Not many people who are aware of Jean Shepherd in the media know of the importance to him of drawing, his mostly private avocation. (Shepherd seemed to do many of his known drawings circa 1960 although some are dated as late as 1962. When I visited the apartment Shep had shared with his third wife, actress Lois Nettleton, several mid-size painting of Shepherd’s were pointed out. They were neat, well-organized abstractions, but, for me, not distinctive or innovative.)
After many years during which the pen and ink drawings of Jean Shepherd had only been known through an occasional reproduction in the Village Voice, some sketched tableware reproduced on the back of a fast food restaurant paper place mat, and two of his own books of stories and articles, more artwork recently appeared. The new and unpublished materials offered on ebay from the estate of Lois Nettleton were snapped up by Shepherd’s fans. These drawings, mostly black ink on white paper, only a few with a touch of color, now permit a better appreciation of this part of a creator’s wide-ranging interests.
Shepherd prided himself on his close observation of all sorts of major and minor details (which he called “straws in the wind,” or “cracks in the sidewalk”), referring to their significance as often overlooked indicators of worthy concern. This interest in observed details led him to explore and express in many media, anything and everything that came to his attention. Shepherd said that, although people in the mass media denied that one could be competent in more than one creative field, in his many activities he proved them wrong. As his friend, Helen Gee, founder of the Limelight Café and photo gallery put it, “The amazing thing about Jean is that whatever he decided to do he did rather well….He decided to draw and he drew very well….He wanted to become an artist. An artiste.”
An early drawing of the Limelight from Helen Gee’s estate
(from before Shep had broadcast there).
John Erdman, of Gee’s estate, sent me a copy of this.
When I asked about Shep’s drawings on napkins that she told me she had,
he said that they had been thrown out.
(Thank you, Jim Clavin, for this copy)
On a radio broadcast, describing his adventures in headhunter country of the Peruvian Amazon, Shepherd commented with an idea relevant to his skills as an observer: “I was there. I am a trained reporter. Those of you who listen to me know that. My life has been devoted to absorbing sights and sounds and listening….I’m appearing as an artist who has seen something and would like to transmit his impressions to you.” Yes, the self-description, referring to his radio talk, applied as well to his other mass-media creations and also to his lesser-known work as a visual artist with pen and ink.
In his The Natural Way to Draw, Kimon Nicolaides begins the introduction to this important book of drawing exercises on how to observe and how to express what one sees in visual media, with a statement as appropriate to Shepherd’s spoken words as to his pen on paper: “The impulse to draw is as natural as the impulse to talk.”
[In the next part, see more drawings. Many additional ones can be seen on www.flicklives.com under “Achievements/Line Drawings.”]
END PART 1
(15) Emotion Outranks Technique Part 2
I discovered John Marin’s work in the 1970s. In the early-to-mid-20th century, he was voted the top living American artist by his peers. He had been one of the Alfred Stieglitz circle, but not as celebrated as Georgia O’Keeffe and some other modernists, in part because he had mostly worked in watercolor. I believe that what most attracted me to his work was the strikingly improvised effect he got, fusing an empathic fervor with a stylized but accurate sense of place—of a real scene in front of him. I visited Maine one summer vacation because that is where he had usually painted in the years before his death in 1953. I visited his home there. His son and his son’s wife invited me to view his work on their walls and in their files. (Their hospitality gives another instance where my struggle to be adventuresome triumphed over my natural timidity.)
I found, at the time, that if I were lucky, I could probably afford a small original Marin at auction. (Prices for his work were not too high yet.) A major New York auction house had one for sale and I asked to see it out of its frame, especially because the dusty glazing somewhat obscured it. The process of removing it by their person caused the frame to come apart, so that, after I’d looked at it, it was placed in its unstable frame horizontally in a glass exhibit cabinet where it could not be adequately viewed. I’d seen it well. I bid and won. I had it re-matted and re-framed as close as I could to the original. It’s been in my view daily for decades. (I saved the old backing—it has what I identify as Alfred Stieglitz’s signature.)
Me and my Marin
Photo by Allison M. Bergmann
Though the painting is smaller than his major watercolors and not a great masterpiece, it’s an early and decent example of his mature style and I revere it. A few years after buying the painting, I saw at auction a low-priced and unsigned (except in the plate) Marin etching I liked and bought it. What I didn’t realize until much later is that the watercolor and etching both have the same dynamic composition of a strong arrow-shape wide at the right, pointing diagonally upward toward the far left. Also, now I can’t look at the etching’s cloud formation without thinking that it also points upward to the left in a shape much like a penis and testicles.
Browsing through a box-full of small publications at The Strand bookstore on Broadway and 12th, I encountered a slim monograph of an English artist I did not know of, Ivan Hitchens. The cover reproduction (shown below) struck me powerfully. It was a landscape scene of a waterfall and pond in oil that, though different from Marin’s work, struck me because of the strikingly improvised effect he got, fusing an empathic fervor with a stylized but accurate sense of place—of a real scene in front of him. I have a framed reproduction of the cover image in my study and several catalogs and a major monograph of his work, but I’ve hardly ever seen an original.