(From the August 2000 Issue)
I LIVED ON A FARM until I was twenty. Followed a plow. I was always glad that I spent my youth in the country. The farm gives you a rich background. Better, I should say, than living in the city.
When I was in the first grade, I drew a likeness of my teacher on the blackboard and they called me an artist. My father's suppressed desire was to be a lawyer and that is what he wanted me to be. I enjoyed reading as a young person and he used to criticize me for wanting to read poetry and about the arts.
He sent me to Ohio Wesleyan University and insisted that I take public speaking and law. He said, "After you get four years of this under your belt, you'll forget about artists and drawing books. Only one in a million makes it in art. Law leads to business administration, politics and law itself."
So my question was: "How can I tell if I am that one in a million if I don't try?"
I went to Provincetown, Massachusetts where there were lots of artists. I met Eugene O'Neill there and a lot of advanced art students. I was a farm boy who was very naive. Didn't know how to put a nickel in the subway slot. Didn't even know who O'Neill was at first. The boys I was with were more learned than me. They would talk about Faust. I didn't know about him. Then I spent four years in New York City studying art.
For two years I did abstract painting with a group of artists in New York. They were three years ahead of anything Picasso did. I painted a view with a tree, with blue water in the distance and two people in bathing suits walking toward the water, and a young Jewish girl said, "My God, when you can do this, why would you do these other things?"
It didn't take me long to make up my mind that I had to paint something that was closely related to human life, with bare feet on the ground. If I had kept at non-objective poses, I would have been nuttier than a fruitcake and I would have lost my mind. I think the essence of human life never changes. There are only so many kinds of yellow and so many kinds of blues. There are so many summers and so many winters.
"Three winters cold have from the forests shook three summers pride: Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn'd. In process of the seasons have I seen, three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn'd!"
I can find beauty in a pile of horse manure if the sun is shining on it. Once, when I was painting in a junk yard, I saw a pipe with the sun shining on it. It had as great a beauty as the crown jewels of England. It was a beautiful thing.
My father lived to be 77 years old. I showed him a $4,000 painting. My father was materialistic in the sense that he said, "Can you sell it?" So I showed him the check and, I think, though he wouldn't admit it, he was beginning to realize it was an easier way of making a living than raising corn or pigs.
I have never thought of myself as a materialist. Francis Bacon said this about money: "Great wealth is a great handicap and great poverty is a great handicap. Somewhere in between is the best." I kind of go along with that.
A person is influenced by every soul and every book they read. Most people don't read enough. Not early enough. Most people's minds deteriorate right along with their bodies. This is depressing. You can't talk to most people about anything worthwhile hardly. All they can do is gossip. This goes for men, too. Their minds are garbage dumps. Dirty jokes, gossip and sports. Then back to sex.
My head would come off if I saw more than two adults downtown carrying a book. Amend that. Carrying a worthwhile book.
I make this statement. A number of years ago my late wife and I went to the Chicago Institute of Art to see a collection of paintings loaned by the German government&emdash;master works by Franz Hals, Michelangelo, etc. In the same institute they had a show representing 200 years of American painting. Then we went through and saw that.
To put the ten greatest American paintings of the past in with the works of our predecessors . . . they are pretty puny. The greatest Bellows hung beside a Velasquez. American art is in the future.
There is little mural art in the United States worth contemplating. America must waken to a greater ap-preciation of all the arts. And the sciences! How confused, how disinterested we are!
And just because you are interested in the space program and you and fifty million other people watched John Glenn orbit the Earth&emdash;don't think you know anything about science.
Read, read, read. Discuss what you read with those few people that are also interested. Read up on anthropology and the biological sciences. Study history. Read philosophy.
ALL HUMAN BEINGS are lonely. You are either lonely or something worse &endash; tied to somebody who makes you wish you were lonely. You see, you can't win. You can't get out of this old world alive.
You can't educate most people. They're like sheep. The bell rings and away they go. Truth shocks people! They're so used to hearing falsehoods. I believe that. This holds true in painting, too. It isn't color or beauty, even, that stops you in a museum. It's truth!
I believe that it's the objective of the artist to put order into the world. An artist would make a good president. Better than a lawyer or a politician. An artist would be constructive, and he would create order and beauty.
Mumbo jumbo from the jungle. How about when
Picasso paints a woman? What is it? A new form of woman? The artist
can't fool me 'cause I know the female form hasn't changed since the
I don't want my women cut up into cubes.
I can talk better than I can write. Science doesn't impress me! H-bombs, super-jet airplanes &endash; the thing that impresses me most is that little machine in the top of a man's head that is responsible for those gadgets!
The biggest brains that have ever been put in the top of a Homo sapiens' head ain't improved much to this day. I mean from Socrates to Diogenes right on up to Bertrand Russell. None of them knew the origin of life, or its purpose. Me either!
This little nobbin is a very exciting machine. If you learned how to work it. Only last night I turned my little gadget back in time some fifty years. I suppose old Freud would have said these were my formative years. I dwelt on the time when I was between 18 and 24. Damn, I had a ball. I didn't have time to go further. That would have been thirty-five volumes!
In the next moment, I turned the little gadget into the future. I saw a building nine times as high as the Lincoln-LeVeque tower. The top was so big you could land a jet airplane on it. This next part will shock the people of Columbus because I saw exquisitely beautiful murals in the lobby of that building. Sounds impossible, doesn't it? The destructive forces had been abandoned and the constructive forces had taken over. They must have had an artist for president! And I don't mean Jacqueline.
Love is an awfully moving force in the world. Everybody should remain constant-ly in love. Wouldn't it be fabulous! Love isn't a faculty of youth alone. It's a human quality that need not ever end. I've been in love 700 times. Hell! I can't look at an exquisitely beautiful woman without
falling in love. Naturally, one doesn't always get reciprocation, or should I say cooperation. So, I'm for more cooperation. We've got to tune this old world up so everybody plays the fiddle!
I only paint people in love right now. Because they're so beautiful. One time I painted tragedy. Death! Dead duck! Dead man! One would need a hundred lives to paint the drama and suffering that goes on in Franklin County alone. If it were done truthfully it'd make Michelangelo, Shakespeare - yes, even Beethoven, curl up and die. Or, curl 'em up with envy.
There are paradoxes in all of us, aren't there? The ancient Greeks were very aware of this. For instance, I love peace, yet there are times that call for war. Then, there's the H-bomb.
I've read the great books. But, I don't love the scholars. I've talked to 300 Ph.D's that have bored me. They talk about Kafka, T.S. Eliot, Picasso. They're not thinkers; they're brain-washed idiots.
Paul Klee's painting, "The Flight of the Bird." Damn it, there's no bird! All brush and no nobbin. Like some of our politi-cians &endash; all mouth and no thinking apparatus. I say the complete man has to have time to think. You have to have time to make love.
I've got another little machine that generates
enthusiasm. It's a gadget that's attached to my thinking gadget. It
affects the whole body. The head, the heart and the hand. Works
unconsciously. Maybe that's a partial lie.
It works like magic.
I've been working on this with Charles Lindbergh
and Sherman Fairchild.
It won't be on the market the beginning of next century!
Once I was camping with an aristocratic Southern boy in the Everglades. In our tent that night he told 300 dirty stories. His mind was organized. I only remember the last story he told. I couldn't go to sleep. I thought, for every dirty story that boy told, I would fill my mind with one of the great classic masterpieces of prose and poetry. I did it!
You can put order into your mind. That nobbin. Just like in a clean and well-organized kitchen, you can put out good pancakes if you have the order and the right ingredients.
(To be continued)
Painting of Times Square by Emerson Burkhart. Owner unknown. Photo provided by Lynda Dickson.