The Heidi Chronicles, Chapter 48: 'Desperate Housedog' does the Westside gallery scene
Like most actors, Heidi is always waiting by the phone -- these days, for a callback from "Desperate Housewives." She was invited to be an extra on the TV series, but we happened to get that call the day before I was getting on a plane for the East Coast for the Labor Day weekend. We were assured by the production staff that we can still work it out for another date -- but in the meantime, the shepherd remains a desperate (and unemployed) housedog.
However, the plucky Heidi has been using her time well by networking on the Westside art gallery scene; famous Hollywood actors tend to collect art, even if they don't like it.
Along with serving as Heidi's showbiz representative, I have a somewhat more promising job as an arts staff writer for Calendar, and recently had the pleasure of interviewing Venice artist Billy Al Bengston about his 1971 artwork "Lumberjack Luncheon," a meal made entirely of wood. The fiber-filled lunch was created as a tongue-in-cheek response to a request from an L.A. Times food writer that Bengston be part of an article on local celebrities who were also good cooks.
With the story, we ran a photo (below) of Bengston's wife, Wendy Al, and Wendy's dog Foxy, posed as if sitting down to eat the "Lumberjack Luncheon" when it was on display at Samuel Freeman Gallery at Santa Monica's very hip Bergamot Station. Wendy and I exchanged a few dog-related e-mails, which resulted in Heidi and I wangling an invitation to the gallery to meet Wendy, Foxy and Billy Al.
To be honest, my star-struck dog just likes to hobnob with celebs -- but our pretext was to get Bengston to evaluate Heidi's potential as an artist's model.
According to Bengston, Heidi's pretty -- but she's not art.
First off, Bengston was deeply unimpressed by Heidi's name -- yes, I admit, a rather overused moniker for a female German shepherd (although Bengston did seem to like the name of our late tabby cat, Chrysler, a rehabilitated stray from Detroit). "You didn't name her Heidi, did you?" he asked, raising a disapproving eyebrow. I explained that Heidi was named by the woman who rescued her from a storm drain in Texas about six years ago. Since we'd just met, I tried to sound appropriately contrite -- but I'm thinking, OK, "Foxy"? ....
When big Heidi met little Foxy, 9, I decided to break the ice by offering both dogs a biscuit. Foxy didn't eat hers. Heidi chose to interpret the raised treat in my hand as the hand signal for "speak" -- and did so, rather loudly. Observed Bengston: "I would train my dog not to speak for a biscuit."
Obviously Heidi had already gotten off on the wrong paw -- and she'd never fit Bengston's preference for dogs that can fit into shoe boxes; even Foxy grew a little bigger than was expected, Bengston says. Bengston tells the story of a friend who owned huge, slobbering mastiffs: "You can't move with them, and then when they die you have to get a forklift, you can't pick them up," Bengston says.
But I was soon to learn that Heidi would be a washout as a painter's model for Bengston, too. The reason? Much too attractive. "I never do the cute thing with animals; they are interesting shapes. I just use their profile," he says. "Because German shepherds are so easily recognizable, they would fall outside my purview.
"As a matter of fact, I paint stupid things; that's what I do. I can't think of anything more boring than a really beautiful thing. You have to mess it up. There has to be something a little kinky, to keep their attention."
Bengston doesn't like drooling dogs, yappy dogs, fat dogs, dogs with short, uplifted tails that fail to cover their private parts; dogs that nip, chew and misbehave. He also doesn't like it much when Foxy gets underfoot when he's trying to cook a meal. "She's always right at Wendy's heels. I can't have that -- get out of here!" he exclaims.
Despite his amiably irascible attitude, Bengston does seem to love dogs -- yes, even the pretty ones. He grudgingly praises Heidi's naturally alert and attentive manner, comparing her to German shepherds who have undergone the rigorous schutzhund (protection dog) training. And during our gallery visit, I was the one who knocked over an artwork, not the dog (not to worry, nothing broken).
With the Smurf-cute Foxy cuddled on his lap, Bengston talks about training show dogs, working with highly-trained German shepherds during his former career as a Hollywood stuntman (one was trained to leap at his throat, but stop short of biting), and, in earlier days, bringing dogs down to his studio in Hawaii to keep him company just because "I would miss a dog."
Sometimes his dogs would end up in his paintings: In this 1986 work "April Watercolor," the dog is Artful Dodger -- Dodger for short -- Bengston's former champion Manchester terrier.
I know she's too pretty to pose for Billy Al Bengston -- but to me, the dog in the watercolor looks just a little bit like Heidi.
-- Diane Haithman
Images: Billy Al Bengston, Wendy Al, Foxy and Heidi. Credit: Diane Haithman. Bengston's "Lumberjack Luncheon," with Wendy Al and Foxy. Credit: Katrina Mohn/Samuel Freeman Gallery. "April Water Color," 1986. Credit: Billy Al Bengston