Saturday, May 16, 2009

In which a young Stapleton meets the elderly Ives Gammell

I will continue with the "every brushstroke" posts in a day or two I thought I would throw in some variation. Here is the next installation in the ongoing autobiography. This post follows the post entitled ;" In which young Stape applies to art school and is found wanting". If you are new to this blog you may want to go to my sidebar and click on autobiography and read the earlier installments of this series. Or you may not.

Here I am in the mid 70's. I figured out that art school couldn't teach me to do the kind of painting I wanted to do. In fact the teachers there were both dismissive and unaware of the historical art that interested me. I met a student of R.H.Ives Gammell whose work floored me. I had never seen anyone who could do figures as well as he could.

I read "Twilight of Painting" Gammells book, then out of print. There was a student of Gammell , Richard Lack, who was running a training atelier in Minneapolis. I took a night course there but they didn't have room for another student and I wanted to get at the original stuff anyway, rather than learn it second hand. I began a correspondence with Ives Gammell and told him I would like to come to Boston and meet him. He agreed.

Through the Atelier Lack I had met a few students who had met Gammell, and they told me what it would be like. He was an ancient and very demanding relic of the Edwardian age. He was at that point 82 years old and did not tolerate fools well at all. He was an intimidating curmudgeon. I was told that he was really only impressed by one or two qualities in young men. The first was if the knew their art history, particularly their 19th century art history. That took some doing, in those days there were very few books on the subject and much of what there was, resided in the graduate stacks at the University as it was written in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Today I could buy books to learn about these artists on Amazon, back then it was secret knowledge. You had to read Kenyon Cox, and R.A.M. Stevenson, Phillip Hale, Bernard Berenson, Eugene Fromentin, and Georgio Vasari. I studied Harold Speed and Lumsdens Art of Etching. I read about the old masters, there were books on them, particularly those published by Abrams. Those were thick, expensive, volumes with the old" tipped in" plates. That is, the pictures of the art were printed separately from the book on special paper and then glued in by their tops to the pages . I still have my books on Titian and Ingres that I studied then.

I bought a bus pass from Greyhound that gave me the run of the country for a month, I could get on and off as I pleased. I used this to travel across the country seeing as much art as I could in the museums scattered east of Minnesota, I saw a LOT of art. I had grown up with art books and touring art museums as a child with my mother who was a culture fanatic mostly interested in 18th century furniture. I knew my orders of furniture before I knew the facts of life. I stayed in cheap hotels and youth hostels and traveled much of the time in the company of European students who were more commonly the users of the month long bus passes. I ended the trip in Boston , where I was to meet with Mr. Gammell. I stayed at the old Armed Services YMCA in Charlestown' Massachusetts, across a short bridge from Boston.

Gammell was summering at his studio in Williamstown Massaschusetts and I took the bus a few hours to get there. I checked into a guest house and one of the students came into town from the studio and picked me up. They were on their way to the grocery store and Ives was in the front passenger seat. He turned around in the seat and he looked just like a ferocious snapping turtle! Here is a picture of him.

I remember him addressing me as a visiting fireman and grilling me for information about Atelier Lack. I couldn't give him much of that, as I had never been deeply involved with it. At the grocery store we all got out of the car, I think it was one of those huge station wagons from that era, it belonged to Gammell, but he always had a student drive. I don't believe he ever drove. As he got out of the cart he tied his handkerchief to the radio antenna so he could tell his car from the others when the came out of the grocery. He said they all looked the same to him. I think it may have all been theater, but maybe he couldn't tell , he was born in 1893.

Now 35 years later I am trying to remember the details of what happened , but I only remember scenes in brief flashes like the night landscape illuminated by heat lightning. Gammell showed me the studios and introduced me to his students, Tom Dunlay and David Lowrey. Lowrey turned out later to be a friend to me and I admired his drawings. He was a few years older than I was and had returned only a year or two before, from a horrifying trip to Viet Nam. I never knew Dunlay as well. He was married and no doubt found little in common with me, as I was still pretty wild at that point in my life.

Gammell was returning in a few days to Boston, and he set up another appointment for me to visit him at the Fenway studios. This was the historic building where so many of Bostons impressionist painters had worked in their heyday. I returned to the Y and a day or two later I met as arranged with Gammell at his studio at 9.00 in the morning. The Fenway studios still exists and it isn't much changed . but then it was in a time warp. Only couple of blocks towards Back Bay from Bostons famous Fenway Park where evidently some sort of game was played. Particularly in the next year, 1975.

I opened the massive wooden doors with their black iron strap hinges and entered the balconied two story lobby area. It smelled of paint and varnish. Oliver Brothers, the restorers were the closest tenant to the lobby and in those days they did hot wax relining , that and the varnish combined into the most fabulous and evocative smell. It smelled like art history.

The old black man who was the guard and elevator operator, Reggie, cackled endearingly and waved around hands that were the size of tennis rackets as he talked nonstop. He opened the steel door to the elevator and piloted it with one of those bronze and black Bakelite levers mounted waist high on the wall. I believe there was one of those accordion style iron gates that had to be pulled closed before the elevator would run.

Reggie stopped the elevator at the 4th floor where Ives had his studio and I walked down the narrow, creaking wood floored hallway to the oak door that belonged to studio 401. One of the students let me in and I descended the stairway from the balcony to the floor level of the two story studio. One wall was taken up by high windows facing north and divided into about a thousand muntined panes. There were blackout shades drawn not from the tops of the windows but halfway up from the bottom.This had been William Paxtons studio and I don't believe Ives had changed it much. Paxtons enormous blonde wooden studio easel with its crank and high mast stood in the middle of the room.

Ives spoke briefly to the other students, he had newspaper clippings of art criticism from the New York Times in his hand and he was incensed at something a critic, perhaps Clement Greenberg had said. He dismissed his two students to studio 408 to spend the morning drawing figures as they did every day. Ives then beckoned me to a tiny living room under the balcony where he had a little sofa and a couple of chairs. Wearing a blue painters smock he laid down on the sofa and told me what the format of our meetings would to be. Each day for three days I was to meet with him at 9:00. He would ask me three questions, and I would ask him three questions, each day.

He began by showing me a folio of his drawings from when he was very young at about the time of the Spanish American War. The drawings were, I think, of scenes of knights on horseback, perhaps they were illustrations for Ivanhoe. I don't remember too much about them other than that they looked OK, and that I thought I could match them. I didn't say that to Ives of course.

Each of the three days we met, and he asked me his three questions and I asked him mine. I remember him inquiring about my background and my interest in art. I have always spoken pretty well and I gave a good account of myself. He asked me about painters and painting. I had been studying for months to be ready.

The last question he asked me, I do remember, and that was "Who was Alfred Stevens?" Now today with so many books around about 19th century painting you would find some artists who would know the answer to the question, but in 1974 being able to answer that was unusual in a 22 year old art student to say the least. I answered that there were actually two Alfred Stevens, one a painter from Belgium and the other an English sculptor whose lion for the railings of the British museum I had read about in Harold Speed. It was like an artistic version of the bar exam, and I had just passed it.

My last question to Ives was "will you teach me to paint?" He answered that he had a full contingent of students already, but if I could secure a place in the studios somewhere, he would give me criticism. At no point did he have an interest at all in seeing my portfolio. He explained that it was impossible that I could know anything about drawing from the inadequate training I had received in the art schools . He merely wished to ascertain whether I was sufficiently interested to work diligently to learn the art and that I was smart enough to be worth the trouble of teaching.

Someone suggested that I talk to a student of another artist, Robert Cormier who had a studio in the building in which I could rent a place to sleep. There was no room in that studio for me to work, but the cadre of students quickly found me a spot to work that I could rent from an artist a few floors below, Sam Rose. I now had a studio and a place to sleep in Fenway studios. I took the bus back to Minnesota and packed a few belongings into my fathers old army footlocker, grabbed my Epiphone six string and took the train, The Empire Builder, back to Boston to begin my training in the art of Classical oil painting at the hands of R.H. Ives Gammell.

Even then I knew how lucky I was to study with this living fossil who wanted to hand down what had been his own training received from William Paxton, who had studied with Leon Gerome, who had studied with Paul Delaroche. Delaroche was a student of Antoine- Jean Baron Gros, who had in turn studied with Jaques Louis David. David was trained by Francois Boucher, who was of course taught by Francois Lemoyne. Lemoyne was a student of Louis Galloche, himself a student of Louis Boullogne. Boullogne ll, of course, was trained along with his brother Bon, by their father Louis Boullogne l who was born in 1609. I never met any of those guys.
Less, tomorrow.


Kunst Kommt Von K├Ânnen said...

Very interesting to read. I especially like(and very informative for that time) Gammells disinterest at your portfolio and his reason for that.

willek said...

Terrific, Stape. Just great to hear. I went to an open studio there about two months ago and it is a fascinating place. You have to be commended for sticking to your plan at that age. I would probably have just gone along with the crowd at that time in my life.

Yesterday I went to the 5 P>M> gallery talk at Powers Gallery by Harley Bartlett. His paintings were terrific and were the epitome of what you and Edgar Payne have been saying about composition. It was as though his painting was so wonderfully executed that he was not going to waste it on marginal composition. Lots of cloud shadow to dramatize the work. Strong Use of "Power Points." He gave a slide show about his mural work, which was pretty impressive, but the best part was what he said about painting afterwards. He said way he approaaches easel work now is influenced by the morel process. He now mixs much of his pallet colors early in the process so that he does not have to be bothered with it during the slap up. His landscapes all had prominent animals in them and he said he is working on bringing human figures into his work, but said it is very difficult as there is so much these figure can say or mean and he wants to be sure of his message. It will be interesting to see what he does. Willek

Jesse said...

Great read. I find that kind of thing fascinating. I'm curious as to whether he taught any kind of landscape? It seems like most of the ateliers are 90% figure and 10% still life, and the landscape gets to fend for itself.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. Its fun to have someone reading my blog in Germany

Stapleton Kearns said...

Harley Bartlett is a fine painter. I admire his art when I go through Powers Gallery. I think I have met him but I don't actually know him.

Stapleton Kearns said...

In the summer Ives taught landscape up at Williamstown. I was alwqys sort of on the periphery and the two inner circle students went there for the summer. there were only 3 studio there. One for Ives and a studio for two students.I never had a landscape lesson from Gammell. I remember him talking about washing his eyes out in Gods clear sunlight.
I believe I will answer the rest of your question as tonights post.

Carl Samson said...

Hey Stape

What a great post! In addition to being a fine painter you're a helluva writer - a kind of 21st century update on Kenyon Cox but a whole lot more entertaining.

Your poetic evocation of Gammell and his studio really brought me back, Stape. In my case, jut a few years after your initial visit. I first met Ives in the spring of my senior year in high school. Drove up from Sandusky, Ohio in my sister's borrowed Volkswagon Rabbit in April, 1978. Your description of Fenway Studios is "spot on" and nearly palpable in suggesting the vibe that place gave off. From Reggie right down to the elevator. I could almost hear the hallway floors creak as I was reading it. Remember it still ran on DC current back then? The whole of American art history was incredibly real to me being in there. I, too, rented separate sleeping quarters (from a restorer) and studio space from a painter who had been a model along side "Twiggy". She benefited from that as Gammell admired her talent, and she ended up getting critiques from him as well.

In any case, your blog is flat out one of the best things on the web. Much can be learned from you! Bravo!