My name is Jerry Vegder and I hate being photographed. In fact, I am almost pathological about it. In the past when people have asked if they could take my picture I tell them I would rather that they not. The insistent ones would ask “Why?” to which I would tell them that, to be honest, the FBI is looking for me. Of course, they are not. To make this absolutely clear – the FBI is NOT looking for me. Nor is anyone else as far as I can tell. I just don’t like being photographed. Okay?
And yet… there are exceptions. A very few. One is shown below, but first a little background. A few years after I moved to Port Townsend from Missouri in late 2001 my best friend brought his kids up here. His daughter was 14 and his son 9. As a surprise I organized an egg fight in the woods nearby. I invited a small group of locals to join in. A couple of parents and their children and a couple in their early twenties. I supplied a huge number of eggs. It was a blast. Because of knee problems I couldn’t run and made for a very big target. If someone threw an egg at me, but missed I would taunt them with “You throw like a Vegder!” That was clearly worse than throwing like a girl. Most girls can throw a hell-of-a-lot better than any Vegder I know.
By the end of the fight I was thoroughly coated in raw eggs. Head to toe. Bleeding too, but it was well worth it. Three of us were bleeding but none of us cared. We were all laughing – me uncontrollably (for hours). Now to the photo. One fellow had not had a chance to get me and had held back a couple of eggs just for that purpose. So… I said “Let me have it!” and he did – at close range. What a sport I am.
What in the hell kind of name is Vegder? Two myths –
My father was born in Montreal, Canada supposedly on December 21, 1909 or 1911. I don’t remember which. He was a preemie and not expected to live more than a few months at most. His mother wanted to be with her mother in Missouri when her first child died so my grandparents grabbed what they could and crossed the border from Windsor, Ontario to Detroit. The American immigration agent asked my grandfather his name. He said “My name is Sam V*^#er.” The agent wrote V-E-G-D-E-R. That is the first myth. No one knows what the name was originally and my grandfather was more taciturn than Tacitus. So… Vegder it was and Vegder it is.
The second myth: Somewhere in Scandinavia there was a mythical kingdom of Svea and its monarch was Svegder. How do I know this? Well, I wouldn’t except there is a mediocre pen and ink drawing by a mediocre artist by the name of Ernst Josephson (1851 – 1906).
Based on that drawing I like to lay claim to descent from mythical kings instead of my blood relatives. Besides, from what I have known of other Vegders in my life they inherited all of the dominant genes and I am the only one who inherited the recessive ones. As a result the mythical kings hypothesis is much more appealing to me.
Two more bits of S’vegder superfluity: Gershwin wrote S’wonderful, s’marvellous… He didn’t say a thing about Svegder. But sticking with that Scandinavian connection I once ran across a rather odd bit of information. A woman died on January 22, 1919 at the age of 63. She is buried in a cemetery in Blaine, Washington – not terribly far from here. Her name was Vegder Johnson. I am sure that she and I are totally unrelated. Sure of it.
There are two other Vegder related oddities. Once I started surfing the Internet I ran across a Belgian folk dance troupe that perform the Vegder diddeldöppcher. At least, I think they are Belgian and I think they are folk dancers and… Oh, hell, I don’t really know anything about them and God knows I haven’t a clue what a diddeldöppcher is. Do you know? Enlighten me, please.
The last point is that almost no one gets my last name right. About 98% of all individuals say Vedger – dee before gee. About 1% say Vegner. A smaller group say Vegler. Try living in my shoes for a while. I answer to almost anything. It is easier that way.
I was born in St. Joseph, Missouri – the same place where Jesse James was shot to death. Coincidence?
Jesse and I never met, but we both have that great St. Joe connection. I did have a great-uncle David who everyone called Doc and when he was 11 years old he was in school on April 3, 1882, the day when Jesse was shot. As the story goes his principal came into the classroom and told the teacher that the children could not be let out at recess because there had been a shooting nearby. Family myth? or the true story? Who cares. It’s still cool.
St. Joe was also the home of the Pony Express and Walter Cronkite’s grandparents.
Back to my uncle Doc: When he was a young man he married a woman who was the same age as he, but who had been born in Chicago. Her name was Nancy and the story around her was this: One evening she was in her crib and her parents heard her crying so they went in to see what the problem was. The crib was by the window and it was on fire. This was the great Chicago fire from early October 1871. They grabbed their baby and saved themselves. I never met her. Nancy was dead long before I was born, but still… Another great story. Below is a photo of Chicago right after the city went up in smoke.
My childhood – it was dreadful! Don’t ask! Charles Dickens would have had trouble doing it justice. Just compare it to the ruins of the photo seen above. (This is a metaphor, damnit. I am not being literal.)
So what do you want to do when you grow up little boy? – When I was about 4 or 5 years old one of my aunts gave me a child’s book on archeology. From the start it grabbed me completely. One of the first illustrations was of a ziggurat in ancient Ur, Abraham’s home town. I think that image obsessed me as much as the image of the Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters… obsessed the character played by Richard Dreyfus. It was always on my mind. Below is a model of a Sumerian ziggurat posted at commons.wikimedia. Below that is a photo of the Devil’s Tower originally posted at Flickr by Tim Pearce.
While I never made it to Ur I did get to the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. It isn’t far from the Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore and Sturgis. If you haven’t been there it is worth a trip.
But back to archeology: Maybe I was born too early because if I had been born a few decades later I could have joined the all volunteer American army and invaded Iraq. That could have brought me into a close encounter of the first kind with what remains of the ziggurat at Ur. The first image shown below shows a group of soldiers standing atop the ruins of that structure. It, too, was posted at commons.wikimedia, but this one was put there by Hardnfast. The one below that posted at the same site is more of a close up of some of our troops making the visit. Sigh! If only life had turned out differently.
Cowboy? or Indian? – But then again, maybe, the first thing I really ever wanted to be was a cowboy or an Indian. Looking back at it now I am sure I had an emotional preference for playing the Indian role. While looking for a images I could post here I found one of an Indian, a Kiowa or a Comanche, photographed as a cowboy. Now in type that would seem to be the ideal marriage of the two, but visually it just doesn’t work for me. What do you think?
I think it is about time I bare my soul – or some of it -I was 12 years old before I could tie my shoes. Of course, there are reasons for this – loafers, for example – but that’s not really an excuse is it? Recently I was switching TV channels and heard someone on a sitcom say something like: “For God’s sake, he couldn’t tie his own shoes until he was twelve!” What? Where did they get that. Should I be paranoid? Naw. Should I sue? Naw. The laugh track let loose. The ‘audience’ loved it. Besides what is so bad about being twelve before I could master what most kids accomplished by the time they were four or five. In the cosmic scheme of things 7 or 8 years is not such a long time. It is barely a blip. Right? Then the other day I read that Paul Erdős, pronounced Air-dish, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, couldn’t tie his shoes until he was 11. That is only 1 year sooner than I could. But don’t get me wrong, that is the only comparison I am making with that great man. Something we almost share in common.
It turns out that I share something else in common with another famous 20th century mathematician, something which should be too embarrassing to discuss, but what the hell it’s too late now. Besides, I have already gone there. “If there was a Hall of Fame for eccentrics, Hardy and Erdős would be among the first inductees.” G. H. Hardy (1877-1947) “…the father of modern analytic number theory…. could not stand to have his photograph taken or look at himself in the mirror, going so far as to shave by touch. When he checked into a hotel, the first thing he did was to cover the mirrors with towels. He thought he had the face of a gargoyle, but in fact he was boyishly handsome, even in his fifties.” [This is quoted from The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman. This book is mostly about Erdős. I'll get back to him later.] I shave by touch. I don’t cover mirrors, but I do try to avoid them. And… why defame gargoyles? One of my favorite images is of a gargoyle. It is by Meryon (1821-68). I should look so good – especially in profile.
What I don’t share with Hardy and Erdős is their genius. What I do share are quite a few of their eccentricities. How close are we genetically to monkeys? A question which keeps popping up – at least in my case.
I once saw my profile in one of those dressing mirrors that actors use with the two side mirrors showing other angles. It was horrifying. Worse than looking like a gargoyle. I looked like Akhenaten or Edith Sitwell (1887-1964). Below is a Cecil Beaton photo of Sitwell from 1962 and a side view of Akhenaten’s skull from the 14th century B.C. It has been suggested that the pharoah’s odd appearance may have been due to Marfan’s syndrome. Look it up. Sitwell, on the other hand, has no such excuse.
Now let’s dig a little deeper – I am also challenged by zippers, buttons, silverware, door knobs, stick shifts and velcro – and historically by bra hooks. And don’t get me started when it comes to hammers and nails and power tools – shudder. This is why there is a degree of truth in one of my little jokes: How many Vegders does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: We will never know.
This image was posted at commons.wikimedia by KMJ.
My education – Don’t ask! At least not about the early years. I could read and I could cipher at a very early age better than Jethro could in The Beverly Hillbillies. Speaking of Jethro – Baer v. Vegder: The fellow who played Jethro was Max Baer, Jr. His father had been the Heavyweight Champion of the World. When I was very young my family went to Miami for a vacation. But I’ll tell you about that later. For now let’s go to the world of boxing as it existed some years before I was even born.
In 1933 the Nazis were championing Max Schmeling when he came to the U.S. to fight Max Baer who said his own father was Jewish and his mother Scotch-Irish, as if that matters here. David Margolick (who says Baer wasn’t Jewish – there seems to be some dispute about that*) has noted that “Baer was a furious puncher who had beaten one rival to death and very nearly killed another.” On June 25, 1933 60,000 fans paid a dollar each to fill Yankee Stadium to watch the fight. Baer showed up with a Star of David on his trunks. It went ten rounds and was brutal for Schmeling. Baer had him against the ropes at the end when the referee jumped in to stop it. It was a massacree! Just like my childhood.
Max Schmeling in his prime. Posted at commons.wikimedia.org
Max Baer in a photo taken by Stephania Puchlik in 1935. Look at the puss on that mug. This too was posted at commons.wikimedia.org by Maxies Gal.
*Margolick says that Baer was ‘strategically Jewish‘ for the sake of marketing. He even repeats the claim that Baer’s father was a pig farmer in California and that the trainer, Ray Arcel, had seen Baer in the shower and had first hand knowledge of the fact that he definitely wasn’t Jewish. Nat Fleisher said: “Hitler is more of a Jew than Baer.” Dan Parker said that when Baer left California for New York he was 50% Jewish. By the time he got there he was 100%. If he had continued on to Europe he would have been 350% by the time he got there.
Now back to my parent’s vacation in Florida when I was a kid: We were dining in an almost empty motel/hotel restaurant when my father recognized Max Baer, Sr. eating alone at another table. He went over to invite the champ to join us, but he declined. What he did do was come over to say hello to my family. While he was talking to my mother, father and sister he kept rubbing the top of my head and kept saying something like “What a fine boy you have here.” Before he left us he leaned down and motioned to me to get closer. I thought he was going to whisper something in my ear, but noooooooooo…… I never saw it coming – Part One! He kissed me hard, smack on my lips, and I have never been the same since. Just thought you should know. One last point: It wasn’t anything like you might be thinking – or at least I want to believe it wasn’t. This man was totally punch-drunk by the time he kissed me and who knows what was going through his head if anything.) However, in looking back at it now in the match-up of Kid Vegder v. Baer, Baer definitely won! It wasn’t fair. I wasn’t anywhere near his weight division and besides it was a sucker smack, not punch. I never saw it coming.
I never saw it coming – Part Two: I was musing the other day about some of the strangest events in my life none of which could have been anticipated or imagined. These ‘happenings’ can only be described as outside of the bounds of existentialism. What would Proust or Sartre have made of them?Sometime in the years following my too-close encounter with Max Baer I spent a year in Arizona at a prep school. It was coeducational and I got to ride a horse every day to fulfill the phys-ed requirements. There were lemon and orange trees everywhere and within easy reach on the way to classes. The water came from an underground aquifer and was cold and sweet to drink. The whole school was filled with little rich kids, many of them in the super-spoiled category, but also many of them who were just plain decent individuals. (Just for your information: My family was not rich. Far from it. Light years from it.)The lead in the school play that year was performed by Mike Reagan, the adopted son of Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman. Sue, a friend of mine, also had a major role and was a nervous wreck about her upcoming performance. I went into the assembly hall where the folding chairs had been neatly laid out in rows. At the front was a small, improvised stage meant to look like a courtroom. It was early and Sue was the only one there when I arrived and was sitting in the first seat of the first row, just to the right of the center aisle. I sat next to her in the second seat, trying to calm her nerves and reassure her by telling her things like “I am sure you will do great.” While we were talking the next three people came in and sat in the fourth, fifth and sixth seats in the row behind us. They were Nancy and Ronald Reagan and the man who owned and ran the school. Mrs. Reagan was the closest one to me.The evening’s program was printed out on a single sheet and had been placed on about every third seat. Nancy Reagan had one which she had placed on her knees, but it slipped off and, as single sheets will do on a concrete floor, slid away. My misfortune was that it slid behind me. Suddenly I felt a hard blow to the back of my head. When I turned around Mrs. Reagan pointed to the sheet and said “Pick that up!” No please, no excuse me…, no nothing. Just “Pick that up.” Instead of getting up herself she had swung her purse with a long strap and hit me to get my attention. I am sure I looked stunned. She repeated her command and by that time Ronnie and Mr. Wick were looking at me. They must have seen the purse go by when she swung it. Our future president smiled at me affably, leaned over his wife and in one clean gesture bent down and picked up the program and handed it to her. Since then I have never been the same. That was the first time I ‘met’ the Reagans. The other times don’t count by comparison.
I was able to find a photo in the public domain of Nancy Reagan holding a purse by its strap. This picture was taken about 18 years after that personal, earth-shattering event. The purse she hit me with had to have had a much longer strap, you know, probably one of those over-the-shoulder types. I was too stunned to tell.
This is a detail of a picture which is posted at commons.wikimedia.org.
Later – I went to UCLA for two years, graduated, and went back for another two years after that. Why UCLA? Well, supposedly – according to Playboy Magazine – it had the best dressed hippies in the country, they drove fancy cars, bathed frequently, had a male to female ratio of 1:1 and it was near the beach. Not to mention that it was a good school too. Boy was I lucky. Great football games and even greater basketball. One year I lived in a private dorm and one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends lived on my floor. On Valentine’s Day I got up to go out and when I opened my door I could hardly get to the elevator because of all of the large baskets filled with long-stemmed red roses. It was unreal! Did you ever see American Beauty and the rose petal scene? This was times better and that scene was great. Must have cost a fortune.
Below is a picture of Royce Hall. You might recognize it. It has been in plenty of movies, TV shows and ads.
My major? African history. Not Afro-American history. Not African art, but African history. In fact, I was working toward my doctorate in that field when I thought “What am I doing?” My thesis was to be “A Reconstruction of Proto-Bantu Religion”. Say what? You heard me. It would have been epic. It would have been earth shaking – that is, if anyone ever paid any attention to it.
Below is an image posted at commons.wikimedia by Roman Bonnefoy. It is a Bambara mask. The Bambara are not Bantus, but who cares but them and a few specialists. (I do sort of in an age when most American teenagers can’t identify Canada on a map of North America. Would anyone really expect them to know anything about the Bambara people? I wouldn’t. And, it isn’t just the teenagers either.)
Now, you are probably asking yourself: Why did he post an African mask here if he didn’t major in African art? Well, I’ll tell you. No matter who I met if they ever asked me what I had majored in and followed it up with another question or a comment it would always be about African art. People just don’t listen. Maybe it is because they don’t really care and weren’t going to listen anyway.
The Pope and I – It all started when I was about a year and a half old, maybe earlier. Down the street from where we lived in St. Joe was a Catholic family named Kelly. They had a lot of children of all ages and from what I have been told they roamed the neighborhood in packs. Whenever they would meet up with new children the first thing they would do is ask them what religion they were. If the kids weren’t Catholics the Kellys would damn them to Hell. Since they knew my family wasn’t Catholic and even though I was still a toddler, probably in diapers, they damned me too. Everyone in the neighborhood called them “Those Damn Kelly Kids“.
Fast forward nearly twenty years and my graduation from UCLA. My father wanted to ‘give’ me a car, but I wanted to go to Europe and told him to keep the new car. Luckily I spent the next four months traveling all over Europe with $550 in my pocket and a Eurail Pass. Everywhere I went I kept falling in love with different women. It started in Paris. I was standing looking down at Napoleon’s tomb – standing in the same spot Hitler had stood nearly thirty years before and feeling somehow strangely victorious – when I heard some girls with very Southern accents saying “I wonder who’s buried over there.” Naturally I offered my services and, little did I know it, this led to my eventual salvation.
This beautiful image was posted at commons.wikimedia by Thesupermat.
The girls were from South Carolina and were on a school tour of Europe. This was one of their free days so I spent a few hours with them showing them around. We had a blast. They gave me their itinerary and I followed them to Rome. They let me join their group and that is how I got to see the gardens at Tivoli. A couple of days later they brought me along for their scheduled semi-private audience with the Pope. (Semi-private here means about 2,000 people.) The Pope, Paul VI, was carried in on a golden throne. He blessed us in numerous languages – we left after he got to English – I wanted to stay, but the girls were impatient. Anyway, I figured after that that anything Those Damn Kelly Kids had said to me before I even knew what a religion was had been trumped by the Pope’s blessing.
I found this image of Pope Paul VI at commons.wikimedia. It had been posted there by Entheta.
Postscript: I moped around for a while after the girls left Rome. Then, a few days later, I met Sharon L. from St. Paul, Minnesota and was in love again. She was a genuine beauty – and sweet. I followed her and her female friend to Germany – with their permission, mind you. We were to take a boat trip down the Rhine together, but our signals got crossed and I ended up on a boat full of non-English speaking Japanese tourist with a German crew. I can’t swear to the exact number, but I bet I ended up in at least a thousand different photographs destined for Japanese albums. They seemed far more interested in taking my picture than in the castles which lined the hilltops. Note that in those days I wasn’t so photo-phobic. Besides, my pics were going to be in Japan and I didn’t know anyone there at the time. Did I mention all of the beer I drank that morning? No? Well, I did. My share and much of theirs, too.
The Mafia and la mia famiglia -Below are mug shots of Al Capone. I never met the guy, nor did any of my relatives as far as I know, but my immediate family was profoundly affected by mob activities as I explain below. It’s a amazing story. It certainly changed the course of my life – even to this day.
Around the time I left for UCLA my father left his employer and started his own business. He raised the money from friends and banks and knowing that I would never join him brought in a young man he knew and made him president of this new enterprise. They sold stereos, televisions and other electronic equipment. But, first you need to know more about my father. He liked everybody, everybody except his immediate family and the Japanese. He rarely said a bad word about anyone. He was the only person I have ever known who could be friends with both a Black Panther and a Klan member at the same time. He knew and liked many of the city’s Mafioso, but was also on first name terms with the local sheriff, FBI agents and tons of police. He liked everyone from murderers to saints and this made him particularly vulnerable to schemers and pleaders. More than anything he wanted to be liked.
While I was away at school things stared to go bad. My parents moved from a nondescript, ranch-style house in a middle to lower middle class neighborhood to a 4 floor condominium that looked out on a lake and woods. Their new home was beautiful, but things were happening which threatened their very existence. Around the time they moved a former neighbor, a sleezeball, scrap metal dealer turned state’s evidence against some gambling buddies who just happened to be member of the Mob. The Feds had bugged their conversations and our neighbor agreed to testify against them in exchange for immunity. He got it. His ‘friends’ went to prison. Shortly after that four hit men broke into our former neighbors house, brutalized him and his wife, raped her repeatedly and then put a pillow over the scrap dealers head and blew his brains out. That is part one.
Part two: My father’s business had been expanding rapidly. New stores were opened. Things looked good until the robberies began. Not the t ‘stick em up’ kind of robberies, but the kind where whole warehouses full of new equipment were being stolen. A shipment would come in and then suddenly disappear. The insurance companies would paid the first couple of times, but it kept happening. At the same time my father’s partner and his wife started taking trips to exotic and expensive vacation spots. She got a brand new, full length mink coat. He got a new set of pristine, top-of-the-line golf clubs. That was phase one. Phase two: A major robbery took place at the Air Express warehouse at old airport and the Feds tracked the merchandise down to one my father’s stores. They set up a sting and were busted. My father was oblivious to what was going on around him. He didn’t even know that an illegal bookie operation was being run out of one of his stores by a man, a small-time mobster, hired by my father’s partner.
(Note: The Feds knew that my father had nothing to do with any of these crimes. One of their agents even warned him about the upcoming bust and that his life might be in danger.)
A problem – a really big problem: The insurance companies would never have paid out any money if they had known that my father’s partner was the inside man. My father couldn’t turn his partner in or none of the money he had borrowed would ever get paid back to his friends or the bank. In fact, the insurance companies might have come after the money they had already been defrauded out of. A business which looked so promising was going down hard and fast. My parents were forced into bankruptcy and were about to lose everything. By this time I was in graduate school and felt like I needed a break anyway. So, I took a sabbatical. I moved back to Kansas City from Los Angeles, got a job, rented a room from my parents and tried to give them as much moral and financial support as I could. I didn’t like them, but I did feel sorry for them and no one else was going to help as far as I could tell.
For quite a while things were incredibly tense. Before they left their condo for a tiny, rent-subsidized apartment, my father started driving around with a gun in his car and he also kept one in the bedroom. He didn’t want to happen to him and my mother what had happened to our former neighbor and his wife. It didn’t. I went back for another year of graduate school. A few years later my father died in complete penury. My mother was sure that he had lost all of his friends when he lost his money. He hadn’t. The funeral was on a Tuesday morning and 1,200 people attended. Former mayors, prominent sports figures, garbage collectors, et al. He wanted to be liked and clearly he had succeeded. Too bad he couldn’t have been there to see it.
“I am no artist!” Sometime around the time I dropped out of graduate school I probably did a few too many drugs. Some of the experiences weren’t too bad and some were pretty good, but all in all it might have been better if I hadn’t ever done any drugs. One of the perceptual changes which did occur was I suddenly had a new found ability to draw (moderately) well. For years I joked that prior to that period I couldn’t even draw a decent stick figure, but afterwards I could. Below is a graphic example of this miraculous transformation. The evidence is indisputable.
One day my girlfriend and I went to the L. A. County Museum. That evening we went to a party at a friend’s apartment in Anaheim near Disneyland. I was telling the host about a great Picasso we had seen. He handed me some colored pencils and told me to show him what it looked like. Since I didn’t draw then I was reluctant, but he kept insisting. After I finished my girlfriend said it looked exactly like the original. The next day I took my drawing back to the museum and compared it and shock of shocks I got it right – right down the the colors and proportions. After that there was no stopping me. When invited to a Halloween party in Pacific Palisades I was too poor to buy a costume so I made one: I painted a tee-shirt with a copy of a Paul Klee on the front. Everyone wanted to know where I got it and wanted one like it for themselves. So, I started painting tee-shirts. At first they were simple designs but in time I copied everything from Van Gogh to Rembrandt and back. They sold – cheaply – like hot cakes. So, I thought maybe I should try to be an artist. However, as I said, I am no artist.
After I moved back to Kansas City I became obsessed with art. Of course, it didn’t help that I was unforgivably naive. At least, I didn’t know I was. Below are three images I tried my hand at. The pointillist image of the fisherman repairing his net is a detail from a considerably larger painting. Another pointillist experiment which I called “The Yellow Flower” was painted on the back of glass. At that point I didn’t know that anyone had ever painted on glass before me. Told you I was naive. The face was inspired from Gauguin’s Tahitian women.
Then I began to tackle more complex projects. A friend asked me if I could make something special for his parents’ anniversary. I spent 10 months and about 1,000 hours copying Botticelli’s painting of Minerva and the Centaur and then having a skirt attached so that it would lay flat as a tablecloth. While my friend’s parents were wealthy he was not and I charged him practically nothing. ($240.00 to be exact.) It wasn’t well received and his parents rolled it up and put it the closet – or the trash. It really didn’t matter which at the time. I gave up on art and haven’t done a thing since. That was several presidents ago. Actually quite a few. Below is a picture of him and me holding the tablecloth up. The color of the photo is terribly faded and misses the mark enormously but perhaps you will get the idea. The skirt was a soft yellow color. In the photo it is basically whitish. Next to that is the image I had worked from. The yellow dots over the picture were the only lines I used to try to keep things in proportion. It was a good experience except it was a huge waste of time, effort and materials. I hope the art world can forgive me.
A 16th century Chinese painting which changed the course of my life – twice: When I was a kid and still ‘living’ at home – a hellish existence – I took every chance I could get to escape mentally and emotionally. The National Geographics came in handy. In seconds I could be in swamp-infested hinterlands, walking down the Champs Elysee, conquering the Himalayas, or reliving the Trojan War. This form of escapism was one of the only things which sustained me. My parents owned a coffee table book called The Age of Expansion, as I recall. Toward the end of the book were some very short sections on Chinese and Japanese culture. The bias was clearly Western. In the Chinese section was a reproduction of a hanging scroll by Wen Po-jen – now written as it is and was pronounced Wenboren (文伯仁: 1502-1575). That painting consumed me. I could get lost in its intricacies for hours at a time and yet I knew nothing about the artist or the philosophy that stood behind its aesthetic. All I knew is that it was a world apart which I wanted to explore and if possible remain in.
Below is a partial detail of that painting. And, next to it is a detail of that detail. Perhaps some of you will begin to appreciate why this painting so fascinated me.
Flash forward a few years (or back to a previous section of this post) and I had dropped out of graduate school, decided to become an artist and had moved back to Kansas City, the scene of the crime which I called my childhood. I started visiting the local art museum regularly. That building for me was the greatest place to be summer, winter, spring or fall. Things I had seen as a kid I was seeing with new eyes. One day I wandered into the climate controlled room for Chinese paintings. Very few people went in there or spent much times with its treasures because it was a little too esoteric for most museum goers. And there it was… I must have gasped. There was the painting I knew so well from my childhood. The one I spent hours looking at and living with. It was part of a visiting exhibition and was only going to be there another 29 days.
So, I went to the desk and asked for permission to copy it – or as much as I could copy – before it had to leave. Permission was granted and every day for the next 28 days, excepting Mondays when the museum was closed, I would be there when the doors opened and, with a little folding canvas and wood chair provided by the authorities, I would plunk myself down and draw in pencil on a large pad the lower left-hand corner of what appeared to be a 10′ long scroll from about 6′ away. Every day, every day every day. Occasionally someone would come into the room, but rarely, and I was too shy to pay any attention. Besides I was rapt. I was enraptured. The whole world fell away until closing time.
One day an elderly white haired old man came in and looked over my shoulder. A few days later he was back and this time he talked to me: “That is very good, young man.” I thanked him politely. A few days later he was back and this time he said: “That is very, very good!” Again I thanked him. Little did I know at that time that he was the Director of the museum, the man who had arranged to have the collection with this painting brought there, and was considered by many in the art world to be the greatest expert on Chinese are alive.
Over those 28 days I was able to copy 1/16th of that hanging scroll. Eventually I had my drawing framed and gave it to that old man, Laurence Sickman. For the next year or so we kept running into each other. The more I looked at paintings and objects in that museum the more I saw and the more I wanted to know. My curiosity was unquenchable. After that most of my days were spent mostly in the museum’s library. A whole new world was unfolding before me. Slowly Sickman took me under his wing and for about the next 7 years he guided my Asian art studies – mostly on Chinese paintings, sculptures and porcelains. He loaned me books from his own private library – with veiled and not so veiled threats of what would happen to me if anything ever happened to any of these volumes. I took Mandarin, and for me, considering my poor skills with languages, I did relatively well although almost all of Mandarin is lost to me now.* Sickman thought he saw in me one of the next great sinologists. I disappointed him. He wanted me to go the the National Palace Museum on Taiwan to study for a few years. Never got there. And life went on, but boy did I learn a lot and am immeasurably richer for it.
*The only Mandarin phrases I can say now are 1) Thank you, 2) Good-bye, 3) I love you, 4) I am buying pencils, 5) I am selling pencils, 6) I am going to take the train to New York instead of flying, and 7) I like to eat! None of these, of course, will get me very far in this new age of the Rise of China, but, at least, I won’t go hungry. 我愛喫飯!!!
Recently someone gave me a subscription to Netflix streaming and I have been watching some Chinese language films and much to my surprise I understand more than I thought I would.
Did I ever tell you about the time I was mooned by James Earl Jones? No? Really I was. I was mooned by the voice of Darth Vader. Really. Just ask him. He’ll tell you.
This image was posted at commons.wikimedia by Connormah.
Dead artists are better than live artists – or, at least less irksome.
I have already told you that I hate pictures of me, but my legs… my legs… Oh, my beautiful legs! Now that is another story.
Below is a picture of my legs as Archie Scott Gobber and I hold aloft his painting “I Didn’t Inahle”. This photo is one of my most becoming, don’t you think? [More later about this phase of my life when this picture was take.]
I will add more about myself in the near future. But don’t get your hopes up – that is, if you have any hopes – that the new information will be any saner than what I have just told you. It won’t be.