A dentist longs to be recognized as an artist.
"You are unloved and unappreciated," the dentist said one morning to his reflection in the mirror.
He could not understand why he was not one of the more popular members of the community. He was certainly successful in his work, being a scrupulous and expert practitioner of the latest dental procedures. He was a member in good standing of the Canadian Dental Association, a generous supporter of Ducks Unlimited and a regular blood donor. He attended a conservative church every Sunday.
But people always winced when they met him. They pressed their lips firmly together when they smiled, unwilling to expose their teeth to his scrutiny. Patients entered his office with dread and left grateful that they would not have to return for another six months.
"Am I such a beast?" He studied his own perfect teeth in the mirror, and gargled with medicinal mouthwash.
His first patient that morning was an artist. She gazed wordlessly at the ceiling, gripping the arms of her chair.
She thinks of me as a kind of mechanic, the dentist thought sadly. In fact, he had the soul of an artist. He longed for the opportunity to give shape to his creative inspirations. He wanted to share his thoughts with the artist. He asked her about her work, but she mumbled briefly, without looking at him.
The dentist sighed, and began working on her front tooth.
He was proud of the quality of his work. He matched the colour of the tooth enamel, and carved and shaped carefully. Then, in a moment of whimsy, he etched an intricate, joyful design on the tooth. He paused for a moment to admire it.
I AM an artist, he told himself. He buffed lightly over his etching, smiling at the artist.
"All done," he said cheerfully. "Don't bite down hard for an hour."
He was still smiling when the next patient arrived. This time the dentist was able to decorate the entire crown of a large molar. By the end of the day, he was making freehand sketches full of complex figures and scenes, covering every square millimetre of available tooth enamel.
People began to notice his works of art in their mouths, in the morning as they stood in front of their bathroom mirrors. They marvelled at their teeth, as intricately carved as ivory jewellery. Soon everyone was talking about the dentist's wonderful art work. They smiled openly when they met him. Strangers stopped each other on the street, to gaze admiringly into each others' mouths.
Before long the dentist was taking orders for special occasions, such as baby's first tooth, and etched matching caps for couples about to be married. He expanded his business to include the adornment of dentures. His work became so popular that that local citizens were given dental donor cards, so that no works of art would be inadvertently buried with them.
The dentist felt fulfilled at last. He was a popular artist, and his works increased in value, especially his earlier etchings, which were now a difficult to acquire collectors’ items.
One day the lady artist returned for a check-up. With pride and confidence, the dentist asked her what she thought of his tooth art.
"Oh,” she said, tapping her front tooth, "they're SO commercial. Everyone has a mouth full of them. One could scarcely call them REAL works of art."
And without another word she turned her nose to the ceiling.
The dentist was upset. He stared resentfully into the artist's mouth.
It happened that the lady artist had particularly bad teeth, and required extensive work twice a year. The dentist resurfaced her one etched tooth, this time with a very plain pale yellow, to match the rest of her teeth. From then on, he carefully avoided any artistry when working on her teeth. He saved his creative efforts for his more appreciative patients.
Meanwhile, the lady artist created quite a controversy in the community, denouncing the dentist's work to the art world. She appeared at public meetings, and was heard on the radio, rabidly protesting the acknowledgement of etched teeth as art.
“What next?” she raged. “Collaged nail clippings? Sculpted stool specimens?”
Soon the entire artistic community was boycotting the etching of teeth. Artists marched in the streets, showing snarling displays of unadorned teeth. It became a fad among many artists to avoid dentists altogether, and this inspired a certain admiration for the artists' fortitude. One or two artists stopped using toothbrushes and toothpaste, but finding people less tolerant to their cause, were forced to compromise on that point.
The dentist found himself excluded from the artistic community, at the height of his public popularity. During creative welding classes, he noticed, the artists seemed to exude their disapproval of him, particularly from their untended mouths. Even Canadian Art, where all the dentist's ideas for tooth installations came from, published an article about the controversy, stating that suffering was at the root of all real art, and that true artists must gaze into the black holes of doubt every day.
Eventually the dentist stopped taking the welding classes, and cancelled his subscription to Canadian Art. His patients preferred Maclean's and People, anyway. None of them noticed when he removed all the fine art reproductions from his office walls and replaced them with posters of magnified plaque and gum diseases.
The dentist discovered that it was much more profitable to offer his etching services as cosmetic surgery, and he was able to retire young, a very wealthy man. He devoted the rest of his life to his tooth art, becoming internationally known for his ‘Mammals of Canada Etched Tooth Series’, part of the Nature Canada permanent collection. However, such institutions of higher and greater things as the Art Gallery of Ontario and Harbourfront ultimately rejected the tooth etchings as too popular to be considered fine art.
The lady artist and her associates had to go out of town to get the un-etched dentures that they all eventually required.