitution a Constitutionalist could choose not to partake. This included such things as paying income tax, purchasing insurance, or getting building permits. Paper currency was not legitimate to a Constitutionalist because it was not backed up by the gold standard, though I assumed he took Kenneth’s money when he gave it to him. It made for a lot less paperwork and I have to admit it sounded appealing, in a Little House on the Prairie sort of way. Though it did have its downside. I assumed Andrea’s father never got a permit for the renovation he did on our new workspace. Since it was mostly interior work, the issue never came up but if the city had heard about the renovation the building could have been condemned and we would have been out of business. He did give us a really good deal on the rent. Once when Andrea was borrowing her father’s truck she was rear-ended by a Scandinavian Design deliver truck. He was a young driver who was eating a hamburger while driving and didn’t see the stoplight. Because there was no insurance on the vehicle this ended up costing Andrea and her father a lot of money and a lot of trouble.

Chris and I helped Kenneth with the move, though Kenneth did most of it himself after hours. Filling up his van and taking dozens of trips back and forth. The new location was nicely rebuilt, it seemed spacious and luxurious compared to the cramped old spot. There was none of the stale cigarette smell. There was even space for a display rack where Kenneth could put some of his many posters for sale. Andrea’s dad had installed a new wood floor which added a nice warmth to the place. However it was made of pinewood which is very soft and didn’t hold up well to high traffic. After a few women with high heels walked across it, dents began to appear.

Andrea was not one of those women in high heels. I liked having her living upstairs, I thought it put Kenneth on his best behavior. She could hear everything from her apartment above us, so he kept his negativity to a minimum. She claimed she could tell who was entering the door, Kenneth, me or Chris, by the manner in which we opened it. She complimented me on how quietly and consciously I entered the building. Also she began to have live figure drawing in her apartment. Inviting a model to pose while a small group sat around and sketched. I liked watching the model walk through in her robe with her young wide hips and large breasts. Andrea carried an armful of pillows to make her comfortable. I never saw the model posing but it was nice imagining her laying out on her pillows like a classically posed reclining nude, while the artists sat around carefully looking at her while perfecting their craft.

Chris did not last long after our move, our business began to slow down after our move and Kenneth’s hand was forced. He had a hard time firing him but he was relieved when he finally did. Having Chris as an employee cost him dearly. There was the American Festival Ballet mounting job which happened right before our move. An artist that Kenneth knew from Chautauqua Studios days had done some large pastel drawings of dancers in a kind of loose, flowing style. Most likely it was a gratis job for the Ballet Company with some promise of a cut for the artist if something sold. Kenneth did not like his art nor did he like the artist’s arrogant attitude. The artist wanted the art be given a rigid backer, so they could be displayed on easels for an event the ballet company was having. He wanted to spend as little money as possible. Kenneth’s solution to this, was vacuum mounting; glueing the artwork to rigid piece of Foam Core, a lightweight material that could be easily trimmed with a knife. I was busy working on more difficult framing jobs and Kenneth was busy with the move, so this vacuum mounting job fell into Chris’s hands. He opened the folder and mounted each piece as it was, facing him, he did not notice (or did notice but thought that it was an artistic statement) that one drawing had a big X drawn through it to show that this was not the side to use, the correct sketch was on the backside. Chris didn’t bother flipping them over to look what was on the backside he just mounted them all, using plenty of glue to hold them in place. After our move we received a phone call from the artist claiming that not only was the one sketch that was mounted backside-up ruined, but all of them were ruined because they were attached to the foam core, which is not an archival product. A few days later Kenneth received the news he was being sued for $5,000. It seemed to be a sum which was arbitrary and inflated for the purpose of keeping it out of small claims court. Small claims court would probably quickly determine that Kenneth was only following instructions with the rest of the artwork and he was only liable for the one, which would be generously appraised at $200. Instead Kenneth hired his own lawyer friend to defend him, this friend worked at a discounted rate but not for free. The legal fees were closing in on $5,000 by the time I left the Frame Job.

My time in Boise had played itself out after eight years. I was tired of Boise, it seemed stifling now, where it had once seemed full of possibilities. I originally moved there because it was so close some of the largest and most remote wilderness areas. But the focus of my life was changing, I was finding myself more interested in people then the outdoors. Also I found myself needing to find a way to extract myself from a relationship with Sandy, which was a major part of my stifling feeling. Moving back to California to be near my family seemed like a way to accomplish that. So I quit my work at the Frame Job and gave myself a couple of months to get myself prepared. I had a lot to do.

After my last day at the Frame Job I never returned there to visit Kenneth again. But I did return to Boise about a year later. I heard that he had sold the frame shop for a healthy sum of money and he was moving to Portland. I only hoped that the lawsuit had been dropped as it should have been.

While visiting, I walked by the house where I knew he and his wife lived; not seeing his van I knew he wasn’t home. I looked at his front lawn, remembering how he used to describe it as being “napalmed”. He hated taking care of grass, so he simply sprayed it all with weed killer. Indeed nothing much was growing in his front yard. I walked in the alley behind to get a look at his converted garage. I remembered how he described his rock collection as filling the entire building. I knew it was exaggeration, still it was a large building. When I asked him about this collection; was there a specific type of rock he collected?, did he identify them and label them? No he just collected various rocks that he liked. The collection was started while he was still living in Germany though it was much smaller it was still a chore to move it when he moved back to the states.

The last time I saw Kenneth was during that visit. I was walking up the North End of 8th St. and saw his van driving south toward me. We waved at each other as he passed. There was that sound of his engine, I think his engine sounded a little different from any other VW van I’ve heard since then. I noticed he had Oregon plates, the one with the evergreen tree on them, instead of the “Famous Potatoes”.

Little Chief

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