Gone and Back

p1040671-1Montreal harbor, circa 1960

Lost in a haze of time, I recall in June 1961, at the ripe old age of 18, taking a train from Chicago to Montreal, arriving rather exhausted. I found a hotel, took a bit of a walk around, and went back and collapsed in bed. I awoke later and checked my watch which said it was 9:30 something, and I panicked: my ship was scheduled to leave at 8:30. I ran, checked out of the hotel and grabbed a taxi to the port and on getting there the slip was empty, the ship gone.  I was naturally crushed, and then inquired with someone around what the story was and found that it was not 9:30 in the morning as I had imagined, but at night!   I’d let the trip and the modest setting further north trick me into thinking the light in Canada would be much less than in Chicago.  My ship was leaving the next morning, though from a different pier than originally assigned.  I went to find it, and then checked into a harbor-side fleabag for sailors. Next day I boarded my ship, a quasi-passenger one that also hauled freight, and we went up the St Lawrence, passing Quebec, and on into the northern Atlantic. I recall almost nothing of this sea journey, unlike other such passages. I know the ship arrived in Le Havre for a stop before heading on to England where I debarked, the rest is simply erased.

d8bcd3257021e7e71b248b0dab18d44d.jpgTrafalgar Square, London, 1960’s

London in those days was a gray and gritty place, still very much recovering from the war, but 16 years away. I stayed at a youth hostel and then headed, hitchhiking, on to Bath, to leave my footlocker at the Bath Academy of Art. On arrival at this school, located a bit out in the country-side from the Edwardian crescents of town, I met the head master, who, when I said I’d be spending the summer hitch-hiking around Europe, advised me to go to museums and sketch the masters. Inwardly my eyes rolled at this, as my focus was fully on contemporary art, and I could scarcely look at an old Renaissance painting or other such thing, and certainly had no intention of sketching them. I kept my thoughts to myself, and noticing that the school seemed for a posh sort, where MGs and the like seemed the norm for the students, I concluded I’d not be going to school there after all. I left my stuff though, and headed out with my backpack and hitched around Europe for the summer. I don’t recall where I went or what I did, though a vague flickering of visiting Torino – almost a complete blank except for one thing: that a family that had picked me up hitching outside of Como took me to their home near Milano for lunch in Cassina Amata.  They asked me to stay but I left for Paris, taking their photo and address.

Casa natale Via Reali 18- 080The Rebosio house, Cassina Amata di Paderno Dugnano (Milano)

I only know at the end of the journey I’d booked passage on a freighter out of Liverpool, for New York, via St John’s Newfoundland, Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Boston.  I recall a bit of getting off in the Canadian towns for a brief look and then…?  Amnesia resumes.  I arrived in New York, and stayed at my parents a brief while, applying quickly to the Pratt Institute, which accepted me but required me to wait another semester. I was not inclined to do so, and headed back to Chicago where I checked with the people at IIT and after a talk with Jay Doblin, head of the Institute of Design, I was enrolled in their program, the foundation year. ID was located in the basement of Crown Hall, of the architecture school where I’d spent the previous year.

53e7a7d6-7939-4450-81d0-3d467d000af0St John, Newfoundland1200px-Halifax_view_from_Beacon_HillHalifax, Nova Scotia

The school was an off-shoot of the old German Bauhaus, originally founded by exiles from Nazi Germany.  It adhered almost religiously to a certain mode of Modernism, just as upstairs slavishly knelt at the altar of Miesien purity.  I was in the foundation course – with woodworking, welding, drawing, and photography all thrown into the works.  While sticking to the Bauhaus ethos, the place was much looser, and it was almost like playing. And the students ran from a mix of industrial designer sorts on to very artsy folks.  I naturally fell into the latter group.  My acquaintances included a few I remain in touch with, and some who became good friends:  Charles “Chick” Therminy (who died in spring, 2017), Kurt Heyl, Rodney Galarneau.  Among the teachers were Aaron Siskind and Joseph Jachna in photography.

h2_1991.1215Aaron Siskindbefc3fd1108eac5254338eb5b4dc1f39Joseph Jachna

Still with the thought I’d not be getting a degree, I spent the first semester happily indulging at a kind of play, of perhaps learning to be some kind of artist.  More or less I enjoyed it all, and in turn secured a straight-A grading at the conclusion of the period.  Even, as I recall, in the literature class where I remember writing what I think was a perceptive essay on the book The Beloved Country, by South African Alan Patton.  And life outside school was enriched with such new things as smoking weed (bad), and indulging in wine and beer (also bad).  My hair grew, perhaps in proportion to my mind, as I perused art galleries, went to concerts and exhibits, read a lot, and began to sort out my interior interests.  Most of this has evaporated into the haze of my memory, another smear of time lost but for a few vague landmarks I still recall.

Grant_Wood's_Daughters_of_RevolutionPhilip Guston, earlier work

The second semester went largely as had the first, as I easily out-distanced most of my peers in whichever class, sometimes to my dismay, and found myself wondering why I was in the same group whose work often seemed to me inept and unworthy.  I suppose I was unjustifiably a bit arrogant.


2007-09-25-mark-rothko-no-14-1960-7893Mark Rothko

And I began to rebel inside, and at the conclusion of the semester, as we mounted our “class show” of the best of the work each of us had done, I assembled my things, put them up, and surely would have received another straight-A list of grades.  However along with my work, I put up a little verbal manifesto accusing the school of being the same kind of “academy” that many of the teachers sneeringly put down, referring to old-time classical schooling – doing drawings from classic arts, etc.  Just this academy proselytized for “modernism” in its myriad forms.  I knew this commentary would not be taken well by some of the teachers so along with pinning it to the wall, as was done with the various art things, I also glued it.  The orientation year head was a nice, if rather flitty gay man, who taught the drawing class and was one of the hard-core school ideologues cattily denouncing the long-dead academy of yore.  I was not there when it happened, but as the assembled faculty approached our room to survey our work, Mr. X apparently did a final prance through the class display, saw my manifesto, and was found by the faculty attempting to tear it from the wall.  I was told this provocation elicited a range of responses, from a basic agreement that I was correct in my critique to vehement disagreement.  My grades reflected this, ranging from a D from Mr X, on to middling to A’s.  Had I held my peace I am certain I’d have again received straight A’s.  I left the school at the end of term, thinking this time of my life was over.

Low res 2Joseph Jachna

During the summer I looked for a job, if rather listlessly, and found nothing.  Encouraged by some friends I applied for a Post Office job, and going through all the tests and rigmarole, I passed easily.  At the end, we were to sign our contract and at the bottom of it was something I’d been told would not be there: a pledge of allegiance sort of thing about dear America.   I could not and did not sign it.  Kiss that job goodbye.  It was a hint of things to come – those letters I’d received from the Selective Service that I’d put in the circular file come to mind.   The next years would prove to be foundational.

Jasper Johns flag

john targetJasper Johns