Dead White Male Philosophers

January 29, 2015

I had a second look at the image that accompanied my last post which was a page out of the Modern Library’s edition of the Philosophies of Art and Beauty edited, in 1964, by Hofstadter and Kuhns from their chapter on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics concerning what is art. I find what Aristotle had to say about art still holds water. It was written sometime before 322 BC or, to be politically correct, BCE; a long time ago. I first read this text in 1966, forty-nine years ago. I’m not sure which came first, the high-lined or underlined text or why I did either. It’s likely that I underlined the text while I was using the book in a course on art theory I took from Albert Elsen in 1966 at Indiana University while at graduate school and the high-lining was when I used the book as a text in my own course on art criticism that I taught many times during my teaching career. But that’s beside the point. What is important is what Aristotle had to say around two thousand four hundred years ago and how our understanding of the problems of art remains pretty much the same. So much for progress.

Aristotle tells us that all is art: “…whose origin is in the maker and not the thing made; for art is concerned neither with things that are, or come into being, by necessity, nor with things that are so in accordance with nature…” Makes sense to me. You can’t really have art without the artist. Of course, once you have a work of art, it can pretty much stand on its own without the artist. It’s a chicken and egg thing. The big deal is the idea. Mind you, this is where Plato and Aristotle part company. Is the idea in God’s hands or the artist’s mind? I’ll stick with the artist, thank you very much, and leave God wherever he, she, or it may reside. I really don’t believe that art is several times removed from the ideal. I don’t like the idea (Plato’s in The Republic) of art, and the artist, coming in third place after the idea of a bed.  Art is it’s own thing and certainly not an imitation of the real. And art can be an improvement over nature.

Ideas, even good ideas, are, of course, a dime a dozen or twelve cents Canadian and good ideas that result in good art are rarer still. In Metaphysics, Book IX, 25, Aristotle states the obvious: “…for he who does a thing well must also do it, but he who does it merely need not also do it well.” Therein lies my problem; most of my good ideas, intentions, have gone undone. Which leads up to the last sentence on the illustrated page from his Nicomachean Ethics: “Art, then, as has been said, is a state concerned with the making, involving a true course of reasoning, and lack of art on the contrary is a state concerned with making, involving a false course of reasoning; both are concerned with the variable.” Ah, the variable, but that’s the subject of another whole post. I’ll stick for the moment with the ‘making’.


Aristotle also states in his Nicomachean Ethics, this time in Book II, that: “…we often say of good works of art that it is not possible either to take away or to add anything, implying that excess and defect destroy the goodness of works of art, while the mean preserves it; and good artists, as we say, look to this in their work.” Yes, too much is too much and too little is too little. What is needed in a work of art is balance. Finding that balance is the difficult part. In my life drawing classes I often had my students erase as much as they could from what they thought was a finished drawing and still have it hold together. The result was almost always a better drawing. The reverse was telling them that they had a certain amount of time to produce a finished drawing, say ten minutes, and then when the time came, tell them to continue drawing. The result of this exercise was mixed. Sometimes the drawings got better and sometimes worse. Believe it or not, my idea for these exercises did come from my reading of Aristotle. Talk about applied philosophy.

If dead white ancient Greek and Roman male philosophers teach us anything it is that the problems surrounding the making of art have changed very little since the fifth century BCE. We, or at least I, have failed to find any solutions. Yes, times and media have changed. I don’t want to debate here about the sex or race of who makes art; only what it is art and what it is that drives human beings to make it. Whether people picked up sticks and drew animals on a wall or whether they make videos, some do it, or did it, better. They made art. Many thousands of years ago or yesterday doesn’t seem to make a difference. The why and what questions remain. I think that art is more than shadows on the wall. There is something in human nature that gives us the will, as Aristotle thought, to do something well. I just wish that I knew more about that something that does gives us the will to make art. It’s all questions and few answers. Damn.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Tuesday, January 27, 2015.


Marginalia: Life on the Edges

January 21, 2015

I am attempting to move my library office from the basement of my house to the first floor. It’s not because I’m getting too old to go up and down the stairs, but because I’m returning the office back to what it was, a guest apartment. The challenge is that the guest room upstairs that will become my office is much smaller and already full of books.

Books, you see, are my problem. I have been collecting books for over a half century. They’re easy to come by and very difficult to get rid of. I don’t seem to be able to throw them away. Can I be sure that my copy of Wordperfect for Windows for Dummies won’t come in handy sometime? Actually I’m just dropping that tome into a blue recycling bag as I write this. There it goes. Painful. Now for rest and it’s a lot. Books to the right of me, books to the left of me, books everywhere and the problem is that rest of the house is already full of books.

My friends, who are keen on technology, tell me I don’t need books anymore as everything is available online. Just throw them out, they say, you’ll be a better man for it and, besides, they add, we might be able to find a place to sit down when we visit your house. They might as well tell me that I could do without sex too. Which may be good advice. At my age too much excitement could kill me. Of course, there is the online sex too, but that leaves much to be desired despite the daily stream of young women who have read my Facebook profile and are dying to meet me.

Every book I own, you see, has a story to tell me. It’s not necessarily the content; it’s more about how I acquired the book. Did I buy it, was it a gift or did I borrow it and forget to return it? Yes, I did buy that copy of the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound at City Lights in San Francisco in December of 1965 when I was home for Christmas from studying for my MFA at Indiana University. How about a copy of Cézanne, a tiny Fontana Pocket Library of Great Art edition, that given to me by a certain Mrs. Lund during a trip on a freighter from Hull, in England, to San Francisco in 1954? We had become friends on the month long trip and we talked about art the whole time. I was fifteen and she was in her thirties. I was in love with her and, besides, it among my first books on art. Throw these two out? Not on your life.

Then there’s the copy of Ogden and Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning that I should have returned to the University of Manitoba’s library by December 28, 1971. I’ve yet to finish the book. Some books take longer to read than others. On the subject of marginalia, there’s my copy of the Modern Library edition of the Philosophies of Art and Beauty edited by Hofstadter and Kuhns that I bought in February 1966 for a class in art criticism taught by Albert Elsen at Indiana. I used the book, the same book, to teach a similar course for over thirty years. I couldn’t say the course was as good as Albert’s, and I did keep in touch with him, but it was my best shot. The book is held together with duct tape and every chapter is underlined or marked with a highliner with my ‘brilliant’ remarks on the margins. It’s a history of my teaching career and my friendship with Elsen.

There’s the heavily annotated The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, also from the 1960s, once owned by my late second wife, Candice. I can’t pick it up without thinking of her. She was a brilliant woman. The book is hardly a page-turner, but I often use the book as reference. Now, it shouldn’t take me all that long to go through the thousand or so books in the basement if I continue at this rate.

Visitors often ask me if I’ve read all the books I own. Actually, I have at least attempted to read them all like the before mentioned The Meaning of Meaning. It’s just that some are easier reads than others. My dog and cat are lending their noses as I go through this hopeless task of culling my library. I think their advice is about as good as I would get from any of my friends. My excuse is that we all need history, if we are going to avoid the mistakes of the past, to paraphrase Santayana, and my books are my history. If I stop reading, stop writing, senility will surely step in the fill the gap or, at least, that’s how I view my race to the end of time, my time.

Let’s see, there are first editions, signed editions, rare books, books by friends and hundreds of exhibition catalogues going back over fifty years. I pity my children trying to make heads or tails of my library after I’ve ‘passed’ to that big archive in the sky. They’ll likely give them to the Sally Ann or throw them away. At least, that’s the advice I would give them. On second thought, why not burn my body on a big stack of books or, better still, throw a match into my library with my body sitting at the desk. It would be a Viking literary funeral—dust to dust, rubbish to rubbish.


© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, January 19, 2015.


We are all Charlie or in my Case: I am Mike

January 14, 2015

I was trained by the US Army to be a combat photographer. It was considered to be a very dangerous job. I volunteered. I was seventeen at the time and none too bright. Fortunately, the only time I spent in a combat zone was for sixteen months in Korea in 1957 and 1958. The real war had ended in 1953. I subsequently spent nearly forty years of my life teaching art at university and, in particular, teaching drawing. I was following my post army credo, make love not war with an emphasis on the love. I thought that art would not be a dangerous job for me or my students. The recent events in Paris have proven me wrong.

A former student of mine, Michael de Adder, is one of Canada’s best known political artists. In fact, I’m in the process of organizing a major retrospective of his work at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick for next year. We had spoken, before the shooting in Paris, about cartoons he had drawn that proved too hot to be published and others that when published that got him and his publishers in trouble for being too provocative. These were, of course, the kind of materials that I wanted to include in the exhibition.
Political cartoonists work within a very short time line. They need to know what is going on and what’s going to be of interest to the paper’s readers. They need to be provocative. Who wants boring cartoons. They need to have an opinion. Nothing should be sacred; yet if it’s too far off the wall, then the paper won’t likely publish it. Mike does everything a good political cartoonist ought to do. The one thing he should not have to worry about is getting killed in the process.

by Micheal de Adder (used with permission)

by Micheal de Adder (used with permission)

There’s been a lot of ink spilt in the last little while over the Charlie Hebdo shootings some of it very good and some, too much, lamentable. Salman Rushdie, who does have some real experience with extremism, vented his frustration, during a TV interview, over what he calls the buts. These are the people who say, yes, the events in Paris were terrible, an attack on free speech, blab, blab, but if Hebdo had been more sensitive to people’s feelings, none of this would have happened. This begs the point of what Charlie Hebdo was, and is, a slightly off-kilter, satire magazine. The old Mad magazine or the National Lampoon on steroids. Charlie Hebdo is not in the business of being sensitive. Rushdie said that you are either against an outright attack on freedom or you’re not; there is no middle ground. He is right.

I’m able to avoid what Mike must confront. I’ve told the magazine, that I’m still writing for, that I’m going to only write about exhibitions and subjects that I like. I figure that there’s a lot of bad art and why, at my advanced age, should I get my knickers in a knot venting about stuff I don’t care about. I guess I’m back to my make love stand of the 1960s. Mike, on the other hand, has to deal, on a day to day basis, with a lot of awful stuff and be funny at the same time. People do get offended and write letters to the editor. If they didn’t, Mike would likely be looking for another job. I do know that he believes in what he draws and is passionate about his work.

The danger of an event like the Hebdo shootings is that cartoonists, consciously or sub-consciously, will self censor themselves or be censored by their publishers. It’s easy to understand why. Getting yourself killed over your art is an option to be avoided. The main problem that faces most North American cartoonists is running afoul of the politically correct. This is a quagmire that I am all too aware of after a lifetime in academia. Seldom does a day pass that there isn’t a letter to the editor in the newspapers that I read where someone is offended by an editorial cartoon. Fortunately objections normally stop there and the next day all is forgotten.

Political cartoonists are like the court jesters of old. The jester had the difficult job of telling the king the truth and had to be skillful to keep his head. One assumes that even temperamental kings had a sense of humour or they would have had a hard time finding jesters. The people who murdered the staff at Charlie Hebdo had no sense of humour. Truth often needs humour to make us see the absurdity that surrounds us.

These are dangerous times and we need windows to truth more than ever. I doubt that if I were living in Paris today, that I would have been a regular reader of Charlie Hebdo, and I did briefly live in Paris, but I sure as hell would be buying a copy now. I’m proud that Mike was my student. I might have helped him learn to draw, but his talent, and bravery, are his own. So, I am Mike as well as Je suis Charlie.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Monday, January 12, 2015.


North Beach Follies: Chapter 1.4

January 7, 2015

Mary Hamilton was dusting in the living room when the three men entered. Dante was sure that his mother disapproved of his appearance, he sported the classic beat look—disheveled army surplus—, but if she did, she never let on. George was the first to speak. “Mom,” he sometimes called Mary Mom when Dante was around, Dante thought that this was stupid, but that’s parents for you, “Meet Jake Storm. Dante’s new room mate.” Mary said she was glad to meet him and that she was sure that the two of them would have a great time in their new place. “Dinner is not going to be to around seven. Your Dad is fixing up something quite special for you two—Beef Bourguignon. (Dante’s dad was a good cook and did most of the cooking of the ‛special’ meals for the family.) What have you guys got planned for this afternoon?”

“Nothing special mom. I thought we would take a walk downtown. We’ll be back long before dinner” Dante and Jake finished their beers, said good by to George, and walked down to San Carlos Avenue, the town’s main drag. Dante liked the idea of taking Jake on a tour of his home town if for no other reason than to shock the locals. Jake, if anything, looked even more beat than did Dante and the sight of the two of them strolling through town was sure to raise eyebrows. It didn’t take long. They were about halfway down the first block of San Carlos Avenue when they were stopped by a policeman.

“And what do you two freaks think you are doing here?” the cop huffily asked.

“Why, nothing officer,” Dante replied, “We are visiting my parents. Mr and Mrs George Hamilton.”

“You got any ID,” said the officer.

“Of course,” Dante answered and gave him his California Driver Licence which still had his parents address on it. He also gave him is old Military photo ID. “I just got out of the Army and moved to the city. Is there anything wrong? Are you looking for somebody?” he asked.

“No. Just checking. How about your friend?” the cop said glaring at Jake. Jake had given the officer his Montana licence and was looking none too sure about this turn of events.

“He is my room mate and we are down here visiting my parents for dinner. Do you want to call them and check?”

“That won’t be necessary. I just want to make sure that there wasn’t any problem,” the officer said giving the two back their ID.s.

After the officer left Dante said, “Wasn’t that great? He wanted to bust us because of the way that we looked. I’m sure that it pissed him off when he found out that I was a local. I love this shit.”

“I could do without the heat myself,” Jake replied, “What would have happened if we were holding and he searched us. We would be in deep shit.” Jake was of course right, but Dante had a sense of useless adventure that keep him in and out of trouble most of the time.

“No sweat, Jake. We were clean and besides we have our rights, right? Let go back home and have a couple more beers before dinner.”

The two of them kept mum about their adventure with the law during dinner.

The next day, back in the city, Dante and Jake moved what little possessions they had into their new place on Pfeiffer Street. “Not bad,” Dante said, “This sure beats some of shit holes I’ve called home over the last little while. All I’ve got to do now is find a job to pay for this and school.”

Jake thought that there shouldn’t be problem. “There’s always something around where you can make a few bucks.” Fine for you to say, Dante thought to himself, has Jake had a bit of a nest egg and was getting some money from home.
“Well, we still have most of the summer to get our shit together before classes start,” Dante said.

“Man, this is San Francisco and this is where it’s happening. I don’t know about you, but me—I am going to get laid as much as possible and stay stoned,” Jake enthused.

“Sounds like a plan, but let’s try and not get busted in the process,” Dante added.

They decided to take a break and walk down Grant to get a coffee or a drink. “Let me take you to LaPavoni. It’s a new place right next door to City Lights. They sell espresso machines and have a little coffee bar as well. Nice people and they gave me a little work taking photographs of their stuff,” Dante said.

It was a very short walk from their place to the heart of The Beach. They were as happy as two pigs in shit. They were in the right place at the right time and knew that fame and fortune was theirs to claim. They walked through the beaded curtain that was doorway into La Pavoni and Dante said hello to Bella the wife of Jim Norton who were the owners of the place. “What’s happening? Selling any machines?”

“Nothing to write home about,” she said, “Americans still have a lot to learn about a good cup of coffee.” Jim and Bella had lived for awhile in Italy and had decided to move to San Francisco and open a coffee bar, but their major business was importing commercial espresso machines, La Pavoni machines, and hence the name of their place.

She was right, Café Trieste up the street at just opened three years ago, in 1956, and was the first espresso bar in the western US, much less San Francisco. “Listen, I’ll do my best to keep you in business. I can drink a lot of coffee,” Dante said.

Jake was remarking that the coffee pickings were even slimmer in Montana. They sat smoking and slowly sipping their espressos while trying to look cool for passing tourists. “Man, we should charge the city for sitting here and being cool. Like nobody wants to watch normal assholes drinking coffee at some dump on Market,” Dante added.

“Does that make us abnormal assholes?” Jake asked.

“It all depends on your definition of asshole. I think I’ll go next store and see what’s happening at the bookstore and maybe buy a book. Don’t want to let my mind rot.”

“Suit yourself. I’ll join you in a minute. Got to finish this smoke.”

Hyde Market St SFO police archives

Dante ambled next store to City Lights and said hello to Shige, who as usual, was sitting behind the register. He looked around for awhile at the books on art and philosophy. He picked up a copy of a small paperback by Ortega y Gasset, On Love, “ You think, I would like this? Shige,” he asked.

“Sure, have you read anything else by him?

“No, but I have heard the name.” So, Dante sprung the buck thirty-five for the book and as an afterthought said, “Shige, do you of any work around The Beach? I need a gig.”

“Come to think of it, I’ve heard that the record store down the street is looking for someone. Know the place I mean? They sell mostly classical records.”

“Yeah, I’ll give it a try. Be nice to work on the street; close to the pad and the school.” By then, Jake had joined him in the store,

“What’s shaking, Man?” he asked.

“Just heard about a possible job down the street at that record store. Think I’ll go down and ask,” Dante replied.

“Maybe you should think about what you are going to say first. Let’s go next door to Vesuvio’s have a beer and talk it over.” “Right on. Let’s do it.”

They settled on a table at the bar, ordered two beers, while Dante mulled over the best way to con himself into a much needed job.

It can’t be that hard, he thought, I know the names of a bunch of classical composers that I can throw at them in the store. His parents were always playing classical records and listened to the opera on Saturdays. “OK, Jake, if I go down, talk fast and sound like I know what I am talking about, what’s to lose?”

“Suit yourself, but I’m going to have another beer. You can pick me up on your way back and, perhaps, we could go for a cheap dinner in Chinatown.”

The record store, The Record Lyre, was just a couple of doors down the street, on Columbus, towards Pacific so Dante didn’t have far to go. Entering the store, he spotted a rather straight looking guy sorting records, he was the only person in the shop. “I’m looking for the manager.”

“You have found him. I’m actually the owner, Ken Jackson, what can I do for you?”

“My name is Dante Hamilton and I heard from Shige at City Lights, that you might be looking for somebody to work at the store.”

“Could be. What do you know about classical music and records?”

“Music something, records not that much. I just got out of the army and I’m starting at the California School of Fine Arts in September.”

“OK, tell me about the music part,” Ken said.

“I can pretty much do the alphabet of classical composers: Albinoni, Bach, Cherubini, Debussy, Elgar, Franck, Grainger, Handle…”

“Enough,” said Ken, “But I would be interested what you would come up with for X.

“X and Z are a problem, but there’s always Vivaldi and Walton”

“You’re a smart ass for such a young kid.”

“And I know the difference between a symphony and a sonata.”

“OK, OK, you got the job. Two bucks a hour. When can you start?”


“Monday will be fine. 10am. You know we have weird hours. Open to twelve and on Sundays.”

“Suits me just fine. Thanks, Ken. You won’t be sorry. By the way, I like the name of your store Record Lyre rather than Record Lair. How did you come with that?”

“Thought it would look better and people who knew could figure out that we sold classical music.” Dante didn’t know it at the time, but this job was going to be an adventure. He went back to Vesuvio’s where Jake was still nursing a beer and talking up a couple of chicks which, Dante assumed, he was trying to line up.

“Girls this is Dante,” they looked up, but it didn’t look all that promising, “How did you do?”

“Aced it, Man. Start Monday.”

“Cool, you girls like to go with us to Chinatown for something to eat?”

“Not tonight,” said the blond and the prettier of the two, “We’ve got to get back to Oakland and there’s classes tomorrow. We’ll see you around.”

Fat fucking chance, Dante thought, as they both got up and left. “Shit, Jake, I did not even catch their names. I bet they are going to Mills. Why else would they be going to Oakland? We aren’t going to get laid this way.”

“Hey, man, the night is young.”

Dante and Jake exited Vesuvio’s turned left on Adler Alley, the short street than ran between City Lights and the bar, that was the transition between Grant and Columbus Avenues and between the two worlds of Chinatown and the Beach and their two very different worlds. It didn’t take along to find a cheap place to eat. The secret was to find a place where where the Chinese ate like Sam Wo’s, which was where they went, and then to order off the menu in Chinese or, in reality, point to something on the menu as, at least, the prices were in English. Often there was a surprise like chicken foot soup which looked like chicken broth with little hands in it, but it was always a bargain.

“Well you’ve got a job and we’ve a place to live. What next?” Jake remarked while trying to master the art of chopsticks.

“I guess we’ve got to make ourselves felt. Like we’re small fish in a big pond. Nobody gives a shit about us,” Dante replied.

“Well, it’s all about art, isn’t it?,” Jake said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Friday, January 2, 2015.


North Beach Follies: Chapter 1.3

December 29, 2014

Jake was sitting in the corner looking, at least to Dante and Red, very stoned. “You know,” said Red, “We could catch a set or two at the Workshop. I can get us in for free and get us free drinks.”

“Or we could stay here and get even more stoned,” answered Dante.

“I think you’ve got a point, Dante,” Red responded, “let’s get really waxed. What do you think, Jake?”

Jake who by this point was feeling no pain nodded in agreement, “Man, I couldn’t move my ass from here if the place was on fire.”

“I have been thinking,” said Red, “that those assholes in New York are going to have to pay a lot more attention to what is happening here in San Francisco. I mean like all that Abstract Expressionist shit is over, man.”

“Yeah, they think that their shit doesn’t smell,” added Jake, “Look, somebody like David Park can paint circles around those east coast faggots”

“You guys really think so? I saw Jackson Pollock’s stuff at the Modern three years ago and it really moved me,” said Dante, putting his two cents worth into the argument.

“But man,” said Red, “he is stone fucking dead and his art died with him. Besides he was fucking crazy.”

“I should be so crazy,” replied Dante, “ Look, he could really paint and since when does it matter if an artist was crazy. I mean like look at van Gogh. Beside, who decides who’s crazy and who’s not. It isn’t the bloody artists.”

“OK, OK.,” said Red, “ But that’s not my point. What I am saying is that New York is no longer the centre of the fucking universe. Something is happening here, man. It not just painting, but poetry, music, everything and you know something it’s we can be part of it. It’s today, man. It’s not fucking history.”

“Everything is history, man,” replied Dante, “Tonight is tomorrow’s history.” Dante was really pleased by his last remark which he thought to be quite deep, but after getting high, he generally thought everything he said to be profound. As the night turned to morning, and the conversation continued, both the gallon of wine and Red’s stash disappeared.

wine bottlesDante was the first to wake. It was well past noon. His head felt like a group of coal miners were inside trying to dig their way out. His tongue felt several times too large for his mouth. As for the taste in his mouth, that was best left unsaid. Looking around, he saw Jake asleep, laying crosswise on the bed, Red was asleep in a chair by the room’s only window. By the looks of things Dante had spent the night on the floor on a rug that had likely been last cleaned after the quake of 06. Shit, thought Dante, I think I am going to be sick. Where is the fucking toilet? There was only a sink in the room and he felt the need for something that he could flush. Dizzily getting to his feet, Dante groped for the door. God, I hope I can find it before I puke.

There was a toilet at the end of the hall. The old fashioned kind with the high tank and a chain. The room was dark and smelled of urine, but that was the least of Dante’s problems. He wanted to make sure that his glasses didn’t fall into the bowl while he was throwing up. Dante vowed to himself, I’ll never drink that cheap red again. Not as long as I live. This was a vow he often made, but never kept. At the moment, however, he was hoping that he would die and be released from his misery and fulfill his vow. When nothing else would come up, he got off his knees, flushed the toilet, and staggered back to Jake’s room.

“Jake, Red, wake up. It’s one o’clock,” he said loudly. He hoped that his friends felt as bad as he did. “I feel like shit,” he continued to nobody in particular.

“I don’t feel like Buster Brown myself,” countered Jake.

“It ain’t so bad,” added Red, “I can still see.”

“Look guys, I have to get over to my place in the Mission and tell Dale that I found a place,” said Dante, “Jake I’ll meet you around seven tonight at Mike’s. If it’s OK with you? We can work out the details of our move then. Red, I’ll catch you later. Thanks for the grass.” Jake agreed to the meeting and

Dante took a bus to Market Street and transferred to another that would take him to Mission.

He had been staying for the last couple of weeks in a place in the Mission district with a friend he had met in the army, Dale Sutherland. Dale was a Brit who after moving to the States found himself drafted. He wanted to be an actor—a comedian. They had both finished their short military careers in Oklahoma where they had met. Both figured on going to San Francisco after their discharge. Dale got out a few months ahead of Dante and had already sort of established himself in the city. He offered Dante a place to crash. It was an offer that he couldn’t refuse. The last thing that Dante wanted to do was move back with his family. He was very determined to be on his own. Dale already had a roommate. A fat young San Franciscan, named Bob Dixon, who, like Dale, wanted to be a comic. They had already put together an act. They imitated Laurel and Hardy and as Dale was very small and his friend quite large—it wasn’t bad, at least visually, but their constant role playing around the apartment was driving Dante up the wall. Dante felt like it was part of a forever playing Hal Roach two reeler.

Only Dale was in the apartment when Dante arrived. “Dale, I got a place in North Beach. I met a guy from Montana who is going to the California School of Fine Arts too. We got a place together on Telegraph Hill. We can move in anytime. I think I’ll be out of your hair by the weekend. I hope you didn’t worry about me last night. I met a friend and me and my new roommate got high, really fucked up. I should have called.” “Dante,” replied Dale, “I’ long since given up worrying about your whereabouts. In any case, I’m glad you found a place, but you were more than welcomed here. Maybe Bob and I can help you move.”

“Thanks, but I got so little I think I can managed,” said Dante, “Where is Bob?”

“He is out looking for a job,” said Dale, “We need the bread.” Dale and Bob had been making a few bucks, here and there, doing gigs at birthday parties and store openings, waiting for the big break. In the meantime they were both trying to find part time jobs.

Dante needed a job of some kind too. At the moment he was collecting unemployment insurance. One good thing about the great peacetime army was that you were able to collect unemployment insurance once you were out. Dante had the perfect scam for that. The army in its genius had briefly made him a field artillery instructor. He never figured out why, as he didn’t know one end of a howitzer from the other, but it was to serve him well. Filling out the forms in the unemployment office he listed his occupation as a cannoneer—expert in all sorts of field pieces and dared them to find a job in his ‛field’. It worked and every two weeks he picked up his check. Not a whole of cash, but enough to get by in the style he wished. He had six months of insurance and he didn’t want to rush into anything, but he knew, that sooner or later, he would have to find something.

That night at Mike’s, Dante and Jake made plans to move into their new place on the weekend. Jake had everything he owned in his hotel room. Dante had a few thing at Dale’s and figured that he could get some more stuff from his parent’s place in San Carlos. They would rent a truck drive down to the Peninsula on Saturday, have dinner with Dante’s parents, and return to their new digs that same evening. All went nearly as planned. They arrived in the early afternoon at Dante’s parent’s house. It was a typical California suburban home. Ranch style, three bedrooms, small yard in front and back–pleasant, but nothing special. George, Dante’s father, was mowing the front lawn when they arrived.

“Dante, how is it going,” he said, “have you found a job?” He knew that his son hadn’t, but he felt it important to ask anyway. “No dad. I’m still looking. Something will come up. I still have over three months of unemployment insurance coming,” Dante replied, “I’d like you to meet my friend Jake Storm.

He is the one that I talked to you about,” he continued.

“Hi Jake, glad to meet you. Dante has given us quite an earful about you. Why don’t you guys come in the house and have a beer? Mom in there doing some cleaning and she is looking forward to meeting Jake.”

Dante’s dad was not quite sure what is son was up to, but both he and his wife, Mary, supported Dante’s efforts to become an artist. Perhaps it was because of the name that they had given him or because they wanted their son to have the excitement in his life that they had missed in theirs. Dante was a bit bothered by the fact that he couldn’t honestly claim that his family didn’t understand him. If you wanted to be an artist your family was suppose to oppose you. There was no fun when they said “Sounds like a good idea to us son. Go ahead and follow your dream.”

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Friday, December 26, 2014.


North Beach Follies: Chapter 1.2

December 16, 2014

“The truth is that Bozeman is a shit hole and zero is happening there. I was at the University of Montana and took a couple of art courses on a lark. I found out that I liked it and I found out that I was in the wrong place. So, I asked around. Some of my professors were OK. There were just as unhappy being in a dump like Bozeman as I was, but they had jobs, kids, the whole thing. One of them, Joe Campbell, who taught first year painting told me, ‛Jake, if I was you I’d get my ass to San Francisco and enrol in a real art school.’ He was the one who told be about the California School of Fine Arts. So here I am. I drove all the way in my 47 MG TC,” Jake said.

“Wow,” thought Dante, “an MG TC. I know I’m going to like this guy.” “What do you think,” he said out loud, “about trying to find a place together? I’m sure if we asked around we could find something decent.”

“Well, it’s worth a try” replied Jake. “Why don’t we have dinner?” he suggested, “I know this place on upper Grant called the New Pisa. It’s an Italian joint, actually it’s a bar, but they serve dinner in the back room at six. All you can eat for a buck and a quarter. Somebody at the hotel told me about it. I tried it last night and it wasn’t half bad.” Dante quickly agreed and they made plans to meet at the bar at six.

Dante got to the bar just before Jake. When Jake did get there, he asked, “ I bet you’ve never been here before.” Dante had to admit that he hadn’t and it annoyed him that this outsider knew about the place and he didn’t. The New Pisa was located just off Columbus at 1268 Grant at the corner of Fresno and Grant. What it lacked in ambiance, it made up for in sheer dreariness, but the food was cheap, plentiful, and actually good. With your buck and quarter you got all the red wine you could drink. Although near-vinegar was perhaps a better description of the rot gut they served. So there was not much chance of drinking too much of the stuff unless you wanted an awful hangover. However bad it tasted going down, it tasted a whole lot worse coming up. “What the hell, you got soup, salad, pasta and a ‛main’ course”, thought Dante. The eating technique at the club was winner take all. Everyone sat at a common table, boarding house style, no menu, you ate what was served and if you weren’t fast you would miss a course. Mind you, Dante and Jake did pretty good at dinner if only because most of their competition were winos, well past their prime, who were not too fast off the mark.

“Well, what did you think of that? Pretty good, uh?” asked Jake. “Got to admit that it was filling,” answered Dante, “Feel like an espresso, Jake?” Here Dante was on safer ground. The Café Trieste was close to the New Pisa and it was a cool place for coffee. Dante wanted to know all the cool places in the Beach.

“Sure,” said Jake, “don’t mind if I do.”

The Trieste was for real. It served the locals and the Beats. It was a good place to sit with a cup of coffee, act like you were reading a really ‛heavy’ book, try to look hip, and, if you were real lucky, perhaps score with some chick who thought you were cool. Over espressos they talked about getting a place together. “Look, if we both keep asking people around the Beach something will come up,” said Jake.

Miss Beatnik Contestants 1959

Miss Beatnik Contestants 1959

“Yeah, yeah, there’s got to be a pad around here someplace, man,” countered Dante.

The woman at the counter who had overheard their conversation chimed in, “You two looking for a place?”

“You, bet,” said Jake,” You know of anything?”

“Well, there was this guy in this morning. He’s a doctor and he owns an apartment building, actually flats, up the hill on Pfeiffer Street. He told me that one of his tenants had left without paying the rent. He was really pissed off. Can’t say that I blame him. There are a whole lot of dead beats around these days.” “Wow,” said Dante, “Do you know the doctor’s name?”

“Can’t say that I do. Seen him around here enough. He’s kind of strange himself. He walks around with two dogs on leashes and has a monkey on his shoulder. He shouldn’t be hard to find. I think that he lives in the same building on Pfeiffer.” said the woman.

“Thanks,” replied Jake, “I bet, Dante, if we just look at names on door bells on Pfeiffer we would find him. Let’s do it right now before it is too fucking late.”

Pfeiffer Street, it turned out, was right at the top of Telegraph Hill and they were not long in finding the name of a Dr. Feist at number 154. The barking of dogs greeted their ring at the bell.“I’m coming, I’m coming,” A tall skinny white haired man answered the door. He spoke with a German accent “What do you two want? It is nine o’clock at night. My practice is closed for today. Come back tomorrow,” he said.

“It is not your practice that we are interested in Dr. Feist. My name is Dante Hamilton and this is my friend Jake Storm,” said Dante, “We hear that you might have a flat for rent?”

“How would you know about that?” asked Dr. Feist. Dante and Jake told him of their conversation at Café Trieste. “I don’t know about renting my place to the likes of you guys. I just got beat for the rent appropriately enough from a couple of Beats.

I don’t want to rent again without a lot of references.”

“We’re not Beats, Dr. Feist, we’re art students” answered Jake. “Is that supposed to be better?”, said Dr. Feist, “How I do I know that you just won’t skip without paying the rent?

“Why don’t you let us in and we’ll talk about it,” stated Dante.

“OK, sure, come in. What do I have to lose?” Dr. Feist moved over so that they could get into the hall.

What they saw surprised them. The hall way was covered with paintings, modern paintings. They followed the doctor into the living room and were even more surprised to find, in addition to more paintings, several pieces of modern sculpture. It was like a miniature art museum. On the top a sofa sat a monkey, wearing diapers.”Don’t mind Adam,” (that was the monkey’s name they were to learn) said Dr. Feist, “If he didn’t have the diapers on, he’d shit all over the place”. It was easy to see that the doctor liked animals and modern art in just about equal measure. There were the two dogs, the monkey, several cats, bird cages, fish tanks and god knows what else. The flat smelled like the zoo. The doctor was turning out to be a genuine character; he fit right into the North Beach scene.

“Where did you get all the great art Dr. Feist?” asked Dante.

“Don’t ask! And stop calling me Dr.Feist. Everybody calls me Peter. You see all this art?” Peter when on, “That’s what all my patients give me instead of money. At least that’s better than I get from all those deadbeat writers and poets. Who needs a goddamn poem,” Peter added with conviction. Dr. Feist finally did let Dante and Jake rent his vacant third floor flat and he told them that they could move in right away.

“It looks like we did pretty damn good in one day if you ask me,” said Jake.

“Yeah, let’s have a beer and figure out what we’re going to do now,” replied Dante.

The two walked down Grant Avenue feeling very satisfied with themselves. They had seen their new place—it was a pretty nice place at that—two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, bath all for eighty bucks a month. Actually it was too nice for a real pad, but the saving grace was that they had to furnish the place and there they could show their genius as they had no furniture and less taste.

They got as far down Grant as the Coffee Gallery. Looking through the open window of the Gallery that faced the street, Dante said, “Let’s go in here. I see somebody I know at the bar.” The Coffee Gallery in spite of its name was a bar and very popular with the Beat crowd. “Red!” Dante shouted to a red haired clean shaven young man about half way down the bar,

“Red,” Dante repeated as he reached the bar, “This is my friend, Jake Storm. Jake, this is Red. He’s in his second year at the School.”

“Hi, Red. Glad to meet you. What’s shaking?”said Jake.

“Not a whole lot man.” replied Red, “Just sitting here and seeing if I can find any action.”

“Red works the door at the Jazz Workshop on Broadway.” said Dante, “ I met him there when I went to a gig a couple of weeks ago. Cannonball Aderley was playing. It was out of sight.”

“Yeah,” Red said, “Cannonball can really blow.”

“Speaking of action,” Dante said, “Heard about anything?” “Not a whole lot.” said Red repeating himself. Red didn’t use a large vocabulary, but that was considered cool, “I do have some fine grass. Maybe we should do up a joint or two and make our own action. This place is starting to bug me.”

“Sounds cool to me, Red,” replied Dante not trying to sound too enthusiastic as that would definitely appear uncool. Turning to Jake, Dante said, “How about it. Want to do up some grass?” “Sure, man.” replied Jake.

“Where should we do it?” asked Red.

“How about my hotel room. It is just down on Columbus,” answered Jake.

“Let’s get a jug of Dago red at the corner,” joined Dante, “ and make a night out of it.”

Three white guys doing up pot in 1959 was really much more of an adventure than it would be a decade later. Drugs were still very much a part of the underground world of jazz—the cool world.

Jake found a couple of extra glasses back at the hotel and Dante poured everyone a glass of wine. “Boy, this shit tastes awful,” exclaimed Red.

“What do you expect for a buck and quarter a gallon,” answered Dante, Chateau Lafite? I guaranty it’ll give you a buzz. You got papers?” he continued.

“Sure do.” said Red, “ Boy, this shit is sure full of seeds, but it’ll blow your mind.” Red carefully rolled a large joint. “I might as well do two while I am at it,” he remarked. Red wet one of the joints with his tongue, pulled out a match, and lit it. “Wow, this is great shit.” He passed the joint to Dante.

“ Whoa, this will curl your toes, Jake,” said Dante taking a toke and handing it over to Jake who took a long drag and remarked, “This sure as hell beats Bozeman. Fuck middle America.” “Fuck middle America,” Red and Dante repeated Jake’s words like a toast.

“You know getting high is better than sex,” Red said rather philosophically.

“That’s why the Feds made it illegal,” said Dante.

“What, sex or grass?” asked Jake. They all thought that was very funny. The grass was taking effect very quickly.

“You know if I had my way I’d stay stoned all the time,” remarked Red.

“Pot is one of the great things in this world, if not the greatest,” said Dante in general agreement with Red.

(To be continued.)

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Friday, December 12, 2014.


North Beach Follies: Chapter 1.1

December 9, 2014

“Shit,” he thought as he awoke suddenly from a wine induced sleep, “ I’ll be late for my fucking first class.” Looking around and then beside him, saw that he was in a strange bed and with a even stranger woman. “Where in the bloody hell am I?” as he continued his somewhat foggy thinking. He jumped out of bed and started looking around the floor for his clothes. The room was not half bad as rooms go at least by the standards that he had as a slightly overage first year art student. “Just my luck,” he pondered, “The first time I’ve been laid in weeks and I don’t remember a thing. Jesus my head, I’ve got to stop drinking that cheap Dago red.” Throwing on his clothes as he found them, he groped his way to the door. Just then, the woman woke up, “Where are you going, Dante?” she asked still half asleep. “Got to go. We’ll be in touch,” he replied. Although he didn’t know how as he didn’t know her name.

His name was, however, Dante, Dante Hamilton and he had been living in San Francisco’s North Beach for the past four months. Why, he thought, did his parents give him that stupid Italian first name? While his parents were cool, the closest they had ever gotten to Italy was Mario’s pizza which was San Carlos’ only pizzeria and for that matter the owner of Mario’s was Sam Wineburger. Sam and his family were rather a rarity in San Carlos being Jewish. You could hardly get any more Wasp than San Carlos in the early fifties of Dante’s youth. It was a commuter town some thirty miles south of San Francisco where Dante had grown up. Each weekday morning the town emptied itself of nearly the entire able-bodied male population most of whom took the Southern Pacific train to work in the city each and returned each evening tired, but glad to be back there in the safe haven of the ‛Peninsula’. The only thing Dante knew about San Carlos was that he wanted to get out and get out he did.

Less than a week after he graduated high school Dante was in the army. His idea was to beat the draft, but enlisting seemed like a stupid way to do it. The army offered him the option of either where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do if he joined. Dante took the later as he figured, correctly as it turned out, that whatever happened, he would not be serving his term in San Carlos. He liked the idea of being a photographer and the army promised him a place in its photography school in New Jersey after basic training. While to make a long story short, Dante did complete photo school and they did not post him back to San Carlos. Instead he ended up in Korea.

Those lost three years were spent in the army where Dante discovered that he really didn’t want to be a soldier. He spend most of his time counting the days that he had left until his discharge. It was in Korea that Dante got the bright idea to go to the California School of Fine Arts. A friend in his outfit he greatly admired, Carlos Villa, who had visions of becoming a painter, told him about the place. Carlos’s friend, Leo Valledor, was already enrolled and wrote glowing letters about the place and the great scene that surrounded the school. Dante did discover, however, during his time in the army that there was something called the Beat Generation and it had been happening right under his nose, in San Francisco, and he had missed it. Sex, booze, drugs—the whole ball of wax—and he had been a mere thirty miles away the whole time.

“What a bummer!” Dante would often say out loud to anyone who would listen to him in the barracks or the Quonset huts that served as barracks, “I’m stuck in this shit hole while a whole bloody generation gets lost without me.” Shit hole was likely an apt description of the Korea that Dante found himself in the late fifties, but at least nobody was shooting at him. He didn’t have a clue about either the art school or the Beat movement, but it sounded a whole lot better than the army. Actually most things sounded better than the army, especially the army that he found himself in during the late fifties in Korea. Dante had wanted out of San Carlos and now he wanted out of the army.

So May 1959 found Dante out of the army and in San Francisco eager to enlist in the Beat movement. Only how to pay for such an adventure? His timing in the army had been perfect—he joined six months after the Korean War G.I. Bill had lapsed and before, although he didn’t know it then, the Viet Nam G.I. Bill kicked in. Mind you, he was lucky enough to be in the army during a brief period when the country was not at war, but it was pure luck and nothing more as he would have been stupid enough to join if there had been a war in 1956.

Finding a place to live, or as it was called a pad, was a first task. It had to be in the right area. The Beach, North Beach. This was where it was happening. This is where the bars, the clubs, the bookstores were and at that time a cheap enough place to live in the city. The idea was to hang out until you found a place to crash—either by yourself or with other like minded individuals. After all, the great beat line from Larry Ferlingetti’s poem was about hanging about at Mike’s Place where according to that other great Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, you would find the ‘best minds of my generation.’ Mike’s Place on Columbus Avenue was a neat place. Great sandwiches, cheap beer, pool, not to mention the best minds which certainly included Dante, but it took three years from the time he graduated high school until he found himself hanging out in the center of the Beat Generation trying his best to look cool.

Even in high school Dante had pictured himself as a self-styled bohemian. He had, after all spent the first two years of high school living in England where is father was working as an electrical engineer for Bechtel International on a contract from his usual job for them in San Francisco. His parents had taken him to Paris twice during that time and this had given him a taste of high culture that was very different than San Carlos. By the time he returned to San Carlos to finish high school, he was reading romantic poets and going so far as to carry pocket editions of Byron and Keats in public. This in an early fifties California public high school was not considered cool and Dante, more often than not, found himself an outsider cast with the nerds who were outcast because they wore the wrong clothes, or they were bookish, or unattractive, or any combination of these traits. It really didn’t matter much to Dante what his cooler classmates thought as he knew that he was destined for great things while his classmates would end up as high school teachers or gas station attendants whose greatest moment would be the senior prom before they settled down to boring middle class lives. Dante always had a high opinion of himself which was usually not shared by those around him.

The army had been a way out of the bind of his middle class environment. Dante figured that the draft would get him sooner or later and typically, for him, he reasoned, “You can’t draft me, I’ll join.” He had not realized that the results were the same—you were still in the army, only  you had joined for three years rather than the two if you were drafted. Well, all of that was behind him now. Once more a civilian and ready to take the unsuspecting world by storm.

Dante had decided that his talent lay as a photographer and artist rather than a poet. This realization came upon him when he figured that he could not spell. Dante had seen the major retrospective of Jackson Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in December of 1956 while on a short leave before being shipped overseas. This, he concluded, was for him. Pollack, hero painter, famous in his own time, overt womanizer, early tragic death, what more could one ask from life? No more of this T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound stuff , he reasoned, “Give me my camera, a couple rolls of film and I’ll change the world. I’ll be to photography what Pollack was to painting.” It didn’t matter that Dante didn’t have a clue about being an artist. He could learn.

San Franciso

San Francisco

San Francisco was not only the home to the Beat Generation, it was also the location of the California School of Fine Arts. This was where Ansel Adams had taught photography as a fine art. This is where a new art of painting, the California School, was coming to light. The California school combined Abstract Expressionism with the figure–the result was big sloppy figurative paintings. The big names: Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bishoff, and Nathan Oliviera were all teaching at the School. What a great opportunity. Dante could have it all. The Beat movement, a new important art movement—surely San Francisco was the centre of the universe, and in 1959, it was.

Dante looked down the bar, where he was seated. A young bearded man was talking to the bartender. Dante could overhear what he was saying: “This place is sure different from Bozeman,” he continued, “ I need to find a place to live. Have you heard of anything?” The bartender, whose name was Ned, said: “Can’t say as I have. Plan to be in the city long?” “Yeah,” the young man answered,” I just enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts. I reckon I’ll be here for at least four years.”

Dante’s ears picked up at the mention of the school. “Hey,” he more or less shouted down the bar, “ Me too. I’m starting at the school and I’m looking for a place to crash. I’m Dante, Dante Hamilton. Who are you?” “Name’s Jake Storm and I’ve just been here three days. I am staying at a fleabag hotel, around the corner on Columbus. I’m from Montana, Bozeman, Montana. How about you.” “Me? I’m from around here, but I just got out of the army and I’m looking for a place to live in the Beach near the school. Right now I’m crashing across town with a friend of mine who was with me in the army, but I’d rather be living around here. Can I buy you a beer?” “Sure,” replied Jake, “So you’re going to the school too. Why?” Dante gave him a short version of his life and conversion to the arts via the United States Army. When he finished he asked Jake what brought him from Montana to North Beach. (To be continued.)

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Tuesday, December 9, 2014.


Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Thirty-Two

December 3, 2014

26 May 2014

It was a Monday, the day after Lord Beaverbrook Day, and the gallery was closed as it is every Monday, but Stephen Scott and I were at Beaverbrook Art Gallery around eleven in the morning to try and finish his portrait of me.

“This should work out OK for us,” I said, “as there will be nobody around and we can concentrate on the painting.”

“Well, it certainly needs some work,” Stephen told me, Where’s the style? It’s boring.”

“You’re beating yourself up again. I think that it’s fine. It just needs the finishing touches.”

“I think that it’s a day for big brushes. Too much finicky detail. I’ve got to pull the whole fucking thing together,” he replied.

“I rather like the combination of detail and broad brushwork. It reminds me of Dutch and Flemish 17th century painting—Rembrandt, Halls, Rubens and the like,” I told him.

“But where’s the style, my style?”

“You got loads of style just don’t screw it up.”

“It’s hard to copy old master techniques. They’re just so natural and too good.”

“I think that you’re doing a pretty good job. A lot of contemporary artists have done a homage to past masters like Freud’s admitted homage to Watteau,” I said.

By this time Stephen was going in earnest with a very large brush on the canvas. Because I was posing I couldn’t see what he was doing, but seemed to be having a good time.

“It’s a good thing for painters to look back at art history to find inspiration. There’s some damn fine painters not that far back like Sargent and he, sure as hell, was looking at Rubens,” he said.

“It sure goes back to that old chestnut that art is about art,” I replied, “but I’ve been accused of being an old fart, sort of a neo-con critic and that was by friends.”

“They seem to have you pegged. Mind you, I’m not exactly a progressive.”

“You know I do like abstract painting, Abstract Expressionism, in particular, but that too is now history,” I added.
“But a lot of those guys,” he said, “could paint. They had solid education and it shows.”

“Where I have problem is with an artist like Jeff Koons who draws on Popeye and ballon dogs for inspiration and then farms out the work to a factory to do,” I said, “I think the work is shit, but then, again, he wildly successful and I’m not. One of the stupid dogs just sold for millions.”

“I’m not exactly swimming in money myself, but if you say artists like Koons or Hirst are shit, people will say you are reactionary or worse. Art is what it is today and that’s that.”

“Much of it is just bullshit, bad art, but then I’m a self identified old fart and what do I know about this brave new world of today’s art?” I said.

“Now, you’re beating yourself up. You’ve got a pretty solid base of art history. I’d say that there is a general disrespect for tradition in much of today’s art world.”

“I think that it’s more a lack of education than disrespect. When I talk to many students and younger artists, I’m amazed by what they don’t know about the history of art and, not only that, they don’t seem to care. They think history begins with them and, perhaps, they’re right.”

“Don’t forget the part,” he added, “that if you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”

“You’ve got that right. I’ve been looking at the same bloody installation works, all by different artists who think they’re being original, for the past fifty years and these have been shows in North and South America, Asia and Europe. It’s depressing the number of circles of rocks, tree branches and empty galleries passing as a statement that I’ve seen.”

“There are good contemporary artists and good exhibitions of contemporary art,” he said.

“You’re right, but I just have trouble naming them off the top of my head. How’s my painting coming along?”

“It’s getting there. Are there any of those coffee cartridges we bought left in the staff room.”

“I think so. Let’s take a break and I’ll go make us a cup.”

Back with the coffee, I had a look at what Stephen was doing with the painting, he was trying to bring everything together. He was adding details like my wrist watch and pen and, at the same time, working on unifying the background with the figure. The problem with painting is knowing when it is done, when to quit. It’s a problem that we had talked about many times during this project. I was familiar with the problem, when I painted as I, more often than not, had screwed it up at the last minute and had gone too far with a painting. Stephen had confessed that he did the same thing, but I think that he was a better judge about his own work than I was about mine and I felt a majority of his paintings looked ‘right’.

“Look, we’re getting there,” I said, “what do you think?”

“It’s close, but there’s the difference between making a painting and not making a painting”

“That’s cryptic. Who’s going to be the judge with this painting? You or me?”

“Perhaps the rest of the world.”

“You may have reached the point where you don’t need me to finish the painting. The painting takes on its own life and I just get in the way, but I’ll sit down and you have at it.”

“Sounds like a plan. There’s still things I can do.”

“I keep going back to the idea of music and painting,” I told him as I resumed posing, “In music it’s the space between the notes that’s important and in painting, it is often, what not there that makes it art. One’s imagination makes an art work, be it music or painting, complete.”

“Yes, you’re right a work of art is always more than the sum total of its parts.”

“That’s often the problem with Photo Realism, it tries too hard to look like a photo and misses the whole point of painting which is to make the eye and imagination work,” I said.

“There are times when photographs are useful as tools to an end in painting, but only as one tool among many,” he replied.

“Granted, but we’ve gone through this whole project without using photography and I think that the painting is the better for it.”

“It has taken us a long time, though, since last summer nearly a whole year. When did we start?”

Sketch 18 July 2013

Sketch 18 July 2013

“The 18th of July of last year to be exact. I looked it up last night.”

“Glad, I’m not being paid by the hour.”

“Actually, you not getting paid at all.”

“Don’t remind me.”

We worked, or rather, he painted and I sat, for the next hour or so, continuing our conversation, until it was time for the gallery to close. Terry Graff came in to watch us finish as did Sophie, his wife.

“So, is it done?” Terry asked.

“Close,” Stephen said.

“Hey, let me get up and see the last stroke,” I said, “I’ve waited a long time for this,” Stephen hit a high light on my wrist and watch and that was that, “I think that we should all go out for a drink, right now. Can Stephen clean up tomorrow, Terry? This is cause for a celebration.”

“Sure, I’ll even spring for the drinks.”

Final Portrait

Final Portrait 26 May 2014

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Saturday, November 29, 2014.


Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Thirty-One

November 26, 2014

25 May 2014

It was, at last, Lord Beaverbrook Day at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. The gallery annually puts on an open house for the event and regularly draws its largest attendance of the year. Stephen Scott and I were scheduled to finish my portrait during the day. We had planned to work at the gallery from eleven in the morning until two in the afternoon, but we got to the gallery early and decided to work until the gallery closed at five, but, even then, we figured that we might need an extra day to finish.

As Terry Graff, the gallery’s director, promised the place was packed. The staff had roped off our work space so that it resembled an accident scene.

“I’m not sure I like this,” I told Stephen, “It cuts us off from the public and rather puts us on display like an exhibit.”

“Yeah, I agree, but let’s leave it be for the moment and see how it works.”

By the time we really started working the place was crawling with kids and their parents. The little girls outnumbered the boys by a wide margin, but that seems to be the way it is. The boys were likely out with their dads doing manly stuff leaving the culture to the girls.

beaverbrook basement

Speaking of girls, one who appeared to be seven or eight, and for some reason dressed in a tutu told me, “When I grow up, I want to be an artist,” which was a statement that we had heard a few times over the week and almost always from girls. “OK, it seems like a good idea to me. What do you think, mom?” I asked her mother.

“If that’s what she wants, it’s OK with me.”

“Well, keep her interested. We need all the artists we can get.”

Stephen May, another Fredericton artist, who had been visiting us several times over the week, showed up once again.

“What do you think about Lucian Freud, Stephen?” he asked.

“I like him a lot. What’s not to like. Virgil and I talk about him often. How about you?” Scott replied.

“I like him too. He so painterly. Throws the stuff around really well.”

“If I can get my ten cents in,” I said, “I think that he was one of the best painters of the last century.”

“He doesn’t over romanticize his subjects. He can be brutal,” Scott said.

“I agree, but despite that, I find him to be a romantic,” I replied.

“I think Freud’s Romanticism is in his attitude,” May said.

“He sure as hell knew how to live his life to the fullest,” Scott said.

“God save us from boring artists,” I added.

We had quite an audience by that time, all of whom were listening intently to our three way conversation, but I doubt if many of them had any idea who Lucian Freud was. The seriousness of our talk was broken by one little boy in a Boy Scout uniform, looking at one of Stephen’s nudes in the exhibition, who announced to his mother in a loud voice, “Look, mom, another naked woman.” That statement broke everybody up and brought an end to our talk about Freud. Truth does come out of the mouths of babes.

“What do you say we take these barriers down,” I suggested.

“They’re in the way. Why not? This way people can get behind me,” Stephen aid.

“Good, want to do it, Max?” I said. Max Ackerson, a young art student, who had been helping us over the last few days, had been with us since eleven in the morning. He pulled the ropes aside, sat down again and continued to draw the scene in his sketchbook. He turned out to be a big help with our project.

“You know we should start our art school in Sackville,” I suggested to Stephen.

“Yeah, we have talked about that, haven’t we?”

“Meredith has got the space. The carriage house on Rectory Lane. It would at least in the summer or when it’s warm,” I added.

“We could do painting, drawing, history, criticism, the whole nine yards,” he said.

“Yes, and the nice thing, it’s nearly right across the street from the new fine arts building.”

“I really like the idea, Virgil, of a really traditional programme. Something most art schools and departments aren’t doing.”

“No shit. There’s a lot of art students out there that can’t draw and fair number who would like to know how to.”

“The trick,” he said, “is how do we do it? There’s startup costs and figuring out what in the hell to charge much less where the students are going to come from.”

“We can have a good look at the space this summer. I know that Meredith would be interested.”

“How many students do you think the space, and we, could handle?” he asked.

“Somewhere around ten to dozen. Needs to be a pilot project.”

“Sounds like a good way to go broke, but still interesting. What do you think Max? Would you go?”

“Maybe,” Max replied, “but it wouldn’t be like a regular art school.”

“Ah, but that’s the point,” I said, “It could be like how artists learned in the Renaissance and before. Working with an established artist and working from the ground up. Learning by doing. Less bull shit and more work.”

“Sounds better and better,” Stephen said, “but it would be a lot of work to get it going.”

“Granted, but there is a market out there. People want to learn traditional skills. There is a school of figurative art in New York which charges a lot of money and they have all the students they can handle.

“First things first. I still have to finish this painting and then maybe we can save the art world.”

“Speaking of first things, I could use a cup of coffee and a couple of cookies, how about you? Let’s take a break.”

“Good plan.”

“I can go into the kitchen and get it,” Max said.

“An even better plan,” I said.

During the break, I was able to get up and take a look at the painting. “It’s going OK, if you ask me,” I told Stephen. “Who’s asking you?” he replied. Stephen is a hard man to please. He’s very critical of his work and I’m always worrying that he is going to wipe out the portrait and start again which would not be good because we were scheduled to finish the project today or tomorrow at the latest. The gallery was really packed by now and there was no shortage of rubberneckers, but that was the whole point of the day and they, and we, were actually having a good time. It was odd as it was rather like the act of painting as a concert and I was looking for applause to break out after a particularly good brush stroke by Stephen. Historically the only precedent that came to mind was Gustave Courbet’s The Studio, but then we would have to have a real naked woman standing next to Stephen as he painted at the Beaverbrook which might have raised a problem for family day at the gallery.


Finishing our coffee, I sat down and Stephen resumed painting. We talked about another project that we could do after finishing the portrait that might be easier than starting our own art school.

“I do like the idea of us going to art galleries around the Maritimes and the northeast of the States and looking at pictures together,” I said.

“It does have legs,” I think he said, “Picking one painting from each collection and talking about it.

“We could video as well and put it on YouTube. It’s too bad that we didn’t video this project, but it’s too late now,” I replied.

“Well, let’s do it, but I’m not going to finish this picture by five. We’re going to have to come back tomorrow.”

“Suits me and the gallery will be closed to the public. Should make it easier.”

“I feel like lobster and fiddleheads. How about you?” Stephen told me and I couldn’t argue.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Tuesday, November 25, 2014.


Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Thirty

October 20, 2014

24 May 2014

Stephen Scott and I went to Fredericton, from his Nashwaak Village home, early Saturday morning to meet two friends, Harold Jarche and Chris Mackay, from Sackville for brunch at Isaac’s Way which is just two doors up from the gallery. They were both in on the project from its beginning the year before and they wanted to see the large painting being completed. All last summer the four of us would meet every Wednesday night at my place for wine and cheese and to shoot the breeze about art and technology. Chris and Harold were the techies and Stephen and me provided the art part. Anyway, they became very keen about Stephen’s art and we managed to plough our way through a great deal of wine in the process.

After a long brunch and conversation, we all went next door to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the exhibition. Chris and Harold had only seen the larger portrait in its very early stages and were impressed with the nearly completed painting.

“It’s pretty neat,” Harold said, “How long have you been working on it?

“I don’t know, thirty, forty hours, maybe more. What would you say, Virgil?”

“About that. I haven’t really counted. Should though.”

Stephen was transferring his paint from the water bath to his palette. “Hey, that’s a new palette. It’s square. Why?” I asked.

“It’s larger that’s all. I haven’t a fucking clue about the background colour. What do you think?”

“You’re painting, not me. If I were, I’d opt for something dark to contrast with the yellow shirt—dark brown or green.

“Speaking of the yellow shirt. I can’t seem to be able to find the right yellow.” He looked through the tubes of paint in his paint box. Picking one up, he said, “Think I’ll try yellow lake.”

basement sittingChris and Harold were walking around looking at the rest of the exhibition. They couldn’t figure what they liked best. It seemed like toss-up between the swimming pictures of Sophie or the painting of the dogs. “all things being said,” I told them, “I like the series better, but Echo and Bailey art pretty cute.”

“What do you mean by cute!” Stephen interjected, “I don’t paint cute.”

“Dog pictures are everybody’s favourite. Just watch the people as them come into the gallery. I’ll bet three quarters of them gravitate to the dog picture,” I answered.

“Perhaps, I should paint you as a dog.”

“Might be an improvement. It would certainly be better than painting me nude.”

“that’s an awful thought.”

“Yeah, my body is gone. Can my mind be far behind?”

Just about then Max, the art student we had met yesterday, came in. We had invited him to help us with the project.

“Good to see you Max. Ready to give us a hand?” I said.

“Sure, what can I do?”

“Not much right now. We need your eye more than anything else. What do you think? Have a look,” I told him.

“It looks pretty good to me.”

“What would you do?” Stephen asked him.

“I don’t know.”

“Here, have a go,” Stephen handed him his brush.

This took Max, and I must say, me, by surprise. I wouldn’t think that Stephen would ever let anyone touch one of his paintings. Max took the brush and dabbled a couple of strokes on the canvas. Mainly, it turns out, on the background and quickly returned the brush to Stephen.

“I think that was an improvement,” Stephen said.

Stephen never ceases to amaze me. He often puts on a grouchy persona, but, in reality, he is a bit of a softy. During our time painting at the Beaverbrook, he was always polite and friendly in answering everyone’s questions particularly those from children and students. I, on the other hand, have no problem being constantly grumpy. I put it to lower back pain.

“Max,” I offered, “Why don’t you go in the staff room and make us all, yourself included, a cup of coffee and I think I left some cookies from yesterday.”

While Max was gone, I asked Stephen why he let him work on the painting.

“Look, he isn’t going to any harm and the painting still got a long way to go. What’s here today might be gone tomorrow and besides, it’s good for his ego.”

“You got a point, I guess. It’s interesting that you keep referring to the drawings, and even the photographs of the drawings, while I’m sitting right in front of you.”

“The drawings are a different thing. They are the product of non-thinking. Drawing is almost automatic.”

“I would call it creative non-thinking,” I replied.

“I guess that’s a good way of putting it.”

“In order for drawing to be automatic,” I said, “You’ve got to master it and here I mean technique.”

“You learn drawing by doing it over and over again until it becomes second nature,” he said.

“Learning to draw is sort of like learning to play the piano. Lots of practice makes perfect. Mind you, it still doesn’t explain great drawing which comes down to talent,” I countered.

“I’m pretty sure that talent is over rated,” he said, “I think we should hold this conversation until Max returns.”

“Ok, you paint and I’ll sit.”

Presently Max returned with the coffee and cookies and we took a break. “Max, Stephen and I were just talking about the importance of drawing. What do you think?” I said.

“I guess, it’s pretty important. I actually brought my sketchbook. Mind if I draw?”

“Well, you guessed right. If you can’t draw, you’re not an artist. As far as drawing here; I don’t see a problem. Do you, Stephen?”

“Sure, I would be interested in what you come up with, Max.”

“How were your drawing courses at the craft school?” I asked.

“They were Ok, but I wish that we had more drawing.”

“I think the problem with many contemporary artists is that they can’t draw,” Stephen said.

“Many of them took drawing courses from professors who couldn’t draw. We’re three or four decades into teaching drawing poorly,” I replied.

“It’s likely that they were trying to teach them art with a capital A rather than the craft of drawing,” Stephen said.

“Yeah, I’ve had discussions with a lot of teachers over the years who tell me that they’re not interested in teaching technique. They want to teach art.”

“I’ll bet that most of them had very little technique themselves.”

“You’re right, that’s the ticket.”

“Let’s get back to work,” Stephen said.

Back in place, Stephen had a hard look at me. “Move your head a little bit to the left and look up a tad. That’s better.”

“For you maybe, but I still have to write my notes.”

“You figure it out. I’m sure you can get back into position.”

“Look, no notes, no book.”

“I should really cost this painting out.”

“Do you mean in time or materials?”


“Don’t it would be too scary.”

“Yeah, the paint alone is costing me a fortune and, as for the time, even at minimum wage it’s running into the thousands.”

“It’s interesting that wealthy people want to nickel and dime you for a portrait. They just don’t get it. Look it’s going to work out to well over a hundred hours of painting to finish the project. You got three oil sketches, lots of drawings all leading up to this big sucker,” I said.

“Stop. You’re depressing me.”

“Perhaps, we can con some collector into buying the painting for the Beaverbrook.”

“Fat chance,” he said.

“Just keep focused,” I told him, “and we’ll be finished before you know.”

“Focus is a good point. How do you keep focused throughout your life? Some great artists seem to have figured it out; Picasso, Cézanne and Courbet for example.”

“It was French food and wine,” I suggested.

“No, I’m serious. It’s hard to be true to your own vision throughout your life.”

“Look, it’s all about liking yourself and your work.”

“Are you listening to this, Max?” Stephen asked.

Max who was drawing in his sketchbook, looked up and replied, “Yes, it’s interesting.”

“Remember, Max you’re listening to two old farts complaining,” I said.

“Actually, it’s more to my point,” Stephen said, “follow your dreams, Max, and be true to yourself.”

Stephen painted for a couple more hours before Sophie returned to the gallery and told us the gallery was about to close and that we should quit. “Take a few photos before we do,” I asked.

grumpy old men

Photo by Christopher Mackay


© Virgil Hammock, Sackville, NB Canada, 20 October 2014.