My obsession with Patti Smith began in 2011, after reading Just Kids, her brilliant, touching memoir about coming of age in NYC with Robert Mapplethorpe. When I was an art student at RISD, I was aware of her music because my freshman roommate Katherine played Horses over and over again. Her music back then was too raw and visceral for my immature tastes, so I did not worship her like many of my art school peers. However, by my senior year, I worshipped Robert Mapplethorpe – strictly for his bold imagery – which inspired my marble carvings of nude muscular males. I met him at the Young Hoffman Gallery in 1982, where he was standing all by himself – a handsome, soft-spoken cowboy whose demeanor completely belied his promiscuous sexual proclivities and frank sexual imagery. As I wrote in a prior blog, by a stroke of serendipity, I briefly talked to Patti Smith in December 2012 at a little Nepalese boutique in Soho that was going out of business. When I read Just Kids, I found myself sobbing at times, and it was this poignant book that provided my opening line, so I endeavored to maintain some composure. While she was nice enough to engage me for a few seconds, she turned her back before I was done talking and clearly wanted her privacy. I will never forget this chance encounter, as fleeting as it was.
My love for NYC goes back to when I was a teenager and visited my older sister, who at the time was living in her first dive apartment, a 3rd floor walk-up on Sullivan Street north of Houston. However, it was during my four years at RISD, from 1976-1980, that I became immersed in NYC. I have written about this before, in Reflections on a New York City Christmas, Own a Small Piece of Vanishing New York – Vintage 1970s, and The Times Square of My Mind. I have photographed the gritty streets of NYC going back to my RISD years. Every time I return, another small or large chunk of my youth slips away, swallowed up by gentrification and cookie-cutter commerce.
“The work she produced in her short life is 100 times better than anything you have created or could ever create!” Those were the cruel, harsh words that were hurled at me from my 20-year-old daughter’s insolent lips in 2007. The occasion was a visit to the Tate Modern in London and the discovery of an Artist’s Room dedicated to Francesca Woodman. It was hard to process everything I was feeling when I saw those photographs. Difficult because my daughter’s post-teenage angst overshadowed what became a trip from hell, but also because I had somehow forgotten about Francesca in the context of my four years at RISD. I am not sure why it has taken me so long to write about this – perhaps I needed the distance and perspective of the passage of time. Or the sheer volume of online content could have dissuaded me – 567,000 Google hits on Francesca as of April 2015, and counting.
There have been many short articles about celebrities who also happen to dabble in the visual arts. But I have to say, with the risk of sounding like an art critic, that many of these folks are not very good visual artists. Come to think of it, some of them are considered mediocre at their primary pursuit – whether politics (guess who?) or acting, while others are considered pure genius. In either case, the best of their fine art would be considered the work of somewhat talented amateur hobbyists by anyone who is a trained fine artist or art critic. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is wonderful for anyone to pursue the visual arts – what I object to is when famous people who are art hacks gain renown for mediocre work simply because of their celebrity status. The purpose of this article is to shed light on a few special celebrities who have not been heralded as much for their visual art, but in my opinion, deserve to be. Viggo Mortensen This strikingly handsome actor who made many hearts melt as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is quite the Renaissance man. In 2002, Viggo Mortensen founded the Perceval Press to publish the works of little-known artists and authors. In addition to being a talented actor, Mortensen is a gifted photographer, painter, jazz musician, and poet. As far as I can ascertain, he is self-trained in the fine arts. This site has a lovely description of his visual art talents.
I rarely write travelogue pieces, but a September 2014 2-day trip to John Water’s hometown of Baltimore warrants this for the oddities and wonders encountered. My daughter and I took a BoltBus from NYC to Baltimore in mid-September, heading to the Natural Products Expo East. It was with a little trepidation that I booked the bus trip – the reviews on Bolt, Peter Pan, Greyhound, and Megabus leave you wishing you had a fast Porsche instead. In retrospect, glad we didn’t take a Megabus – quite a few accidents in the last months. Hopping in a cab near my daughter’s West Village apartment, we got snarled up in Chelsea traffic along 10th Avenue. We finally made it to the rather odd location for our journey – 33rd Street between 11 and 12th Avenues. The bus trip there was not half as bad as some of the Yelp reviews, but nevertheless, I found myself wondering how the heck anyone over 5” 3” could possibly fit his or her legs into this cramped space. We mainly listened to our iPods and I found myself fascinated looking straight into the faces of truck drivers who were at my eye level for the first time, trying to snap photos of them at the right moment. The highlight was crossing the pretty Delaware River, as I summoned images of George Washington doing so in 1776, or to be more accurate, the painting by Emauel Leutze depicting this valiant event.
Sometimes the oddest random encounter leads to sleuthing. In this case, a visit to the Salvation Army Family Store in Mundelein led to my interest in an artist known as Countess Zichy, as well as the NYC-based publisher Edward Gross that printed reproductions of many of her paintings. Erzsebet Podvinecz, often went by the name Maria, but painted under the name Countess Maria Zichy after she emigrated to the U.S. Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Maria Podvinecz was born in Budapest, Hungary on June 29, 1893 to Daniel Podvinecz and Hermina Racz (Rosenberg). Daniel Podvinecz was somewhat famous in his own right, an industrialist who built motors and motorcars. In 1901, at the tender age of 25, Daniel and his 24-year-old partner Vilmos Heisler, started assembling Austrian Leesdorfer cars. Their work is acknowledged as important in the creation of MÁG (later known as Magomobil – Hungarian General Machine Factory Corp.), the most important Hungarian vehicle manufacturer before World War II, based in Budapest.
Twenty-eight years before the great female photographer Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17, 1898, a pioneering documentary photographer named Jessie Tarbox Beals was born on December 23, 1870 in Hamilton, Ontario. While Abbott has long been a favorite of mine along with the wonderful female photographers Helen Levitt (1913-2009) and Ruth Orkin (1921-1985), Beals was not on my list until recently. I readily admit this oversight with remorse and humility and she is now the subject of my devotion and fascination. While the aforementioned photographers may have possessed greater cache in the art world during their lifetime and post-death, and perhaps more bravura technique, Beals overcame more insurmountable odds due to her place in time. All three of these photographers are synonymous with capturing New York City life … and all of them surely had to encounter the challenges and prejudice of working in a male-dominated field. Abbott was influenced greatly by the French photographer Eugene Atget, whose artistic goal was to document all of the architecture and street scenes of Paris before these cityscapes succumbed to modernization. She moved to NYC in 1918, but left for Europe in 1921 to study sculpture and painting in Berlin and Paris. It wasn’t until 1923, when Man Ray hired her as a darkroom assistant at his Parisian portrait studio that she realized photography was her calling. She returned to NYC in 1929, reportedly to find an American publisher for Atget’s photographs, and it dawned on her that she had to capture the city’s ephemeral landscape much as Atget had done in his beloved Paris. I cannot find any mention of this, but surely Abbott had to be aware of Beals’ work.
In general, I am not a huge fan of Western television shows with a few exceptions, but I have to say that Rawhide, which aired from 1959-1965, is notable for many reasons. First of all, it made a household name out of a young Clint Eastwood, who played Rowdy Yates. Second, many now famous actors/actresses got their starts as guest stars on the show, sometimes appearing in more than one episode. Third, during the seventh season, the opening sequence featured live action shots of the actors beings portrayed that transform into intriguing bronze sculptures. This is what really piqued my interest and inspired me to dig further and write an article about this unique Western television series. And that led to my fascination with Eric Fleming, who played Rowdy’s boss Gil Favor. A special thanks to Ellen Thorp for creating When Westerns Ruled and her in-depth and touching article on Fleming. Eric Fleming – Gil Favor Eric Fleming was born Edward Heddy Jr. on July 4, 1925 in Santa Paula, Calif. His dad was physically abusive towards him, and at the age of 9, there was a particularly sadistic episode in which his dad beat him so badly with the end of a belt buckle, that he was unable to get up for two days. When he recovered, the young Fleming reacted by holding a revolver to his dad’s head, trying to kill him. The gun misfired and Fleming ran away, hopping on a freight train. He ended up in gangs, committing thefts and petty crimes, until the age of 11, when he was badly injured in a gang fight and busted by the police. They were going to send him back to his dad, but when they saw the look of terror in his eyes, they sent him to live with his mom.
A few weeks ago, a young man from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) called me with a pitch about giving money to fund scholarships. He identified himself as a sophomore printmaking major and we had quite a nice chat. Unfortunately, I could not commit to giving anything to this worthy cause, due to my current financial circumstances. His call gave me the kick in the rear end to finally write this article – one that has been ruminating in the recesses of my brain for some time. In essence, I have come full circle since RISD and a brief explanation of how I got from there to here and back is required. I have exhibited my fine art over the years, but after a divorce in 1995, I found myself pretty much responsible for raising a then 7-year-old as a single mother. While I followed a career path in the non-profit sector that I did not anticipate, I discovered that it was indeed a good fit, in lieu of making a living from my fine art. This 18-year ride took me from a communications department administrative assistant and managing editor of newsletters – to national media relations director – to director of communications at a prestigious international medical association.
My love of jewels, cabochons, beads, gemstones, rhinestones, vintage jewelry and other baubles goes way back to my early childhood. So it was with great anticipation and near glee, when I stumbled upon a terrific article heralding a wonderful hidden treasure trove of such things in NYC. The 17 Apart article prepared me to some degree, but when my friend Barb and I actually ventured into CJS Sales last month, we were dumbstruck. This was a dream come true for me – reminding me of my youth, but on a much grander scale. When my younger sister Janet and I were very little – probably 3 and 8 respectively, we had a secret stash of jewels in a little cardboard jigsaw puzzle box. We carried this beloved stash on outings, including when our mom traded in her massive light blue Chevy station wagon for a new car. Much to my dismay – Janet was really too young to panic – after we drove out in our new vehicle, I realized it had been left behind, hidden under the seat. Luckily, we were able to reclaim it and we had this box for at least another 5 years, adding to its content here and there.