Photo Credits: Images were taken from his Facebook page.
I started in January for a course in narrative writing and continued it through the spring semester with the intent of freelancing it. However, I was never able to find a publication interested in running the story. Since the article was written, Doug has left the Dallas Museum of Art for an exhibition presenter position at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. This article should be read imagining it is still March 2014. This is the article that I am the most proud of in my career so far so please enjoy. Words of criticism and encouragement are welcome. Thanks, Adam.
Doug draws a project board for circuitry, a needle, a wad of silver wire and a crystalline rock from the pockets of his black slacks. Using the needle, he threads the silver wire through holes in the project board precisely chosen to secure the rock, trying to complete the small abstract sculpture by the end of the day.The tall, younger-looking 28-year-old with a degree from a prestigious art school pays his bills with a long career in eclectic jobs. Although he couldn’t get his original pieces shown here, he took a job doing the next best thing. He is a gallery attendant, paid an hourly rate of nine dollars to watch guests at the Dallas Museum of Art appreciate the art of others.
Doug couldn’t show his original pieces here, though he says he never wants to. His projects whether pocket-sized wood cutouts or large potted plant sized grocery bag flowers, use odd materials that are cheap and easily accessible, like driftwood and his tortoises.
With his slacks, he uniforms with a black DMA athletic polo with a nametag on a lanyard around his neck akin to a Burger King employee. It’s a little warm for him in the gallery today, but sometimes he’ll include a branded DMA athletic jacket.
A few weeks ago, DMA guests wouldn’t have known he was an aspiring artist. He wasn’t pulling tools out of his pocket or the small sketchpad in which he does his illustrations. Doug recently tested his aspirations as an artist when he tried to submit his DMA-crafted sculptures to a local gallery. The disappointment got to him. Since January, at least four shows have already rejected him and his inquiry emails.
Now, guests delight in seeing the young man at work. A small boy, probably 5, eyeballs Doug with awe as he walks up the staircase to his first post. Doug puts the tools back in his pocket and waves to the boy who, realizing he was spotted, clings to his dad shying his face from Doug. Doug giggled and kept walking. Sometimes he likes to freak the kids out.
At the top of the stairs, Doug detours right into a gallery of art available for purchase from the museum catalog. A modern chandelier beckons Doug like a bug lamp on a hot summer night. Jealousy briefly creeps across his face.
Doug finds ideas but not the best ways to get them out and share them. While some of his art is practical, like lamps and coffee tables, it’s hard to find places to display and a buyer. Even a successful Kickstarter campaign didn’t go his way. After he raised enough money, he realized the project was too immense to undertake on his own.
For 30 hours a week, he tries to create while trying to teach people to appreciate the creations of those who came before him – some men who didn’t make it until they were twice Doug’s age or dead. He stands at posts among the work of those who made it, while he tinkers with eclectic tools and materials. He is an unusual portrait of a not-quite-starving artist. But he still has time to make his break into the unusual and competitive world of fine art.
Each morning before the daily meeting where managers announce new pieces, potential group visits, and daily assignments, Doug gets hugged by several of his coworkers, some longer and stronger than others according to their likelihood of sneaking a conversation. Before the meeting starts, all attendants scan their fingerprint to clock in– perhaps more for time tracking than the security of the museum so they know that the person clocking in and out is not cheating on their time sheets.
In the meeting, Raymond, the supervisor, talks about the DMA friends program. Doug is tired of promoting it, they’ve been doing it for a year now. The luster of recruiting people is gone. After each milestone the DMA hit, they were given another.
Downstairs employees fondly refer to the Dallas Museum of Art as the ghetto museum. It may be due to the complete different socioeconomic classes that work in the different departments much like the upstairs and the downstairs in the hit show Downton Abby. Attendants are paid the lowest of any other museum they know of in Dallas, and to get hired you basically just have to pass a drug test. Many of the attendants have tattoo sleeves showing. The museum is now free for guests, it opens up different revenue streams so that the museum can keep their doors open and the staff paid. Joined with low pay, this allow people who have never walked a museum to enjoy that defining moment. Along with new guests, the DMA has employees who had never been to a museum before getting the gig, like Nicole who was recently let go, due to posting on her Facebook page some of her frustrations of working that was discovered and made its way to upper management.
Doug, sitting at a table in the brown-walled upper basement of the museum, looks at Nicole, a short, loudly-opinionated, sarcastic black woman who worked with her two daughters at the museum. She is interested in art for the first time with a sparkle in his eye. Last week, she bought a book of art from the museum and read it to her grandkids.
Doug’s dad, an accountant, wooed his mom, a nurse administrator, while in the military. They pushed Doug growing up to become something practical- a solid career that can keep a family afloat. His parents wanted him to be independent and self-sufficient. Creativity is not lost on the rest of his family. She quilts and he had aspirations of becoming a furniture maker.
Doug reaches his first post with a George Washington painting that overlooks fragile chairs framing an elaborate dresser.
“He used to build dressers like this big fancy one and I think he just quit at it,” Doug says. “I say that as kind of a theme for what artists at work is like they work, work hard when they’re young and at some point something just says ‘no, you’re not going anywhere, don’t make art anywhere, just give up’.”
The museum has an Edward Hopper exhibit Doug walked past when to post. In Hopper’s case, Hopper was an artist, his wife was an artist and they were broke for a while. She was supporting them and he wasn’t considered a great illustrator. Nobody liked his paintings for the most part and it was not until his late 40s and early 50s that he really had a surge of popularity.
Doug’s realizing that he may go his whole life waiting until when most have midlife crises to make something successful. The motivation to become successful drives the creativity in his art.
“For me, it’s just a part of my character that’s like even when I want to give up, I want to give up, some part of me still keeps going. It’s like I’ve been born to make,” Doug says.
Doug’s degree was in illustration but he had trouble communicating ideas clearly to the general market, an issue he still struggles with. But he won’t change his style to fill some current market trend he does the art that he wants to do, the art he has fun with. There’s always a market for weird art and he’s on a mission to find it.
“I then tried slipping into graphic design and I did that for a while but it was just kind of like, you become kind of a computer interface. People have these ‘great’ ideas of what they want to see and you get paid to not think and just make it happen,” Doug says.
After getting fired from another graphic design job, Doug ended up here for the Christmas season to get some money until something better came along. A year and a half later, he’s still here. It’s not for a lack of trying. Doug has been on countless interviews, filled out billions of applications and sent numerous resumes. His resume is the paper version of all the mistakes and choices he’s made.
“Something they don’t tell you school,” Doug says.
Doug rotates to his second post next to the infamous Iceberg. He plants himself across from the painting and braces himself for his inevitable death. Daunted by the mountain of ice, he dreams to be the last human fighting the last polar bear- a sad, battle torn polar bear. A guest gets a little too close to the masterpiece and snaps him back to reality…. almost. Maybe he’ll work with the polar bears at the zoo. He has been looking at going back to school and joining the American Zoo Association after all.
“Amazingly, for college students, we’ll play fill-in professor for them and sometimes give them tours,” Doug says. “I love how college students are stressed out when they show up on a Sunday for an assignment that’s due on Tuesday.”
Doug hopes they don’t see art as some assignment to be digested, that an appreciation for art becomes a defining moment for them. For Doug, college was not a defining moment. Everyone in his family attended college but his sister. The family now admits that college isn’t for everyone.
Doug drifted through school so fast that he did not network, which is crucial in the art world. He received a full-ride scholarship at Savannah College of Art and Design, but he would have to keep his grades up. Doug says his friend Tran N., his playfully competitive rival throughout college, also got a full ride, but because she qualified for a small Asian decent scholarship the two would often tease about the unimportant amount. There is no hope for a starving artist. At one point, the two scheduled a study abroad in a famous trip to Japan. He had been planning on going but the additional funding fell through, and he missed his chance. Doug cited the trip as a huge turning point in Tran’s art. Though Tran is artistically succeeding after college, she still had to get a temporary job in between shows.
In college, Doug found second wind when he loopholed his way out of a course by convincing the dean to replace the mandatory portfolio class with a more liberal independent study class, called Drawing on a Theme which trained students better for the world of a competitive artist. Instead of a completed portfolio, at the end of the year he had to put on a gallery show with his other classmates including Tran.
“I don’t know if it was the space or the crowd, but my cannon of artistic achievement, Tran did not nail the show.” But he did great. The one piece he did not sell he had people gladly take off his hands. Doug gave the last piece away because they were so large and ridged that he couldn’t fit them in his car to take them home from Georgia to Texas.
“That put the bug in my ear for gallery art,” Doug says as he looks at a collection of sculptures after a rotation to a new post.
After he graduated college in March 2009, he moved back to Texas to live with his parents. He veiled his sexuality at home because he feared that his Evangelical, pro-Republican, gun-loving father couldn’t accept he was gay. When his mom found out, she worried for him. They all stopped talking to each other.
A month after returning home, Doug found refuge in Karlynn, another animation major at SCAD who he had remained close friends with for his four years there.
When her parents died, Karlynn’s sister Kiersten became head of estate, but the dead parents overwhelmed her. Bills piled and Kiersten hated their cape house. When the internal sister friction became heated, Karlynn and Doug split to the cape.
Doug tossed, sold or gifted most of his possessions including his artwork to move to Mulberry, Massachusetts with his “fag hag” girlfriend for a month before moving to Cape Cod.
Though they are not on speaking terms now, she was a good friend. Both of her parents died before the move. His Massachusetts friend’s parents were hoarders before they died. Doug had the skills to move in with her and fix her house so he had free rent.
“She had inheritance and I used to be really great at saving,” Doug says with a nervous laugh. “After her parents died, we had to spend a bunch of money because they did not take care of the house or pay their bills. They had to pay the city and the utility companies. It took a lot of money to take it from the jaws of death.”
They held no jobs until November when they backpacked Europe for months before returning to their resurrection project. It was a time of self-discovery and relationship destroying. The dead father originally paid for the trip and was supposed to take his girls to the motherland in Sweden. Since the sisters weren’t getting along, Doug and Karlynn worked with the travel agency who weren’t refunding the money. Their only costs were meals and hostels- a rather inexpensive alternative to a snow covered beach house with no heat.
“I wasn’t talking to my parents at the time in a town where I couldn’t get any work,” Doug says. It was his biggest grow up time where he learned things like eviction and shut off notices.
Meeting Josh, now Doug’s husband, online after an unsympathetically cold winter incinerated Doug’s friendship with Karlynn. Six months later, the new couple moved in together.
“That winter my roommate and I saw only the mailman, the ‘packy store’ cashier and the people at the grocery store,” Doug says. Cape Cod population deflates to 15 percent from summer highs.
“You try getting a date in that kind of a swimming pool,” Doug says with a laugh. “After a long “You Got Mail” relationship with Josh online, I finally went to Boston to meet him in person.”
Doug didn’t expect to dwarf Josh in stature and still teases him about it. That summer Josh and Doug still talked online like a teen romance but took trips to see each other. The following October they married on a pier on a pond in P-Town. It was sunset and the fireflies had just come out. In the happiest, most hopeful times of their lives, Doug and Josh danced to BB King, “If I love you.”
Renting in Cape Cod is expensive and the newlyweds found shelter in a local housing assistance program. When the rich aren’t in town for summers, the realities of Cape Cod towns challenge the stereotype of rich bankers on yachts in pleated pants.
It was an adjustment as Doug and his soon-to-be-husband watched people do methadone while on heroin and parents with kids tried getting them out of the island. The winters held no jobs and the island fed the homeless to the sharks.
Doug and Josh found an apartment of their own that burned shortly after moving in and getting married. The fire through a massive kink in the works, destroying any art and supplies Doug had managed to accumulate since his move to the north. Smoke damage destroyed whatever else they had in the apartment that escaped the furnace. They had no books, no clothes, no art, no renter’s insurance and no hope. They had their tortoises, their children who somehow survived the fire.
The housing authority fumbled four months to fix the apartment to working condition while Doug had to pay utility bills. Josh asked if they could move in with Doug’s parents in Texas because Josh’s mom is an influx of substance recovery with a load of financial issues.
“You finally get independent enough then the game of life kicks in and you have to move back in with your parents,” Doug says as he looks at a portrait of a young woman with sad eyes in the gallery.
Josh had no paycheck or bank account was in rough shape when they started dating. He had to go to counseling because his mother had him arrested. By the time they fled to Texas, they were working on his credit. They needed to get out of the Cape and started to rebuild their lives with Doug’s parents in Cedar Hill who have now accepted his husband – giving him hope for a better future.
Doug continues his sculpture as he shifts around the gallery. His projects are more like trinkets or traditional sculptures, since he had to quit painting and drawing. His family has bad hands.
“I’m 28 and some days I can’t use my damn hand. But, I hated painting anyway,” Doug says with a laugh, lifting him from the heavy thoughts.
“Because it is a museum, a lot of other artists use to work here and so that whole not talking about artwork was killer for them so after a while they would leave really quick,” Doug says though he was hired just as that era ended.
Saturdays are typically low key. Many visit the museum but are well behaved. Sundays you have people coming in from church that want to bless all the paintings, hug the art or think they’ll be forgiven by god for touching a priceless statue with the Virgin Mary on it.
The museum tricks guests from touching paintings with raised platforms to set the art on or different tiling near the walls to help the attendants. However, not all the walls are real or permanent walls. The DMA staffs carpenters that can transform the museum floor in three weeks if needed. It can look like a warehouse with how much floor space can open up.
Frustrated, Doug struts to a woman drinking a cup of coffee and escorts her near the bathroom to throw it out. He’s been enjoying a realistic depiction of the revolutionary war and it’s a pain to send them all the way downstairs.
Upon his return, Ray breaks Doug for lunch. Doug descends to the cafeteria and spots several attendants. He packed his lunch today but he’ll eat it later. He has a DMA discount and his favorite chef is cooking. He gulps the aroma of eggs benedict as Bach plays his “Prelude from Cello Suite No.1 in G Major” in the background.
After wolfing down his small and costly meal, Doug works his way back to post and wrenches the tools back out of his pocket, keeping his hands busy. He’s efficient, creating more by feel than sight, as he uses his eyes to scan Modern America for potential threats to the art and abnormalities.
Since Doug didn’t have student debt or any major loans and lives with his parents, with creative use of supplies he can afford to continue art projects. As his hope grows and with the help of his husband, Doug revived his days of wise saving. Doug puts bill money in one pot and savings in one pot and the rest goes to art, “who needs three pairs of jeans anyways?”
Doug and the other attendants are trained in traditional customer service, most having worked in retail or hospitality. Words like, “Is there anything I can help you with?” are heard in each gallery entered.
Doug comes in on time and works hard entertaining and informing guests while protecting art. And, occasionally laughing at the women who come in high heels knowing how bad their feet must hurt and hoping he can leave the insufferable boredom, hard floors and ever-changing gallery temperatures.
“Maybe one day I’ll appreciate it but this is day to day life for me, like coffee and cereal in the morning,” Doug says.With only an hour left in the day, he pulls the tools back out of his pocket and ignores the world around him. His large hands shake violently as he delicately holds the small project he’s release the lion into the world of professional artists. He furrows his brow, trying to ignore the loud outdated radio on his hip and his family’s bad hands. The project is almost done and he has work to do.