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In 1983 WGBH Boston did a series of seven “Bumpers” with Shepherd to fill time at the end of Masterpiece Theatre. They dealt with early movie subjects including Harold Lloyd, D. W. Griffith, and special effects.
Jean Shepherd at the Movies
Photo: Dan Beach
“Norman Rockwell: An American Portrait,” Produced by PBS in 1987, is similar to those videos on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Babe Ruth, in which Shepherd participated with his intermittent commentary along with about a dozen others. Judging from his enthusiastic comments, he seems familiar with Rockwell’s work over the decades. Much of the program deals with a sense of nostalgia regarding Rockwell’s illustrations, but other interviewees as well as Shepherd point to the keen eye and mind that could depict so much of the everyday experiences of ordinary folk. Shepherd contrasts Rockwell’s two different kinds of depiction of service men in World War II. He mentions the “entertainments” that most people remember of the GI “looking cute and wearing a little fatigue hat and that kind of stuff.” Shepherd continues with what would very much be in accord with his own realistic eye, that “Then he painted the other war. Most people don’t remember that. In fact, his painting of the machine gunner is one of the great paintings ever done of a combat soldier at work.”
As he so often did, here Shepherd alerts us to an easily overlooked significant aspect of a subject at hand. He has expanded our perception—we can’t always respond to Rockwell with the same dismissive back-of-the-hand we once did.
For the 1998 HBO television documentary, “Babe Ruth—The Life Behind the Legend,” nearly two dozen people, including Shepherd, spoke about Ruth. Shepherd, then 77, looks old and grizzled, as he does in the Thanksgiving and Christmas short interviews done at about the same time. He gives nearly a dozen short comments, including one about the widely believed, but apparently not-quite-true story, of Ruth pointing to the centerfield bleachers and then hitting a home run ball there: “It’s a harmless little myth. Hell, a lot of people believe in Santa Claus. Nothing wrong with it.” To the end, Shepherd remained fond of some forms of probable unreality.
SOAP STORY VIGNETTE
A rather surprising news article appeared in 1961 (the year the program was cancelled) stating that Shepherd would portray a TV producer in the daytime soap, From These Roots, but we don’t know if it really happened. Shepherd in a soap?! Any old soap opera fans out there?
Thanks to Jim Clavin’s http://www.flicklives.com for many of the above details.
(13) CHALK DRAWINGS
The combination of visuals–with or without words–used to create meaning has been an important part of my life–such as my exhibit design career and my interest in artists books.
Two artists I’m interested in drew with chalk on black surfaces. They assumed that these works would have a very temporary life. One used colored chalks to illustrate complex, philosophical, mystical, concepts on blackboards. (“Chalk-talks,” they might have been described, but that is too superficial-sounding for the kind of stuff I describe here.) The results were erased, the black slate made ready for the next lecture. One used white chalk on the temporary black paper pasted by subway employees charged with keeping the large poster ads current on station walls.
I read a review and visited an exhibit of Rudolph Steiners’ blackboard drawings.
Steiner (1861-1925) had multiple interests including mathematics, physics, chemistry, literature, philosophy, and his modern, all-inclusive theory of education. (His American grammar school, Rudolph Steiner School, is at 15 East 79th Street, Manhattan.) In his lectures to adults, he drew colored chalk drawings of his philosophical theories on a blackboard. He’d erase the drawings at the end of his talks–until his colleague, Emma Stolle, in 1919, began covering the board with black paper, which he then drew on. She dated and saved the results. These are now in a permanent archive.
The essay by Lawrence Rinder, editor of the book accompanying the exhibition of Steiner’s drawings, begins:
A German museum director recently remarked that if Rudolph Steiner’s blackboard drawings do not fit within any current definition of art, then a definition must be devised to include them. Such theoretical gymnastics attest to the evocative and singular quality of Steiner’s pedagogical drawings, produced during his lectures on “spiritual science,” art, medicine, agriculture, economics, and other subjects.
What do these pedagogical drawings “mean”? Even studying the short lecture comments by Steiner included with many illustrations in the catalog I have, do not reveal meaning to me. To come close, probably one had to be enwrapped in Steiner’s talk as he simultaneously expressed his ideas with chalk on black.
Regarding a drawing, his comment (June 11, 1924), repeated on the back of the catalog:
The characteristic feature of everything on Earth is that
the spiritual always needs a spiritual bearer.
The meaning, the mystical essence of these images, is an enigma to me, though I’m entranced by the mind that fused ideas and feelings so captivatingly.
In the 1980s, before having seen the Steiner drawings, as my uptown Lexington Avenue Express subway train sped along, I saw simple white-chalk line drawings-on-black on station walls. (On the spaces meant for large poster ads, the plain black is pasted over old ads or other not-in-use spaces.) One day I got off at a local stop just to look at the drawings up close at my own pace. I was fascinated by the purity of image, the ultimate simplicity of iconic dog and baby with their cartoon lines of bark and glow. Whatever the “meaning” was, it was blatantly straightforward and in-your-public-face—not mystical. I appreciated how the artist could start without pre-drawn sketch and fill a panel so elegantly composed (shall I say “visually fulfilling”?). Part of the then-current graffiti world, these drawings were temporary–easily smudged and covered over, and only appeared where one expected visual info on stations.
Eventually I found that the artist, Keith Haring, was making a name for himself in the art world, but it was too late to find his art for free and rip it off the subway’s poster walls for my private delectation.
I went to a gallery opening of his work in the Village. I bought the catalog. I saw him standing by himself, went up to him, catalog in hand, and asked if he would sign it. He expressed pleasure that I’d bought it and said, “I might as well draw a picture in it.”
Original Haring felt-tip drawing in my catalog.
Haring’s work expanded into complex compositions and into other venues such as large painted murals in spaces such as children’s playgrounds, and a sculpture at what was then named Schneider’s Children’s Hospital, where Allison and I encountered it when we took our older son for treatment.
I saw his work in museums and in magazines. He no longer had to escape from transit cops on subway platforms. He was famous and got his name in the papers–where I eventually read that he had died of AIDS.
Steiner made rarified works and began a theoretical educational system still in use; Haring worked publicly—in the subways–and had widely admired art gallery and museum shows. The Steiner and Haring chalk drawings are wildly different in meaning, character, and intent. Both approaches are valued. Their works survive.