THE SKETCH BOOK

December 31, 2012

ALTHOUGH THEY ARE displayed now and then —usually tucked inside a vitrine that features memorabilia — at a retrospective of some noted artist, the humble “sketch book” is more often than not overlooked, neglected, passed over as insignificant in an artist’s life and work. True, they are usually dog-eared, travel-worn, and pocket-sized, but, at least for me, sketch books rank very high as offering some of the most revealing insights I can ever get while I sit in some artist’s studio trying to garner enough material for a Profile— and besides, I learn so much about art! Of course I “take in” the artist’s studio surroundings (which tell me a lot) and listen to their words (which tell me a lot less), but when I get the chance to take a peek into a sketch book or two — well it’s something like looking into a diary. So private are many artists’ sketch books, that they often hesitate — even refuse — to allow me a perusal. Some keep them out of sight, hidden in drawers, far away from my ‘prying’ — “close to the chest” like some poker player hiding his pair of aces — and thus I am often deprived of those insights that ‘flesh out’ my finished Profile (not to mention not being able to “flesh out” my knowledge and understanding of art). By now, most artists are familiar with my work and know that I am not ‘in the business’ of publishing “tell-alls” that can mean-spiritedly embarrass people and titillate others. Most now know that I am indeed probing — but only to uncover the source(s) of their creative spirit/output (as I note above, many artists — rightly so —are unable or unwilling to translate their work into words). I say “rightly so” since (I’ve found) the glibber they are, the less are they genuine artists. And, I say “genuine” because there are a great many talented (and untalented)  craftspeople that know how to “sell” their work and few “real” artists who are aware that “art” (images) and “language” (words) are two    different means of communication. Paul Cadmus, for instance, a most articulate individual on many topics never strayed into discussion of his art — except to point out a drawing he had done as a child while saying, “My de Kooning period”. Anyway…early on in my interviews (I’ve been doing them for over 30 years) it was not always easy for me to get an artist to hand over their “diaries.” Two that stand out in my mind are Robert Angeloch and Françoise Gilot — first, because they were so reluctant (at first) and, second, because (after they gave in) their sketch books were so enlightening, giving obvious clues to their finished work. Gilot’s was particularly interesting in that her tiny books were not only full of drawings, but also poems, and comments in what little margins were available; Angeloch’s less ‘chatty’, but full of annotations as to color and what the finished product might or ought to look like ‘compositionally’ (not sure that’s a word) thus, often side-by-side sketches of the same scene. Another that stands out in my memory was the sketch book / journal of Elizabeth Mowry (PSA) — not for her reluctance to share it (she readily showed it to me) but for its sheer beauty. At the time (1986), I urged her to publish it but do not know if she ever did (it contained notes and drawings of the plants, flowers, and shrubbery around her property made during the time her husband was house-bound and she could not leave him alone ). Nowadays, instead of refusals, I often get a “Why?” or “What for?” before sketch books are slipped out of drawers or nearby cabinets and handed over. And when they are…

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Memories

June 29, 2011

The passing of several of my friends recently — Jack Levine, Bruce Currie, Robert Angeloch — reminds me of little anecdotes of a couple of others that I have profiled over the years and who have also passed on to leave us bereft of their wonderful talents. Eugénie Gershoy, an artist like the aforementioned, was denizen of both Woodstock and New York City, her shared residences alternating between Twin Gables upstate and the Chelsea Hotel “in the city” (as upstaters referred to the Big Apple). Although she was an accomplished painter (I have a beautiful floral hanging in my bedroom that she did for me while she was up in Woodstock), Eugénie made her mark as a whimsical sculptor, her crowning achievement a solo show at the Smithsonian. I had profiled her in the early ‘80s and always found her acerbic tongue a delight — divorced from her husband for some years before I met her, whenever she referred to him or mentioned his name she would turn her head with a loud “ptoooie” and then resume her narrative. She, along with another dual resident of Woodstock and NYC, Dorothy Varian (who lived at the Carnegie while “downstate”), both urged me to “get my head out of Woodstock” — in other words, not to concentrate only on Woodstock artists, but to extend my vision to include those outside the area — in fact, Jack Levine (at Eugénie’s urging) was my first NYC artist to profile. Another great artist, this time a singer/guitarist, was Odetta, who passed away (it seems) just a scant few months ago. I hadn’t seen her for some years (although Cornelia used to meet up with her in the city every so often to go “clubbing”), having gotten to know her pretty well when I profiled her for ART TIMES in August of 1985. I’d met her the month before in the little town of Gardiner, New York, where a friend of hers had loaned her home where she could find the seclusion to work on a project. We sat as old friends across a kitchen table, sharing laughs as she unfolded her life and career for me. At one point, I asked her if she has seen any deer while she was spending time “in the country”. “Deer?” she said, somewhat surprised. “There are deer up here?” “Sure,” I said, they’re all over. She’d been so busy working on her notes and tapes that she rarely took time to look out the window at the nearby woods. Looking at me a bit skeptically, I invited her to take a walk outside with me. A nearby brook bubbled out behind the house and in no time, I was able to point out deer tracks in the soft earthen banks to her. “Wow!” she said. “And I never saw them!” She looked at me a bit sheepishly, and added, “I’m a city girl, you know, and never even thought about deer around here.” We walked a bit more and, as I glanced down looking for more tracks, I spotted a fossil rock, indented with ancient shell imprints. I picked it up and handed it to her, explaining what it was. She was absolutely dumbfounded. “Come on,” she said. “You put that there before!” “How could I?” I asked. “I didn’t even know where you were until I got directions from you this morning.”  Still a bit dazed, she just shook her head and cradled the stone in her hand. “Deer,” she mumbled. “And fossils!”) Some years later, Odetta was performing at SUNY New Paltz, and I went to hear and see her. After her performance, I had a lovely backstage visit, where I got a big hug from her. (I had a photo of this moment but it burnt up when my studio went up in flames). Anyway, just before I left, she said, “Wait! I want to show you something.” She went into her purse and pulled out a tied up handkerchief — inside, was the fossil stone! “Look,” she said. “I covered it with clear nail polish so it will be preserved.” I looked at her and grinned. “Preserved,” I said. “Odetta — that thing is probably over a million years old! Thank God you’re going to protect it for a few more years.” Another hug, another memorable moment.