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Berlin art diaries: The idea thief

Good artists copy, great artists steal,” Picasso supposedly once said. But what happens when someone steals from you? Fabia Mendoza found out when a charismatic guest came to visit.

Image for Berlin art diaries: The idea thief

Anna Nezhnaya (left), Fabia Mendoza (right) and a Ryan Mendoza painting one studio visitor liked too much. Photo: Leone Lücke

Creative ideas float in the air like balloons. You just have to reach out and catch them. But the “natural mystic floating in the air” Bob Marley sang about shouldn’t be confused with plagiarism, and many artists are familiar with the uncomfortable feeling of seeing their ideas appear under someone else’s name. There is zeitgeist, but then there is stealing.

“I don’t feel comfortable opening my studio,” Ryan confesses. 

“Don’t be paranoid,” I reply. “Life is about love and sharing. Who would want to steal your ideas, anyway?” Patronisingly, I place my hand on his shoulder. “You should learn to think the best of people. Don’t be so suspicious.”

My husband has long hair but he isn’t much of a hippie.

I add: “And if another artist is inspired by what you are doing, it would be a great compliment, don’t you think?”

Ryan paints on old wallpaper, and though he’s not the only painter who does this, he’s been doing it obsessively since 1997. When his interior paintings don’t show a decorative background, he often places his paintings directly on top of actual vintage wallpaper. It creates a feeling of home and ties in with his installations like “The White House” and the “Rosa Parks House Project”.

We had invited a young upcoming artist to our studio. The tall, talented Anon has a glowing charisma paired with a cool I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. He’s handsome with intelligent eyes that shine when he laughs, the kind of person people want to be around. He’s in the limelight thanks to his famous parents, but his charm and style were enough to make him outstanding.

 A nagging feeling of nostalgia overcame me when Anon walked us through his enormous studio space packed with dozens of paintings, sculptures and music equipment. Young, creative people walked in and out. He’s a true artist living in his art, I had to admit.

Ryan had been living like this before we started a family. In my early twenties, before I began snapping at him for leaving his dirty laundry lying around, I would pose for his paintings and drag interesting people into his studio. Nowadays, annoying details of organisational family life constantly invade his creative dreamworld. A stroke and a baby later, Ryan now makes me a cappuccino in the mornings, fixes breakfast and cleans the kitchen before he disappears into his studio. 

Some of the energy meant to be put into his art is absorbed by the kitchen sponge, choked by my moodiness or killed by the search for our son’s shoes and by running to school late. Our relationship has been wonderful since those early days, but I recognised some nostalgia in Ryan’s eyes as we walked through Anon’s studio. The Andy Warhol-esque factory lifestyle is doable if you only have yourself to take care of – and especially if you don’t have to worry about diaper rash or a stroller’s broken wheel. Many great male artists have been terrible fathers and lousy husbands. 

“I’m operating underground,” Anon informs me. “No gallery for me. I let nobody exploit me or my art like a gallery would.” 

I’m jealous that he can say that.   

The young art star and Ryan became friends. Great political projects were discussed and we invited him to our studio the next night. It started perfectly with my little son jamming on the keyboard, us having a tea and making plans about who of Anon’s great VIP contacts to call first. Ryan had put up some of his newer work in our living room: large paintings on wallpaper. With his right hand still not wanting to obey him fully, they had  been a struggle. Still, the works looked amazing and I was proud to show them to Anon.  

After a while, Anon disappeared into the garden to smoke. 

“That’s funny, I think Anon just sent me a photo of my paintings hanging in this room,” Ryan says. 

“Hey, Anon?” he yelled into the garden laughing. “Why are you sending me pictures of my own work, man?”

“Oh, did I just send it to you?” Anon’s embarrassed face peaked through the door. “I meant to send it to my mum, actually.” I was flattered. He was apparently so impressed with the art hanging he had to share it with his mom. His mother being an art collecting celebrity I fancied made the situation even more exciting.  

“Very selfless of Anon to promote your work, isn’t it?” I whispered when Ryan and I bumped into each other in the kitchen. 

“Well, you didn’t hear the voice message attached to the photo.” Ryan squashed my enthusiasm. “He told his mom that from now on he wanted to do all of his paintings on wallpaper just like in the photo. He didn’t even mention me.”

I wanted to kick the guy out but Ryan held me back. Maybe it’s some kind of misunderstanding? As Anon and Ryan exchanged phones that night to call different people, the voice message was mysteriously deleted from Ryan’s phone and it became clear that there was no misunderstanding at hand.

Being inspired by a fellow artist is a beautiful thing and potentially the greatest compliment you can give. You shouldn’t be sneaky about it. “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” Picasso supposedly said. By stealing an idea, it can become your own individual work of art. But if you’re already famous and your visibility, possibilities and channels are much greater than those of the person you are stealing from, you might reconsider. 

Once my fury was calmed I realised that I wasn’t even angry with Anon anymore. I was simply grateful for what I had in my life: a healthy family and a man who learned to be a supportive partner and a decent artist at the same time, which is a hard task. I secretly hope Anon actually does steal the wallpaper idea. He might realise that it’s not so easy to create something better.