Back in the early 1990s, it was the habit of most of the Ziff-Davis publications to take their staffs on “retreats” to interesting places. The idea was to get everyone together alone for several days to discuss strategy and bond — but it was also a great excuse for an all-expenses paid vacation. Which is how I ended up spending several days in Bermuda.
I don’t remember that much about it, weirdly enough. Other retreats, such as those to Key West and to London (the last we took) are vivid in my memory, but of the Bermuda retreat I remember very little — except for the few minutes I met the artist Alfred Birdsey.
We had the afternoon to ourselves, and whatever it was that other staffers were doing didn’t appeal to me, so I rented a bicycle and decided just to explore a little. As I was pedaling along, I spotted a sign for the Alfred Birdsey Gallery. I had enjoyed visiting crafts and art galleries on my vacations to Cape Code and other places, so I thought I’d see what it was about.
I found it to be an open shack and yard crowded with water colors, sketches and other artworks. I walked over, not sure whether it was open or not, when a thin, older man with a highly irritable expression came over and asked what I wanted.
I told him that I was interested in looking at the artwork. He shrugged dismissively, and told me to go ahead — obviously, as yet another obnoxious tourist, he didn’t think much of me.
Looking around, I thought most of it was interesting, but not much more than that. The colors were bright, and they were nice representations of various places on the islands. I wanted to buy myself a remembrance, and a gift for my parents, and this would be the perfect place — but I didn’t see anything I really liked. Until I saw two paintings, not as “photographic” as the others, one mostly in blues and the other in greens and yellows.
I asked him if I could find out the price of two of the paintings. He sighed, and asked which ones I wanted. I pointed.
He looked at me again. “Why do you want those?” he asked. It was a surprising question, and I don’t remember what I answered — I probably stuttered something inane about the colors and the mood. I knew next to nothing about the language of art and artists.
He told me that he was happy I chose those, that he was tired of people who just wanted paintings that were “no better than photographs” and he’d be happy to sell them to me. I don’t remember the price; it was probably less than they were worth. And just before I left, he grabbed another painting and insisted I take it with me.
When I got home, I immediately got the two paintings I had chosen framed. One is hanging in my living room; the other is with my mother. The reason that I am writing this is that I just found the third — which I had forgotten completely about — in a roll of posters that had been saved from our basement flood.
That’s all. There isn’t really anything else to say. Apparently, Birdsey had lived in Bermuda most of his life and was known for his impressionistic pictures; he died a few years after I met him. I will have the third painting framed — I need it done carefully; it’s been rolled up for over 20 years now and I want it preserved. And I want to remember the irritable artist who made me feel special for a little while because I appreciated his style.