Emily Mode (artist)
Income $4000 (1999)
Health Insurance None
One day Emily Mode went to dinner at Mr. Chow and a man bought her an apartment.
It all started when Mode’s former girlfriend wanted Kinky Friedman to sing “Come With Me to the Take-It-Easy Trailer Park” in her video. The girlfriend was making a video about people who live in trailers, and Friedman, formerly of the group Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew Boys, lives in a trailer. Friedman came to New York, called Mode and her girlfriend, and said, “Come on over to Mr. Chow.”
“I thought Mr. Chow was a little takeout place or something,” Mode says. The tip for the evening was $500.
“One of Kinky’s best friends was there, and for some reason we connected across the table. Everyone else was loud and dramatic and we were more quiet and watching each other. His name was John McCall. After I went back to Yale where I was in graduate school, John started calling me. Then my girlfriend got a teaching gig at the University of Texas in Austin in ’98 and I went with her. I was teaching drawing for a semester, though I wasn’t comfortable. I was younger than most of the students.
“It wasn’t until I got to Austin that I realized John lived there. I invited him over. He bought a painting. He told me, ‘Oh, I just sell shampoo.’ I didn’t realize how wealthy he was. He has hundreds and hundreds of employees. He owns Armstrong McCall beauty supplies. John’s father created the business in the Depression, when he drove around the West in a van selling scissors.
“One day John brought me into the atrium of his office building and said, ‘Do you think you could do something up there? I was going to buy a Calder mobile but it wouldn’t fit.’ ” Mode created an installation, her first commission. “It cost about $30,000 for materials. I kept underestimating the costs and went over budget four times. John loved the installation.
“About this time my girlfriend and I had broken up and I was living in a friend’s hot, scary chicken coop in east Austin. John knew I wanted to come to New York and he let me know in an indirect way he would help me. I started looking for a place here. Then my girlfriend and I got sort of back together. We found this East Village studio for $50,000. It was an unbelievable wreck. The bathtub was falling through the floor.”
They knew it had potential, but they didn’t have $50,000. Mode, the daughter of a Vanderbilt University professor, earns about $15 an hour working as an assistant to other artists.
“We went to Kinko’s and faxed John a list of what we would trade if he bought the apartment. He enjoys trades, the stories behind things. I offered six paintings from graduate school in my early style and to do another installation for a writer’s colony he is building in a former hunting lodge near Austin. My girlfriend offered artwork and two trailers, one a silver Airstream that was in her video.”
McCall, 52, said OK and threw in another $20,000 toward a very beautiful renovation. “He’s an amazing character,” Mode says. “He says he’s been broke a couple of times. He thinks money’s just a moving object. It goes from your pocket to someone else’s. He says it’s for living and not to keep. John just got cancer again, lymphoma. It’s what his father died of. John beat it once before. When he’s at Anderson Cancer Center, the big cancer hospital in Houston, he flies me and his friends to be with him.
“John’s visited the apartment in many stages. After climbing the five flights, he seemed kind of surprised. He’s not used to New York. I said he could stay here whenever he wants, but he stays at the Pierre.”