Art spirit is alive and well in San Juans | Ferry Home Companion
By HOWARD SCHONBERGER
Journal of the San Juans Columnist
July 23, 2008 · Updated 10:03 AM
Back in 1938, I was considering getting out of high school in mid-winter. My Omaha Central High School adviser told me it would be tough entering a good college that way unless transferring from another college.
“Besides, you could use a few extra credits in subjects you particularly like that might give you a higher grade average,” he said.
It sounded good to me. I would be graduating with about 500 students, rather than a few dozen. Football season was over. Of course, I arranged to take my first class at about 10 a.m. that last semester. I studied literature in my one morning class. I took my lunch, comprised of five or six peanut butter sandwiches and pie with milk, over to the Jocelyn Museum across the street. I sat in the theater which was used by practicing musicians — violinists, pianists, flutists, even an occasional singer.
These aspirants would present a program as though they were appearing at Carnegie Hall.
Often, I would be the only audience, munching away on my lunch in my orchestra seat as they played their heart out. At an appropriate time, after finishing my applause, bravos and lunch, I would leave to roam the museum, to wonder at the marvelous paintings and sculpture. I felt so lucky to enjoy such talent with and after my meal — royal treatment and all for free!
During the Depression, people were scraping for a living. That’s why the museum was so empty. I would go back across the street for my Spanish class from Mrs. Vartanian and then take my bike downtown to the theater where I worked 48 hours a week for $10 as an usher from 4 p.m. to midnight.
I got to meet some wonderful musicians: symphony conductor Josef Littau, pianist Abraham Dansky and others. They were amused by my antics as a respectful audience, I guess. They never kicked me out.
The big thing was that I became hooked on art.
Although I got a half-scholarship in journalism at Medill Institute at Northwestern University, I always liked art. I didn’t have the beef to play football in the Big 10, but two of my roommates were on the team. One, Sonny Skor, was a sparkplug halfback — short, but tough as nails. Another, Chuck Feingarten was a tackle, but he tore his cartilage in his freshman year. Both of them were from Austin High School in Chicago, teammates of Bill de Correvont and four others on the team that won the Chicago City Championship at Soldiers Field before 120,000 fans (largest football crowd ever up to that date in 1937), beating Leo 49-0.
Chuck’s mother ran an art gallery and we were able to visit there on occasion. We even tried modeling.
During WWII, the only art we appreciated was the work of cartoonists such as Bill Mauldin, who did Willie & Joe, and war artist Howard Brodie, in Yank magazine. Then, moving to the Bay Area, I was recalled as a reserve infantry officer during the Korean War and stationed initially at Fort Ord to process draftees for assignment. Cal Flint, president of Monterey Junior College, invited our cadre to attend classes free of charge. Another officer and I decided we would try “life drawing.” He had been an engineer and done drafting.
Both of us thought it would be still life, sketching a bowl of fruit and the like. Our first night, the instructor announced that the model would be doing a five-minute pose. She undraped herself and stood on a stand. We stood with our charcoal, not knowing what to do. “You have four minutes left,” said the instructor. My buddy started doing circles, squares and triangles to make a body. I never realized how difficult art was until that day. You have to capture the moment with speed and skill and that is all you do when you lose yourself in art. It is a total escape.
After discharge in 1952, I eventually became interested in art as a hobby. I joined the Palo Alto Art Club (I’m still a member, although it’s now known as the Pacific Art League). I took a class from Howard Brodie, whom I count as a dear friend and consider to be the greatest artist and saintly person I have met on this globe. I met his class leader, Ottley Briggs Smith, there, and we later married for 34 years before her death in 1999.
Brodie introduced us to the book “The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri. It was our bible in many ways. Henri, a splendid artist himself, taught his art philosophy to a group of Americans in New York after studying many of the impressionists in Europe as well as those in the States.
It was not a “school” of art. Henri did not believe in so-called schools. “Don’t belong to any school. Don’t tie up to any technique,” Henri warned. Thus, when we looked for the winner of the Ottley Briggs Schonberger Art Spirit award each year the past 10 years, we have chosen someone who is experimental and varied in work and expressed essay of how he or she approaches art. It was especially fun this year to find a guy who won this 10th year. All of the rest of the years have had female winners of that award. Nice going, Charlie Buck.
Just as in literature, the greatest writers have explored the lightest and darkest corners of our existence. The last few weeks we have seen great variety and experimental work during the judging of student art with the Island Artisans, as we awarded well-deserved scholarships. Also, at the various studios of the art tour around the island, e.g.: Ann Walberg, doing her artist-in-action bit; Dona Reed, with her great gourds and beautiful black and white prints; the marvelous experimental mix of photography and layered marbling by Danielle Dean Palmer and the great wildlife sculptures by her husband, Matthew.
Speaking of artists in action, the plein air performance of painter Sam Connery at the Westcott Bay Sculpture Park, beautifully demonstrated how the artist brings so much to the scene he captures.
Sunday, June 14, we had the wonderful celebration of sculptor Tom Pemberton’s life with a great slide presentation prepared by his son-in-law, Raoul, a great litany of Tom’s deeds, perhaps a few misdeeds, all demonstrating the warm gruff humanity of a man who was a perfectionist to the end. His museum speaks for itself. Call Tom’s beloved widow, Emily Reed, to see if you were unable to attend. It was a great event. The hymn sung led by his daughters was a highlight.
Art is action, whether it be with palette or pickaxe. The garden tour certainly demonstrated that. We were overwhelmed to see how Robert and Lauren Levinson have transformed the Sunset Point grounds of the late Ruth Mitchell, my former neighbor for a dozen years. Ruth, a widow, used to own the Silver Thistle (located where the Hallmark section of Friday Harbor Drug now exists).
Ruth must be delighted to look down at how beautifully Bob and Lauren have planted and sculpted that beautiful site during their last six years there.
The art spirit is alive and well on these islands. What a great difference to have such creative people.Contact Journal of the San Juans Columnist Howard Schonberger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-378-5696.