I was 13 and at a friend’s house after school and Predident Kennedy had just been elected and his portrait was on the cover of a magazine.
It was cold and rainy outside and a good day to stay inside.
My friend’s older brother knew I liked to draw and handed me a piece of paper and the magazine and told me to “draw this.”
I spent a rather nervous hour or so hoping to impress him and when I was done he came in and looked at the drawing and proclaimed in a rather matter of fact voice, “Ricky is going to be an artist when he grows up….”
I was both surprised and pleased to hear him say this, because I was an insecure kid and not sure about a lot of things.
But at least that part of my life had been settled.
Decades passed and we all grew up. Well, he did, anyway.
I guess I had my first big success as an artist when Beavis and Butt-Head Comic Book came out in 1994. I was working for Marvel and living in New York City at that time but was back in Savannah visiting my parents and I happened to pass the pharmacy where I knew my friend’s brother was now employed. I decided to stop in and give him a copy of the comic book I had with me since he had been so nice to encourage my artistic endeavors 30 years earlier.
I hadn’t seen him in about 35 years at the time.
The lady behind the counter went into the back to get him where I imagine he had been counting pills and putting them into a little vial.
“Hi, Jerry….it’s me, Ricky Parker…you remember me, don’t you?
He stared at me momentarily with a slightly fearful, but vacant expression.
So I continued…..
“You encouraged me to be an artist when we were kids. I brought you a present.”
He reached out his hand took the comic book and looked at it with a rather preplexed expression. It was one of those awkward moments.
“Thanks, Ricky”, was all he said.
No one dared move or make a sound.
Into our bunks we had already shimmied, so as not to disturb them.
We would ease out the next morning, like puppies being born –and pull the blanket up tight and not remake them.
Flat on our backs in the darkness we lay, between white sheets, clutching our unopened candy bars and fruit pies, trying not to choke or drown in our own spit as our mouths watered from hunger.
Then one of our “Tac Officers” would regale us with some half-made-up story from his previous life as a civilian.
Sometimes, he would order one of us to tell a story.
I lived in fear that he might pick me, as I was positive that nothing in my life worth telling others about had happened yet.
As he began to intone his story, I could hear my contemporaries trying to slowly unwrap their candy bars or tear open the packages containing their cherry pies without making a sound.
I wondered why he couldn’t hear it.
I guess he was too wrapped up in what he was saying to notice.
Sometimes, if the Tac Officer was a smoker, all you could see in the blackness as you sunk your teeth into your Mounds Bar or bit the end off your Butterfinger was the orange tip of his cigarette moving past each cubicle, or quickly back and forth to his mouth as he took a drag between sentences.
And the last thing you heard after he had finished his story was the steady tromping of his combat boots down the middle of the floor you had just finished polishing.
A Safety Pin can be used for all sorts of things, like to pin a crisp twenty dollar bill inside the pocket of a boy’s white shirt, like my mother did for me the first time my parents ever put me on a train by myself in 1962.
I was headed to New York City from Savannah, Georgia and when I got to Penn Station I was supposed to take the subway “….over to Grand Central Station and continue on to Portchester in Westchester County”.
That folded up twenty my mother pinned in my pocket rubbed up against my chest in a most annoying way.
The next morning when the train arrived at Pennsylvania Station, this guy saw me standing there with a slightly-confused look on my fifteen-year-old face and came over to help.
“Where’re you goin’?” he wanted to know.
“Grand Central Station”, I proudly answered.
“Follow me,” he said, as he grabbed my one suitcase and led me away.
I had to struggle to keep up as we dodged crowds coming toward us in the long white-tiled passageway, but I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty nice of him to have a subway token ready to put in the subway turnstile for me.
We took the “shuttle” over a couple of stops and then got off at The Grand Central Station Platform.
He put my suitcase down and just stood there looking at me.
“Uhm….what do I owe you….?? “, I asked.
“Pay me anything you want,” he said.
So I gave him the twenty.
If you are one of the lucky people who got to be friends with my friend from Brooklyn, then, like me, you are very sad to think that we will all have to go on living in this world without him.
Still a relatively young man, he lost his life last week to brain cancer.
I first met my friend over 30 years ago when he needed someone to letter his comic strip and he brought it over to my studio each week for years. Then sat down next to me while I worked and we talked about all kinds of things, but mostly about comics.
We had a lot in common.
We both loved Forest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, horror movies, Mad Magazine, EC Comics, independently-produced comics and wearing black clothes. And while I did it mostly so I wouldn’t have to think about what I was going to wear or worry about spilling ink on myself, I suspect he did it because he felt a strong connection to the newspaper cartoonists of old, like Winsor McCay, E.C.Segar, Frank King, and George Herriman, to name but a few. I have to admit– the man had style–and it wasn’t just in his art, though his art had plenty of style–it was also in the man himself.
And just like a story with a happy ending, he fell in love and moved away from his home in New York with all his pens and brushes and went to live in California with his Ladylove and they were happy there for 25 years.
I went to visit him in his studio once about ten years ago when I attended the San Diego Comics Festival. As I sat there in his studio watching him scurry about gathering up his books and the things he would need at his booth, I thought to myself. “….I don’t think I have ever seen any artist who was happier than he is in his studio this afternoon”. Not only was he in love, but he had created his own original characters and he could be his OWN cartoonist in San Diego and all his cartoonist friends would come out to California every year to see him–!
And while they were visiting him, they could also check out the show.
As I helped him carry his books and things down the street to the convention center, I was genuinely happy for him. “What a big change from the old days in New York”, I said.
And we both laughed.
And then suddenly I realized that I was happy, too, for he had that effect on people.
And he was inspiring to others. He didn’t just “talk the talk“, he “walked the walk“.
And he showed us the way. He knew what he wanted and he worked hard to make his dream into his reality.
For that reason and many others too painful to recall, I have decided that from THIS DAY ONWARD–, for as long as I can hold a pen in my hand, that right next to my drawing board where I can see it EVERY day, I am going to have that drawing I did of my old friend right by my side.
This time, he’ll be hanging out in MY studio –with ME!
He’ll be the first one I see every morning when I sit down to work and the last one I see late at night when I turn out the light. He will be the first to see any artwork I do. He’ll have no choice but to watch me doing it!
I might even ask him what he thinks of it! He was always honest and had a suggestion to make it better.
And maybe this time, I will actually listen to him.
Forty years ago, I used to exhibit my three-dimensional artwork or “assemblage*” in the front window of my storefront studio in Soho inside an old wooden milk crate I had painted white. (*In fine art, a sculptural technique of organizing or composing into a unified whole a group of unrelated and often fragmentary or discarded objects.)
One day I found a pair of discarded mannequin legs in the trash. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with them at first.
A day or two later, I put a pair of my old lace-up Brogans® on them and took them back to where I had found them to photograph them. I liked the resulting black and white photograph so much I framed it.
Soon afterward, I agreed to put on an art exhibit of my work in which I would open up my studio to the public for four consecutive weekends in the Spring. I moved all of the furniture and everything except for the piano to the back half of my studio. Then I got some lumber and sheetrock and built a wall dividing my studio in half. I hung twenty of my photographs along the East wall of the space. On the West wall, I hung eight or nine of my box sculptures.
Then I got the idea that I would cut a window (similar to the one in which I had been exhibiting my work in for years) at slightly below eye-level into the wall I had just built and construct a wooden box behind it. The box had two openings cut into its top which were the exact diameter of my lower legs at the point just below my knees.
On the other side of that wall I constructed a sort-of platform which enabled me to sit down and extend my own legs down into the empty box.
I then placed a pane of thick, clear glass in the opening I had made in the wall.
Next, I hung the framed photograph of the mannequin legs with my size 13 black Brogans® on them in close proximity to the window I had made.
On the morning of the show I shaved my legs from the knees down and dusted them with talcum powder in order to make them look more like the legs in the photograph. Then I put on the same old black Brogans that were on the mannequin legs. Just prior to my then-wife opening the storefront door to the public, I took up my position out of sight behind the wall and waited for those who wanted to see my art to enter.
A small crowd of people who had gathered outside came right in, dispersed somewhat and began slowly looking at my artwork arrayed on opposite walls. These artlovers were carefully looking at each piece and each photograph and they were working their way toward the back. When they reached the wall I had built, just for this show, they came upon the window with my legs in it and the adjacent framed photograph of the mannequin legs with my boots on them.
My intention was to try and get them to initially believe that the legs in the box were the same mannequin legs in the photograph.
I had also cut a small opening in the wall and placed a metal vent in front of it so that I could peer down and see their faces as they stood in front of the window with my legs in it.
Most viewers would stand and ponder the window display for a moment or so and look back and forth between my legs and the photograph.
When I observed them shift their gaze to the photograph, I would slightly change the position of my feet in the box.
Then I watched their faces to see if I could detect the shock of recognition.
If they appeared somewhat perplexed, I might flex my feet in my boots without altering their position, similar to the appearance of someone’s chest rising and falling as he deeply breathed-in air, paused for a moment and then exhaled.
At this point I had their total attention, a brief condition that was usually accompanied by a gasp of air– or a giggle, as they suddenly came to realize that there was an actual person behind the wall with his legs and feet slightly below their eye level. What would usually happen next, was that the viewer would casually move away and stand off to one side, quietly waiting to see what would happen to the next unsuspecting person who came along.
During the four hours each day I spent with my feet in the box, over a period of four consecutive weekends, we had over a thousand artlovers come in to look at my artwork.
To my dismay, no one ever wrote an article about it.
At least not that I am aware of.
After the show was over, but before the hair grew out on my legs again, I decided to invite the art dealer Barbara Toll to my studio. Several years before, she had been intrigued enough by my work to include me in a group show of emerging artists. She even exhibited one of my pieces in the front window of The Hundred Acres Gallery on West Broadway.
My then-wife, met her at the door and I watched from my platform as she walked around the empty room carefully contemplating each piece of my artwork. When she got to the box with my legs and feet in it, I froze. I watched her face and just as she seemed about to turn away, I flexed one of my feet.
I thought I detected the hint of a smile, though she neither gasped or giggled and spoke not a word.
After she left and the door was quietly closed behind her, I came down from my perch behind the wall for the very last time and asked my then-wife, “Did she say anything?”
“She said you have a great mind.” my then-wife told me.
I don’t know if that was true or not, but I would have liked to believe it.
In the ensuing decades since the events here related have transpired, I am still trying to sort that out.
I once did a piece in 1974 called “Hairbrush”.
I started with an old wooden brush that had been used in the lithography department at Pratt Institute for decades to brush the bubbles off plates that were etching in acid. All the hairs– or bristles had dissolved over time because of the acid and all that was left was this old brush with about a hundred now-empty holes it it where the bristles had been.
Even so, I thought it was a beautiful object, all weathered and worn almost like a piece of driftwood.
So I took it home– and in a day or two, I got the idea that I wanted to replace the hairs in the brush, so I wrote to everyone in my family who was still alive– and some of my really close friends (or people who had played an important role in my life up to that point). I told them what I was doing and asked them to send me a lock of their hair.
My plan was to implant the lock of their hair in the holes in the brush.
I was surprised that, without exception, every single person I wrote to replied–and with a nice little note.
Everytime an envelope came in the mail with a lock of hair in it, it went right into the brush. I also made a diagram of the brush so that I would know whose hair was whom’s.
As the brush started to come back to life in a new form, it was nice to see the lock of grey hair from the old lady next door who was so kind to me when I was a child next to a lock of brown hair from an old girlfriend.
When I had implanted all the locks from all the people who had been important to me up to that point I still had plenty of holes leftover. Those holes could then be occupied by people I was yet to meet who would play important roles in my life.
I was happy. I was pleased that so many people were willing to collaborate with me in the creative process.
Next, I built a tall slender box out of some scrap wood I found laying around. I cut grooves in the wood so that I could slide a pane of glass there. I made two doors and added them using tiny brass hinges, so that the box could be open for viewing, or closed at night.
Years passed, my life went on and my creativity evolved into other forms of personal expression.
The box was taken down from its place on the wall at some point because someone close to me said it was “creepy” and put away out of sight. That person was not asked for a contribution.
Life went on and so did the box with the Hairbrush inside.
It went with me, along with all my many other belongings, as I moved from place to place in New York and as my fortunes rose and fell –and rose again.
A few years ago when we were packing up and moving to Maine, I came across that old artwork in the basement of the house we lived in at the time. Unfortunately, insects, or maybe spiders–had gotten to the hairs and laid eggs on them or, worse– eaten some of them –and the whole thing was in rather sad shape.
It also hurt to unravel the piece of paper with all those names on it. So many of those people whose lives had crossed mine had themselves crossed on. All that remained of them was what was left in this box.
Although I never told anyone up until now, it had been my plan all along to instruct my next-of-kin (if I was lucky enough to have a next-of-kin) to use that brush to brush my ashes from the slab of marble covering the grave of my grandfather, whose grave I had visited so many times as a child and about whom, such kind words were spoken by those who had known him in life.
Even more years passed, and as an artist, I have discovered happier forms of personal expression.
But, still, I cannot bring myself to throw away what is left of that old brush.
The house my father was born in on September 10, 1905. The last of four children and the only boy.
His Aunt, “Maggie”, who can be seen here on the porch continued to live in Nicholls until she died on August 5, 1963.
We went to visit her often when I was a child.
We’d always arrive at night and there were bales of tobacco on the front porch, and a player piano in the front room. She let me play it the next morning.
There was a swing out front that my Dad’s grandfather, had died in in 1912. He had ridden with the 7th South Carolina Cavalry when he was 16.
And there was a well out back with a bucket and a rope and the water was cool and tasted good.
Aunt Maggie lived alone after her husband, Mr. Daley, died, and their son Clarence didn’t come home from the war. She grew vegetables and corn and raised chickens and even let me feed them once.
It was exhilirating to see them all run around after the shells from the beans she gave me to feed them just to keep me occupied while she and my father talked about old times up on the front porch.
When she called me in for lunch, I was shocked when I saw the bucket with the chicken’s severed feet in it bound with twine.
After lunch, I got sleepy and took a nap on that old swing in the front yard under the Elderberry Tree and later on, put three pennies and a nickel on the railroad track which ran in front of the house and on down past the old blackwater swimming hole. A nickel was a lot of money in those days.
I waited and waited.
The train came by after a while, just as Aunt Maggie said it would, and flattened those pennies and made them the size of a quarter. I must have walked up and down that track a dozen times that day.
But I never did find that nickel.
Abstract Expressionism had seemingly run its course and Pop Art was the new thing.
Artists like Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were all the rage.
When I was still in high school, and not being one of the “in crowd,” I spent a good deal of my free time in the library reading Artforum® and other magazines pertaining to fine art in the hope of ascertaining what my life might be like after I, myself, became an artist.
My teenage eyes looked hungrily at the pictures in the magazine of the paintings of dollar bills and Campbell’s soup cans and American Flags and “Monogram”, that piece Rauchenberg did, of the quilt attached to the canvas, generous amounts of oil paint splattered– or spilled onto it, the whole guarded by an actual stuffed goat with a rubber tire around its neck.
Or was the goat part of the artwork?
“That’s the kind of art I want to do”, I thought to myself, as I sat at the long wooden table, only occasionally glancing up if the librarian should happen to pass my way as she went about her bookly duties.
But several more painful, lonely, misunderstood, rejection-filled years would have to pass before I would finish high school and hopefully, go on to art school in order to properly prepare myself to become the big successful artist I always knew I was, somewhere down deep inside myself, in my heart of hearts,
It was a bright, clear- but-cold March morning almost fifty years ago, when a graduate student, Bryan____, whose meticulously-rendered abstract drawings on Bavarian limestone I had greatly admired, happened to walk past me in the painting studio at The University of Georgia. He stopped for a moment and looked at my large 8-foot long painting, “The Florida East Coast “, an orange and black train passing a deserted railroad crossing and then off-handedly commented that I, “probably would not be able to make a living as a painter” and that I would “probably have to teach in order to avoid starvation.”
This unsolicited revelation by someone whom I hardly knew, but nevertheless looked up to and respected– and whose work I had heard spoken of very highly, in hushed tones, by Charles Morgan, (the head of the printmaking department), caught me off-guard. In no way did it comport at all with how I envisioned my life would be in only a few short years, after I had graduated from the University with a degree in painting and drawing and moved with my few possessions to New York City to pursue my fame and fortune.
…..I imagined myself alone–and happy about it , in a big art studio with high ceilings and a huge skylight at one end of the room facing North, of course, because the light is always diffuse and steady from that direction and no distracting rays of sunlight dare play across my canvas masterpiece…..
…..From time to time, I would have visitors, my dealer would bring various rich art collectors by to see my latest works. But they would always call first…..
The idea of graduating from art school and then having to settle for some kind of teaching job was something that happened to other people, not to me. For if there was anything I had learned up to that point in my life, it was that I was not at all like other people.
Therefore, in my mind, I must surely be an artist. That was the only possible explanation. Someone apart from the rest. Someone who marches to the beat of his own drum.
So what if it’s a drum that only he can hear?
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had been listening to that drum all my life, and if not marching to the beat of it, at least following it along and trying hard not to fall too far behind.
But just to be on the safe side, I thought I had better follow Bryan’s advice and go on to graduate school and major in something that you could actually teach–something, perhaps with a complicated technique involved.
You can’t teach someone how to make great art.
But technique can be taught.
Printmaking was very technical, while still allowing for a love of drawing.
And so it was, that I set my sights on a graduate school where I could devote myself wholeheartedly to the mastery of the highly-technical, mentally and physically demanding printmaking method known as lithography.
It was a compromise of sorts.
But I still got to be an artist.
And at least I wouldn’t starve.
And it was in New York City.
Several years later, after considerably more suffering and deprivation, I managed to complete graduate school and was set free in New York to pursue my dream. One of the first things I did was beseech my printmaking instructor, the great master printer, Deli Sacilotto, (who had been kind enough –or foolish enough to allow me to maintain the illusion that I was his assistant in the graduate lithography department), to recommend me to one or the other of several fine arts printmaking workshops that were then operating in New York City.
I applied at the first one and was not offered immediate work.
In a few days, or perhaps a week later, while living on a diet of cheap beer and Premium® saltines, I proceeded to the second one, which was located on the third or fourth floor of an old factory building on West 23rd Street.
It was known as the Bob Blackburn Workshop and Bob Blackburn, was the captain of that ship. Lithography is a difficult, demanding and unforgiving medium and Bob Blackburn had all of those same attributes. But he did offer me immediate employment and paid $10 an hour, which, while not being a princely sum, was almost three times what I had been making at my part-time job, standing at an electric grinding wheel, removing and smoothing-out the rough casting from solid brass and copper plumbing hardware for an avant-garde furniture designer to the roar of truck tires underneath The Brooklyn Bridge.
At The Bob Blackburn Workshop, the very first artist with whom I was assigned to work was the prominent New York sculptor Calvin Albert. Apparently, Mr. Albert’s dealer on 57th Street had suggested that he produce a small edition of lithographs to satisfy a demand for his artwork by collectors who presumably did not want to spend tens of thousands of dollars for one of his three-dimensional artworks.
Upon being introduced to me by Mr. Blackburn, Mr. Albert, (though it was not apparent to Mr. Blackburn), appeared at least as unhappy to see me as I was to see him.
Unfortunately, only a year or so before, when I was a student in Mr. Albert’s Introduction to Sculpture class at Pratt Institute, I did not miss a single chance to raise my hand to take issue with practically everything he said during his lectures.
Looking back on it now, why couldn’t I have just kept my mouth shut and let Mr. Albert expound upon his beliefs about art without interruption?
I don’t know why, but for some reason I couldn’t control myself. To make matters worse, it sounded as if I really knew what I was saying and I had the feeling that one or two of my fellow students were beginning to fall under my spell.
Suffice it to say, that after a couple of weeks of this, Mr. Albert spoke to me privately after class one day and told me in his rather deep voice,
“Don’t come back.”
Never meaning to be disrespectful, and being quite spontaneous, I did as I was instructed—and received an incomplete for the class.
The very next time I saw Mr. Albert, it became my lot in life to help him produce an edition of his prints. We somehow managed to complete the task, owing in part to his early arrival and completion of the original drawing and then departing soon after giving it to me with the instruction that he needed a hundred of them. I guess he didn’t care to stay and let me show him how it was done.
It was somewhere around number thirty-seven of one hundred that I discovered that I had no desire to be the obstetrician who brings art into the world that he does not like–even if it was someone else’s and even if he was being paid to do so.
And I did not care to be on my feet, for six or eight hours at a stretch, my body in continuous motion producing work I disliked and for which I had no respect. It was quite enough that there exists a delicate balance which must be maintained between the stone, the ink and the water which makes lithography one of the more difficult processes in printmaking.
So in about seven or eight hours, I finished the job and dragged myself back home to Brooklyn.
After a few days, and in desperate need of money, I summoned the courage to call up Bob Blackburn and ask him to pay me for the work I had done.
He asked me, “Where are you calling from?”
I told him “….from a phone booth just around the corner”.
“Wait right there”, he said.
In a few minutes, Bob Blackburn appeared, and one look through the thick glass lenses of his round black glasses and something told me this was not going to turn out well.
I quickly gathered that he was not happy with me and that he was not going to pay me.
And that I was not welcome to come back to his print shop.
And that, my friends, is how I became a cab driver in New York City.