Rules Of Thirds

The third-floor apartment on Park Avenue had its amenities, including a view of the Kuomintang sign down the street. I had shown up in Baltimore a few weeks earlier after discharge from the Navy and had been invited to share quarters with my friend Bill.

 Bill and I had a sometimes business carving “genuine” Tiki gods, and other countercultural junk. This we accomplished mostly with a Dremel tool and routers. One of us had to find cheap wood for these projects, and scrounging was my specialty.

Sometime that summer, I wandered into Warburton’s looking for free scrap. I walked into his studio just in time to be recruited. Three balks of wood were being prepared to become a Saint Joseph for a private chapel. I found myself helping move the materials into the shop. Warburton’s shop had extraordinary high ceilings. On one side was a balcony with a smaller workshop poised above the main work floor. The main work floor contained everything from large bandsaws to a 19th-century jointer that was ready to remove your hand in a second of inattention. Against one wall was the main work area for carving. There stood rack upon rack of carving tools. In a smaller corner was a bench upon which Warburton’s current engraving project sat with the burins and gravers of that trade neatly racked.

I asked Warburton why he used those old fashioned tools rather than use power tools. He looked at me for a while before replying than said, “You can find out yourself. I need an assistant, and if you can do the work, I’ll teach why I use those tools.” Real work on a steady basis was not what I really wanted, so I thanked him and said I’d be back to see what he was doing. 

I wound up, checking back almost every day. Warburton tolerated no lazing about, even by unpaid louts like me. He assigned me all the cleaning tasks he despised and was an apprentices lot since the Middle Ages. There was a logic to it. Being asked to sort walnut plank stock, I had to learn to gauge the quality of the planks, and how to properly sticker and stack the boards, so the was air circulation between the levels. Failure to do this could result in warped, twisted, and cupped stock that was worthless to the shop.

Warburton also had a box of old dusty wax fruit, cones, balls, and broken plaster castings that he periodically asked me to set up and draw. I would have gladly sorted several thousand board feet of lumber instead of doing still lives. It was my goal when asked to do this, to set up the items in absurd, obscene, or Daliesque tableau that I hoped would provoke him. He ignored this. Instead, he commented on the balance, composition, rhythm, and pattern formed by the objects. 

His most important lesson was about the rule of thirds. To this day, I am a terrible draftsman, but that summer, I did learn to do perspective drawings of Baltimore street scenes as I grew sick of wax fruit. I was always using the rule of thirds and looking at the balance and rhythm in the composition.

I did lots of scut work. I flattened water stones that had been used so often that they had hollowed surfaces, learned the basics of sharpening, and learned to actually use the knife. The maestro maintained that it was the foundational tool and that without being able to sharpen and control it, I’d never be a carver. 

Eventually, I was given a small block of walnut, a scrap really, and told to create an abstract shape. Emphasis had to be on the grace of curves, smoothness of transitions, and the quality of the tool work. I was warned that all the compositional elements I had worked on would also be involved. Was it to look like anything specifically? No. But he did pull out several books on the work of Jean Arp and Barbara Hepworth.

I began to be a snob when called upon to use a Dremel. My routing of Tiki’s became infiltrated with contamination from Hepworth and Arp. Bill accused me of ruining the business. In opposition to this, I began to critique his compositions, pointing out that they lacked balance or rhythm. I was eventually asked to leave the apartment. 

Down the street from our apartment was Oscar’s flower shop. Oscar’s was different. There wasn’t a real flower, stem, or leaf in the shop. Plastic floral material was just coming onto the market, and Oscar occupied his retirement, making incredible and fanciful arrangements. Oscar was impressed with my new found approach to carving. He began to offer me offcuts of cherry and walnut from his farm outside the city. These he posed with his floral creations. Our deal was a 40/60 percentage cut. This probably would not have been an issue with Bill except that Oscar decided that Tiki’s were…so yesterday. He chose to accept no more of Bill’s Tiki production and asked him to remove the unsold inventory from the shop. Riding the wave of artistic popularity, I decided to ask for a 60/40 percentage cut. I was an established “artiste.” Oscar smiled and said that we could revisit the deal when the current inventory sold. I agreed.

About that time, the desire to head up to Boston for a week or two came on me. I went on a frolicking detour, and my friend Bill sulked.

About three weeks later, I returned from Boston to find all my carvings on the back loading dock and some new carvings of Bill’s installed in Osar’s floral emporium. Asking what happened, I was informed that Bill had started routing and power sanding pieces similar to what I had hand-carved, but they cost Oscar about fifty percent less. Too Bill with his big red beard ripped and stained jeans looked much more like a real artist than I did with short hair and pressed khaki’s. 

This did put a strain on the friendship for a while. But Bill’s sense of art was not held by wood. His actual devotion lay in painting, and to that, he soon returned. Oscar also moved on. In a few weeks, he called Bill to come to get his stuff, which was left on the loading dock. Oscar had found a source for driftwood on the Delmarva that he maintained looked much better than anything Bill or I had done, and they were much cheaper. This was a different sort of rule of thirds for art: you innovate and sell. Somone copies and sells for substantially less. Lastly, the demand for the product declines.

Later that week, Bill and I stopped at Warburton’s to look at the progress on Saint Joseph. I mentioned to Warburton how we both lost a source of income from the sculptings. Warburton simply said: ” it’s hard to improve on nature.” To which Bill replied: “Yeah. Or to depend on the taste of a guy who sells plastic flowers.”

John’s Art Of The Con

In my early adult years, I moved around, plying the trade of a Pious Itinerant. To wit, I was a folksinger. I first performed in coffeehouses in New York’s Greenwich Village, but moved on to Boston, New Hampshire, Philadelphia, D.C., Maine, and importantly for this story, Baltimore.
Baltimore was an essential stop in my periodic ramblings not because the coffeehouse scene was so good for me, but because some of my best friends lived there. Bob and Chris had a house open to all wanderers. Life at their home in the ’60s was exciting. There were political radicals of all stripes, folkies like me, artists, and lots of people who just wandered in. Chris was the emotional den mother of this band of unlikely cohabitors. Almost anything could happen during a night of round-robin folksinging, political discussion, and sometimes body ( and bawdy) art.
An occasional visitor was John, no known last name, no known previous residence. John was a self-declared “artiste of the con.” He claimed to be so good that he had run a successful rent scam on several of the disreputable fortune-telling parlors downtown. He convinced them, in his tale, to pay their rent to him after convincing them that he had purchased the properties. He’d go to city records to get some official-looking public documents for their specific addresses and convince the fortuneteller to fork over their rents. The con was a onetime only scam, but lucrative. It was also dangerous; some of those folks played rough when they discovered they’d been conned. I believe that was what led to John’s sudden departure from Baltimore.
Before John split town, he decided during one night of alcoholic fug to impart to me what he humbly called “John’s Art of the Con.”

1.) A good con artist enrolls the fish in the scam. The fish becomes a collaborator. If and when the swindle collapses, the fish is too embarrassed to turn in the artiste.

2.) Be honest in all the little things; this lowers the level of suspicion when you tell a whopper. A corollary to this is that a half-truth is much more effective than a whole lie.

3.) Be generous. Gifts to charity help establish your bone fides as a pillar of the community and place you above suspicion.

4.) Don’t be greedy. Most scams artists get caught because they don’t know when to stop.

5.) Don’t involve family or close friends; you need them for protective cover when things go south.

There were others, but considering the amount of beer consumed that evening I am surprised that I remember these.
The one rule that truly stuck with me was number one because it was later confirmed by people who had worked in the intelligence field.
Conversations with a colleague working in criminal justice and a friend in corrections suggested that few career criminals have the discipline needed to apply the rules coherently or consistently. This explains why so many “smart” criminals are in prison, as my C.O. friend points out.

That’s where it pretty much rested until the mid-’90s. I was traveling into the Mid-Atlantic for an in-water boat show. After setting up the afternoon before the show started, I retreated to my hotel room for a shower and a nap before dinner. I rarely watch T.V., but when I travel, I’ll turn on the hotel set to see if I’m missing anything. That afternoon I was surprised. The spokesperson for a Congressman was making an announcement about the Congressman’s upcoming reelection bid. It had been thirty years, but there was something about the guy that seemed familiar. The hair was thinner, there were jowls and about twenty excess pounds around the waist. But, the diction, the facial expressions, the choice of words, and the hand gestures were all John.
John was one of the smart ones. He had latched onto a long-running scam with a low conviction rate.
It was really our fault. We had thought John was a petty scam artist. In fact, he had higher aspirations.

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