Some Early Encounters
My parents had a book entitled “Art Treasures of the Louvre,” and a book about Charles M. Russell. These constituted most of my childhood exposure to art, except for the paintings of the local art guild, which I would peruse each summer’s end at the county fair. The book from the Louvre had a multitude of emaciated Christs being crucified, a mystifying portrait by Ghirlandaio of a young boy in the lap of an old man with a hideously deformed nose, and a painting in an Expressionist style of a blue-and green-colored horse in a glade, entitled “The White Horse.” I don’t recall much else. I’m sure the Mona Lisa must have been there, but it didn’t make an impression.
Despite the limits of my exposure to high art, I grew up with an urge to draw, and with a conviction that I would be an artist. I received much encouragement from my teachers, who would enlist me to provide props and embellishments for school programs, and from my parents, who provided me each Christmas with some sort of “art-related” gift. When I was in the third grade, my father built me an easel, easily the best Christmas present I ever got. I still have it in my studio. For the same Christmas I received the “Woody Woodpecker Easy Way to Draw,” which so severely set back the process of learning to draw that it put me off formulaic drawing programs for life.
Of the art treasures the Louvre had to offer, the only one that stands out clearly in my memory is the Ghirlandaio portrait. I was fascinated by the nose, and fearful of whatever pathology might have created its weirdly swollen and growth-encrusted surface, which reminded me always of the crusted and cracked surface of an elephant’s trunk. The nose, however, did not seem to diminish the clearly tender gaze exchanged between the young boy and the old man. I remember being moved each time I looked at the picture, by feelings I could not begin to describe then. Now I remember it as profound empathy… empathy for the old man, for the boy, and for the artist who painted them.
When I was about ten or eleven, I discovered that there was a section of the library heretofore unexplored: the adult section. It contained such delights as vintage National Geographic magazines, with topless Tahitians in grass skirts. Eventually I found the Art section, which in 1960 Worland, Wyoming, had precious little to offer. It did have two books that fascinated me, though, and I spent hours and hours hiding in the stacks, leafing through them again and again. The first was called “Anyone Can Draw.” As the title suggests, it was a drawing instruction book focusing on (my pulse quickened every time) the nude human figure. The drawing style was sort of dynamic illustration crossed with Kathe Kollwitz, but I was fascinated that the process of learning to draw the nude was an honored discipline.
The other book was called “The Artist In Each of Us,” and was written by a psychotherapist about the use of art as therapy with mental patients. The images were at the same time repugnant and irresistible. I was so far ignorant of Surrealism, so the images produced by people wrestling with mental illness were completely new to me. In fact, unlike the Surrealists’ drawings that aped insanity, these were the honest products of severe depression and actual insanity. Many of them were wild abstractions, but a significant number were skillfully rendered, figurative drawings. There was one in particular, done with considerable skill by a soldier suffering from what was then called “shell shock.” It was of a body, draped over a barbed wire fence and disemboweled. Grislier than anything I’d ever seen, but somehow beautiful, too.
I had forgotten this image, and something recently brought it to mind in vivid detail. I began to wonder how these early exposures might have shaped my reactions to all the art that I subsequently was exposed to, and how they might still be shaping my imagery and my drawing style. I can site many other influences: Picasso, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Rivera, Kollwitz, my teacher Richard Evans, the various styles of innovative illustration that graced “The Children’s Digest,” and cartoonist Walt Kelly. But the sudden, unbidden return of the memory of sitting on the floor amidst musty library shelves, studying again and again the images in those books, makes me think that they implanted undercurrents of morbidity and erotic fascination, as well as a fascination with the human figure and the human psyche, that have informed all the art that I’ve seen since, and all that I’ve produced as an artist. These books, encountered in my pre- and early-adolescence, prepared me for Picasso and Dali and Modigliani, long before I became aware of their work.