Monday, April 30, 2012

A Reflection On Forty Years of Teaching

Art History Class c. 1975

It was 1971. Richard Nixon was president.  Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell had been driving a golf cart around on the moon, and I had been driving a taxi around Philadelphia.  I was twenty five, and I had just been  offered a better job. I had met a man named  Phil Trachtman, 6 months earlier during my one man show of paintings at the Wallnuts Gallery, on Locust Street. Phil had just  opened a new graphic design school, named "The Art Institute of Philadelphia." He was  an art director in town and often had to hire fresh talent. But his complaint was that the graduates from the Philadelphia art schools "don't know how to DO anything!" He had to spend months training them at things  like "paste-up" and "mechanicals."  So Phil decided he would try a novel concept: to create an art school, where graduates were actually ready to work!

His faculty was created from working professionals that he personally knew. Sophia Chitjian, for example, was a fashion illustrator for Strawbridge and Clothier, and he talked her into teaching...of all illustration! Well known graphic art/ illustration pros like Jack Duffy, Ralph Malatesta, Bob Arufo, Jack Martin and the amazing Charlie Ellis rounded out the faculty. Recognizing that foundation skills such as drawing and painting were essential, he also had a number of fine art types, like Harvey Silverman and Bob Koffler teaching those classes.  Art history was also part of the curriculum and when an opening came up, he contacted me.
Jack Duffy at the school...

I was invited in for an interview. I didn't have an art history degree. I didn't have ANY degree, only  a certificate, but it was from one of the great art schools of the world, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. I had also had been making a bit of a splash with my work, had received several well known grants, including a Tiffany, and the Academy provided me with a letter attesting to my qualifications to teach. With that, the state of Pennsylvania certified me to teach art history- and Phil hired me for the highest salary I had ever received: seven dollars an hour! I had never made more the four, (including while working in a Pittsburgh steel mill) so this was a huge step!

I'm not writing a "history of the school" here. This is much more about what it has meant to me to be a teacher, and the value of a school such as AIP (as it was called then.) But, in January 1972, when I was hired, the school, amazingly,  had one person who did all the administrative duties, a woman named Alice Law. All the records were kept in paper files. Personal computers did not exist.  Our first graduating class, was two students. They both were hired, as were almost all of our early graduates, thanks to the "hands-on" curriculum, and the industry contacts of Phil and the faculty.  

So it was January 1972, when I walked into a class room as a teacher, for the first time. I greeted the fifteen or so young faces. I was their art history teacher. I was just slightly older than they were.  I began talking to the class about the Paleolithic period. I thought of the many exciting art history classes I had experienced.  To me it was akin to "time travel." I didn't have to fake any enthusiasm for the subject. Art was my life. I had a huge mass of slides which I had taken myself (thanks to my grants)  and used these to try to engender a love for the subject in my students. Several of those early students are still friends. I've seen them raise families, and one has a daughter who is an art history major in college.
Faculty from Cherry Street school

The school, in time, went through a metamorphosis. We grew in enrollment and after a few years moved to a much larger space at 18th and Cherry St. I began to teach drawing and painting as well as art history. Students from the mid-1970s era are now in their 50s, and many of them are Facebook friends, fellow art exhibitors, and teachers themselves.  We have occasional get-togethers, during "First Friday" events in Philadelphia's Old City section. I'm amazed at how MUCH they remember from my classes. I always tried to spice up art history with a bit of scandal or the bizarre, and those stories are remembered: was Vermeer a woman? for example.
My students and me in the late 1970s

In the late 1970s a major shift came to the school when it was purchased by Pittsburgh based,  Education Management Corporation. It was probably inevitable, because of huge changes in the graphic design and education  worlds. Computers were beginning to be used, both to run the business of the school, and in making art (the MACintosh!) Also, federally insured student loans were becoming more and more important, which meant accrediting bodies had more power.  It used to be a good portfolio was your ticket to a career, now a degree was becoming a pre-requisite.

So in 1980, now called AIPh (because AIP was the Pittsburgh school)- we moved to a massive new place in the heart of Philadelphia- 1622 Chestnut Street.  We had begun with Phil Trachtman's vision and less than 100 students on the second floor of an 8th Street retail space, and now we occupied an historic art deco structure in the exact heart of the city. We also had thousands of students. In evolutionary terms, this is called success, and there was a good reason for it. Our graduates were indeed building careers, and  their friends and children were coming to the school for the same "hands-on" education. Graduates were now art directors and were hiring talent from their alma matter. The school also went to great lengths to be anticipatory of the changing art world. When "Flash" became an important part of the design industry, for example, we had graduates trained and ready to go!

What I have always loved about our school, is that we will give almost ANYONE a chance. We have an "open enrollment" policy. You don't need a high GPA in high school, to be admitted.  Some people, especially pretentious academic "elites," see this as meaning we "let anyone in, just to take their money, or the government's money." These people, frankly have not seen a REALITY which I have experienced. Time and again, a young man or woman who had struggled to get D grades in high school, finds a path in life which is creative, fulfilling and viable at our school. Sometimes, the students we enroll are not ready, have not found their way, and it is the duty of faculty and administration to be realistic with those people, and fail them out of the program. I don't see it as a fault or an avaricious aspect of the school, that they were given a chance to succeed in the first place. Sometime, even our graduates cannot pay back their loans, (although most do.) But this is little different, percentage-wise, from what happens even at "prestige universities."

I have also had, in my forty years of teaching, many students who had degrees from other schools (including Ivy League)- which proved to be worthless as far as making a living in the world. They came to our school to do what they loved, which is art and design. Almost all of them get at least a viable start in the design world, thanks to our curriculum. I love it when I hear that 100% of our graduates have jobs in the field, and that happens quite often, especially in the web design department where I continue to teach.

 No one can tell me that The Art Institute of Philadelphia is anything other than, a force for good in our society.  There are certainly problems at our school, and as someone who has taught at 4 other major art colleges (PAFA, Rutgers, Rosemont and UArts)...they have the same or similar problems.  Teachers, staff and administrators sometime have different perspectives, but when it works as it should, they are all part of the same symbiotic system. The faculty is unionized at AIPh, and the union has been, from my view, a pragmatic force for betterment. It has been able to work with management in the past, to craft mutually beneficial contracts. In 2012, we are in a very difficult time. But we are all in this together. We have a shared endeavor: education.  If that is ever lost...a very fine thing will be lost.

What I see, and value, is this:  Every student I meet, is a son or daughter of someone. Many of them are parents, brothers and sisters. Some are former military with PTSD. Some are people, whose lives have become unviable, due to technological changes, and they are being re-trained for new careers. Some are young people, searching for something they have yet to define. Many have come from foreign countries, to study "in America" where they expect to get "the best education." Most of them are just out of high school. Some had the benefits of family support and great art programs. Some barely survived an environment of drug violence and indifferent teachers just struggling to maintain a semblance of order. Some...are brilliant- bursting with creativity and intelligence beyond what I recognize in myself.

 They all, have the full expectations of youth.  They  all, have some kind of HOPE. It has been my great joy to help them, along with so many dedicated faculty, and staff and administrators to achieve, their personal vision- their HOPE. That is the essential goodness of our school and why I  am  so grateful to have been a small part of it for the past forty years.
My former students and me- 2011

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Donation to Science

On the value of cadaver study by artists...Not a "pleasant" topic, but recounting one of the most affecting aspects of my journey as an artist. 

Why would a contemporary art student benefit from the anatomical study of cadavers?  In 2001 and 2002, as a faculty member at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, I lead a small group of students on  a number of study trips to the anatomy labs of Hahnemann University Hospital. It wasn't sensational in a CSI kind of way, and nothing very dramatic happened. But something "illuminating" happened, and I'll tell the story here.

Our art school had a reciprocal arrangement with the medical school. Their students could come to PAFA and draw from our live models, while our students could go, and draw from their cadavers. There was a kind of beautiful symmetry to that I felt.  To be credentialed for access to the lab, our students and participating faculty had to attend an "orientation" session, led by one of the doctors who taught anatomy at the hospital. We were told the protocols: no photography, no bare hands, no touching except to reposition. We were told to put the plastic sheets back when we were done, and if the subject seemed to be too dry, sprinkle it with water. We were shown how to dispose of our gloves and wash up effectively as we concluded our trip. We were cautioned about the sometimes shocking nature of what we would see. We were also told about respect... but I'll get to that, and to the profound value I found in the experience a bit later.

When I was a student at The  Academy in the late 1960s, the spirit of Thomas Eakins was implicit in the building itself. His anatomical casts, made from "flayed" figures which he had dissected himself, were displayed in the auditorium. In the magnificent  cast room, along with the life sized replica of Michelangelo's "David," was  Jean-Antoine  Houdon's life sized flayed figure. The work of DaVinci and others created a kind of mystique around drawings from medically dissected cadavers, but it was not part of the school's curriculum at the time. Why would contemporary artists need to draw from cadavers? What did that have to do with ART? Even the great tradition of the Academy had been affected by "modernism" it seemed.

But at one point, I had hit a roadblock in my studies, and my teacher Joseph Amarotico told me I needed to do more "serious study." I decided to do a series of drawings from the Eakins casts. I spent hours, by myself, sitting in the dimly lighted auditorium, drawing the casts, displayed in glass cases, and then translated those drawings into a number of paintings.  The first painting, was titled "Relic Man."  I had painted it exactly as it appeared- a torso only,  suspended from a hook in the display case. It was essentially a still life. I used a commercial flat black paint as a background which simulated the dark auditorium.

Even before I'd finished, I thought I had "found" something.  I was excited to show the new piece to my teachers, and their reaction was unanimous.  Ben Kamihira told me I had created "a kind of terror" with the piece and that I should stay right on this path. Jim Leuders told me "you are using the same kind of paint you've been using, but it just suddenly has meaning!" The fact that I can remember these comments almost verbatim indicates the importance of the moment to me! The "flayed figures" resembled the remnants of some horrible cataclysm, in a way.  The war in Viet Nam was in full rage at the time, and as I did large paintings of platforms piled with the dismembered casts of Eakins, the daily newspapers were filled with images of torn soldiers and civilians from Southeast Asia.

Those painting were my "breakthrough" to a personal style, and thirty years, and many style changes  later, I was invited to be part of the faculty at PAFA.

And so it was in September 2001 that the opportunity to lead the trips to Hahnemann arose. Two thousand and one. It was just a few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center. The world seemed as dark again, as it had been, during Viet Nam as I lead a group of six students up Broad Street to the hospital. We had all been to the orientation, and I had reserved the lab for two hours.  We showed our identification to the security guard and wended through corridors to the room with a small sign which said: "Anatomy Lab."

There were about 20 stainless steel dissection tables spaced evenly about the large lab. Medical diagrams of internal organs, circulatory systems and brain regions hung like paintings on the walls. Strange equipment of almost medieval appearance, and green chalk boards with scrawled notes and diagrams lined the periphery.  Full skeletons were suspended at various locations. The ceiling was low with florescent lighting and some spot lights available on tripods.  One entire wall was taken up with large refrigerated stainless steel lockers which held the bodies which were not already "in process." The figures on the tables, were covered in white or black plastic sheets.  

To begin work, we all put on surgical gloves.  I removed a sheet from one subject and invited the students to do the same. In September, the subjects  were mostly intact, but the skin had been removed to reveal the musculature. This is the state at which Eakins had made his casts and was of clear value to the students to see how muscles connect and intertwine.  As the semester went on, the subjects were more and more revealed, opened and reduced to skeletal frames. The figures had a rubbery feel, and the odor of disinfectant and preservatives filled the air. The subjects were all sizes,  races and genders, but there were no young people. Some people had died of noticeable disease, some were crime victims.

We spread out, each student finding one figure which seemed to interest them. As I immersed myself into a drawing, I looked around and saw my cohorts, each  working with intense concentration, scattered about the lab, silently drawing these anonymous figures who once walked the streets of Philadelphia. There was essentially a "reverent" feeling in the room.

As I contemplated my subject, I could not help but wonder about the person. What was his life? How had it ended? Why was the body here in the lab? Was there any meaning to it all? I felt as if the "worth" of this experience for myself, my students, for Thomas Eakins and others back in time was more philosophic in nature, than artistic. It had more to do with the "why we make art" rather than the "how."

For me it was in the faces. I concentrated on "portraits." My students often did studies of muscles and limbs, and the instructive nature of seeing what lies beneath the skin, was of clear value to their ability to express form. We didn't talk very much about it at the time, and as the semester wore on, the number of students interested diminished, and I often went to the lab alone. In their defense, they had been working for 6 hours already that day, and doing two more hours was actually exhausting!

On one occasion, I went over and a doctor was teaching in the lab. I marveled as he had students find and name various internal organs or locations. The value of these labs to the medical profession is undeniable. The first time you go cutting into a human to find an appendix or gall bladder, it is much better if the body cannot be harmed!  I hoped, seeing these young people who intended to be physicians, that some of them were indeed coming to our life drawing classes, for the pure joy of  learning to draw a living being. I somehow felt it would make them better doctors, but don't know why.

Respect. When we teach life drawing, we always prepare the students to respect the models, who do a very difficult job for our benefit. There is a certain "clinical" objectivity which develops for the nude human form as you try mightily to express its subtle form in two dimensions on paper. But the respect for the cadavers was different. They could not be offended by crude jokes or sexual innuendo after all. But from my own experience and also seeing the medical students at work, I saw that the respect , was for life itself. Seeing the "machinery" of a human being as a mass of inanimate tissue, like seeing the gears of a watch,- precise, amazing, absolutely no wasted space, it inspires. When Shakespear's Hamlet says "What a piece of work is man..." it is testament to the miraculous power of nature. One can see this all as pure undirected, unmeaning evolution, or invoke a greater intelligence and meaning to explain the inexplicable. I'm a believer, and came to my belief through science, but I don't make a big point of it to others, and don't rule out that I could be wrong.

But I was surprised by what happens at the end of the semester. For over three months, the cadavers had been "deconstructed." By December, there were primarily skeletal remains left on the tables. It is at that point, that all of the remains are taken to a crematorium. They are reduced to ashes, and then a service is held. The doctors who ran the classes and medical students, who learned from these "teachers," gather at a local funeral home, and pay homage to those who donated their bodies to science. They can say a prayer or not, but the respect for the miracle of life, the inventiveness of nature to construct such wonders can only have been enhanced by their experiences.

One day as I left the hospital, sketchbook in hand, I was walking down 13th Street. It was crowded with hospital staff in scrubs of various colors.  A man with a bouquet of flowers in his hand approached a car, pleading to someone inside. He offered them through an open window, but the window went up and the car drove away. The man threw the flowers into the street. 
So the medical students prepare for exams, and the long difficult road to becoming a doctor. Art students sit with their blank canvases and ask, "what should I do?" Satellites orbit the earth. Data streams, web sites exhort, crowds laugh in theaters, individuals cry over  novels, a couple waits for a lab test, a man thinks he feels "lucky" in Las Vegas, and a teenage girl with a thousand Facebook friends, feels lost in a small town in New England...etc.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Lump of Gold

The Lump of Gold

I'll get right into this. It involves a recent trip to the house in Carnegie, Pennsylvania where my grandfather and descendants  lived from about 1908, up until the 1950s. It also involves a personal "moral dilemma" as I considered  revealing some family lore, to the current residents of the house. Would I be doing a "good thing?" or would I set into motion events which would cause "bad things to happen?"  

Carnegie began as a steel town. It was named after Andrew  Carnegie, of course, the 19th century steel magnate, and was ringed with mills carrying evocative names such as Union Electric, Universal Cyclops and Superior Steel. My grandfather and several generations of relatives worked in those mills. My grandfather died before I was born, but my father related a number of stories to me about the man and this is one which he told me on a number of occasions. It seems, one of the jobs my grandfather did, involved working on a small furnace which smelted gold. With the right chemicals, a load of gold bearing ore would be heated, separated into impurities which would be removed, and pure gold, would flow out into ingot molds, producing slabs of the precious metal. At regular intervals, the furnace had to be "cleaned out." Small bits of pure gold collected in the seams of fire brick used to line the furnace and my grandfather had to take the bricks out, scrape off the gold bits into a collection vat, and put the bricks back into the furnace.

These little bits, he scraped off were "worth their weight in gold" literally- so there were strict security measures involved all through the process, and workers were routinely searched as they left the gold smelting area. But my grandfather had found, accidentally, that during the cleaning process, he collected very small flecks of gold in his pant cuffs! This revelation led to, what we might call, "deliberate accidents" where, at each cleaning, tiny bits of gold made their way into his cuffs. When he got home, these flecks were collected, and over the years, he began to accumulate a small "lump of gold."

When my father told me this story, he would always hold out both hands in a cupping gesture, when he described the appearance of the mass, indicating that it took both of his father's hands to hold the glittering ball. How much would a lump of gold, probably at least five pounds in weight be worth today? At current prices, it is about $128,000... So what happened to the lump of gold?

According to my father, guilt began to weigh on his father's conscience. The lump of gold was like a glowing reminder of human fallibility. He had stolen the gold, there was no getting around it. What could he do- sell it and start living lavishly? Everyone in the small town would know that he had done something wrong to acquire the wealth.  Should he return it to the mill and say "here, I stole this?"  There may not have been an easy option.

My father told me that the lump of gold eventually went "missing." The family story was that grand pa, had taken the lump and buried it in a deep hole in the back yard of the house, laying it to rest and ridding himself of what he considered a disgraceful moral lapse. But on the other hand, it was still where he could get to it if his family ever REALLY needed it...But no one really knew, and at the age of 56 my grandfather died without ever telling anyone what he did with the gold.

It was with this bit of family lore in my mind, that in June of 2011, I was visiting Carnegie for a few days. On Sunday, I decided to attend services at the church where I had been baptized over 60 years ago. It was the church my father and grandfather had attended.  It was the church where I was warned that breaking any of the Ten Commandments meant being plunged into a lake of fire in hell after death!  The God I was taught, didn't fool around!  You didn't "die" from the molten torment, you were already dead- so you just suffered! Now, as I sat in the church, a baby was baptized, children sang,  creeds were recited, and I knew every word,  and we all embraced each other in fellowship after the service.  I also thought of the story of the lump of gold.

I decided to walk up to the ancestral house, a few blocks away, and see what it looked like today. The house is on one of those incredibly steep yellow brick streets, where millworkers homes were stacked on small terraced lots carved into the coal laden hills which surround the town.  I found the street. (I won't use the name, because I don't want to set off a "gold rush" of blog reading "prospectors" with metal detectors prowling back yards in the middle of the night.) I wasn't quite sure of the house at first, because the wooden houses were now mostly covered in siding or asbestos shingles.

But my touchstone was a single house, which once belonged to my aunt "Emmy." I knew it was directly across the street from my grandfather's house. I recognized it because she was an avid gardener, and nurtured fruit trees as well. My aunt died many years ago, but her fruit trees are still there, and they were blooming that June morning! I then recognized what had to be my grandfather's house across the street.

I wondered...should I knock on the door, and tell the occupants the  story of the gold?

What harm could it do? I I climbed the steep concrete stairs to the porch. It was littered with car parts. Carburetors,  brake pads, hubcaps, bits of fenders and such were all over in a random manner. The salvaged car parts flowed into a small side yard as well. I guessed that a serious mechanic lived within. There were "Steelers" stickers and flags festooning the windows, and empty six packs of beer stacked against a railing. The house door was open, but a screen door was shut. I pressed a door bell button, but it had been painted over many times and didn't budge. So I knocked on the aluminum door making a rattling sound. I could hear a radio. No one answered. I tried again. No answer...

I thought, maybe they are in back, so I looked down the very narrow passage between the house and the neighbor's house. There was a gate, which I didn't want to cross, so I yelled "is anybody home?" There was no response. I tried the other side,  still no response. I decided to go for a little walk and try again a bit later. But as I walked, I thought again... "what harm could it do?" 

There was a car, idling in the street at the end of the block. A man stood beside it and was shouting up at a house- very angry, then got in the car, slammed the door and drove off, screeching away. "What harm could it do?"   I began to play the gold story forward in my mind. What I imagined, was me telling the story to a charming family. They rent a metal detector, discover  five pounds of gold in their back yard! Perhaps the husband uses the money to invest in "the car repair shop he'd always dreamed of owning!" Who knows?

But suppose they don't find anything. Suppose they are not charming, but bitter and rancorous? Suppose they become angry with me, with each other- the husband/ boyfriend etc. doesn't want to search, the woman does, they fight...who knows where THAT leads? They dig up their yard, rent back hoes, strike their water line or something and have thousands in expenses, all because I told them this story! Or suppose they find the gold and then the sudden wealth destroys their relationship.  My imagination was going wild as positive and negative scenarios played out. The angry shouting man had put a negative spin on my thinking, but I still had the positive scenario to consider. "What good could it do?"

I decided, maybe I was MEANT to be on their doorstep that June morning one way or the other! I decided I would give it one more try, and let "fate" decide  events. I went back and climbed the stairs. I could still hear the radio. I rapped on the door again. I heard movement, someone clearly moving around inside. But no one came to the door. I yelled in, and knocked again. More movement, but no one came to the door.

I knocked, but no one answered...I told myself, "this is what is SUPPOSED to happen." I turned and walked down the cracked and sagging concrete steps away from the house where my father had seen a lump of gold which took two hands to hold. I walked past the apple trees which my aunt had planted so long ago, and past the church where a baby had been baptized that fine June morning. I felt "okay" with what had happened. I wondered at how life is a series of forking roads, and how we travel along, going one way or the other, and how we do, or do not,  intersect with the lives of others.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Sum of All Dears

(above) "Milltown Valley" 1991 acrylic 60 x 72" as installed at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) Pittsburgh, PA
(thanks to cousin Darcie for the photo!)

By 1996, I was no longer angry with my mother. While I was away at college, in 1965, she had decided to "read up" my room. Anyone from Pittsburgh knows what I mean by that. In the cleaning process, she decided to "get rid of" my shopping bag full of hundreds of baseball cards, which I had collected since 1950. Bill Mazaroski, Roberto Clemente and Ralph Kiner were gone...vanished. She also had found a roll of pure silver, 1964 Kennedy half dollars I had somehow accumulated...and spent them! She spent them for fifty cents a piece!

I'm sure you can see why I originally got angry. On the other hand, she HAD sent me bus fare in the summer of 1964 when I was broke, and stranded in New York City. And by 1996, I had come to appreciate things such as her giving up a chance to see Liberace perform in 1954, because his performance was on the same night that John Stanley Swiedrack and I performed "Anchors Aweigh" on our "flutophones" at the Gregg Street Elementary School annual concert! She had been in the audience of parents and teachers, cheering me on.

So I figured we were "even" at some point...

My mother, father and me at either Kennywood or Euclid Beach Park c. 1950

Eventually,  I decided it might be nice to do something "special" for my mother. She had always encouraged me to be an artist, (something that not all mothers would do) and took pride in whatever show announcements or news clipping I sent her.  My mother had never actually seen one of my shows however, since they were always in Philadelphia. She was in her seventies at the time, and didn't like to get too far away from home.  But, by then I had a couple of major  paintings that had been purchased for public spaces, right in Pittsburgh.  So on one of my visits, I offered to take her out to lunch, and to show her the paintings.

She was very excited about this, and got all dressed up, including a dress and a hat. We went to her favorite place for lunch: Stouffer's restaurant. She had once worked there as a salad chef, and made sure the waitress knew that!  Then we went to the  luxurious offices of Deloitte and Touche, and saw my painting, "Brandywine May." She beamed at the painting and when the receptionist, whose desk was in front of the piece told her how often people would remark, "what a beautiful painting"- my mother practically told the woman my whole life story. She started her exposition with  the "Tam O' Shanter" classes I'd taken at the Carnegie Museum in fifth grade. The woman listened, seemingly enthralled! People can be very nice at times.

 Our next stop was Allegheny General Hospital. My mother knew the place well. She had given birth there three times (out of 6) to my younger siblings. My painting "Milltown Valley, " a kind of homage to my steel town roots was in there somewhere, but I wasn't sure where.  It took some time, but eventually we found it. It was installed with a nice gold plaque next to an elevator. I was happy to see it there, beautifully lighted, and in a place where people naturally had at least a few moments to contemplate it, while waiting for the elevator.

My mother REALLY liked this piece! I was so happy to finally have her see some of my best paintings! Then, as we stood there talking, almost ready to conclude our trip, the bell for the elevator suddenly rang. The doors slid open abruptly and bright florescent light poured out. There was a lot of clattering of wheels, flashing chrome and people saying "watch your back," and such things, as a long, sheet draped gurney was wheeled out of the big, deep, elevator. There were three or four hospital employees, plus nurses and doctors  involved in moving it, because there was a tall stainless steel stand of some kind being wheeled along side the gurney, as well as some other equipment with flashing lights and beeping sounds. There were IV tubes from bulging  plastic bags running down, connected to a man stretched out beneath the sheet on the gurney, surrounded by all this clamor. He seemed to be barely conscious, and we were all making way...except for my mother.

 She instead, leaned close to the man, and with a quiet gravity...  said pointing to the wall..."my son, did this painting..."

I couldn't help but laugh as they wheeled the patient away, and I gave my mother a big hug as we made our way out of the hospital.

Afterthought : My mother was my first "patron."

 During my "clowns and airplanes" period  of the early 1950s, (influenced by "Howdy Doody" and "Sky King") she would often give me milk and cookies when I presented her with a "coloring." My art work also seemed to make her happy.
 She once told me that she had wanted to go to art school as a teenager, but it was during the Great Depression of the 1930s and there was no money for such things. Then, when she was only 16, she married my father and they started a family. In the 1950s she occasionally painted "figurines." Listening to the music of Doris Day, The Mills Brothers and Perry Como on the AM only radio, she would sit at the kitchen table with a palette of tiny bottles of enamel paints, and a very small brush. Nail polish remover was used to thin the paint, and that smell always rekindles this scene for me.  She would carefully apply faces and expressions over white plaster casts she had purchased from hobby shops, not saying a word. While she painted, I drew contentedly,  with my crayons.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Opal's Story

This story is true, but the "story within the story" told to me by a very unusual woman named Opal, may or may not be true. Even with the help of Google, I can find no information on it.
In  September, 2005, I was on a painting trip to Presque Isle in Northwest Pennsylvania. My usual practice on such trips, is to get up at five a.m. and be painting by six, in order to get the long shadows of the morning sun. I paint for about 3 hours, then have lunch and sleep for an hour or so. By 5 p.m. the sun is getting low again and I go out for an evening session, again, of about 3 hours.
 Plein air painting is a joy, but also very difficult, due to the sun moving, wind, insects biting you and just lugging your easel and materials to that special spot, which always seems to be" just beyond" some huge rocks or a half mile from the nearest parking area. The great landscape artist Camille Corot said the secret of being a great artist, is "knowing where to sit down!" So we often spend a lot of time and calories, just clattering around, with our aluminum folding chairs, umbrellas and satchels full of paints, banging on our portable easels like a one-man band.
On September 20th, 2005 during the evening session, I went out on a rock jetty, which extended about 100 yards into Lake Erie. There were a few fishermen on the rocks, and a black and white lighthouse at the end, which looked really great against the blue lake and a DaubignyDaubingny-like sky.  Post-modern artists are not supposed to paint light houses (or snow scenes or flowers etc.) - but I like to take risks as an artist- so I decided to be naughty, and do it! It was about 6 p.m. and I was struggling mightily with the color and light when I heard a girlish sounding voice say "I wish I could do that!" The voice was actually a mixture of child and adult, somehow. I turned to see the person, and it was indeed a woman, probably in her late 20s or early 30s.
 She wore a, too-large for her, 1950s style dress. It was white with a red flower pattern splashed across it. She was..."Rubenesque" in figure and wore thick glasses with dark hair that flared out wildly in all directions in the lake wind. When she spoke, she seemed to look to the side of you, instead of "at you."   But the strangest thing was her teeth! She had one large solid front tooth, instead of two central incisors with a space between them. I didn't want to stare so I kind of looked away, but guessed it was some kind of dental appliance?   The old "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" TV show came to mind. "My name is Opal." she told me with a broad child-like smile.
I returned the smile and quickly went back to my work, not really wanting to encourage her. She stood behind me, about 4-5 feet away. As I tried to find just the right tonality of color, the wonderful peace of immersion in art would start to take hold. The feeling that you are living inside the painting began to wash away everything except turning formless daubs of pigment, into clouds and water.  Then as my reverie was almost  complete, Opal would blurt out something like, "I can't get near the edge because I might fall in." I'd turn and smile briefly then turn back to my study.  As I began to put clouds in the sky she suddenly yelped "wow, if I did that, I'd mess it all up!"... I nodded and smiled  and she said, "I know a story about an you want to hear it?" I didn't think I had a choice, so I said, "sure."  This is the story Opal told me as I worked on the painting pictured above.
She began: "There was this artist...he wasn't a real good artist, like one who could, you know,  get thousands of dollars for his paintings. They wouldn't even let him into art school. Then a war started and he went into the army. When he was there, he couldn't make friends except  with this one other soldier. His friend was the son of a really rich...I guess...billionaire, and they were in the army together.
So once, the failed artist did a painting of his friend, but it wasn't very good. The friend took it anyway and thanked him. Then in the war, his friend got killed in the line of duty. And the artist was really sad..."
(As I painted away, I found myself listening to Opal's story, and her odd voice and child-like manner no longer seemed so strange... her story continued)
"So the artist had lost his only friend and he asked his captain what he should do with the painting? The captain gave him the address of his friend's father and said, "write to him and see if he wants it." So the failed artist sent the letter and he said, I did a painting of your son and it is not a very good painting, but it is the last picture of him. If you want it, I'll give it to you. The billionaire answered that he did want the painting. The failed artist, decided to take it to him, in person when the war was over, so he kept it safe the rest of the war.
So...when he was let out of the army, he took the painting to the address he had, and saw it was this really big mansion on a hill. But the billionaire welcomed him and took the painting of his son, killed in the line of duty...and he cried over the painting, even though it wasn't, you know, a very good painting or anything.
The billionaire had hundreds of painting in his mansion, by the world's most famous artists, but he always kept that painting of his son hung in a place of honor. Then years later, when the billionaire died, his will said, that the art collection should be auctioned off...So all these wealthy people and curious people came on the day of the auction and, you know, marveled at all these great paintings! But...well...nobody was interested in the portrait of the son, except for one young man. This man knew he couldn't afford any of the famous paintings, but for some reason, he really liked that portrait and decided he'd try to buy it.
So the auction started and the auctioneer said they would begin with this "fine portrait" you know like an auctioneer might say...He started at a thousand dollars, but no one bid, not even the young man. He thought he could only afford about a hundred. So the price kept getting lower and lower, and then the young man made his bid of a hundred dollars. No one else bid no matter what the auctioneer said, so he... you know...said,  going once, going twice and hit down his gavel and said " SOLD to that young man."
The rest of the crowd was anxious to bid on the rest of the paintings, but then the auctioneer said, "And that will conclude the auction of this fine collection!" The crowd didn't know what was going on and began to shout and say things, you know like "but you only auctioned this one painting, and it's not even any good!
But the auctioneer held up his hand and said: The terms of the will are, that "whoever shall buy this portrait, at whatever price, shall receive, the ENTIRE COLLECTION!"

When Opal concluded that story, I made an involuntary gasp. I turned and she stood there, sort of blushing and said, "did you like that?" I told her it was the best art story I'd ever heard, and I meant it.
 I also thought with a bit of disappointment in myself, that my initial reaction to this woman was to discredit her, to not take her seriously, to not want her to talk to me, and why? Primarily because of "surface."  She wasn't "pretty" in any way. She had a strange voice. She seemed to be a distraction. Besides, I had more important things to do didn't I? Frankly I felt a bit of shame. Opal had enriched my life. 
"It's getting dark soon, I have to leave" she said suddenly, and turned. I watched her wander back down the jetty and disappear into the fading light. I went back to my painting and finished it thinking of this  strange woman who gave me this gift. Later in my campground, I wrote down the story, trying to keep her speech pattern in it. Since then, I've told Opal's Story to many of my classes of art students. When I conclude it, there are always at least a few, who let out a gasp, as I did that evening on Lake Erie, and as, I'm sure, they also did at the auction of the failed artist's portrait.
Thank you Opal.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

My Summer Selling Encyclopedias in Pittsburgh

In 1964, I graduated from high school and a few days later, I was "on the road" with Bob Dylan in my head, my thumb out, a guitar and a satchel of clothes my only baggage. I also had a German Lugar pistol which couldn't fire, but a friend had given it to me, "just in case." In case of what, I wasn't quite sure, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Anyway, I was FREE!

I made my way north to Erie, and managed to make some money singing in a Holiday Inn bar. Songs like "Early Mornin' Rain" and "Blowin' in the Wind" (and other songs, missin' a final "g") made up my repertoire.  With a sign in large block letters saying "Newport" taped to my guitar case, I got rides across New York state and into New England fairly easily, mostly from guys who seemed to relish the "idea" of being on the road, but who had families and regular jobs. They often plied me with hamburgers and a little cash after I'd given them my best shot of folk music.

I was having a great time, but I only lasted a month. I made it to Newport Rhode Island, had eye opening experiences almost every day, but the police wouldn't let you sleep on the beach, and I, in a moment of introspection, decided I'd better head back to Pittsburgh. I had signed up for that whole college thing after all, and, there was also this unfortunate misunderstanding with a bunch of guys who were in Officer's Candidate School at the naval base. Also...I was broke.

My thumb and dwindling funds got me as far as New York City, but after standing there trying to hitch a ride from 42nd Street for 4-5 hours, I went into the Western Union. My mother, thankfully, wired me enough money to get a Greyhound back home. She worked as a restaurant cook helper and money was always day to day, but as a kid, I didn't consider that. I still feel bad that I didn't appreciate her help as I should have, but I was 18 and...well, I was 18.

Once home, I realized, I should look for a summer job like all my college bound friends. For some mysterious reason, I thought I might be good at selling encyclopedias! Maybe it was the splashy "want ad" which said "highly paid outdoor work!" So I called the number, and a woman named Mildred signed me up. I went to the "training sessions" for the next few days. I remember thinking, "I'm going to make a fortune doing this!" The deal we offered was too good to believe! You got an entire Collier's Encyclopedia, for only ten cents a day. We even provided a little piggy bank for people to put the dimes in. And what they got in return, was "all the knowledge of the world," and we practically guaranteed that their kids would graduate at least cum laude from the university of their choice! Who wouldn't jump at this offer?

So it was with great anticipation that I loaded into my group leader's 1964 Lincoln with 5 other young men, off to my first field experience. Carrying a case with a couple sample volumes and a mockup of the whole encyclopedia, a sample piggy bank, all the paperwork to make sales, and a sandwich for lunch, we were dropped off at staggered locations around the Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

The whole piggy bank thing was a ruse, though. We were told to make the REAL offer once they agreed to the piggy bank deal. The total price was less, but they had to come up with a sizable down payment. THAT was where I always seemed to get stuck. Once the customer actually had to hand over some money, thing went down hill fast, and sometimes in a rather unpleasant manner. Over the course of a few weeks with no sales, the air went out of my enthusiasm. Jack, my group leader always seemed to drop us off in lower middle class neighborhoods. I walked East Liberty and McKees Rocks and Neville Island and Springdale and every tired little mill town along the rivers of Pittsburgh. I'd make my pitch, have it declined, and I'd shuffle off to the next asbestos shingled house with gutters hanging down and a rusted car on cinderblocks in the back yard.

I began to think, "I'm NEVER going to make a sale." You only got paid if you sold something, so I was broke. I knew I had to make some money somehow so I went and sat on a parkbench, trying to figure out what to do next. Then, "fate" stepped in. Jack, spotted me. "What the hell are you doing!" he snapped from the window of his car. He stopped with a squealing jerk and came at me like he was going to throw a right cross! But I'd had enough. I stood up and gave him hell right back, and said "Nobody wants to buy these things, I'm quitting!"

Jack then became a "good cop." He told me I just needed to see how it was done, and he was going to show me! I got kind of enthused again. Okay, I thought, let's give this a try.

 We went together to a house and he knocked on the door. I was fascinated by his confidence. No one came to the door, but someone yelled to "come on in" from the back of the house. So he and I went in and there was a guy sitting in a kitchen chair in a sleeveless tee shirt, with 4-5 beer bottles scattered around. The guy had a typical "beer belly" which made him look pregnant. He also badly needed a shave and a shower. Jack, gave me a kind of wink, implying " the master at work!." He began his sales pitch the way he taught us, with a little small talk and then told the guy about the "great opportunity" that had just walked in the door etc. The guy didn't say a word at first, he just kind of rocked back and forth a bit. Then he began to get angry...he had a strange look of incredulity on his face. At one point he began to stand up and shout saying something like "who the hell do you think you are coming in to my house...etc."

Jack paused for about three beats, and then yelled right back at him, saying that we had been "invited in!" Jack had had enough now! One of his minions was quitting, and now this boozed up, grizzled grouch was abusing him. Jack tore verbally into the guy and called him names I'd never heard. I think they were German insults because all I got was "dumkoff." Jack was boiling mad. He grabbed me and we got out of there. Jack didn't try to keep me from quitting then. He was practically mute as we picked up the other guys and headed back to the office. I occasionally try to picture the world from Jack's point of view, and when I see something by David Mamet or Arthur Miller, my experiences with Jack provide the context.

I finished the summer as a "Good Humor Man," selling ice cream from a truck and I made some fair cash. I discovered a life lesson: it is a lot easier to sell ice cream than encyclopedias. There were a few drawbacks. I had to learn to drive a stick shift very quickly, and I had to learn how to deal with teen gangs in "the projects." They usually came up to me in groups of 4 or 5, and demanded "free ice cream" or that I stay out of the projects. My trainer told me to only give out "smashed samples" when I could get them, and that generally the gangs wouldn't really do anything to you, because their parents liked having the ice cream truck come into the projects.

I got fired from the job at the end of August. I met a girl on my route, who I can't even picture in my mind at this time, except that she had sandy blond hair and blue eyes. She bought something almost every day for her little sisters. She was probably 18 or so and one day she invited me to "stop by" when I had finished my route, with a little touch on my arm that sent a shiver through me. I finished my route in record time and made it back to her place. We ended up in her back yard, laying in the warm summer grass, kissing and petting for hours. As I made my way back to the truck depot, I tried to come up with some good excuse for my late return. I thought- "mechanical difficulties!" I had once heard of something called a "vapor lock." A vehicle would suddenly just stop running. If you let it cool down for an hour or so, it would then start up just fine. I figured it was my best shot.

Sure enough, when I rolled in several hours late, the manager was furious, since he couldn't leave until all the trucks returned.

I told him the "vapor lock" story.

He told me I was fired.

I knew I only had another week until I had to be in Indiana, PA anyway, so I didn't mind losing the job. As I walked out of the depot to catch a bus home, I felt pretty good about things! College was ahead. Everything was ahead. The summer of 1964 had been great, and the world seemed to be just waiting for me.

My Jules Feiffer Story

In 2006, I had a few paintings in a group show at the Sherry French Gallery in New York City. One of the people who came to  the opening  was Jules Feiffer the legendary cartoonist for The Village Voice.  I had never met him, but managed to become part of a conversational circle at one point which included Jules and  seven or eight other men and women including artists, Nancy Bea Miller, Eliza Auth and Tony Auth, the political cartoonist of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Someone asked one of the women I did not know, "what do you do?"

She answered, "I work at the United Nations Office of War Crimes."

Without a pause, Jules cocked his head slightly and mischievously  asked  "for... or against?!"

What I was struck by, was how his persona in "real life" was the same as his art: ironic, satiric and funny with a cutting edge.  I was very glad to have gotten this chance to meet him, and must thank Eliza and Tony for introducing me. His drawings as well as his wonderful  children's books, and other writings can be found at his web site:

also in this story: