Still life with gnomes, clothed monkeys and a taxidermy mouse dressed as the pope


At some point, my art collection took a turn for the mentally unsound. Of course there were the usual calendar cut-outs — square, unframed Monets and Manets adorning the walls. My Van Gogh collection above the dresser was impressive but I really think the Titian above the bed was the focal point, drawing people in with a simple and unspoken declaration: “This kid is cheap.”

It was easy to maintain the exhibit, what with the lack of actual museum traffic — my bedroom seemed to have fallen out of favor with Fodor’s that year — but there came a time when it occurred to me that something was lacking. The Van Goghs and the Cezannes, the cryptic Raphaels and that enigmatic Bruegel, from June — they were impressive, don’t get me wrong. Friends would come over and it was clear that in our circle, I was the one with real class. Though they never said it — they didn’t have to — I could tell they were in awe, as I led them around the gallery from the water lillies to the fields of sparkling wheat.

“And just think,” I’d say, sweeping my arm across the scene, “If I hold on to these long enough, they’ll be worth a fortune! That’s the thing with art, you know — it appreciates.”

Through all this, my friends somehow remained friends and tried their best to change the subject almost immediately upon entering my room.

“Say, you have a Nintendo?”

But really, there was no stopping me.

“And if Monette ever dies! Let me tell you, E-Z street!”

I’d make a show of adjusting the cut-outs, repinning them to the wall with thumb tacks, but the reality was I took pity on these culture-less saps. I’d seen their bedroom walls — adorned with album covers, Alf posters or that hairy armed girl from Who’s the Boss.

What did they know?

Something happened, however, to change my mind. I woke up one morning, greeted by the School of Athens — Diogenes still lounging there, on the same steps amid the same colonnade — and decided that while I was probably throwing a fortune into the trash, none of the pictures really said anything about me as an artist, or even better, as a philanthropist. The full-color Great Impressionists Calendar exhibit had run its course, and so had the Old Masters For Your Desk gallery. I got out of bed, searching the same tired paintings for a sign of hope, and knew almost immediately that I needed something original, something to better represent me — something to more closely resemble the wall art at our local athletic club.

My tastes, it seemed, had turned.

The Solano Athletic Club wall art really came into its own soon after we became members. At first, the poster above the urinals in the men’s room was adorned with a group of leotard-clad women, aerobicizing their way into the frame and then back out again — just their legs, tights and early-model exercise thongs visible in the scene. I had to give them credit for trying to do more than simply clipping that morning’s sports page to the wall, but it seemed to me that for such a high-class establishment, something was missing. We were members, after all. We paid dues. We belonged. We expected more.

I was standing at the urinal one day, pondering what could better represent the club and the educated palates of its recreational steroid users, when a man pulled into the next urinal. I watched his gaze go up, studying the poster. He seemed to frown for a moment in the anxious silence of nervous bladders. But still, it was clear — we were thinking the same thing.

“I know,” I said, pointing with my chin, “It’s just … I don’t know. I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

“Excuse me?”

“The picture here,” I continued, “I mean, it’s OK if you like that type of thing, but really — it’s no Van Gogg.”

The man turned.

“Do your parents know you’re here?”

I waved him away, mumbling something about how they don’t appreciate real art, but I didn’t have time to finish by the time the man left and brought back management, who said it probably wasn’t a good idea for small boys — even esteemed members — to go around gabbing to half naked men about “taking a look at my bedroom sometime.” But they must have heard my complaints, because a few weeks later, the poster was replaced by something modern, something painted and thongless — a study of minimalist black sketches on white paper, with just a touch of red as highlights. Similar pieces soon went up in the weight room, the aerobics room and near the carpeted stairs where you could watch racquetball games through a glass wall.

After my ill-fated Calendar Period, it probably should have told me something about the artwork if you could buy it in bulk, but despite their easy availability, the new pieces seemed to speak to me, alone.

If you had seen my bedroom in the time after this discovery, you would have been greeted by entire walls of blacks and whites and perfectly spaced red splotches. Because I wasn’t a real artist, I left the actual sketching to the pros and just adopted the colors as my own. In retrospect, my handmade collection probably could have been called Jackson Pollack Meets Dementia. But at the time, it was perfect. Modern, unique, just the right amount of color. I talked my mom into buying one of those Bed-in-a-Bag sheet and comforter sets from Mervyn’s to better match the color scheme, just like I envisioned they did at the Met.

Friends came over and I’d walk them around, showing off what I had thought would be obvious talent.

“Who needs wall calendars when you can do it all yourself!”

“You did this yourself?” they’d say, astonished, “No way!”

And I’d silently nod, resting my hands on my hips and sighing contentedly, studying the new pieces, while my friends made their way to the Nintendo or rolled their eyes and looked longingly at the door and its path to freedom.


It was easy to decorate our first apartment, a two-bedroom walkup in downtown Davis. Dana was in law school. I was working as a reporter in a small Central Valley town. In other words, we were broke. We had the usual framed Picasso prints, a few movie posters. We took a trip one day to a sunflower patch in our hometown and later blew up some of the better photographs for our kitchen.

Kodak does Van Gogh.

We did the same thing with our first place in San Francisco, blowing up photographs of our post-school trip to Europe and hanging them in our living and dining room. We bought sleek, matching frames and hung them in even lines and soon the place resembled a gallery, perfectly spaced photos decorating the walls and foyer. I never told Dana, but I always had a feeling Fodor’s would get around to our apartment eventually.

Something has happened in our first home, however. It’s been a year now since we moved in and we have hit an obvious and impenetrable wall. We have exactly two “pieces” in the house — a set of tacky orange … things I did last summer in a fit of sunstroke, and some extra-large photos of a creepy art exhibit in Detroit.

At first Dana and I had similar tastes — we liked the same photos, the same artists; Dana’s former firm represented Thomas Kinkade, the painter of light, and we spent endless hours mocking the man and his minions, despite the fact he put us up for the weekend at the Ritz Carlton in Halfmoon Bay. But in the new house, a hidden, smoldering rift has suddenly ignited, and our walls have remained bare. I’d like to think I just have better taste, but I think the real reason is Dana has none at all.

“Look at this,” I said, holding up a portrait of a monkey in a Victorian children’s bonnet, “Tell me this wouldn’t just make the bathroom sing!”

We have this conversation every year, when we travel back to see family in Michigan during the summer months and I find myself drawn to a small town gallery that specializes in primate portraiture. I tell Dana, “I’m just running downtown for a minute!” and she grabs my hand.

“Promise me,” she says, “Promise me you won’t buy that ridiculous monkey.”

I pretend to frown and kick the floor with my toe, “OK, fine. Sure.”

But each year she catches on.

“Or that god-awful armadillo either!”

At this point, I throw my keys back on the table and go find somewhere to sulk. “Well there’s no point in even going now.”

On Valencia Street, there’s a rotating gallery of minor artists — up and comers, I like to think — and every time we stop in, Dana heads straight for the landscapes, while I stroke my chin and imagine what the artist is trying to convey in the canvas, “Giraffe with Paper Sailboat.” I’m so taken that I barely notice Dana standing behind me, shaking her head.

“There is no. freaking. way.”

After putting up the new bookcase, Dana forbid me to buy a sparkling white garden gnome to sit atop the thing, and so of course I had to find a way to blame Emmeline. For a week, each day after her nap, when she was still groggy and listless, I’d stroke her hair and whisper, “Now remember, who wants the gnome?”


“No, you. You want the gnome.”

When the clerk accidentally gave us two gnomes instead of one, I took it as a sign. This was meant to be. So when Dana came home from work and put her hands on her hips after discovering that a pair of woodland creatures had suddenly taken up a pied-a-terre in the city, I tried to offer something about how “Emme talked me into it,” but the child just sat there stone-faced, silently betraying me.

“OK, fine,” I said, “I’ll take back the stupid gnomes, but do you know what I’m going to get?”

Dana immediately said, “No,” while I choked over my words, annoyed she wouldn’t even hear me out.

“But you don’t even know what I’m thinking of!”

It turns out she did. It kills me that she knows me well enough so that “taxidermy mice dressed like the pope” can remain unspoken.

Every once in a while during nap time, I’ll scour the Internet for interesting pieces for the living room or for large spaces in our open hallway. But I’m careful now to get Emme fully in my corner before sending Dana any links.

“We think this would just look great above the dining room table,” I write, as if our committee of two had already voted. But Dana invariably shoots us down.

“Of course Emme would like that!” she says, “It’s got a stuffed teddy bear holding a piece of meat!

Then I go back to the Internet, trying to find something we both can agree on. After awhile, I simply give up, sit back and stare at the blank walls, wondering whatever happened to my wife and why her tastes have suddenly become so weird.


  1. First, I don’t know what is with the gnome hate. they are so cute…

    Bear wants some Tiki Heads for our garden, I told him to go ahead. I figure if he can have his Tiki Heads he won’t be after me for a monkey painting. And that is what is important. It is all about compromise. 😉

  2. Awesome. Awesome in every way.

  3. Hey! Is that a shot at monkey paintings?! There’s room in a household for both tiki gods AND primates, if you ask me …

  4. Our collection runs from poorly composed family photo to mid-estate-sale period to special ed student fundraiser to 3D flying ducks. Maybe we can set up some kind of “art appreciation” course for Dana. Will you help me with the press release to get Fodors to this side of town?

    PS- I love the light well thingie. A lot. Another idea that’s good enough to steal.

  5. I’m happy we can all agree it’s not me. (Thanks!)

  6. For the record, Tony Danza’s arms aren’t that hairy.

  7. I tried to find it, I did. But to no avail. I have this vague memory of an old school Alyssa Milano poster in which she had ridiculously hairy arms. It was supposed to be all dreamy, “ooh, look at my new girlfriend … tacked to my wall.” But I could never get past the hairy arms. I gave up trying to find it after a few googles, because searching for her as a 10 year old star made me feel like a total perv.

  8. Courtney says:

    Why oh why is our friendship separated by a 6 hour drive? One day you will have to visit Dave’s gnome shrine, I mean our front yard! :-)

  9. “taxidermy mice dressed like the pope”. That made me just guffaw outright. This is why art should be limited to two dimensions. Well, at least for inside houses; those giant paperclips and whales and whatnot in parks are fun.

  10. Know what’s on my walls? Crappy school photos and one plaster cast of my baby’s feet. That’s it. When you find something good, post pictures and I will totally print them out and tack them to my walls.

  11. I’d print out any of these and tack them up if only Dana would let me.

  12. Sorry, forgot this one. We actually agree on the artist but just need to find the perfect painting.

  13. Please reveal the MI location of this gallery– my husband loves monkeys…

  14. she’s a philistine

  15. I whole-heartedly agree.


  1. […] For this story on Dana’s increasingly bizarre taste in art, I was debating between a photo of gnomes or this. The gnomes won. Let there be light wells […]