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Running on Slicks

Sonya? Sonya Ipsen? Oh yes, we spent time together, but that was more than six years ago when we were all living in SoHo, struggling. Fortunately for Sonya, Marcus Lyttle discovered her, but that was only after she'd shifted mediums. When I knew her, she was still doing watercolors of the bridges along the Hudson. She did good work, as I remember, and made modest sales through Marisa O'Connor's little gallery in Tribeca. Her talent wasn't spectacular, but she'd mastered the technique; she'd told me that she had some fairly good training. Nevertheless, when I knew her, the majority of her support still came from her father who farmed somewhere in Canada. So Sonya wasn't starving, but to cut expenses, she shared a loft with Lois Montgomery and Consuelo Garcia. We used to gather—Sonya, Lois, Morty, Abe, Consuelo, and I—at The Red Cup, late in the afternoon in order to hash out our futures over double espressos.

That's true: Sonya is an attractive Nordic blonde, so her hair and complexion lend grace to her success. In fact, three years ago, not long after her second or third show, I saw a photo of her in the Daily News, something taken on the steps of Lincoln Center as she arrived for a gala. She looked stunning. Looks can't hurt, but it's a mistake to think that Sonya's looks were the key to her success. They weren't.

No. A critic came up with that idea. I know the man, and he's always had his head inserted in a place I wouldn't care to mention. His announcement that she'd been inspired by NASCAR was preposterous. I doubt that Sonya ever saw a NASCAR race; she was never a sports fan. She knew how to drive because she grew up on a farm, but when Sonya talked about “running on slicks,” she was speaking about money. Near the end of the month, before their checks arrived, Sonya, Lois, and Consuelo always said that they were “running on slicks.” It was their joke about being broke. That's when Morty, Abe, and I used to treat them to coffee. While they lived in SoHo, none of those women ever drove a car. They walked or took the subway. Only once, when it was pouring rain, did I ever see them hail a cab. So the NASCAR idea as a source of Sonya's artistic inspiration is ridiculous.

In fact, I happened to be with Sonya when the idea first came to her. The two of us were walking home from The Red Cup. We'd stayed late that afternoon discussing the artist, Jackson Pollack, so it was dusk by the time we reached Bronstein's Tailoring, darkened windows lending depth to the growing night around us. So strolling through the shadows in front of Bronstein's, Sonya tripped and nearly took a spill.

“Well, shit!” she said as I seized her arm to keep her from going down.

“What the hell is this . . . a tire! A tire? In front of Bronstein's?”

“A new medium to be stumbled over,” I quipped, setting her upright and letting go of her arm. “What potential!”

“Hmmph,” Sonya grunted, peering at the tire over which she had nearly tumbled. “Slick as a whistle too. Look, not an ounce of tread left on the poor thing. And what the hell is an old tire doing in the middle of the sidewalk? New medium indeed! It's more like an archetype for all things expended.”

“A free standing sculpture?” I said. “If Bronstein only knew, he might hold an opening and charge admission.”

“Which gives me an idea,” Sonya said, excitement brightening her voice. And on the instant, she set the tire upright and started rolling it down the sidewalk.

I hastened to catch up with her, and as I stepped to her side, I could see that she was smiling.

“What,” I said, “are you up to?”

“Recycling is a civic duty,” she laughed, “so come around tomorrow, and I'll show you.”

“Fourish?” I said. “Just before coffee?”

“Fourish,” she said.

My parents, professional musicians, made a good living but always said that talent could take an artist only so far. Devilish hard work could then take the same artist further. And sometimes, they admitted, a gimmick could put an individual over the top. But how could I have known that Sonya had struck a gimmick? Free standing sculpture, indeed! What did I know?

On the following afternoon at four o'clock, I took the freight elevator up to Sonya's loft, banged on the metal door, and was admitted by Consuelo whose fingers seemed to be covered in shades of burnt umber.

“Don't mind me,” she said, “I'm working. I've got a commission. It's not much of a commission, but it is going to pay our heating bills for the next couple of months. Ever visited Block Island?”

“No,” I said.

“Lucky you,” Consuelo said. “Rock of a place, just south of Newport. My patron seems to think it's a gift from the gods. Strikes me as more of a low rock than anything. Burnt umber seems just the ticket.”

Lois, working on a carpet-topped table at the end of the room, appeared to be cutting glass. She was turning out bits that she intended to glue into a mosaic that she had been working to complete.

“Welcome, Reg,” she called out, without looking up. “Give me a minute, have a good look at Sonya's . . . creation, and then we'll let you herd us down for a cupper.”

“You're on,” I said before glancing toward Sonya's end of the loft as she emerged from behind a partition, her hands still covered with paint. “Well?” I said as I returned Sonya's smile. “It's fourish, I'm here to behold!”

“Observe,” Sonya commanded. And with a flourish, she snatched a covering from off the work she’d been doing. “The White Slick!” she announced.

It was the tire, of course, but the tire had experienced a metamorphosis. After standing it upright in a decorated wooden brace, Sonya had painted—with acrylics, I have to suppose—the entire surface; first, she'd painted the tire white and over the white, she had superimposed such an array of fanciful shapes and figures that my jaw dropped. I remember a pink cow with lime colored wings, an orange parrot with a blue beak, a scarlet dragon in the Chinese style, a yellow horse with a puce mane, an immense cougar with cherry paws, a wren wearing a dinner jacket, and two turquoise buffalo, each of them with golden lightning bolts in place of horns. Sandwiched between the fantastic animals and birds, Sonya had painted such an array of grotesque plants, objects, and human figures that Hieronymus Bosch might well have turned over in his grave or, had he still been with us, made a not unjustified attempt to sue her for plagiarism. It was the most consummate piece of utter nonsense upon which I had ever laid my eyes, but at the same time, I knew that collectors might find it unique.

“Well?” Sonya said, not without a smile. “What do you think?”

“It leaves me speechless,” I said.

“I think not,” she said.

“All right,” I said, “it's the last thing I'd care to imagine as an artistic surface, but you've made it work.”

“I think so too,” she said, her smile broadening. “Will it sell?”

“As long as you put a high enough price on it,” I said.

“Nothing at Marisa's,” she said, referring to her gallery in Tribeca, “sells for more than three or four hundred. I was thinking about asking four hundred for it.”

“I think I'd ask for at least eight,” I said. “And I rather think that one thousand would be better.”

“Really?” she said, her eyes lighting up.

“Really,” I said flatly. “People will find it new, Sonya. Make the most of it.”

“I told her the same thing,” Consuelo said, wiping some of the paint from her hands. “Come on, folks, I'm bushed. Let's go have some coffee.”

The next day, using an abandoned grocery cart, I helped Sonya push The White Slick all the way down to Marisa's gallery. That trip was long, but we had a clear day for it, and with two of us to manage the cart, we arrived without incident.

Convincing Marisa to show the piece proved nothing so easy. Marisa Agneza O'Conner, the middle-aged offspring of a Croatian violinist and an Irish bricklayer, was no fool. And what is more, she knew art, the kind of art that sold in her gallery: watercolors of New York, the occasional photographic image, and small east coast landscapes in oils. With The White Slick, she wanted no contact. I won't say that Marisa couldn't think beyond the fringe or, let us say, beyond paper and canvas, but she knew that she needed to make a living, and she had a very good understanding about what her particular clientele might be willing to buy and how much they might be prepared to pay for it.

“The price is too high,” she told Sonya. “That's more than twice as much as the most expensive painting I'm showing in here.”

“I know,” Sonya said, “but this is new. You've never shown anything like it before.”

“You can certainly say that again,” Marisa laughed. “New it is, I grant you, and I'm not saying that I don't like it, but for heaven's sake, Sonya, it would be utterly out of place in here. My customers might find it off-putting. Why don't you think about . . .”

“Look,” Sonya said, “I'll make a bargain with you. Put it in the window, and give it a week. If it doesn't sell, I'll give you fifty dollars in rent for the space and take it away at the end of the seventh day. How about that?”

“Oh, for heaven's sake,” Marisa said, her lips registering exasperation. “All right. I'll give you the week you're asking, and if one thousand is the price you really want to set, you can ask for a thousand for it. If it doesn't sell in a week, I'll agree to twenty dollars in rent for the space. If it does sell, well, we split sixty-forty rather than the usual fifty-fifty. How about that?”

“Done,” Sonya said at once. “Can you clear a space?”

“What, now?” Marisa exclaimed.

“Time's a wastin',” Sonya smiled. “And to be honest, Marisa, with five days still to go before Dad's check arrives, I'm already running on slicks.”

“Oh,” Marisa said—which indicated to me that she already understood the girls' metaphor. “Well, give me a minute, and I'll make a place.”

We hadn't been back from Marisa's for more than two hours when, according to whatever serendipity governs these things, Marcus Lyttle—prissy, fastidious, tight-ass Marcus Lyttle, would--be art expert and owner of Lyttle's Rustic Cormorant Gallery on West 86th Street, happened to be passing Marisa's, glanced in the window, spotted The White Slick, and stopped dead in his tracks. According to Marisa, the little man's eyes bugged until he repossessed himself, walked straight in, and bought the work, laying down ten crisp one hundred dollar bills before taking the piece from the window with his own hands, hustling it into a cab, and darting quickly back to his upscale establishment. And two days later, for a profit of no less than five thousand dollars, Marcus Lyttle sold the The White Slick to a museum in East Lansing. Then, he telephoned Sonya.

That evening, at The Red Cup, Sonya's smile could have brightened Times Square.

“Ask her who called her today,” Lois prompted, lifting one eyebrow.

I turned to Sonya. “Who called you today?” I asked.

“Do you know Marcus Lyttle?” she asked.

“I know who he is,” I said. “We've never met.”

“He telephoned me,” Sonya said, her voice turning musical. “He wants me to do a show. He wants me to paint twenty tires for an opening at The Rustic Cormorant. He says that he can guarantee coverage by at least three newspapers, and he thinks that Adventures in American Art will send a reviewer. He's promised a banner out front: “Sonya Ipsen—Running on Slicks.”

“You realize,” I said, taking pleasure in her success, “that you've hit the jackpot?”

“Let's hope.” Sonya said.

“Put your fears to rest,” Morty said. “Really, Sonya, it's a coup. Marcus Lyttle is a bit of a jerk, but Lyttle's Rustic Cormorant is big time. No one is going to have any doubts about it.”

“He's right,” Consuelo said. “And, Sweetie, your bank manager will love it.”

“Not to throw cold water over things,” I said, “but a word of advice.”

“Speak,” Sonya said. “I’m all ears.”

“Well,” I said, “you've caught your marlin, but now you've got to land it. Miss Priss or not, Lyttle knows his stuff, and he'll deliver. But right here, right now, art stops and the unsavory fact of business takes over. You set the prices, Sonya; you approve the sales and you demand to see the books; don't do it on a handshake. Make him write out a contract, particularly for any commissions that he might arrange; you don't want to wind up on the slim side of the split. All warmth and smiles for the patrons, but with Marcus, I'd recommend flint-eyed practicality and a firm way of doing business. A lot of very successful artists--artists who sell well and are in constant demand--also go hungry, and we shouldn't like for you to be one of them.”

That was the last word of advice I ever offered Sonya Ipsen. Prior to the moment, I don't think that she'd ever given the matter much thought, and I can't say that the little that I told her helped her in any way. But whatever the case, Sonya proved to be as shrewd a business woman as she was an artist.

“Running on Slicks” opened at Lyttle's gallery three months later, and Lyttle kept the show up for more than a month. But from what Sonya told me, all twenty of her decorated tires sold on the first night. Aside from artistic celebrity, precisely what she realized from the sale, she never disclosed. But she did tell me that it dwarfed everything she had sold through Marisa's across the previous four years. And in the wake of the show she spent the following three months completing such an array of slick tire commissions, commissions from which the gallery received a generous cut, that Marcus Lyttle actually began to walk with a spring in his step and a smile upon his perpetually pinched lips.

But for our group, the group of us that had always enjoyed our coffee together at The Red Cup, that was also, I have to remember, the beginning of a transition. I don't mean this in a negative way, but after Sonya's sudden success, we began to drift. Morty turned out to be the first to go; he concluded that his talent as a sculptor wasn't going to take him very far, so he gravitated up to Buffalo,went into acting, and has as much regional stage work as he can handle. When Abe decided that Robert Frost wasn't going to move over for him, he took a job teaching American lit. at a junior college in Vermont and seems to be enjoying it. Sonya left next, not because she didn't like living with Lois and Consuelo but because she needed more space in which to work. Her second show, something that Marcus set in motion about ten months after her first, concentrated on doors. She concentrated on solid wooden Victorian era doors, doors rescued from abandoned houses and bought for a song, doorknobs and hinges included. “Sonya Ipsen—The Doors” opened before Christmas that year and featured thirty-two doors painted according to her unique designs. Lyttle hung the doors horizontally and didn't sell a single one for less than five thousand dollars. In order to prepare for that show, Sonya bought herself a place in Connecticut. I call it a place, but in fact, it was a small farm with a good barn, a barn which she cleaned thoroughly, heated, and used as a studio. The place came complete with twenty-eight acres—twenty-three of which she leased out, the rents received affording her enough to cover her mortgage. We continued to see her because she made a point of stopping at The Red Cup each time she ventured down to Manhattan, but as time went by, she came less often, electing to ship her work to Marcus rather than move it herself. I visited “The Slicks,” Sonya's chosen name for her place, on two occasions, and once I stayed overnight in her guest room. It was a nice retreat, and I found her happy there. We continue to be on good terms and exchange Christmas cards, but since I removed here to Santa Fe I haven't seen her. In so far as I know, Lois and Consuelo are still in the loft, still working side by side. They go up to The Slicks occasionally, and the last I heard, Sonya was hard at work painting circus figures on sheets of corrugated tin, scenes destined for yet another pre-Christmas exhibition at Lyttle's this year.

Santa Fe? Why Santa Fe, do you ask? Well, for a host of reasons, I suppose. While I can do a good landscape, I don't think I have a great one anywhere on my palate. I'm probably a little like my parents in that regard. I know that I don't have it, the star quality, I mean, Sonya's quality, so I'm trying to make a living on commitment and hard labor. The Green Arrow Gallery, where I've been showing, seems to like my work, so my modest sales are steady. Santa Fe is less expensive than Manhattan, but by living in Pecos rather than in Santa Fe proper, I've cut expenses to a third of what it cost me to live in New York. Recently, I've started doing woodcuts. It's a new medium for me, the woodcut. I'm not in a class with Gustave Baumann, but I like the work, and as long as I'm excited, I find that I'm thriving. I am not yet and hope never to be running on slicks.

About the Author

Previously, Phillip Parotti has published short stories and essays in a variety of little magazines. Now retired from a teaching career spent at Sam Houston State University, he resides in New Mexico where he continues to write and work as a print artist.

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