The famous quote from the Dustin Hoffman movie, ‘The Graduate,’ is not wasted on Duane Snider:
“One word: plastics.”
That was Benjamin Braddock, just graduated from college, sitting in a swimming pool. Giving him advice on attaining the American dream, the neighbor’s statement says it all. Today? Hedge funds? Flipping houses? Coronavirus repossessions?
For Duane, that one word: artwork.
We’re sitting on the back porch of his brand-new Adair home on a third of an acre on the high land of Waldport. He and his wife, Linda, are proverbially happy, fat and sassy in this new iteration of their lives.
He went to Benson high school, when it was an all-male segregated school. It was during the Vietnam War, at the height of the draft.
Just a few weeks earlier, Duane and I ran into each other on the beach near the Alsea River emptying out into the Pacific. Loons and eaglets started the conversation, and quickly Duane recognized me by my byline for this newspaper. He had purchased a piece of art from one of the people I have featured in Deep Dive — Anja Albosta, artist and environmental refugee from Yosemite see Dec. 16, 2019, “Art in a changing climate”).
Duane is 68, and his wife — originally from Sonora, CA — is 67. Duane’s work life is quintessential drudgery millions of Americans called working stiffs have faced. In his case, 39 years working at one place, grinding optics for an optical service in Portland. It was for Duane 20 years in a hostile work environment where his boss bullied him. There was no real upside to the job — a repetitive job tracing lenses and frames and low pay.
He conveys to me that for more than a decade he was highly depressed, even suicidal.
“I could see the Ross Island bridge. Daily, I would look out the window and fantasize jumping off it. Even planning out in my mind how I’d have to aim my fall just right as to hit the bike path just to be sure.”
Alcohol and drug abuse were a big part of his life, but to his credit Duane has been clean in sober going on three decades. His addiction to substances was eclipsed by another addiction — art collecting. He has been a fixture in Portland’s art scene for decades — a gallery gadfly, and someone who ended up with smart and strategic ways of appreciating art and purchasing it.
He’s a veritable encyclopedia of Who’s Who in the Oregon art world.
It’s not so unusual Duane would have gained this proclivity for art appreciation and deep regard for art’s role in society as something bigger than commerce, industry and day-to-day drudgery of commercialism.
When he was a youngster, he studied guitar. He was good enough to end up switching over to classical guitar in the style of Andres Segovia. He has taken a master class from the best — for guitar taught by Michael Lorimere, who was a classmate of Chistopher Parkening in master classes with Segovia. That was 1975.
“I knew I was going to have to take a vow of poverty if I was going to try and pursue being a musician.”
Duane’s father was a union baker and not very involved in the boy’s life. For the just-turned-18-year-old Duane, his cohorts were going to be drafted but he was talked into enlisting. “A friend said the navy, since it wasn’t the army. Anything but the army. But that was nuclear submarine duty and I was claustrophobic. There was no way I was going on a submarine.” Instead, he ended up in the air force. He even tried the conscientious objector route.
Military life was short-lived when he was drummed out as a 4-F. They found traces of codeine in his drug test. “Ironically, I had done all sorts of party drugs.” It wasn’t the LSD he dropped they discovered, but the codeine, the psychedelic from which it was titrated.
Music out, optics in
“If you want the present to be different from the past, study the past.
Everything excellent is as difficult as it is rare.”
— Baruch Spinoza
He was homeless for a few months. Coming back from Lackland AFB, Duane ended up working with the crippled children’s division of OSHU. He took a second master guitar class at Berkley. “I knew poverty was going to be a regular part of my life. I wasn’t that good. I took classes with trust fund babies. Money wasn’t an issue for them.”
Here’s where things really get prescient — “I had a poster of Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” on my apartment wall in Portland. I was studying with extraordinary musicians. I wasn’t about to spend 10 or 15 years in poverty.”
The “Old Guitarist” was painted in 1903, just after the suicide death of Picasso’s close friend, Casagemas. Picasso was deeply sympathetic to the plight of the disenfranchised and downtrodden. He painted many canvases depicting the poor, sick, and outcasts of society. In fact, Picasso was penniless during 1902.
It’s an amazing painting in the style of El Greco. That moment for Duane Snider turned into a life passion — sacrificing part of his soul in that daily grind in order to enter another world: one that was rarified, filled with the passions and creativity of artists just like Pablo Picasso.
When he returned from Berkley, he ended up in a friend’s parents’ house. He applied to Portland Community College, talked to a counselor, told her he wanted to find a steady job, one that was reliable. “I wanted something recession- and depression-proof. Optician fit the bill.” He ended up taking psychology and philosophy classes awaiting the term to start for his major.
He grabbed a job at a lab his second term. He parlayed that into a fulltime gig at Columbian Bifocal. The first 20 years it was a family-run place, and the last 19 years it ended up as one of 17 labs for Hoya, a Japanese investment group.
Good benefits, steady work, and a bully boss. “We hated each other. It’s amazing I survived.”
He hands me a DVD of an OPB special featuring Portland art collectors. Duane is profiled. He laughs, recalling how he had read about the great philosopher Spinoza’s life as a lens grinder. What was good for the father of rationalist and deductive reasoning had to be fine for Duane Snider’s life.
Not so ironically, the dust from lens grinding led to Spinoza’s early death from tuberculosis.
The amazing number of artists Duane has met propelled him to write essays on art for a local art rag — NW Drizzle. Here’s what he penned in 2005, as he emphasizes, he was “just coming out of a four-year bout of suicidal depression.”
“When I gave up the guitar, I couldn’t give up my need for a place to put my passion. It seems natural that my passion migrated toward the visual arts. Giving up playing music meant letting go of a sizable part of what I thought was my identity. My search for a new sense of self played a major role in pushing me toward the idea of collecting.
That’s when I started learning that the real value of art is not determined by the price on the sticker, but by the strength of the connection between the viewer and the object of interest.”
Early-20th-Century philosopher Irwin Edman gives a remarkably simple bit of insight into what art offers us in everyday life:
“Painters speak of dead spots in a painting: areas where the color is wan or uninteresting, or the forms irrelevant and cold. Life is full of dead spots. Art gives it life. A comprehensive art would render the whole of life alive.”
Duane Snider is the embodiment of turning life into his own art project:
“Instead of using pigments and a canvas to make an artwork, I told myself that I would turn my life into a conceptual art piece to create a lifestyle that’s sustainable and comfortable,” he tells me twice: once on the beach on our first meeting in Waldport and then up at his new 1,900-square-foot, single-level home.
In the middle of a beach with harbor seals sunning along their haul out on Bay Shore, two very different guys run into each other and start a deep conversation. I am a radical social worker and revolutionary writer (couldn’t tell that from these OCT columns) and educator. Marxism is more than just a conceptual point in economic history for me.
Here is Duane Snider, saying he too is a Marxist, but emphasizing he was dealt a hand of capitalism’s cards, so he successfully learned to play the game within those constraints. He tells me he feels guilty for getting he and his wife, Linda, down here on the coast with zero debts and a custom home that is paid off.
I reassure him that he is kosher with me, and no one should begrudge he or his wife this little slice of paradise.
The dream in Waldport was germinated 36 years ago. They purchased a home in Portland (Richmond District) for $48,000. That was 1984. Thirty-two years later they pulled up stakes in Portland with a $517,000 sale price. No permanent lines of credit needed. He even got their nest egg out of the market and put into cash two years ago. “I saw this coming.”
He didn’t predict the COVID-19 virus outbreak, but he did see a faltering stock market.
“He leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.”
His tutelage in art began at a most unlikely place — Menucha, which was an estate created by the Meiers of the Portland department store fame. Near Corbet in the Columbia Gorge, Menucha (Hebrew for rebuilding, restoring and renewing) hosted camps for youth.
According to the website: “In 1950, First Presbyterian Church of Portland purchased the property from the Meier family, who were pleased to see it dedicated as an ecumenical center, a gift in perpetuity to communities of people from around the world.”
Duane began collecting art before he ended up buying the Portland house. The art bug drilled into his consciousness when in 1967 he went to a high school arts camp at Menucha. His parents always took off for Reno and Vegas during summer vacations, and they opted to put the young Duane in a summer camp.
That was serendipitous. He told me that he had never been to an art gallery until after high school. He met Jackie West who ran Graystone Gallery in the Hawthorne District. “I went inside and I was looking around the half gallery/half store. It was an old house. Actually, it became part of the Oregon Potters Association. My eyes landed on this water color. It was as if time stopped.”
He ended up purchasing his first piece, a hyper-realistic watercolor of an iris by Kirk Lybecker.
Duane emails me a couple of his essays in NW Drizzle — “Embarking on a journey of discovery: The life-affirming qualities of art” & “Art’s true value: Aesthetics vs. commerce.” In his essays he reiterates how art came to save him and how collecting became a true emotional and spiritual line to the artist, to the art. Here is one emblematic passage:
“The gallery from which I bought my first artwork made the sale because the gallery owner made an effort to make the pricing and sales process as transparent as possible. She gave me a short but thorough explanation on how galleries set prices. She explained that great art comes in all price ranges, as does mediocre art.”
He launches into several iterations of how art — the actual object — is more than what it is in your hand or on the wall; that it is something that “holds great value for us as individuals and for all cultures of the world.”
Red is the color of egalitarianism
Duane and I talk about the friction and dichotomy between the highfalutin rich “patron of the arts” and the middle-class view of art — we need the rich folks to support the arts, but we also need to invest in regular people getting original artwork in their homes. “Conceptually, I am a Marxist working in a capitalist system.”
That means he wishes our society from top to bottom was more egalitarian.
Duane Snider has no angst when it comes to what a thinker like Michael Parenti might say about capitalism: “It’s the powerful who write the laws of the world— and the powerful who ignore these laws when expediency dictates.”
We met the first time during a voluntary social distancing because of the cornonavirus, and then shortly afterward when the state of Oregon implemented further measures to shut down business, interactions, meetings and public gatherings.
Then we shift to all the artists he knows, has known and will know. He has more than 200 works of art in his home, most of them on display. I had to look through some of the windows from the outside to view many fine works on the couple’s walls.
His goal is to have the collection donated to a non-profit like Art in Oregon, whose motto is “building bridges between artists and communities.” The engine there is to get businesses to purchase and show art, and for there to be that bridge between the artist and the community.
Duane is less an enigma than he is kind of Everyman. He puts on several hats — he knows most of the gallery owners in Portland, is friends with the director of the Portland Art Museum, spent time with Danny Glover, and finds solace watching a warbler feed from his new backyard.
One great influence and friend for Duane is Jeffery Thomas, partner to William Jamison who, as Duane relates, “was a driving force in the evolution of the Portland Gallery community in the ‘80s and ‘90s . . . [to include] Charles Froelick, Jane Bebe and Brad Rog.”
He repeats several times how he has found a good friend in me on our occasional talks in his home and on the beach: “I connect with anyone who knows what arts is. We need to get young people into discovering our unique art. Unfortunately, unique objects are under threat in the digital age.”
He repeats how he played the hand that was dealt him. He came from a working-class family. He himself was poor and homeless for a time. He learned the value of art through “figuring out the game you have to play to survive, to be comfortable.”
No contradictions there, and Duane Snider would smile at one of Karl Marx’s doozies: “The rich will do anything for the poor but get off their backs.”
Q & A in a nutshell
The beauty of my own insertion into people’s lives is that nine out of 10 times I don’t get the bum’s rush out the front door. Artists for me — I am a gallery-shown poet and photographer, among others things — have a certain place in my heart, deeply ingrained in both the aesthetics that make humanity redeemable. But I have been heavily influenced in El Paso and Mexico, falling in with artists like Louis Jimenez, Linda Lynch and others, well-known and not.
I just came back from Mexico December 2019. I hunted down the works of Francisco Toledo, who was a Mexican Zapotec painter, sculptor and graphic artist. His seven decades produced thousands of works of art, becoming widely regarded as one of Mexico’s most important contemporary artists.
At the Museo Robert Brady in Cuernavaca, my spouse and I toured this gem of an art collector’s paradise. It’s the former home of Robert Brady. It’s the kind of place Duane Snider would end up days looking over the vast, eclectic and diverse collection. I was on the hunt for specific favorite artists like Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Tamayo and Siqueiros and others.
The politics we share help bridge our understanding of the world, and the world of art. While I come at almost everything from a true Marxist perspective and attempt living my life that way, the nuances in one’s outlook and way of tackling the world are what also interest me.
Duane and his wife are simple, and both are appreciative of the deer and chipmunks who vie for attention with the more than two dozen species of birds that visit their backyard.
Paul: Why have the world’s super powers and despotic regimes always deployed the bombing of museums, cultural landmarks and looting the arts and important symbols of a country’s artistic and historical (archaeological) output?
Duane: The easiest way to destroy a society or a culture is to destroy its art treasures. When you take that away, you take away their history and sense of identity. Also, historically, art has huge inherent value because of its ability to offer meaning to people beyond those of the culture that produced it. Also, unique and rare art objects that are considered beautiful and meaningful are valuable because they are rare or unique.
Paul: Riff with this — “So here we are in the 21st Century. The forward march of labor ended some time ago. How do today’s artists portray poverty? Interesting question — for perhaps wealth has never been more raw and obvious in the art world. This is the age of the diamond skull. Compared with the compassion of a Caravaggio or Van Gogh, contemporary art really does seem to take the rich collector’s view on life. Where’s our Luke Fildes? For images of economic injustice in today’s art you probably have to look outside the gallery world.”
Duane: In general, most artist don’t even address the issue in today’s market. Social commentary is more aligned with journalism and documentary efforts. Much of the art market doesn’t want art that shines a light on social inequities of the darker side of our culture. There are huge exceptions of course in museum installations and high-end art by big-name artists, and there is a lot of art that is beautiful, but not pretty that skirts around the big issues but doesn’t show up in fine art galleries. Photography is the most common place to find imagery of social injustice because of the connection to journalism. The sad fact is that most art is a commodity and with that comes the necessity for broad acceptance of work for it to be marketable. How many Diego Riveras do you see out there these days?
Paul: If you could do your youth and high school years over again, would you? Yes, why and how? No, why?
Duane: When I was in my forties and fifties, I wished I could have changed a few things, but now, not so much. I suffered some in getting here, but it turned out well enough that there is little I am not grateful for, on a personal level. I am comfortable and largely free of any feelings of guilt. What should I change? I don’t know.
Paul: Tell the average consumer and retail-loving American why art is valuable to them and to our society especially now in 2020?
Duane: Art is one of the last places we have where we can freely explore our identities and the meaning of the lives we inhabit, where we can express ourselves in simply possessing and object or identifying with a performance experience. Art offers insight into who we are, how we are unique, and what we believe in. Art gives us context for understanding the content of our lives. How do you put a dollar value on that? For way too many Americans, money is what they look to for those answers. What a shallow existence that is.
Paul Haeder is a writer living and working in Lincoln County. He has two books coming out, one a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” and a non-fiction book, “No More Messing Around: The Good, Bad and Ugly of America’s Education System.” First appeared in Oregon Coast Today.