The Painting Yale Lost

In 2017, I got an interview for the Master’s degree program at the Yale School of Art. When I returned a week later to pick up work I had left there, one of my paintings was gone. What happened to it? This is the story:

“Forgotten something!?” a Swarovski crystal replica of Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God,” made by artist Laura Keeble and placed in the trash in front of the gallery where the real skull was shown, at the closing of Hirst’s exhibition in 2007.

I used to work at a copy shop on the Upper East Side. It was an hour and a half commute at five in the morning for just above minimum wage. The wealthiest neighborhood I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in, for sure. I once saw an ad for a lost dog that said, “last seen wearing a Burberry coat.”

Once, a customer came up to my counter, exuberant: she had just gotten into Pratt Institute, she told me, and wanted to print her acceptance letter.

“Oh,” I commented, “I went there.”

I do not remember the exact change in her expression, but imagine the sound of lightly crushing a blown egg in your palm, as an emotion.

“You mean you took a few classes?”

“Oh, no, I got my BFA at Pratt.”

She looked absolutely terrified at this point, her voice was beginning to shake, and despite how I should have felt about her fear of becoming me, I felt bad for her.

I really felt bad for her. I wasn’t faking it. That’s why I wasn’t cut out for this job.

“What’s your major?” I asked her.

“I’m going into communications design; illustration.”

“Ah, see, it’s okay, I was a painting major,” I said, gesturing toward my unwashed blue polo shirt and name tag. She immediately relaxed, understanding completely: Ah yes, painters are poor. I had made a bad mistake with my life; I was being punished for my hubris. Her choice was a wise one. She had the letter printed in color.

I had been unemployed for three years after college, trying to find work in the sort of positions young artists get to work their way into the art world: art handler, artist’s assistant, gallery receptionist, scenic painter. I rarely got so much as an acknowledgment that I’d been rejected, and gradually got the feeling that I just didn’t belong in the art world.

I had been trained as an art handler, as part of a work-study job at Pratt. I was taught how to pack and hang art properly: laid on a padded table, wrapped neatly in plastic or glassine, bubble wrap (bumpy side out), sheets of cardboard and cardboard corners, the edges of the tape folded under for easy removal. I learned to measure walls to hang each painting so the center is at the same height. I learned to never hammer a nail above a painting propped against the wall, even if fully wrapped, because drywall dust could fall on it.

There was a certain respect that we owed to art no matter what it was, or who made it, or how much it was worth, or whether we liked it. An artist who brought us her watercolors rolled up loose in a grocery bag would leave with them flattened and carefully wrapped between two sheets of cardboard. If an artist’s work included a residue that dripped onto the gallery floor they would likely receive a phone call about whether we needed to pack up and return the residue, and how that should be done. Once your work enters this space, every particle it may exude becomes a sacred thing.

I have wrapped every painting I have submitted to an exhibition in the way I was taught and rarely had it returned in the same shape. More often than not, my packaging has been thrown out. I have had paintings given back to me in a plastic bag, wrapped in paper towels. I know that these galleries treat everyone’s work like this, at least in group shows, but it makes me feel like my work is unworthy of the respect I would have given to anyone else’s.

The gallery taught me to pack and hang art, but I was being trained for a job I could never be hired for. An art handler is essentially a mover. Despite the recommendations of my former co-workers, the interviewers for those positions noticed two key things about me: I’m not very strong, and I can’t drive a box truck.

I began to apply at retail stores and fast food joints, and too was turned down from every single one. I put on the cheap suit I shared with my then-boyfriend, who was a foot taller than me; the straight pins hidden inside the ankles to shorten the pants scraping my legs. I walked around handing out resumes to places that refused to take them, directing me to fill out the form online. A woman at a Wendy’s struck up a conversation with me and I responded, thinking she might have been the hiring manager. She told me conspiracy theories for an hour while I waited for my interview to begin, wondering if I was being judged based on how I dealt with her.

I went to a temp agency, where the manager told me I was incapable of working with other people. She suggested a seasonal job where I’d be locked, alone, in a vault. I called a number on a telephone pole advertising work of some kind and wound up going door-to-door in Sheepshead Bay for three eight-hour days trying to scam sad, desperate people into signing up for an ESCO. Realizing that I’d rather run into traffic than ring another doorbell I went home and never picked up my $35 paycheck.

Then I got the copy shop job.

You know how in Office Space, Peter Gibbons has eight bosses? The misconception I had about that scenario was that when you have eight bosses, they would have a common goal. The reality is that each boss has an entirely different idea of what your job is, assigns you specific tasks, and expressly forbids you from performing the tasks that the other bosses have assigned. They’re more interested in preserving their role in the hierarchy than running the business in ways that make sense. This means that what you should be doing at any given time depends entirely upon who happens to be looking over your shoulder, and whether they feel the need to make irrational demands as a display of dominance.

My general manager once called me into a private meeting to tell me — a few days after the Parkland shooting — that if we were in the Army, he would have me shot for insubordination, because I asked my supervisor to take a message from someone who was asking for me on the phone while I was in the middle of a conversation with a customer. I sprung out of my chair to say “I quit,” but said nothing and sat down.

General managers were constantly being changed without warning: they didn’t even introduce themselves. The new GM would always change something about the operations of the shop that alienated major clients, lose thousands in business, and blame the loss of revenue on the entry-level staff. They would come up with new rules and not tell me about them until they caught me breaking them: for example, switching back and forth whether all of the copy paper set aside for use in production had already been coded out of inventory, which made it look like entire cases had been stolen.

The GM before I started working there, I had been told, was a combat veteran with PTSD, who was fired for having a breakdown during which he gave away everything in the store for free.

I’d had two new GMs since I had attempted CPR on my friend who had been dead for two days, whose last words to me were about whether her outfit made her look good enough for some potential employer. Two new GMs who never gave me a raise because I didn’t smile enough.

I spent most of 2016 preparing my portfolio to apply to grad schools. My reasons for wanting to go to grad school were largely to escape the life I was living: a minimum wage job where I wasn’t allowed to sit down. A cockroach-infested apartment where I was constantly being exploited for money by people who were more trapped than I was, by substance use disorders and constant promises of rent that led to more and more people living in my apartment and none of them paying. I had convinced myself that I couldn’t leave unless it was a move up. To just quit and be unemployed, to flee without moving somewhere better, would be another shameful failure.

But I had spent the past three years planting a garden in the backyard with currants and figs and blackberries and the thought of leaving it was heartbreaking, and it led me to stay in that house far longer than I should have. And I was in love with someone who I thought was worth staying for, someone I’d convinced myself only treated me the way he did because I was fundamentally incapable of being in a relationship or belonging to a community.

One of the requirements for a grad school portfolio is that all of the work presented has to have been done in the past few years. Yale was the strictest in this regard: at least eight of the sixteen required pieces had to have been made within the past year, to qualify. This meant I could not apply unless I had been consistently painting and making enough work to send in a portfolio. So under the stress of all those people coming into my house and screaming at each other in the middle of the night when I had to get up at four in the morning, I was painting. At the end of the year, I took a month off work, just to get one more painting done before the deadline.

One of the paintings I made that year was of the copy shop:

“Do This For Three Years to Earn What the CEO Makes in A Day” 18in x 14in, oil on panel, 2016

This is the painting this story is about. I can still identify most of the machines in the picture, though not by specific model: a Xerox copier, a grommet punch, a jogger, a ColorQube printer, two small laminators, an electric paper guillotine, a Brother stamp machine, a couple of PCs, a 36" wide-format mounter and laminator, a blueprint plotter, a 42" HP poster printer, a long blue paper cutter. Reams of 28 lb white paper and various sizes of Coverbind covers. A little dog that belonged to a lady who would just let her dog run loose in the store; we were all afraid to stop her.

I applied to six schools. Each one had cost something between $60–160 in total fees to apply: generally about a hundred for the application then thirty to upload slides of my work. I was rejected outright by two, waitlisted by two, and invited for interviews by two.

I was most interested in Yale: one of my best friends had encouraged me to apply to grad school specifically because she wanted me to go to Yale, like she had. I liked the thought of it because I never thought of myself as the kind of person who could go to an Ivy League school: perceived class barriers that had more to do with my family’s perception of ourselves than our financial reality, or intellectual skill. I thought that maybe a name like “Yale” on my resume, and the people I could meet there, could finally give me a shot at a career in my actual field. Yale was known for giving grad students significant grants and scholarships, and I knew that I would be unable to attend a school that didn’t offer me essentially a full ride.

I got an interview with Yale.

One of the unique aspects of an interview with Yale is that applicants are required to bring a selection of their art in person, talk about it in front of a current student and a professor, then leave it for a week for review. Those who are traveling from far away or have large paintings often have their work shipped to New Haven. Some of us carried it there: I brought it with me on the train. All of my paintings, drawings, and prints fit inside a suitcase. I included multiple copies of a detailed inventory of the work and attached my contact information to every piece.

I had spent the past few weeks binge-watching Chef’s Table on Netflix and had become enamored with the idea of the tasting menu restaurant, and food as art. Particularly, the way chef Virgilio Martínez would intend his cooking, a series of small plates based on different altitudes of the Andes, to evoke sensations other than pleasure. Inspired by the way these dishes were presented: tiny things, meant to be considered one at a time, I spent a lot of time preparing a portfolio to present my small drawings. But when trying to explain this to the interviewing professor at Yale I said,

“I’ve been watching a lot of Chef’s Table,”

and she said,

“I don’t own a television,”

and it all went downhill from there.

I was discouraged by the interview: I had spent the past year working on my paintings with little time to look at or read about contemporary art and when questions regarding it came out I felt ignorant. The truth was I spent little time looking at galleries because there was little in them that I liked or related to; even the wine gave me migraines now. The history of queer art, which she expected me to have known as a queer artist, had never really been accessible to me, had not been included as part of my undergraduate education. The pace and overwhelming straightness of art school meant that I knew few actual queer people in New York until I had been in the city for seven years. I wanted to go to grad school to be able to pursue the academic topics that my previous education had been lacking in, but it seemed that I was expected to have done this on my own, already. I wondered if they thought I didn’t look queer enough — or if my art didn’t look queer enough — for me to be bringing it up as a topic.

A week after the interview, I returned to New Haven to pick up the paintings. I sorted through my paintings, stacked loosely inside a recycling bag in the storage rack, a few times: where was the copy shop painting? It was the largest painting I had brought with me and it wasn’t in the bag with the others.

Still waiting to hear back from the school about my acceptance or rejection, I was afraid to notify the student in charge of signing out the art of what had happened. Too much contact with anyone at Yale during the admissions process could be taken as an attempt to influence them in my favor and I feared being disqualified.

“‘I’m picking up my paintings,” I told them in a hushed tone, “But one of them isn’t here.”

We scoured the room, together, for the missing art. It was nowhere to be found. Finally, a student told me that Yale had hired someone from UPS to pack and ship work back to the students who had asked to have their paintings mailed home: most likely, my painting had been included in someone else’s package by mistake.

Weeks passed and my rejection from Yale came. Still, I was afraid to press them on the matter: what if I wanted to apply again in the future, and I was blacklisted, perceived as some kind of troublemaker? I was one of the students who had lost all of their thesis work in the fire at Pratt Institute in 2013. Suppose they connected those two incidents and decided I had orchestrated them: that I had burned my own paintings and that I had intentionally destroyed this painting, as well, and my entire gimmick as an artist was to become a sort of trickster who villainizes respected art institutions in a sad and desperate bid for fame. Suppose they thought I was totally blameless, but still disqualified me from future acceptance because it would look like they had done it to make up for losing the painting, not because I deserved it? What if they thought I was trying to find out why I was rejected: something they were absolutely forbidden to tell?

Students had made an effort to find the painting: they contacted all of the applicants whose work had been shipped back to them, asking if they had received anything that wasn’t theirs. Their responses were not prompt by any means, but all claimed not to have seen it.

UPS was unwilling to do anything to find it. They said that they could do nothing to find a package without a tracking number, and since we didn’t know which package the painting had been put in, they would do nothing to investigate.

Finally, after months of this, I sent an email to artschool.info@yale.edu: does anybody higher up know this is happening?

The Director of Academic Affairs emailed me back: No one had told her anything about a missing painting.

I realized that the grad students who were trying to find the painting were probably afraid they’d get in trouble for losing it if they told someone with a higher level of authority. They were second-year students getting ready to graduate. But would they have been able to do something, sooner, if they had?

Yale offered, immediately, to compensate me for the painting and immediately accepted my price: I should have asked for more. I was, after dealing with Pratt after the fire, incredibly relieved and grateful that Yale had simply offered to pay. The price of the painting covered what I had spent on the entire grad school application process, including travel expenses. I spent three or four hundred dollars on art books, as well, out of shame for my ignorance. I still have not read them.

I wondered if the schools I applied to could tell: I was applying for the wrong reasons. Not because I wanted the degree, but because I wanted an excuse to get out of New York for a while.

I moved out of my apartment anyway: I put on welding gloves and removed all the Royal Dansk tins full of used needles from the shed, killed all the cockroaches, scrubbed the bloodstains from the floor. I painted half the apartment linen white, a color the guy at the hardware store assured me was a match because “it’s the color cheap landlords use.” I took garbage bags full of soil from the garden, out of pure spite: I had composted for years, I had carried forty-pound bags of topsoil a mile to my house by hand, this dirt was mine. I dug up my twelve-foot fig tree in the middle of the night and moved it to my new apartment in a granny cart. I hoped that none of the people who had stolen or otherwise acquired the keys would come back in and trash the place. I didn’t get my deposit back. The fig tree died.

Eventually, I quit the copy shop job, too: I got into a web development boot camp in lower Manhattan. I started making money doing odd jobs on a more regular basis.

The friend who encouraged me to apply to Yale still insists that I try again, someday.

“They don’t give you an interview unless they think you’re really good,” she told me, “and if you get an interview a second time, they’ll let you in for sure.”

I still wonder what happened to the painting.

Most likely someone found it stuck underneath a painting rack months later, said “these art students need to learn to clean up after themselves!” and tossed it in the trash: calling the phone number on the back of the painting wouldn’t have taught me the right lesson about leaving my homework lying around.

Friends have told me to put this on my CV: that my painting is “in the collection of the Yale School of Art.” After all, they did technically buy it. I have not, because I feel that the closer I come to lying for clout, the more transparent it becomes; the more obvious it becomes that I have accomplished nothing of note.

I hope, honestly, that someone stole it because they liked it.

I hope some UPS worker has it hanging in their house.

The Epson Stylus Pro 3880

Though I hated my copy shop job, I enjoyed working with the equipment and missed having access to high-end printers. A few days ago a classmate from Pratt contacted me and offered me her old wide-format inkjet printer, and despite having little space for such things, I immediately accepted it without even asking how big it was. It’s 17", on the smaller end of “wide-format,” and weighs about forty pounds. After getting it installed and running some cleaning cycles, naturally, the first thing I printed was the best image I had of that painting, at its original size.

Painter, printmaker, web developer, plant hoarder, amateur baker, queer trans man (he/him), Brooklyn, NY. @mwissig on Instagram.

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