What are we doing here in this life anyway ? For a lot of people, a six pack of beer and a football game answer that question very nicely. For others it’s family, grandchildren, and community. To be an artist is to not be satisfied by those happy ways. To be an artist is to be an outsider looking in, like Thomas Mann’s « Tonio Kröger », a character to whom I related strongly as a teenager. All those material and social comforts are not for us.
An artist has to find his own way, driven to respond to his experience of life in the best way he can. As my teacher and friend Harry Callahan put it, to share « what I feel and have always known ». That is the motivation, to do something, say something, make something that is a deep expression of who you are and how you feel about this mysterious life. On the most basic level, the artist is someone who produces something, but to be called Art the thing produced must have special qualities attached to it. Skill coming from talent is appreciated by everyone, easily appreciated. Skill is important but, to my mind, other values are more important.
In the best work there is a sense of passionate intention, the desire to capture a feeling in whatever medium. I started as a photographer and the great photographers were able to do that. My heroes were Cartier Bresson, Danny Lyon, and Harry Callahan. I knew them all. But for me, the simple, direct approach of a reed pen drawing in india ink on paper and oil paint on canvas provided a more satisfying experience. So that is what I have been doing now for over forty years.
How did this all happen ? Why did it happen ? The oracle of Apollo in Delphi said in Greek, « Gnothi Seauton, Know Thyself ». It is a hard directive, easier said than done. For whatever reasons, this idea attracted me strongly from a young age. When young Holden Caulfield of « Catcher in the Rye », smack dab in the middle of teenage angst and confusion, went on a quest « to find himself » I related.
The affluent world I was in after WWII was not satisfying to me. And I noticed that it didn’t seem to make the adults I knew very happy either. It certainly didn’t solve the problems of our family, something I wrote about extensively in my book, « The Painting of My Life ».
What did make sense was my father’s clever and skilful cartoons, his writing, my mother’s excellent painting, the painting of my sister Mary, and the good reproductions of Van Gogh paintings on the walls of our house, La Berceuse and Boats at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, as well as my father’s black and white photographs. Our neighbour Rowl Scherman was a teen idol with the guitar and later a fine photographer working for Life Magazine. A book and a film about him came out in 2016 : Eye on the Sixties : The Iconic Photography of Rowland Scherman. His brother Tom was exceptionally talented in drawing and went on to work at Disney. Down the street, a woman twenty years my senior, Lee Schoenburg, was the editorial director at Magnum Photos. We became lifelong friends. My godfather, Paul Rhymer, wrote over three thousand episodes of Ma Perkins, one of the most popular shows on radio before television took over. He is considered one of the great American humourists of the twentieth century, in a class with Will Rogers. That is a whole lot of background, something I haven’t mentioned before.