Here we are: One year (and two days) after our Pack of Dogs playing cards went viral on Reddit. And now seems like the perfect time, in these dog days of summer, to continue the story behind those cards—the story of Artiphany, the story of an artist named John Littleboy.
But first, a footnote: We started down this lane of John’s memories in order to tell the origin story of Artiphany in three, neat chapters, ending with a final chapter today, on this anniversary of our little business’s worldwide debut (if you will). What we didn’t expect was that this story would take on a life of its own, bending past the predictable form of a trilogy and into the unrestricted genre of the chronicle. The part of Artiphany’s story which we bring to you today is one that takes us along the scenic route towards our destination and out into the sunbaked streets of Morocco and the factory yards of Shanghai. So, without further ado, I present to you the third but not final installment of The Tails of Artiphany, our historical chronicle of paint and paws:
Midnight in Morocco, Sunrise over Shanghai
In our last chapter, we left the 30-something John exhilarated, energized, exhausted after taking on the daunting task of painting the walls of a restaurant with a realistic mural of the French countryside.
A print of beekeepers done by John; all paintings and prints in this post are by John (with one notable exception)
We begin today nearly 15 years in the future (John is now in his mid-40s), with an unlikely encounter with a Venetian hair dresser-turned-antique dealer named Luciano Tempo. Luciano, who John met through a friend, was sponsoring an art show in Morocco, in the former imperial city Marrakech. Luciano asked John if he’d be willing to contribute art to the show—specifically, he asked him if he could make no less than 30 paintings created in the style of Matisse’s Morocco paintings (Matisse and his visits to Morocco were a thematic organizer for the show). Luckily for Luciano, John had spent much of his life studying the masters and had, at that point, become quite well-versed in Matisse's style. So, John set to work.
Near the end of his efforts, John convinced Luciano to let him complete the last two of these commissioned pieces at the Venetian’s villa, high up in the Atlas Mountains above Marrakech. For the next two months, John walked in a trance around the luxurious estate, and through the winding lanes of Marrakech, pencil and paper in hand, recording his impressions through sketches and shading. It was a contradictory experience, living in Luciano’s exuberant quarters while many of his neighbors lived without electricity; these jarring contrasts John also took note of, absorbing them and mirroring them on his sketch pad.
When John returned from Africa, he converted his time in Morocco into a series of paintings, which, the artist says himself, “allowed me to express some ideas that I’d been thinking about for a long time.” One of the pieces that resulted from this period of creativity was a black and white print titled Marsyas, an homage to the myth of the satyr Marsyas who was flayed alive after losing a competition with Apollo and to the Titian painting which illustrates this gruesome tale. John’s version of this age-old story was based not on mythologies, however, but on an evening in Morocco. John and his host were at a kasbah in the Atlas Mountains, where a ritual was about to take place to celebrate Eid al-Adha (or “Feast of the Sacrifice”): the slaughter of a ram.
“My host asked all of us seated in our lavish splendor around the breakfast table if we wanted to witness the slaughter,” John describes. “I wanted to see it in part because I had never witnessed something like it and wouldn't likely have the opportunity any time soon. (How can you eat meat if you’re not willing to witness the slaughtering?) I walked out to the apple orchard and watched two men from the village lead the ram into the tall grass and slit its throat. I could hear the wind rush out of the ram's lungs as he died. They put a wooden peg through his rear leg tendons and hung him from a branch on the apple tree in order to flay him. I noticed that the eyes of the ram were glowing like two opals in the daylight.”
* * * * *
Around this same time, the business of a friend of John was moving out from an old San Francisco building and, in the month before the next company moved in, John saw an opportunity. To John’s eyes, this was not just any old empty building, this was a gallery space. So, John put on a show and invited his friends, his family, his old professors and teachers. “It wasn’t so much that I intended to sell the piece,” he explains. “It was more just to present them publicly, and bring together work that was of a theme.” He had, as he put it to me, “a story that I wanted to tell.”
After the show, John was faced once more with the uncertainty of where to go next. Eventually, he alighted upon an idea that he thought might fit both his creative drive and his desire to make his art accessible. “I decided it would be better, from a practical standpoint, to start making things that people could buy for ten dollars rather than $2,000 or $20,000. That was really the beginning of Artiphany.”
And it all began with placemats.
Through a friend, placemats that John had designed for this enterprise landed on the table of a buyer from Bloomingdales. Here was John, new to the world of running a small business, unaware even how to economically and effectively produce the product he had designed, and one of the biggest players in the game of gifts was asking for samples. So, what did John do? He got on a plane and went to China.
“My trip to China was an adventure of magnificent proportions,” remembers John. But not only the good kind of adventure. One day, John met a man named David, who he’d been in conversation with online, in a taxi on a street corner in Shanghai. The plan was, David would serve as the interlocutor between John and the owners of the factories he would visit. As the car trundled along, John asked David where they were headed first. David named the name of a factory, one that John had already decided was off his list. David seemed unfazed, “Well, that’s where we are going today. I guess I misunderstood you,” he told John. John explained that he didn’t think it was a good idea—after all, he’d already told the factory owner he didn’t like what he produced. “He sort of shrugged his shoulders,” John says, “and I asked, ‘Is the factory owner going to be at the factory when we get there?’ And he said, ‘Oh, he’s driving this car right now.’”
John turned, and looked at the back of the driver’s head. Hurriedly, he confirmed with David that this man did not speak English. “Everything I was afraid might happen, was happening,” John recalls.
The factory, when they arrived, was just as bad as John had been expecting. The owner didn’t so much as shake his hand and the time walking around the factory itself did little to qualm John’s nagging sense of unease. When at last he and David went up to talk with the factory owner in his office, John say the first thing he saw was three patches of unmistakably fake hair sprouting out from the factory owner’s pate like, John says, “a newly forested mountain top.” ‘Oh god,’ John thought, ‘if I sign a deal today my money is undoubtedly going straight to more implants.’ Then, things got even worse. John’s chair snapped, and he hit the floor in his making-a-deal suit. The factory owner, who David had sworn didn’t speak English, looked at John sprawled on the floor and asked, “Are you alright?”
Back in his hotel room, John brooded over the day he’d had. He was convinced that the whole thing spelled failure for his venture. He went to sleep, discouraged.
Morning found John reading the pages of an English-language newspaper. Then he paused: A trade show for the gift industry was on its last day in Shanghai. John ran out the door, onto the subway, and into the show. He found ten new vendors and quickly forgot about the menacing fellow with the hair plugs. Not long after, his placemats were on their way from China to the buyers at Bloomingdales.
And that, I think, is as good a point as any to end this chapter of The Tails of Artiphany. In a couple weeks’ time, we will be (actually) wrapping up the last of this story. Until then, get off your computers and tablets and phones and out to the dog park! All of you! Don't make me bark at you!
Love and dog bones,