The Random Arts Project

A mediocre artist’s random acts of beauty expose him to a world of unexpected possibilities.


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I had been at it for around four months, mailing the paintings, and my process had become second nature — a day or two to create a new piece, a week to allow it to dry, a destination city determined by Googling a random five-digit zip code, and then blindly choosing a recipient from that city’s white pages. I painted Tuesday through Saturday. Mondays were for packaging and shipping because I had found Monday to be my Post Office’s slowest day. Sundays I mostly spent getting high and watching movies.

My work wasn’t good in an aesthetic sense (unless, perhaps, the beholder was very into rabbits and ducks, which were my primary motifs), but I would have given it away regardless. I loved the surprise of it all, imagining someone coming home to find a mysterious package waiting for them, squinting at the handwritten label, wishing they had a better knowledge of their loved ones’ writing for comparison, and finally cutting the brown string and heavy paper wrapping to find an original oil painting with no information other than the artist’s initials — R.A.P.

It didn’t matter if they hated the work, or even if they tossed it out. Generating those moments of excitement and possibility, that was my real art. In a world of lonely screens, that little bit of unexpected human connection was as close to real-life magic as anything I could think to contribute.

It was Monday, a little before lunchtime, and I was standing in line at the Post Office with a stack of four packaged canvases under my arm. As usual, Keisha was the only teller working. She was a petite Army veteran who, while professional, conducted herself with a confidence that suggested a badassery that I wouldn’t want to run afoul of. She was in her early 30s, roughly my own age. Since I had retired from the working world, I didn’t meet many new people, and I had developed a mad crush on her. Keisha was another good reason that Mondays were mailing day.

I was too awkward to ask her out, but I was sensible enough to know not to stare at her while I waited in line, however much I wanted to. To keep myself honest, I studied the T-shirt of the man in line ahead of me. He had bushy hair, leading me to believe he was young, and on the back of his black shirt, in small, red script between his shoulder blades, were these printed words: The Random Arts Project. I had no idea what that meant, but it wasn’t lost on me that those were my initials as well as an apt description of what I had been up to those last months — randomly sending original artwork to strangers. I considered if it might be a sign from the universe. (As an artist, I was actively trying to train myself to believe in divine inspiration.) At heart, though, I would always be a math guy, and I knew the odds weren’t so astounding. I knew, too, that human beings were fundamentally self-obsessed creatures, and any number of people could find a way to make those words unique and specific to themselves.

The customer at the counter finished her business, and the young man stepped up. I glanced at Keisha when she greeted him. She noticed me and smiled, and I dropped my head reflexively as I smiled back, like I was very pleased with my paint-covered shoes.

The young man was mailing an unboxed action figure and required significant instruction in how to package it. Keisha pointed him to the wire rack in the lobby which stored various boxes and mailers. When he turned away from her to retrieve one, Keisha made eye contact with me again, rolling her eyes like, can you even believe these idiots? Before I could grin back, my attention was taken by the image on the front of the young man’s T-shirt. It was a duck, poorly rendered in oils. It had one eye closed like it was winking or had just woken up. It was one of my earliest pieces.

I only looked for long enough to confirm that it really was my work, and then I stood, staring into space, trying to make sense of it. I didn’t keep records of who I had mailed my paintings to, but I had never sent one to an address in my town or even in my state. Unless he stole the package from this post office and had the shirt printed, there was no way I could think of for him to have it.

He found the box he needed and returned to the counter. Keisha provided him with bubble wrap and printed his label and postage. By the time he was through, I was seething. He had stolen my package. He must have. He robbed my intended stranger from their unexpected moment of joy, and he had brought my arts campaign into my hometown, into my real life, where it was never intended it to be.

He mumbled a thank you to Keisha and headed toward the interior glass doors that led to the Post Office boxes and the exit. As I stepped forward, my eyes followed him, glued to that receding printed phrase, The Random Arts Project.

“You all right there, Russell?” Keisha asked as I laid my canvases on her counter. “Do you know him or something?”

“I …,” I began, but I wasn’t sure how to explain. When he arrived at the exit, I was overcome by the thought that I was letting him get away. “I’m sorry,” I said to Keisha, “can I leave these here for just a sec?” I stood the canvases on their side and leaned them against the edge of the counter to get them out of her way. To the older woman who was the only person in line behind me, I called, “I’ll be right back. You go ahead,” and then I ran to confront him.

“Hey,” I called, causing him to stop and turn. We were on the sidewalk, just outside the Post Office door. The sun was warm and bright and still the best part of not having a job to go to.

The young man pulled an earbud out of one ear and asked, “Yeah?”

He might have been 20 or 22. My ugly duck winked at me from his chest. “Nice shirt,” I said, letting the words hang there, the gravity of them.

He looked down at his body and then back up at me. “Thanks?”

I’m not an imposing man, but I had an inch or two on him, and I took the risk that the kind of adult who owned and shipped action figures was probably not one who was prone to physical violence. “Where’d you get it?”

“Um, online.”

A woman passed between us on her way into the post office, and through her innocent eyes, I could see that I was giving vibes that were lunatic in nature. I switched tactics and just came out with it: “That’s not possible. Do you know how I know that? Because I painted that picture, and it’s not for sale online.”

“Hang on,” he said, a smirk brightening his face, “you what? Dude, are you being for real?”

I raised my eyebrows, the way my father used to do with me, to show him that I was deadly serious.

“Holy crap, bro! These guys are looking for you,” he said, tapping the image in his chest. “This is huge. Oh my God, are you actually him?”

“Who?” I asked.

“The artist that painted this.”

“No, I mean who’s looking for me? What guys?”

“Sluggo.” He correctly surmised from my face that I had no idea of who or what that was. “Sluggo,” he repeated, “the indie band. Their bass player’s mom got this picture in the mail.”

I was skeptical, but I knew that it was possible. “Where? Where does she live?”

“His mom? I don’t know for sure. Yellow Springs, Ohio, maybe? That’s where the band is. They’re part of this music collective that’s started a real cool scene down there — six or seven bands that all play on each other’s stuff. They make these awesome lo-fi records, put them out themselves. This is The Random Arts Project, their new record. It just came out.” He touched his chest reverently. “This is the cover.”

“No way,” I said. “I just painted that, like, three months ago; there’s no way it’s on a band’s album cover already.

“DIY, bro. Folks don’t do record labels anymore — not the cool ones anyway. The Yellow Springs bands make them fast and sloppy and put them out warts and all.” He shook his head at me and asked, “You’re really him?”

I nodded absently, trying to think through the implications of what he was telling me. When he extended his hand, I shook it without thinking.

“Man,” he marveled, “I can’t believe this. These guys have been looking for you for months. This picture is all over their website, and there are fan forums that are all trying to figure out who you are. They’re pretty underground, so I’m not surprised they didn’t find you. What are the chances of my running into you?”

“Slim,” I agreed.

He snickered. “You know, they made this the cover hoping you would reach out with a cease and desist, or whatever, for making money off your work. They want to find you that bad. You’ve got to get in touch with them, dude.” Then, excitedly, he added, “And be sure to let them know I’m the one that found you. I bet I’ll get to meet them — free tickets for life, backstage passes, the whole deal.” He rubbed his hands together like a greedy, scheming cartoon villain. “My name’s Ronnie D’Agostino. Here, give me your phone so I can give you my information.”

“I don’t think so,” I said, still not fully buying the story he was telling me.

“Aw, come on. Don’t do me like that; they’re my favorite band.”

His eyes were pleading. It was his eyes that made me finally believe him. I pulled my phone from my pocket and said, “I’ll put your information in myself. Spell your name for me.”

* * *

“Well, did you steal the kid’s lunch money?” Keisha asked after I’d gotten back in line and made my way to the counter. “The way you rushed after him, it looked like you were going to shake him down.”

“No,” I said, embarrassed. “Actually, I thought he had stolen something from me.”

Her expression changed to one of concern. “That doll he was shipping? Are you a toy guy, Russell, because that’s not the image I have of you.”

I was still shaken, and I knew it was showing. I tried hard to seem, if not attractive, at least normal. “I’m not a toy guy. But wait, what image do you have of me?” It wasn’t a line, though it came across even to me as flirty.

“Well,” she said, putting a fist on her hip and looking me over. “You’re a painter, I think. I got that much from all these canvases you ship. That brown paper doesn’t hide what they are. And, judging from those clothes, I’d say you’re successful at it too. If you can afford to splatter paint all over a Rhoback shirt, you must be talented at it. So … how far off am I?”

“Well, I’m technically an artist,” I told her. “But I’m not talented at it. That’s not where my money came from.”

She pursed her lips and asked, “Born rich, huh?” I got the feeling that this would be worse than being a toy guy.

“Not at all.”

Her face brightened, and I saw that she had a tiny dimple that I had never noticed before just under her right eye.

“Hey,” I said, surprising myself, “do you want to hear a crazy story? Maybe we can grab some dinner the next night you’re free?”

* * *

She came to my house because she wanted to see my not-quite-mansion and because we both knew that Keisha could beat the bejeezus out of me if I turned out to be the kind of guy who would try something. We ordered Taco Bell, though, because it turned out that it was what we both most liked to eat.

I gave her a quick tour of the first floor, and then DoorDash arrived, and I set about separating the little bundles of food into two piles on my kitchen’s granite island. Keisha had ordered a proper haul for herself, which meant either that she didn’t consider this to be a date or that she was comfortable enough with herself to make her the best date ever. I swooned a little as the pile I was building for her overtook that which I had ordered for myself. “Keep them coming, rich boy,” she said, seeing the appreciation in my eyes.

“Nothing left,” I said, “other than sauces.” I upended the paper sack and let the sauce packets scatter onto the granite.

“Well, then,” she said, pulling out a stool for herself, “sit down. Tell me this wild story. That’s why you invited me over, right?” She grinned in a way that caused me to blush and look away.

I took a seat on the stool across from her and launched into it as I unwrapped my first burrito.

I had gone to school for engineering and gotten a job designing concrete bridges. At 30 I had patented a design for a pedestrian bridge and sold it to my employer for a bundle of money. For a while, I kept working, but decided about a year earlier to retire and pursue my interests full-time. I tried to be a gym rat and a cyclist and a rock climber, but none of that took. I taught myself seven chords on the guitar before I got bored with it. Finally, I settled on oil painting, a pursuit that gave me endless joy despite my lack of talent. As my completed, mediocre canvases began to pile up, I came up with the plan to anonymously mail them. That’s when she started seeing me at the Post Office. I explained what had happened with the young man at that Monday, and I showed her the cover of their album,The Random Arts Project on their website. It was already up on my phone; I had been stalking that website for days.

“Wow,” she said when I was through.

“I know. Crazy, right?”

She swallowed a bite of food with a sip from her giant plastic cup. “No, I meant, ‘Wow, that’s a bad painting.’”

I did a self-deprecating pout. “Yeah, well, that’s true too.”

She reached a hand toward me but placed it flat on the countertop rather than touching me. “No, I’m kidding. It’s cute. I like it. That is a bananas story, though. Are you going to sue them?”

“Should I? I really don’t want to be litigious.”

This gave her pause. “How rich are you?”

“Oh, no, I’m not, like, uber-rich or anything. It just isn’t about the money to me.”

“Well, then, just reach out to them. Tell them you’re the artist. Give them your blessing.”

“I don’t know,” I said, vacillating. “It feels like that would be antithetical to what I was trying to do when I started this.”

She stared at me, and I managed to hold her gaze. She had eaten only three of the items she had ordered and was showing signs of slowing down. Eventually, she said, “So, don’t do anything at all. If you just needed to tell somebody, you’ve told me. You can rest assured that I’ll always know that you’re the Banksy of ugly indie ducks. I’ve got to say, though, it seems cool to me, reaching out and solving the mystery, being a hero to these weirdos.” Her smile turned into a hiccup, and she turned her nose up at her remaining pile of food and said, “God, why do we eat this garbage?”

“Because it’s so good.”

“And so bad.” She studied it a moment longer and then said, “Nope, I’m done. I can’t even look at it.” She swung her legs out from under the island and rose to her feet. “I’m going to go use the little millionaires’ room. I’ll be right back.”

“Should I throw the rest of this out?”

Without looking at it again, she said, “No, I’ll take it with me and eat on it tomorrow.”

I cleaned up while she was in the bathroom, and then we watched a movie. We didn’t talk anymore about the album cover, but it never left my mind. Keisha left when the movie ended, giving me a hug that I could have stood inside for hours. As she was walking down my driveway, I called to her, “Do you really think I should reach out to them?”

There was no hesitation in her response, leading me to suspect that it had stayed on her mind too. “Sure,” she said, “why not? What do you have to lose?”

* * *

I sent this single DM to Sluggo’s official account on their preferred social media app:

Hello, I’m a midwestern artist, and I just learned that you used my work as your new album cover. I just wanted to say Cheers. With my blessings for your success, R.

I didn’t normally use social media, so I had to create an account just to send the message. I waffled on whether I should make any of my real information visible. It would have given me more credibility, probably, reducing the risk of them taking me for a crank. I remembered how animated Ronnie D’Agostino had gotten when he was talking about them, and I could easily imagine a slew of similarly committed fans pretending to be me just for the hope of interacting with the band. I just couldn’t get comfortable with the thought of exposing myself that way. In the end, I decided on a vague username and set my location to “Unavailable.” For clout, I attached two photos of pieces I had recently made that were like the duck in question.

I sent the message and then went to my garage studio to work, just as I would on any other day. I left my phone in the kitchen to ensure that I didn’t spend the whole day pulling it out of my pocket to check for a response. As I stared at the blank canvas, though, all I could see was that winking duck. Even when I switched to my other go-to — fat brown rabbits — I couldn’t envision a single scene to paint. Frustrated, I pulled a stool up to the canvas, taking a seat and crossing my arms while I stared at the pure possibility of it. It could be anything — flowers or a war scene or a mother coddling her infant or a still life. It was that realization that caused me to change my mode completely for this piece, to separate this new work from this craziness by making something unlike anything I had ever done before.

I rose and retrieved a full-length mirror that had been hanging in one of the bedrooms when I moved in. It was stashed behind a stack of early paintings. I angled it against the wall, as near to my easel as I could get it, and then returned to my stool. My reflection in the glass was skewed, capturing me ever so slightly from below, making me look like someone who was familiar but not precisely myself. For a while, I gazed at the reflection, and then I loaded my bristles with paint and destroyed the canvas’s limitless potential with one brushstroke.

* * *

The message waiting for me read, Holy Smokes, dude, is that really you?!!! This is Steve btw.

Steve, I knew, was Sluggo’s lead singer and principle songwriter.

-Really me

-Bro!!! I can’t believe it. What’s yr name?

I thought for a moment before typing,


This was the username I was given when I set up the account.

-lol. So, what’s your story? You wanna talk for real?

-Maybe. Can’t now, though.

This was a lie; I wasn’t doing anything that would prevent me from talking. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to expose myself enough so directly.

-Cool. Think about it. We’ll make you famous. In our little circle of the world, anyway.

I couldn’t think of how to respond, and so I didn’t.

A few minutes later, a message arrived that read,

I’d love to maybe Zoom with you and post it on the band’s YouTube. No fooling, man, the fans will buy up your stuff like crazy.

-We’ll see. I’ll reach out again soon.

I closed the app and laid the phone face down on the kitchen island, pulling my hand back from it like it was a cursed object. It laid there, untouched, until the next morning when I plugged it in to charge.

* * *

Whenever I got too excited as a kid and began showing off, my father would say, “Don’t make yourself a spectacle, Russ. It’s ugly.”

It occurred to me over the next few days that this lesson might be the cause of everything that was wrong with me. Perhaps I had internalized that belief so that I now associated any kind of self-promotion with an ugliness of character. My desire to make anonymous art might just be a desire to be remembered coupled with my reluctance to be seen, to leave behind evidence that I was here. Those paintings might have been made by anyone, as far as the recipients knew, but they had indeed been made, which meant that they had been made by someone. That was good enough for me, but was that normal? Perhaps this was trauma. Perhaps it explained other things, like why I had quit my job to spend every day by myself, and why I’d never had a relationship last longer than a few months.

Maybe I was sick. This was America, after all, where everyone wanted to be famous. People belittled themselves for it. Some had died in pursuit of it, and more surely would in the future. I should set up the Zoom call with Steve. I should bask in his fans’ goodwill and be grateful.

Instead, I spent days painting alone in my garage, working on my first-ever portrait, ignoring my phone.

* * *

On Monday, I skipped the Post Office. I had paintings that had set and were ready to ship, but the thought of mailing them seemed impure to me now, almost braggartly. The mysterious artist. The riddle-maker. It seemed cocky and sad to me that Monday. Who did I think I was, anyway?

In the days after the portrait was finished, I didn’t start something new. That portrait was the last thing I believed in enough to justify the effort.

I stayed in bed, ordered food, got high, watched movies, and avoided my phone. Another week passed.

It was during those days that I decided that a visit to my parents’ graves was in order. I wasn’t spiritual, and I didn’t see any more reason to visit their discarded bones than I would to honor stray hairs they left in a brush or a fingernail trimming that had projected onto their bathroom floor tile. Still, I felt bad about the trauma thing, the thought that my father had harmed me, even if it was inadvertent on his part, even if it was true. It became obvious to me that telling him I was sorry was a necessary first step out of this funk.

For the first time in a week, I took a shower and dressed myself in clean clothes. I grabbed my wallet and keys from the kitchen, and then stood, ready to walk out the door, staring down at my phone. After going back and forth, I decided to take it with me; that would be the responsible thing. When I unplugged it, the screen briefly lit, and I saw a slew of notifications. The one message I noticed before the screen went black again was a text from Keisha:

If you’re dead, I hope you’re at peace. If you’re ghosting me, you can go to hell.

My heart dropped. I reflexively relit the screen. I had suspected, of course, that she had probably contacted me, but that was the Keisha of my imagination, a depression-induced character whom I could ignore without consequence. It took seeing those words to remind me that she was real, and the panic I felt at the thought of having worried her made me feel real again too.

She had sent me 15 texts. The first few were playful, but they grew increasingly concerned, culminating in those final angry words.

The social media app had left me notifications too, even though I had exited it. Steven had blown me up with messages, mostly just a word or two asking if I was around. It frustrated me to know that I had to deal with him too, as if that silly album cover was at all important in a world where I had hurt her.

I opened the app to put the issue to rest, typing a quick and terse message saying that I wasn’t interested and not to contact me again. I had second thoughts, though, as I reread those words with my thumb hovering over the Send button. It had been me who reached out to him, after all. He had done nothing wrong. I thought of the fans and their commitment to their music, of the passionate community Sluggo had built around their DIY art.

I deleted my response and then pulled up my contacts list, highlighting and copying Ronnie’s information.

The response I sent to Steve read,

Sorry for going dark. My name is Ronnie D’Agostino. Call anytime you’re free.

I sent a follow-up with Ronnie’s number and grinned at the thought of the excitement he would feel when, out of the blue, he received a call from the singer of his favorite band. Unlike with the paintings, Ronnie would know that it was me who had done this. But he didn’t have my name or number, so to him I was as good as a ghost, and that felt right.

* * *

I didn’t go to the cemetery.

My eyes met Keisha’s when she looked out across the busy Post Office lobby. It was Friday, around noon, a bad time to mail packages. I held her gaze each time she looked at me in line, and I smiled at her each time, even though she never smiled back.

When I finally arrived at the counter, she didn’t speak, only raised her eyebrows like I had a lot of nerve showing my face there.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Is there something I can help you with, Russell?”

“Yes.” I smiled hopefully and indicated the canvas under my arm. “I need to drop this off.”

She eyed the edge of it and said, “It isn’t packaged for shipping.”

“No, I’m not — I’m actually leaving it here. With you.” I laid the canvas on the counter, and she looked down at it for an eternity. I could feel the impatience of the customers in line behind me.

“Is that supposed to be me?” she asked.

“Yes. Well, I mean, it might kind of look like me too. I had never painted a face before, so I sort of used myself as a model. I’m quite bad at painting if you hadn’t noticed.”

“I had,” she said with her eyes still on the portrait I had made of her. “But this one … it’s not so bad.”

“You like it?”

She shrugged.

“Enough that you maybe want to hang out again?”

She inhaled deeply, steadying herself. “It’s possible. I’ll think about it.”

“I’ll take that,” I said. “Just text me to let me know where and when. I’ll respond in, like, two seconds. I promise.”

I motioned like I was going to go so that she could get back to work. I’d taken a few steps away from her window when she called out to me. I turned to look at her and so did everyone in line, an audience to our very private spectacle. I succeeded in blocking them out, though, forcing myself to focus only on Keisha.

She asked, “Did you ever reach out to that band to let them know it was you? I figured you’d gone away to be a famous album cover guy.”

“No,” I said. “I don’t want to be that. And I don’t need them to know. I told you. You know.” I held my eyes on hers, ignoring a perturbed cough from behind me, the shuffle of the line I was holding up, until she understood that, for me, that was enough.

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  1. I am a creative person and have been since I was younger. I write Poetry and Short stories, I sew, play a Dulcimer by ear, make greeting cards and jewelry sometimes. Before the Pandemic I had craft sales but if someone wants something, can make & sell it from home. With the Dulcimer I have performed publicly at Open House twice. I’ve done Poetry readings on Community Cable TV. In years past, I had published poems. But I am not known publicly in my community.

  2. What a great story! The RAP is a great idea, wish I thought of it. As an artist myself, I was a bit surprised by the authors reaction to the band using his artwork. We all want at least a bit of recognition and maybe sell some paintings to cover costs. We can’t all be independently well off!
    But I respect his choice even though I wish I had some of his amazing opportunities! Oh well, no fame or fortune, but at least I’m still fortunate enough to still be able to paint even if no one knows who I am!


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