Deaux’s unusual van logo, a hint that the plumber once did more than sweat pipes. Rowling Dord photoThe Death of Art

By Rowling Dord


John Deaux isn’t someone you’d notice on the street. You would pass him by without a thought. A man of average build who appears to be in his early sixties, Deaux wears heavy black-framed glasses and has flecks of silver in his thinning hair. The most striking thing about him is his voice − it’s much deeper than you would expect. On the rare occasions when he speaks, it’s almost as though his words come from the proscenium.

Deaux lives in a small village in New York’s Finger Lakes region. He is now retired, but for many years he worked as a plumber, installing water heaters and Jacuzzis, upgrading bathrooms and, in the winter months, sweating frozen pipes. He doesn’t mention his former livelihood often, but when he does it is not without a hint of pride. John is well known in the community for the quality of his work. It’s not unusual for him to get calls from old customers, hoping to talk him into doing one more job. More often than not, he complies.

I met John Deaux quite by accident. I was spending a week in Corning, doing research at the Corning Museum of Glass on early American pressed glassware. The topic was one I was not particularly interested in, but I had agreed to write a monograph for a friend who was an editor at a tony British art-and-antiques quarterly. One afternoon, having exhausted my enthusiasm for “beaded tulip” and “forget-me-not” patterned chafing dishes and cake stands, I drove back to my motel, hoping to find something diverting on pay-per-view. As I pulled into the motel lot, I saw a white van parked in a space across from my room. Judging by the legend on its side, the van belonged to a plumbing service. What caught my eye was the logo. I thought I recognized the distinctive profile of the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

The van’s apparent owner was just coming out of a room several doors down, hefting a tool box and a bright orange coil of PEX. Unable to resist the urge, I followed him over to his vehicle. I was curious about his odd choice for a plumbing graphic.

“Well, don’t you think the guy flushed the system of Western thought right down the toilet?” was his reply to my inquiry. “Morality, religion, philosophy, the whole sideshow? That’s some serious plumbing.”

This was John Deaux.

One question led to another there in the motel parking lot, and Deaux invited me to continue our conversation later that evening over beers at a tavern in town. He said he’d be glad to answer whatever questions I might have. He added, with a wry smile, that I was only the second person in the 30 years he’d been in business to ask him about his Nietzsche logo.

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