Introducing a new column, Boy With Shovel, by Chad M. Christensen. In this first installment, “The Philistine,” Chad considers an odd artwork that found its way to him.
I received a gift last week, or at least our office did. My graduate assistant brought in a painting she had received from a friend out in Colorado. It was intended, she said, to go up on our office wall. At first, I welcomed the idea of hanging some art since our walls were mostly bare. But when I saw the painting, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
She explained to me that it had been acquired at a thrift store. I nodded, which she took as confirmation to hang it up. As she began to hammer a nail in, I looked at it more closely. This wasn’t a painting that was commissioned or even artwork that was intended to be sold. This was a kind of found art—a labor of love. Something saved from the oblivion of some back-storage room at a Salvation Army. A painting left in the clutter of things after grandma died, her greedy kids unsure of where it came from or what to do with it but who quickly tossed it in the Goodwill bin outside their local gas station. It’s unfortunate, really, that this is how most of us will go.
The painting itself is, well—hard to describe. It’s an image of a young boy wearing sweatpants who appears to have a mental disability. At least, I think he has a disability. His face seems distorted somehow. But I can’t tell whether this was done intentionally by the artist or not.
And they’ve also armed this young boy with a shovel, which he struggles to use as he dumps what appears to be black dirt into a red wheelbarrow. There are some trees in the background, aspens, I suspect, but the main focus seems to be on the child struggling with the shovel. It’s his facial expression that bothers me.
This wasn’t a painting that was commissioned or even artwork that was intended to be sold. This was a kind of found art—a labor of love.
This is not the first time I’ve been gifted with some unusual artwork. A friend of mine, an excellent painter in Omaha, once offered to draw me up something for my office wall. Unsure if he was serious or just being facetious, I suggested that he should draw me some vaginas. Regrettably, the bastard took this as a challenge and told me he would immediately have to do some in-depth research. Several weeks later, he was at my doorstep with it framed. It had been done in sharpie markers, and it looked like a horrifying Where’s Waldo of female genitalia. Several of them were pierced. Some had mustaches. A few were even wearing hats.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked. “Honestly, they’ll fire my ass.”
He just stood there and grinned. So, instead, I put it up in my home office, right above my desk, and for some strange reason, my children seem to enjoy staring into it. They like the detail, they tell me. My youngest son has named one of them. Even my wife enjoys the artwork. I think she likes the idea of the female anatomy staring down on me. An up-close and personal image of the great authoritarian woman, forever judging me and keeping me in line. And maybe she’s right. I think I have been working harder with them looming over me—a constant reminder of what’s waiting.
My wife and I were in Santa Fe earlier this year, and we had intended to go to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. But we drank too much the night before and ended up lingering from couch to couch in our adobe room. By the time we got to the museum, they were getting ready to close. I managed to pop my head in the door and catch a glimpse of what I believe to be one of the infamous vulva flowers, but the tile floor was wet and I fell, nearly hitting my head. The custodian doing the mopping seemed more irritated with me than anything. In her eyes, I could see she had no concern for my safety or well-being—only contempt. I pulled myself up by the entrance railing and slowly made my way back out through the doors to my wife, confused by my wetness.
As I look closer now at the “Boy With Shovel” painting, I think maybe I’m starting to understand why he struggles. His feet and hands are too small for his body, and for his head. His eyes are sleepy and old as if he’s being forced to use the shovel. How long has he been doing this? Does he really have a disability? Jesus, who painted this? When and where did this happen?
I’m going to put on the Ramones now—and I’m going to play it loud. Because—there are no answers here. None whatsoever. I ask my youngest son what he thinks of the painting, and he says, very clearly, “The boy must be in trouble.”