I’ve worked for other artists since my first year of art school. One of the first to hire me was Tarrence Corbin, or TC, as most of his students called him. He was my drawing teacher, and he hired me about halfway through our first semester together.
Every Saturday and Sunday for the next four years I washed his paint jars, attempted to clear his clutter and tried not to step on his tubes of paint. He told me I was the first assistant who could match paint for him. I’m not sure if that’s the truth or not.
Mixing paint isn’t rocket science; two parts pthalo, one part ultra-marine, and a dash of the red from the other part of the canvas. Add water until it’s like the pancake batter that my dad made on the weekends. Simple math, and cooking. I know the abstract expressionists don’t want me to say this, but there’s no black magic.
We worked really, really hard. One of the reasons we got along so well was because we could smoke and joke our way through a 10′ by 30′ painting. We listened to jazz, drank Miller High Life and chain smoked Marlboros. If we spilled some paint on our hands, we just wiped it off on our clothes. It probably sounds like a cliché but it was a blast.
He lived and worked in Camp Washington, a blue-collar African American neighborhood in Cincinnati. He liked it because it reminded him of the Pittsburgh neighborhood where he grew up, and he stayed there to remind himself where he came from. TC got to go to college and study art because of the GI Bill. His work went to fancy places, but he was really painting for the people like his father, who worked an honest shift at the steel mill.
There are a few aspects to our working relationship that I’d like to record. He mentioned early on in that drawing class that he didn’t hear well from his right ear. He served as a Marine in Vietnam. During the war, a shell exploded close to his head and destroyed his right eardrum. I recall talking with him, always sitting on his left side.
I think some of the art-world professionals that visited his studio thought it peculiar that his assistant seemed to be herding them around. Like a sheep dog, I’d try to get them to stand on his left side. Sometimes, in negotiations one party can’t ask for something to be repeated. He and I had worked out a system where I could whisper into his good ear what a museum director had just said.
On multiple occasions, TC informed me of certain things that just can’t be taught in a class: “Stephanie, don’t you ever, ever take a show because you’re woman. That’s as bad as me taking one because I’m black. Promise me.” I promised. To this date, this has cost me four shows. Four big, well-received shows. Thanks, TC.
“Don’t you forget to pay your taxes, either.” At a few points TC would get a phone call from his tax guy. He had to space out the sales of his work, or else there would be trouble. He was not ashamed of this. After one of these calls we hung up the paintbrushes and went to the bar.
I stood about a foot taller than TC. He had an impressive mustache. It was dense, and formed a rectangle. It was a solid shape, about 4 inches long and 2 inches high, say, 1 inch thick. When we walked down the street together some people thought he was my pimp. Men would approach us, asking how much I was, my hourly rate and what sort of services I provided. They weren’t after my fabrication skills. You have no idea how embarrassing this was. He was my college professor and my mentor.
I left Cincinnati to go to graduate school, and came to Philadelphia in the summer of 2009. Then, two weeks after Thanksgiving and two weeks before Christmas, Facebook delivered horrible news. TC Died. I stayed up all night listening to the Rolling Stones and The Mountain Goats, crying. Not my TC.
When I got to the funeral, I was practically the last one in the door. I went up to the coffin and almost burst into giggles. It wasn’t TC! I was at the wrong funeral! Thank GOD, I thought, it was all a misunderstanding. It’s amazing the stories we will invent to make ourselves feel better.
But cancer killed him, probably from all of the smoking. His moustache was gone.
Afterwards, there was a gallery filled with his paintings. Some of the paintings I helped with were up. I got to hang out with my favorite blues and reds and that weird yellow he was obsessed with. And that stupid dusty pink he made me mix all the time. It made me feel better, but he’s still dead.
My imaginary, Julie Taymor version of his death takes place in his studio. Marlboro poking out of his mouth, paint brush and jar in hand, with a Coogi sweater on. Gladys Knight and the Pips are playing “Midnight Train to Georgia” on the radio. Suddenly, he grabs his chest and falls over. The cigarette ash falls on the floor. The paintings visibly sigh, and sag. One corner of the canvas comes unstapled and folds itself over part of the painting, hiding its color.
In memory of Tarrence Corbin 1946-2009
Published September 2011