A Tribute to a Formerly Unknown Artist
A 61-year-old from Sacramento sported slicked back hair and a pencil thin mustache. He’d never admit it to anyone, but he borrowed that look directly from Clark Gable. That was even though Gable was considerably younger than he was. Like Gable, he considered himself an artist. Not of the actor variety but a painter. Albeit, strictly on the amateur level.
His name was Jasper Dean. August 2, 1943 would turn out to be the last day of his life. He began that day doing what he’d done nearly every day before that. He took a brass key, aged with patina, to unlock his antique, cherry wood secretary’s desk. He exhaled a sigh of delight as he unfurled its roll-top cover to reveal his treasure trove of paint brushes. He had dozens of them. The bristles were cleaned immaculately, but the handles and ferrules were mottled with years’ worth of paint splatter. The variety of color in those splatters were incalculable.
He unrolled the top desk drawer to reveal it brimming with tubes of acrylic paint. He had hundreds of these tubes scattered throughout the drawers in that desk, but he’d found what he needed in just that one—Prussian Green, Orange Red, Mauve Pale, and Cold Gray, along of course with Eggshell White and his standard Black that he used to blend. He didn’t spend much time ruminating about the colors he’d use before starting a new painting. He simply picked what caught his eye at that particular moment.
Jasper carefully squeezed his chosen colors onto a wooden palate. They sat there as solitary, unspoiled splotches until he selected a paintbrush. He picked a paintbrush in a much similar manner as he picked his colors. It was just whatever felt right to him. He used a flat paintbrush for the Orange Red. He stirred it until its bristles were saturated. Then he brought it up to the cotton canvas, which he’d secured to his lyre easel, and painted a single line. It was neither a straight line nor a crooked line. It was simply the line that he painted.
He took out another brush, dipped it into Cold Gray, and drew a circle. Just like the line before it, the circle wasn’t perfect. It also wasn’t imperfect. It was simply the circle that he drew.
Color after color, shape after shape, he continued to paint until the moment he thought the canvas was filled and looked complete. That was the moment the canvas was transformed into a painting. He removed it from the lyre easel, admired it for a while, and set it aside. He put a clean cotton canvas on his easel with the intention of beginning anew the next day. Different colors, different paint brushes, different shapes. However, it turned out he would suffer a fatal cardiac arrest that evening after dinner.
It was said that Griselda Maccabe wouldn’t know good art if it hit her in the face. Or bad art, on the occasion she attended a local Sacramento art fair. She tripped over one artist’s ill-placed stack of decorative stepping stones and face-planted into a neighboring artist’s painting. That painting happened to belong to 53-year-old Jasper Dean. Her misadventure caused it to become unhinged and fall to the ground. It didn’t get damaged in any discernible way, apart from a minor dent into its cheap wooden, glassless frame. It was an acrylic painting of a purple cat that sat on a table next to a lamp. On the other side of the lamp, there was what appeared to be a miniature replica of that same cat—almost exactly a quarter scale. The lamp’s slanted shade projected light such that it partially illuminated the cat’s face. It also illuminated the smaller figurine in the same way.
Griselda ended up purchasing the painting, and it wasn’t only out of guilt for having nearly destroyed it. There was something about it she liked. She couldn’t really explain what. Nobody would even care to listen to her try.
Griselda didn’t keep the painting for herself. She gifted it to her young nephew, Harry, who’d graduated from college and had just purchased a new house. She figured his new place could use some artwork. She also knew that he liked cats.
Harry gave his aunt a big hug for thinking of him, but secretly he didn’t care for the painting. He kept it awhile out of respect for his aunt. He even had a place to hang it whenever she visited. But when she passed away in 1966, he had it donated to the Salvation Army.
That painting in 1935 turned out to be the only piece Jasper sold at that fair. That didn’t come close to justifying the cost of renting that table space. He would never sell another painting.
Selling his artwork wasn’t something he was terribly interested in, anyway. He’d only attempted it at the encouragement of his wife, Wendy. She had the ulterior motive of inspiring her husband to clear out their house of clutter. The vast majority of which was Jasper’s art work. Jasper’s habit of doing several paintings per week over the course of a lifetime really added up.
However, unlike his wife, Jasper wasn’t worried about the clutter. Their house had all kinds of nooks and crannies where he could store his paintings. He stacked them in crates in the attic, in the crawl spaces, even in between the walls. He didn’t think they got in the way. He only wanted them around so that he could browse through them occasionally and reminisce about what he was feeling the day he created them. Not that he did that very often. Most of his free time was spent creating new paintings.
Jasper never even signed the paintings. He knew they were his. His sole purpose of painting was just to create. It certainly didn’t pay the bills, but it was what got him excited to wake up every morning.
Anybody who has created thousands of paintings like Jasper did through the course of a lifetime was bound to develop his own personal technique and style. Certainly he was practiced well enough that he had the mechanics of painting down well. He knew about the different types of brushes there were, how to effectively blend color, how thick to apply the paint on canvas to get the desired effect. A novice artist would’ve done fine to watch him work for a while.
However, had he shown his art to professional critics, he would have been invariably told that he painted with no real ideas, nor any idea how to execute them. They would tell him that his work was ultimately nothing to look at. That they look amateurish and done with a clumsy hand. They would even go so far as to say that his work is often difficult to look at. One critic might concede, here or there, that one of his paintings had a germ of a worthwhile idea. However, given the body of Jasper's other work, the critic would presume that was purely accidental. They would say his work looked like it’d come out of a high school classroom. Perhaps from a student who’d enrolled simply because the art room smelled better than the locker room. A student who produced such work as Jasper did would earn reliable B’s. Passed with decent marks, at least for paying attention and for his earnest participation. A’s of course were strictly reserved for students with the real talent. Not for someone like Jasper. A critic would dismiss the sum of his work with one single word: Mediocre.
But Jasper didn’t need to hear that about his art. Mediocrity was a marker that followed him everywhere else he went in his life. He graduated in the middle of his high school class. He only took a few courses from a small college before dropping out and getting a mediocre job as a clerk in a department store where his bosses routinely gave him mediocre marks. The house he lived in was mediocre, and so was the car he drove. Even the server staff at the diners he frequented said he was a mediocre tipper.
After he died, his children had no interest in preserving the thousands of paintings he’d left behind. They hired a refuse company to haul them away. They grumbled about how the refuse fee took a significant chunk out of their mediocre inheritance.
His only painting that made it into circulation sat in the Salvation Army for months until it was picked up by a seven-year-old girl named Megan Rogers. She bought it for 25 cents. Much like Griselda before her, there was something about the painting that caught her eye. Also, she liked cats. Her mother, Harriet, thought her daughter was wasting her precious allowance money, but she kept those thoughts to herself. According to her parenting book by Dr. Spock, it was best to allow children to make their own decisions on how to spend their allowance money.
Megan hung that painting onto a revered space on her bedroom wall. She would spend much of the remainder of her childhood gazing at it—often while she held one of her own cats in her arms. However, when she moved out of the house to go to university, she left the painting behind.
It was a fateful day for the Rogers’ household when Harriet’s cousin, a man named Peter from a formerly estranged branch of their family, came for a visit in 1979. Peter happened to work as an art appraiser in San Francisco. During his customary tour of the house, that paining in Megan’s room caught his eye. He took a closer look at it and noticed it was an original and how old it appeared to be. Out of the 1920s or 1930s, he thought. It had an unique quality about it. An interesting technique. Something he’d never quite seen before. He asked if he could take the painting back with him to his gallery. Harriet gave Megan a call who said she’d be fine with that. After all, she hadn’t planned on keeping the painting with her.
It ended up going for auction. It was such a curiosity that it caused a minor stir among collectors. The painting was given the title “Cat with a Lamp and a Smaller Cat.” Given that the work was unsigned, the name of the artist was listed as “Artist Unknown.” There was only speculation on who it might have been. One historian seemed convinced it was an abandoned work by Morgan Russell. However, that opinion received derision from his peers.
The painting ended up going for the modest but respectable sum of $7,500. Much of that money went a long way in helping fund Megan’s master’s degree. Plus, she had a story to tell. She received her education in Horticulture at the University of Oklahoma in 1986. She graduated cumme laude.
The painting would become a permanent fixture in the small Shiv Museum of Modern Art, located in the coastal village of Patricia, Oregon, which was situated among a strip of tourist shops. The museum enjoyed a steady stream of visitors who happened to be milling around. Much more infrequently, the painting would get a visit by a curious art historian who would take a stab at uncovering the mystery behind the its origin. One time, in 1996, the painting even received a visitor from a familiar face—Megan Rogers. She brought along her young daughter, Angelica, and told her about the day she found that painting in the Salvation Army. Angelica would go on to have no such luck replicating her mother’s story.
The artist behind “Cat with a Lamp and a Smaller Cat” would have remained unknown had it not been for a breakthrough discovery in 2010. Jasper Dean’s old Sacramento home was purchased by real estate investors, Robert and Jessica Kline. They were husband and wife, and this was their fourth home renovation project. While converting the main living space into vaulted ceilings, they uncovered a crate. Inside the crate was a cache of Jasper’s old paintings. It had been hidden so well that his children and the house’s subsequent occupants had overlooked them. The investors would go on to find even more paintings hidden inside the walls and the floorboards. There were a total of 164 recovered. That was a significant sum but just a tiny fraction of Jasper's overall output, which remain lost.
Robert and Jessica sold what they uncovered and made such an impressive sum of money that the actual sale of the renovated home constituted only a minor fraction of their total profit. Robert and Jessica would go on to retire immediately after in a picturesque, wooded 10-acre former dairy farm in Rhode Island.
Many of the collectors who purchased Jasper Dean's paintings agreed to loan them out to the Shiv Museum of Modern Art in Patricia, Oregon. Today, the museum is visited by thousands of people every year where there is an exhibit titled “Jasper Dean: A Tribute to a Formerly Unknown Artist.”
Image borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.