William Spencer in Digs Magazine
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Digs Magazine
'Why I bought a painting instead of a couch'
or...Essentially Essential!

Oct 07 2002 - by Yee Fan Sun

Last Saturday, while on a weekend getaway to celebrate our first wedding anniversary, my boy and I, we fell in love at first sight. Not with each other - that falling happened long, long ago, and after many, many sights - but with a gorgeous eight-and-a-half-foot-tall beauty that we spied while wandering aimlessly, innocently through the small shops and tiny galleries of Bisbee, AZ. This particular beauty happened to be hanging proudly on the tall white walls of a gallery just off the main drag. A big, bold, mixed-media diptych titled Urban Cowgirls, painted by a local artist named William Spencer III. It was beautiful, and enigmatic, and fascinating - a total surprise - and when we saw it we just had to stop and stare.

Bisbee, a lovingly-restored old copper mining town nestled in the mountains of southern Arizona, is quaint and charming, full of infectiously friendly local townsfolk who are both quite obviously very content to be living where they are, and seemingly happy to share their town with the many weekend tourists as well. It is a very pleasant place to be, but it is not the sort of place I visit expecting to buy anything substantial - perhaps a souvenir "antique", some kitschy memento at most. The antique shops are fun but overpriced; the galleries are affordable but largely unimpressive. There are plenty of things sold as art here, sure, but [as in many so called western 'art towns'] most is of the cheesy Southwest, pastel-earth-tones, cacti-themed variety, the vast majority of it underwhelming or downright bad. We were not expecting to find any art there that we liked; and we were certainly not in Bisbee to buy art.

Poor twenty-somethings that we are, the boy and I aren't much in the habit of ever buying art really, preferring, instead, to populate our walls with things priced to suit our miniscule budget. That by-and-large means free, like my photographs and his textural-art projects, and miscellaneous other lovely things made and gifted to us by people we know. This method has worked well for us: our walls are jam-packed with neat stuff to look at. We've been lucky enough to avoid Bare Wall Syndrome, that most common of young homeowner maladies. We have more artwork than we have wall space. We do not, in short, need more art.

But when we saw this William Spencer III painting we knew we deeply, desperately wanted to bring it home. It wasn't quite need, but it was one of those wants that feels pretty close. There were other works in the gallery that we found perfectly pretty - some by William Spencer III, and another by a different artist - and that in itself was astounding, that amidst all the dreck we'd seen that day, this one gallery space had not one, but several pieces we rather liked. But Urban Cowgirls was the one we kept coming back to, circling round and round the gallery only to return to the same spot each time.

We loved its rich reds and soothing blues and greens, its layer upon layer of texture, its intriguingly abstracted geometric shapes jutting this way and that way in a funkily rhythmic composition that seemed chaotic at first, then felt perfectly, artfully balanced the longer we looked at it. But a quick glance at the price tag promptly squashed any fantasies we'd been entertaining about owning it. We left the gallery that first day feeling sad that some lucky rich bastard, undoubtedly less deserving, would no doubt snatch up that diptych that we loved so much- for some stupid, shallow reason no doubt, like it matched his sofa or something.

After dinner that night, we couldn't help but take a stroll past the gallery again. And by "couldn't help," of course, I mean "walked in the complete opposite direction of where our car was parked". It was late, the gallery closed, but through the windows, by the faint glow of the streetlights, we could see the diptych hanging there still.

The more we thought about it the more the circles looked like traffic lights, or street lamps, roundabouts or cul-de-sacs; maybe parts of factories even; the black-and-white striped paths like pedestrian crosswalks perhaps. Juxtaposed against the silkscreened cowgirls sitting tall in their saddles along the bottom of the piece, it seemed the quintessential modern southwest piece, a sly comment on the way that urban/suburban sprawl is so rapidly consuming the character that once defined the wild west. With faces pressed up close to the gallery window, we stared, we talked, we over-analyzed our new favorite painting. Then we played the what if game, and the funny thing was that the more we talked about it, the more possible it seemed.

It is a scary, scary thing to plunk down any significant amount of money, but it's scarier still when you're spending it on something as ostensibly "impractical" as art. It's not like buying a house, or a car, or splurging on a luxurious bed; art doesn't shelter you from the elements, or get you where you need to go, or make it easier for you to get a good night's rest. It doesn't do much of anything really; it has no function, no utility, no practical reason for taking up the space it takes. We hemmed and hawed, mulling over the pros and cons of whether we would be spending frivolously. The paintings were expensive, they were huge, they would really look much better in the sort of a grand, spacious loft that we would probably never be able to afford. With the same amount of money, we could buy the long-coveted real sofa to replace the hand-me-down futon we'd been complaining about for three years now.

But what it comes down to is that in the end love, alas, is not rational. A good sofa we could find anywhere, anytime, but the perfect painting is a much more elusive find. We looked at each other, and knew we'd be returning the next day, checkbook in hand.

A painting may not be as functional as a sofa, but in this house at least, it delivers just as much satisfaction. These days, I'm still sitting on a lumpy, bumpy, sore-back-inducing old futon sofa when I watch TV. But when my sweetie and I are in the kitchen each evening, sharing dinner, we look up at our fabulous, marvelous one-of-a-kind pair of paintings, and can't help but grin.

By Yee Fan Sun - editor October 07 2002

Urban Cowgirls - William Spencer III

Original article at:

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