The first time I met Hixson all I could see were his legs and butt dangling out of my Dumpster. I put my plastic bag of trash down and watched. He was wearing white paint-spattered pants, black socks and faded green deck sneakers. There was a hole at the right little toe. My wife Chandra and I owned what I considered an eclectic art collection and had just bought an old adobe house in Taos, New Mexico. The locals’ story was the town either sucked you in or spit you out, as if the only people living here were refugees who didn’t fit in anywhere else, and since we’d been visiting for years we decided to buy a second home to see how it felt.
Hixson’s legs shot straight into the blue sky as he dug deeper into the trash. It was a blue that in a painting I always assumed the artist had got it wrong, deep without growing dark, chalky but clear as mountain air.
I was surprised when Hixson rocked down into the sunshine. He was older than me, more spry and handsome, except for the gray stubble on his chin and no teeth. The bill of a ragged baseball cap with my company logo shaded his eyes. He stacked a few pieces of cardboard, lumber remnants, and an almost empty can of stain I’d used for my floors on the ground.
“How’s it going?” I stepped up to throw my bag into the dumpster, then hesitated.
“I’m done,” he said.
“Paul Hemming. Blue roof.” I pointed to our house, then offered my hand.
“Hixson,” he said, hiding his narrow eyes under the bill of my cap. Hixson picked up his haul and walked away.
A neighbor told me my Dumpster diver was an artist. The next time I saw him was in the parking lot behind the Sage Inn after three margaritas. I’d parked next to other cars along a latilla fence. It wasn’t until the heavy latillas directly in front of my car swung into my bumper and Hixson slid out from behind that I noticed all the cars were blocking a driveway.
He took off my hat and blocked the sun with it. Three inch tufts of hair stuck up the way my son tried to do with mousse. I felt a pang of jealousy. Hixson looked at me sideways.
“Paul. We met the other day. You were gathering some things from my Dumpster.”
“Yeah. I remember.”
Hixson looked around as if he was expecting someone else, or an excuse to get away.
“I’m blocking your drive.”
“You want to get high?”
It’d been years since I’d smoked pot. Now his blue eyes were directly on mine.
“Sure,” I said.
The latilla gate led into a Spanish courtyard, the kind you see in movies where all the rooms of the house are built around an open-air common area. There was a tan seventies vintage El Camino, a broken circle of adobe surrounding the wood supports for an old well, a warped plank porch and three twisted wood doors leading into sensuously sagging adobe buildings. Hixson creaked open a custom screen and led me into one of the buildings.
“Kitchen,” he said apologetically. The room was about twelve feet long and five feet deep. There was a hot plate, a dorm fridge, and just enough room for a skinny person to walk past the stomach-high junk. In two places near the ceiling the mud had disintegrated, exposing roughly three-square-foot patches of sixteen inch thick adobe brick walls.
We ducked under a rounded doorway and into the main room. It was maybe fifteen feet long and twelve feet wide, illuminated by a long, two-foot high window. Abstract paintings leaned against every white mud wall. Most were large; seven feet by five feet, four by three, some two by twos. The dirt floor was hardened with thin strings of primary colors, like the designer faux finish on my concrete garage floor I’d just spent hundreds of dollars on. There was a shin high wood table piled with brushes and tubes of paint, a glass jug full of deep canary yellow on a stool, a short table Hixson used as a chair, and on his wide, homemade easel were two sets of two paintings stacked on top of each other leaning against a large one behind. Hixson put the glass jug on the floor, pointed for me to sit.
“Wow,” I said. “Your work is fantastic.” I’d never understood abstract art and didn’t know what else to say.
Hixson pulled a shoebox from behind his easel, crushed a pungent green bud into a pipe, handed it to me and lit a match. I sucked tentatively, the tequila already swimming around in my head. Hixson took a toke and handed it back to me. I knew better, but to be polite I took another drag, this time with more gusto. He loaded another bowl.
I stood up slowly as an excuse to not smoke anymore and studied some paintings. If there was a theme it was blocks of yellows and grays and greens intersected by grids. But that’s too simplified to describe the streaks of red and the strained-peas greens and the way a few lines suggested landscapes.
“I really like this one,” I said, pointing to a grid of what looked like rubbed whitish circles on a mustard background that made my head spin.
“That’s going into my show.” He took another long toke, held it in.
“I don’t know much about abstract art,” I suddenly confessed.
“Three O Two,” he said.
He could see my confusion.
“My gallery. I paint what I want, they take what they want.”
“That’s exciting.” I looked around the room. “Great old adobe.”
“Want to check it out?”
I followed Hixson through another low rounded doorway. In the small dark room were a single unmade bed and a small chest of drawers. When I leaned against a wall the rough mud finish scraped by forearm.
“Kit Carson’s house is on the other side of this wall,” Hixson said.
“The museum? How old is this place?” Hixson saw me looking at a blue plastic tarp hanging from the ceiling above the bed.
The tarp angled down past the foot of the bed. There was a water stain on the floor.
“Been kind of dry,” he said.
It was dark when I got in my car and drove around to the front of the museum. Hixson’s house was part of a one story adobe complex housing galleries, artists’ studios, a second-hand western shop, and the museum. I googled Kit Carson house on my phone. The National Register of Historic Places website said Kit Carson’s home was built in 1825.
All those lines and colors kept popping up in my mind. A few days later Chandra and I were shopping around the plaza and came across 302 Fine Art. The current show was Taos Moderns, abstract artists who in some way or another had a connection to Taos and were now all dead. I tried to make the lines and shapes and colors into familiar objects. It felt childish, like naming clouds. The moment I identified an elephant Chandra called it a unicorn and then that’s all I could see. Most of the time Chandra and I like the same pieces, but not with these. She accused me of being set in my ways. Erica and Shane, the owners, told me Hixson was as pure an artist as they’d ever worked with. They were going to take everything he could produce for the show. The next day I made an excuse to get out of the house by myself and went to see if Hixson was home.
“Want to get high?” Hixson asked as soon as soon as I was in the door.
We went through two bowls in five minutes.
“I’ll bring you a bottle of wine, for the weed,” I said.
“I don’t drink.”
He thumbed through a deep stack of paintings, leaning them against his body as he went. I got up and supported the stack while he roughly tilted each one away from the wall. The images passed by so fast it was like looking at a silent movie of a Rorsach test. Hixson lifted a four-by-three up for me to get a better look.
“I’ve been working on this for two years.” It was subtle, faded; a lemon-yellow grid, fatigue-green and pinon-gray dripping lines, red streaks, unfinished black circles, all on a dirty white background, like what my contractor called diamond finish when he plastered the inside walls of my house.
“Looks scraped,” I said.
It took me a minute to realize each color or shape was a separate layer he’d scraped off and painted over, as if he hadn’t been happy with it but didn’t want to waste the surface. He pointed out a patchy bit of blue I hadn’t noticed, the faint ghost of some pencil lines showing through successive colors, said each layer was his personal history. Hixson handed me the painting and resumed flipping through the stack.
“What’s it painted on?”
“Hardboard. I make the frames.”
I turned the piece around, checked the corners, spun it three-hundred-sixty degrees along the edges. The hardboard was glued to one by two inch pine finish-nailed together. There was no back support.
“The frames are ripped from one by sixes. I used to be a carpenter.” He waved to a small table saw tucked into a corner.
“Is this finished?”
“I don’t think so, maybe. It started out simple. Then it kept trying to get complicated. I have to keep going until it’s simple again.”
Hixson grinned, but it was a serious grin, not mischievous. More like he thought I might be onto something. We pushed the stack back against the wall and he loaded another bowl.
On the adobe sill of the long window was a row of three inch by three inch pencil line drawings on cardboard. They were simple figures of animals on white gesso backgrounds; dogs, chickens, another bird of some kind, buffaloes, a fat mythological creature with a horn sticking out of its head.
“Pocket art,” Hixson said. He picked up several and put them in his shirt pocket. “I sell them for five dollars at the coffee shop.”
We walked down and ordered a cup of coffee. Hixson insisted on paying for his, was obviously a regular. He didn’t mention the line drawings to anyone, but Lola, an attractive woman in her forties with happy wrinkles wearing what I call a hippie-girl dress asked about them and bought a dog. Hixson stuffed the bill in his pants’ pocket.
“I’d like to buy some of those,” I said.
He laid them out on the table. The more I looked at each figure the more detail I saw, even though it didn’t look like he’d picked the pencil up more than once or twice with each one. The detail wasn’t drawn in as much as suggested, by a crimp in the line of a belly, a double curve on a limb, a V for a mouth that somehow was joyful and frightening at the same time. They reminded me of two Picasso prints Chandra and I had bought in San Francisco. I picked out a chicken, a buffalo, and the horned animal, handed Hixson a twenty. He reached into his pocket.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
He pulled out the five and held it out for me.
“That’s OK. I owe you.”
“No.” He pushed the bill across the table at me. “Honesty is simple. Everything that comes in, comes out. Nothing else belongs.”
It was like Hixson had gone into a trance. I wasn’t sure if I had offended or inspired him. He excused himself and left.
As I walked home it hit me that not only did Hixson not have a computer or a phone, there was no television, radio, or even a bathroom in his house. I imagined him sitting alone in his studio, painting, banning certain thoughts from his head. What kind of thoughts? It was beyond my comprehension. The only thing in my field of experience to compare him with was ascetics from Eastern Religions class in college. Now I realized even ascetics remained an abstraction to me, as if all of history was nothing but words in a book. The idea of consciously eradicating creature comforts and conveniences went against everything I had habituated myself to, everything that to me signified success in life.
Several Magpies swooped over my backyard fence like children so lost in play they didn’t realize they’d wandered into the neighbor’s yard. I plopped into a lawn chair. A pair of doves I’d been watching for days chased finches from our birdfeeder. Taos Mountain dominated my horizon. A few days earlier Chandra had wondered out loud how it was the mountain looked larger from here than from the Pueblo, which was several miles closer. I’d taken to staring at it, gauging how much the mountain filled the sky from various places around town. Sometimes its soft bulk was a modest monochrome, sitting small and quiet in the background. Then I’d look up to discover bulwarks of ochre and white-hot pink or royal purple joining forces with clouds to shelter Taos from the madness beyond. I was sure a mathematician could explain the phenomenon, how this or that triangulation in this or that light accounted for the spatial illusions, but that would be talking past what I was trying to understand. I didn’t care what it was made of or how the forest or snow or angle of the sun altered my perception. All I wanted to do was look up and see what kind of day I was going to have. Its mood filled the sky, assured me I wouldn’t be spit out. Three times at stop lights other motorists had to honk to get me to notice the light was green. I started riding my bicycle instead of driving, was continually fighting off feelings of guilt because others were picking up the slack at the office as I did nothing more than let Hixson’s art and this magical place impress upon me.
That evening Chandra and I flitted around to opening receptions at several galleries. An artist in the Kit Carson complex, Gino Mooney, opened his studio to take advantage of all the people walking along the street. There were a Mariachi band, free wine and snacks. Chandra and I sifted through the crowd and found ourselves in the Spanish courtyard.
“That’s Hixson’s house,” I told her.
“Introduce me to your crazy artist?”
At first I was piqued that Chandra referred to Hixson as crazy, then had to admit her only knowledge of him was from my descriptions of his personal deprivations. We knocked on the custom screen door.
“Are you painting?”
“No.” He stood a few feet back. Through the screen Hixson’s image was a mere suggestion, like the rendition of an historical figure who lived before photography.
“I want you to meet my wife, Chandra.”
“You want to come over to Mooney’s studio?”
“I don’t like to be around so many people.”
“I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to bother you.”
“That’s OK.” Hixson closed the door.
“I can see why you’re so enamored.”
“He’s better one on one,” I said.
“You a friend of Hixson’s?” Gino Mooney had come up behind us. He was a lot taller than me, with a generous smile and wavy chestnut hair, a few strands of gray at his temple.
“I’ve been stopping by, admiring his work.”
“He’s becoming obsessed,” Chandra said.
“That kind of thing happens around here.”
“He’s so dedicated,” I said. “His whole life is art.”
“Sure is. Pulled all his teeth because the pain was keeping him from working.”
“What?” Chandra winced and crinkled her forehead. “Someone should have put him in touch with social services.”
“He had a consultation. Decided teeth were a distraction he could eliminate.”
“Oh my god,” Chandra said. “Did you try and talk him out of it?”
“Not my decision.”
“Never get a girl that way,” she said.
“He’s been with Natasha four or five years now. Puppeteer up at Talpa. Very talented.”
“Each to his own,” I said.
“Don’t even think about it.” She frowned and repeated the crinkle. “What’s he do for money?”
“Doesn’t need much. Museum lets him live in the adobe for free. Been here almost twenty years. Hell, I’m only paying a couple hundred a month.”
“For that storefront? Right off the plaza?” I said.
“Just the way things are done around here.”
“Do you have running water?”
“I do. Tom uses a spigot back of my place.”
A couple days later we went back home to work. The next month I found a glowing review of Hixson’s show in Santa Fe Magazine Online. The reviewer said Hixson was heir to the Abstract Expressionists. She interviewed a professor from some university back east who said he was using Hixson’s work to teach his students future trends in painting. Two weeks later, on the first day Chandra and I were back in Taos, we went to 302 Fine Art.
Hixson’s work filled all five rooms. The pieces were wonderfully, minimally hung. Each room sucked you in like a mouse who smells cheese in a labyrinth. Three rooms were dominated by ochre grids, two more with blocks of neutral color and bright dripping streaks. Of course that’s an oversimplification. The two year old scraped painting had a red sold dot on it. I counted eleven red dots.
“Happy with the show?” I asked Hixson the next day over a couple of bowls.
“Did you like it?”
“Beautiful in the gallery.”
I sensed Hixson was looking for confirmation. After all the self-denial, his shunning of Chandra and I that night.
“She said it was the best collection of abstract art she’d ever seen in one place. And we’ve been to MOMA and the Clyfford Still Museum.”
“Never seen them.”
Hixson closed the shoebox and slid it into its spot behind his easel. I picked up a photograph that had been under the box. It showed a triptych of black paintings hanging high on the wall over Hixson’s easel. On the left one was a red line, a gentle thunderbolt. The middle board was all black except for a small white square incompletely scratched in the bottom-left corner. On the right one a blue crescent, blue like the sky I never before believed was real, signaled a new day.
“A couple weeks ago a collector came by,” Hixson said. “I thought he was going to buy that.” He pointed at the photo in my hand.
“Is it at the gallery?”
“I burned it.”
“You burned it?”
“I couldn’t have it in here anymore.”
“Why didn’t the gallery take it?”
“I did it after the show was up.”
I remembered reading that Agnes Martin, another Taos abstract expressionist, destroyed months of work, over a hundred pieces. When asked why, she said they taught her how to do the real paintings. I stared at the photo, trying to commit it to memory.
“He called the gallery last week. Now he wants it.”
“What’d you tell them?”
“That I destroyed it.”
Hixson got the shoebox and loaded another bowl. We passed it back and forth in silence, while I thumbed through his new pieces stacked along the walls. Many of them seemed to depict more figures than grids or abstract landscapes. I wondered if he was trying something new, or if the change I was seeing was in me.
In the past whenever I applied the term brave it was to someone who’d performed a dangerous deed under fire or did the right thing in a difficult situation. But Hixson seemed to me the bravest of all. To find out what was really inside himself, what was true and not the product of someone or something else, he discovered it took a lifetime of never compromising. He scraped and stripped until he was naked to himself, and then he put that nakedness on display for God and everyone to criticize, ridicule, or learn from. Hixson was that gentle red thunderbolt hemmed in by darkness, he was that incomplete white square on the edge of reality, that blue crescent of unbelievable but very real sky of hope.
I pulled a painting from a stack and maneuvered it in the long window light. It was dark, but not as black as the triptych. A scratched out white line like the silhouette of Taos Mountain ran north of center. The roof of a triangle in that sky-blue sat under the white line of the mountain, and little gray checks that might have been birds flitted around. Finally, there was a red figure in repose under the incomplete blue triangle. The imperfections in the red lines were subtle, and maybe I read too much into it, but I took it as a short balding man who’d found himself in the shadow of something greater than himself.
“What do you call this?” I asked.
“How much you want for it?”
“I don’t sell anymore outside the gallery.”
“There’s something. I don’t know how to say it.”
I leaned the painting on the front of the stack.
“Take it home. I want you to have it.”
I picked it up again, held Friendship at arm’s length, then put it back.
“I can’t. You taught me that.”
With a grin Hixson handed me a fresh bowl and lit a match.
It’s been four years since I quit my job and started tending bar at the Sage Inn. The first thing I did when I cashed out my 401K was go to 302 and get Friendship.