The Painting Table

By Scott Bakal   Thursday August 20, 2020

My best friend Eric and I were each carrying part of the drafting table up Seventh Avenue. One would carry the metal legs and one would carry the top. We would occasionally switch off who would carry the desk top because it was so heavy.

It was August of 1990; I was 19 years old and I was about to start my second year at the School of Visual Arts. I had moved into a new place - my first place away from home. A small 8x10 room in a shared condo on Long Island, and I needed a painting table.

We took the Long Island Railroad into the city. We went to Pearl Paint on Canal Street, which was across the street from Canal Plastics where I had bought some thick plexiglass scraps a year earlier to use as my palette. (I still use them today.) After I paid for the drafting table, they sent me over to a storage building a couple of blocks away to pick it up.

The guys at Pearl were good about duct-taping a handle onto the desk top so it would be easier to carry but the small handle dug into our hands until they were indented and red. We had to stop and shake out our arms a few times. We walked from Canal Street all the way to Penn Station for the train back to Long Island. I remember being drenched in sweat and sore after carrying that thing back. Thank you, Eric. You were a champ.

It was my first drafting table or as I call it, my Painting Table, because that’s what I spend 99% of my time doing there. I already had some meager art supplies from my first year of school but I didn’t have a space to really work on anything. When I lived at home, I usually did my school projects on the floor of an absurdly dimly lit basement. I remember finding a lamp on the street in the City; I ripped the shade off and had an additional bare bulb’s worth of light on my work.

My family wasn't well off and I would only buy things that I absolutely needed. Moving away from home put me in a financial hole so getting a desk was a luxury compared to making art on the floor or on the kitchen table. Since I now had a roommate, that wasn’t going to work. Thinking back on it, I was really proud to have the desk: it made me feel like I was really becoming an artist. Now I had my first “Art Space,” just like the professionals. Sure, it’s just a table, but back then, it was a milestone. It was the beginning of building something. The painting table is the physical heart of an art studio – I mean, besides the pencil.

At first, I babied this precious new piece of furniture. I taped a piece of cardboard onto the top of so I wouldn’t mar it or get paint on the pristine white top. After a few years, that clearly was pointless and I stopped replacing the cardboard.

I look at the top now with all of the X-acto and utility knife slashes (below), and stained by probably every known art material and I think about the hundreds (or thousands?) of pieces of art I’ve made, in all of the apartments I’ve lived in over the 30 years I’ve had it.

Most of that work was started on the painting table but all was finished on it, from my first black and white job for ABA Banking Journal, to the Wall Street Journal, to the Vancouver Opera season posters, to my series for a book on Robert Johnson; the art for that assignment eventually found its way into the permanent collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

I created art on that table for a New York Times story about children who suffered oxygen loss during birth and the affects it has on them. A parent from South America sent me a letter with a story about her son that would bring the hardest person to tears. She also told me that she loved my art because it represented her son perfectly. I sent the art to her.

All the jobs I am proud of and not so proud of were made there. Mistakes were made and solved there. When I received the Educator of the Year Award from 3x3, I was photographed at that table. If it wasn’t for the art I made on that desk, I couldn’t have become the teacher I am to even be considered.

I worked hard in the produce department at the supermarket to pay for that table and I’ve worked hard at that table to have a place to keep it. I still reset the table after every job, putting all the supplies back where they belong. I still carefully clean it regularly and scrape off the paint and goop that builds up. Getting into the habit of making the most of everything I’ve owned since I was a kid makes it hard for me to get rid of this beat up old table. I’ve considered buying a new fancier one but it’s not going to happen. This table is too much of a document.

It's interesting how inanimate objects over a long enough period of time take on significant meaning. Each scrape and each stain represents a moment. All of my failures. All my experiments. All of my successes. My entire art-making career since the summer of 1990 has been built on that table.

Scott Bakal is an award-winning illustrator and has been included in the American Illustration annuals as well as all of the other major illustration competitions. Scott is also a Full Professor at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design and has lectured at universities and conferences around the world.

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