When I was eight, I decided I would be an artist because I realized that’s what I was. As far back as I can remember I loved drawing. It was a natural thing for me and I took to it immediately. I received a lot of attention for it and enjoyed the praise. It made me feel special. During the difficult years ahead when life became tough, I always had my art; it was my hope, my way out, my answer. I decided then I would someday go to art school.
By kindergarten, I felt challenged by whatever any other kid did in art class. I could do it too and would try to do it better. The kids who could draw each specialized in a certain subject matter… Scary monsters, robots, cats, etc… There was a girl (isn’t it always?) in the class who could draw horses really well, you know, the pretty kind standing around in a field of daisies. I studied real horses on Bonanza and soon my horses were running and you could see their muscles bulging and their manes blowing in the wind. Eventually I drew cowboys on my horses, sometimes even fat ones like Hoss Cartwright, lassoing steer or chasing a cattle rustler. No daisies! My landscapes had cacti and rattlesnakes and a mountain range in the background below a colorful sunset.
Yeah, I was a little competitive.
I wasn’t exposed right away to the world of art history, but when I happened upon a good art book in the school library, I was absolutely taken by it. I poured through it, drinking up the paintings thirstily. I formed a bond with artists long past. They were my people, just like the Lenape were. Art was in my blood. The artists of the Renaissance were my favorites. I wondered if all the great art was done for the glory of God. In the church I saw powerful images and sculptures, exquisite in their detail and emotion that affected me deeply. The expression of agony and ecstasy depicted in the faces, in the hands, in the contortion of the body of a saint in the throes of martyrdom or the suffering of Christ at the crucifixion was intense.
Fantastic art was also created for the glory of Children’s books. My father had a great collection of classic Children’s Literature, many from his own childhood. It was a doorway into a world of imagination and creativity that was profound in the same way religious art was for me. Before I ever read the big books, or tried to, (many of the books were above my reading level when I was eight) I searched out the illustrations and gleamed the gist of the story through the artwork. Arthur Rackham’s elegant line art and watercolor illustrations in Alice in Wonderland and Rip Van Winkle absolutely mesmerized me and have always been my favorites. N.C. Wyeth’s romantic sunlit paintings of powerful, moody pirates in Treasure Island and Kidnapped inspired me to no end and still do. I still have many of them stored in a box in my basement alongside a few Charles Dickens novels, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and a collection of The Hardy Boys.
I watched Saturday afternoon TV re-runs of Jon Gnagy, a New York painter who gave drawing lessons. Jon was my first art teacher. He was a competent artist and a good instructor, teaching you the basics of anatomy, tonal value and perspective among other things. You’d follow along and learn to draw and paint. Gnagy was from the beatnik generation of the 50’s when his shows were originally taped. He was a dapper dresser, always in a plaid shirt and sported a black goatee and occasionally an artsy beret. He was a true genius, not necessarily as an artist but in marketing his art kits and books. That Christmas my parents gave me a Jon Gnagy Art Studio, one of the best presents I ever received. It was like opening up a treasure box. It was filled with a potpourri of pencils, pastels, chalks, watercolors and brushes. There was also a jam-packed 64 page Learn To Draw book, as well as Oil Pastel and Watercolor Painting booklets.
I faithfully drew everything more than once and went through the sketching paper real quick and started scrounging my dad’s typing paper and sheets of rolled up newsprint paper saved for our next move. I was inspired as I drew and painted under the tutelage of the Master, drawing and painting cones, pumpkins, barns, lighthouses and dogs. It was mind-boggling to discover what you could do with a kneaded eraser and a paper stump. Within a month my supplies were depleted, but not my desire to continue to draw and paint. For two weeks I took art lessons in the basement shop of a woman in town, but that sucked. We made stupid snowmen out of Styrofoam balls and toothpicks and the next week, she carefully positioned a knotty gourd on the table and said, “Draw this…” Boring! I pestered my parents for more art stuff and occasionally was bestowed a sketchpad. I filled it with drawings as I faithfully watched repeats of “You are an Artist.”
Yes, I was.
The Price Is Right
My father managed to get tickets to a popular TV show, “The Price Is Right.” He and my mom drove up to New York City to attend the show at the Hudson Theater. Three contestants plucked from the audience, joined the returning champion to bid on a variety prizes ranging from furniture, appliances, trips and maybe a car. Closest bid to the correct amount would win the prize.
True story… an elephant was offered as a “bonus prize” to a contestant who had won a grand piano. The “Extra Ivory” as they called it, was a joke. The actual prize was $4,000. But the contestant insisted, he preferred the elephant. Eventually, a real Kenyan elephant was delivered to the guy. That show was spoofed later in an episode of The Simpsons called “Bart Gets an Elephant.”
Anyhoo, Dad was a clever strategist and came dressed in his pressed Navy khakis, buffed shoes and officer’s hat. As he expected all along, he was picked from the audience. We watched the show on TV and clapped as he took his place behind the podium. We were in awe as the always-charming host Bill Cullen introduced our father. Dad was also pretty charming, definitely the handsomest contestant that day, and smiled his dimpled grin and played with enthusiasm and panache.
We sweated it out as he valiantly bid unsuccessfully time after time on this and that, until bingo! His bid won. He won! It looked like a lot of…stuff. Personally, I would have preferred he had won an elephant, a peacock or a Black Angus steer. Blackie would have appreciated it. A moving van pulled into our driveway a month later and unloaded the winnings. It included a set of decorative wrought-iron green patinaed outdoor furniture with a rose motif. It consisted of a glass-covered table, four chairs, two cushioned patio chairs and a coffee table. Two plastic-leaved fruit trees, orange and lemon, stood six feet high and sat in redwood bases filled with dry moss. If that wasn’t enough, we got six huge silver baskets crammed with fruit and candy.