BB King on Paper

Milo on occasion drops by my current frameshop which is where Dancing Man Studios used to be. I was talking to Milo the other day from my office in one of Bill’s backrooms and I offered to photograph two of his painting for reproduction. Bill never used to charge him for it and within reason I don’t either. I told him to take his paintings over to the Tannery because that is where Steve our photographer has our camera set up. I mentioned that Steve gets confused easily. Milo stops and says “Whoa, I just had a flash back”. He rubbed his beard. His beard these days is grey, coming to a point and with a twirled mustache. He still looks the part of the committed artist. He then tells me that he was standing in the exact same place and Bill was standing were I was while someone from a university poetry publication was talking to Bill. The name of the poetry publication was Quarry West. This poetry editor was looking for art to put into his publication and asked what kind of art Milo did. Milo tossed around a few categories like impressionist around a bit but didn’t really have an answer so he gave the question to Bill. Bill replied that Milo was a “confusionist”. Milo told me this story without knowing I was writing about him and had no idea what I had written in the previous story about him. This would have been an event that took place 30 years previously. One of literally 100 of thousands of small events that must have happened to him over the intervening years and he brings up something that just happens to explain my previous story.

When I first knew Milo, his specialty was painting portraits of musicians, especially black, blues and jazz musicians. He was a bit of a musician himself and often heard him try to line up jam sessions with people he had just met. He played the blues harp, and he was pretty good from the one or two times I heard him play. He knew music and knew what was natural and what wasn’t. This B.B. King drawing of his I’m guessing was from the early eighties. I think it was a precursor to the style he became known around town for. By the time I met him he was doing something a little more complex but in the same vein.

I like how there is a lipstick shaped kiss at the bottom of this print. It reminds me of how Milo was often looking for love. Often looking because he was rarely successful. I’m guessing he was about 10 or 12 years older than myself, so if I was 28 when I opened PaperArt that would have made him close to 40. He had a girlfriend at the time and life was good but it did not last, at some point he became single and unhappy again. I wish I knew the story behind the lipstick kiss under B.B. King’s name. Is it directed at B.B. King or is it directed at Milo? My guess would be it was Milo’s girlfriend at the time showing she had a thing for B.B. King. Musicians tend to bring out a kind of sexual awe in certain women. I think this is the kind of woman that George wanted attracted to him. Maybe if he had been an extraordinary musician he could feel the love that they felt. But he wasn’t, he was just a struggling artist sleeping on friends couches drawing pictures of people who he would have loved to be.

During my 3 years at PaperArt, George may have come into my shop 3 or 4 times. It was always without warning and when I was busy with some other work. He usually had some event happening that he wanted to tell me about. More often than not it was a show he was having at Dancing Man Galllery. I think Bill let him have the space at no charge if it was open for week or so. I never went to any of his shows during the openings, I very rarely went to any artists’ shows. I’ve always been a poor party person. I get uneasy standing around and just trying to talking, I want to be doing something, my awkwardness makes me depressed. If I drink a little it doesn’t help, it does make me more at ease being around a lot of people but it makes me more of a passive observer.

George told us once there was a small village in France that took him in and honored his work like it should be honored. He must have traveled to this village around the time I first met him. There might be some truth to this story of his, France may have a culture more appreciative of artists who are very dedicated to their work. And there was no question that George was a dedicated artist, more than any other I’ve known. Paris would be too big and anonymous, its artists too established for George to make any kind of impression, but maybe a small village would take him in. I’ve always heard that Europe is more appreciative of American blues and jazz musicians than even Americans are. So as I became used to his continuing complaints about how he wasn’t appreciated in Santa Cruz and how there was somewhere else that would appreciate him, I thought of that small village in France. As others who worked with me at my frameshop got to know George, it became our inside joke that, there was a small village somewhere in France where he was the king.

He may have spoke a bit of French but whenever I heard him speak French, his American accent was comically bad, pronouncing the consonants at the ends of words and flattening out the French lilt. But he remained convinced he could speak enough French to get by. And he returned to France many years later. He came in the my shop (This one on Pacific Ave.) and told me that Bonnie Riatt had purchased one of his paintings for 5,000 dollars. He often tried to get backstage before and after certain shows in and around Santa Cruz. It was usually with the plan of getting a portrait of the headlining musician signed by them. It was probably a bit of charity on Bonnie Riatt’s part. Still it was quite an achievement I thought it was a real breakthrough for him. He could afford to pay his own rent and focus on his art for maybe as long as a year without having to struggle day to day. But no, it wasn’t like him to spend his money on something sensible, instead he decided he would buy a plane ticket to Paris, and once again try to make it in that artists’ promised land. By then his bitterness was showing itself, he spoke often of getting out of Santa Cruz, going somewhere that an artist like himself would be truly appreciated. Getting away from watercolor landscapes, student artists and visionaries. Whenever he came into my shop on Pacific Ave. he would verbally abuse the work of whatever artist I happened to be working on, especially if they were known around town and made some money from selling their art. The one exception was realist painters he never had anything bad to say about realist painters. Still I was sorry to see him go.

Of course this wasn’t until much later that I saw this side of George. Those first few years he seemed admirable in his dedication if not always his talent. In this painting George identifies his subject with a name, he didn’t do that so much on his later paintings. There is probably nothing worse as a portrait-artist then having someone look at it and wonder who it is supposed to be. Even though I think George has done a good job capturing that energy which is B.B., I honestly wouldn’t have known who it was. In part because he is very young in this picture and also it is not a well known composition. That is to say George probably created this pose and this composition himself. Later on he started using a lot of well recognized photos of famous people and working from those compositions. It was not exactly a painting approach that is well thought of. It is kind of like a band doing cover songs, or like a storyteller never making up his/her own stories. It gets the job done and it is a people pleaser, but it doesn’t get the respect among fellow artists or those with a strong knowledge of art.

He might have used a photo in this drawing I don’t know but you don’t see too many shots of B.B. Holding his guitar sideways while his body is mostly facing forward, kind of an awkward playing angle. Something a guitar player might do for show but then return to a more comfortable position. That distorted angle of his pinky finger and his knobby fingers are typical of Milo’s style. I guess it is more caricature than portraiture. George got knocked for that as well; “he’s a caricature artist not a portrait-artist”. I don’t like labels so much. George painted the way he painted and he more or less still does the same thing. He has devoted his entire life to it and doesn’t really know anything else, except whinging.


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