My Rhinos

The Rhino

Why do I like to draw the rhinoceros? My figures, animals or humans, have a chubby, cuddly quality.  Even my old people look like children. If I were to draw puppies and kittens they would be sickenly sweet.  I look animals with some grit, that don’t look cute.

That led me to the Rhino. I had been thinking about rhinos for years since I found this  picture in the Daily News.

 Four rhinos walking down a road, just ambling along–four dudes out for a walk.  Isn’t the rhino a solitary creature? Not according to these guys. I don’t know where they were or what they were up to. They look so companionable. They look like the bandidos in The Wild Bunch or George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice strolling down a road in Texas, but nice.

You can see by how yellow it is that I’ve saved it for a long time.  I  wanted to do something with rhinos but I knew my draughtsmanship wasn’t up to the task. So I practiced, 

I think of the Rhino as a plodding heavy grumpy beast but I saw one trotting around in a large enclosure at the Bronx Zoo, surprisingly light-footed and graceful.   Then I read the obituary of Anna Merz, Rhino Guardian and Champion, who built a Rhino Sanctuary in Africa.  Rhinos — far from being the stupid, aggressive, ill-tempered sorts many suppose — were, in her words, beautiful and elegant. She blamed their bellicosity on their poor eyesight, leading them to charge first and ask questions later. She found that rhinos have a sense of humor and that they communicate by altering their breathing rhythms. She read them Shakespeare to soothe them.

Then I met the bronze rhino on the Plaza of Musee D’Orsay, and had a moment of perfect happiness.   

The elements of that moment were;

  1.  I was in Paris, with Arthur.
  2.  It was a chilly day but the sun was warm on my face.
  3.  In a few minutes we would meet friends and go out for a nice lunch.
  4. I’d like to add my children, but they were teen-agers and the best I could say   was they were safe at home under someone else’s supervision.
  5. Maybe most important, I had an idea for a new series of drawings percolating in my brain.

I went home and drew that rhino from all directions, in different settings, sometimes walking in Paris with Degas’s little ballerina.

You can see more rhinos in my Rhino Gallery.

Rhino-in-the-House-copy

Four Rhinos

Little furniture

When I complained to a friend at work about having to plan dinner yet again she told me the tale of the little table. It seems all you had to do was clap your hands and say “Come, Little Table, come!” and a table would trot in, beautifully set with a delicious meal. When you’d eaten your fill you just clapped your hands and said, “Go, Little Table, go!” and it would trot off to wash the dishes. “So,” I said, “where do I get one of those little tables?”  The closest I could come was to make a drawing.

Then when Jessie was about three she asked me as we were walking in New York City, “Why don’t homeless people just get jobs?” 

I took a deep breath and said; “Well… what do you need in order to get a job? First you have to go on a job interview.  You should be rested so you need a bed. You have to be clean so you need a bathtub. You should be well-fed so you need a stove and a table. We came to the conclusion that to have a home you need a job-but to get a job you need a home.

This series of drawings is a meditation on home. As I drew I thought of more things a home needs–a chair to sit and think, a fireplace to keep cozy, extra chairs for when friends come over.  What does a home provide us and what does our home need from us?  What does it take to have a life?

James Baldwin, Charles Lindbergh and a Tow Truck

When my daughter, Jessie, was three she was terrified of tow trucks.  That was my fault.  I’d say, “C’mon, c’mon, we have to hurry, the tow truck’s gonna get our car.”  She’d run ahead of me and reach up to grab the door handle, protecting the car from marauding tow trucks. 

“As long as I’m here, no tow truck will take our car,” she seemed to say. 

Imagine her delight when she spied a tow truck towing another tow truck.  It felt like vindication to her.

I told that story for years until it became part of Jessie’s legend. She grew up and told it to her daughter Molly.  Molly loved it so much she begged to hear it over and over, then she told it to her friend, Flynn, as if she’d seen it with her own eyes.  Then Flynn told the story as if he’d been there.  Now it’s legend and I’m sure one day Flynn’s grandson will say to his grandchildren, “Did I ever tell you about the time I saw a tow truck towing another tow truck?”  A story becomes a legend.

 

“I just re-read The Fire Next Time,” I told Jessie. “James Baldwin.  What a beautiful writer he was.”

“I know,” she said.  “I’ve read everything he wrote.  Plus, he said I was a cute baby.”

“Oh, I think that’s just one of your father’s stories,” I said.

She said to me, without anger, “Why would you take that away from me?”

Why indeed? I could have bitten my tongue. 

“You know, now that I think of it,” I said, “James Baldwin did live on Horatio Street when we did, and I often saw him walking by.  I’m sure he looked into your stroller and of course he would have said you were a beautiful baby.”  

I have since checked with Arthur, who was there.  He said, “Yes, it happened.  I wouldn’t make that up.”  So it’s true, and it’s Jessie’s story, her legend.

 

My mother was born on Long Island in May 1927, the week that Charles Lindbergh took off from nearby Roosevelt Field to make his historic flight across the Atlantic.  My grandfather liked to say that as he drove his wife and new baby home from the hospital home he looked up, saw the plane, waved and said, “Good Luck, Lindy!”

Is that a true story?   It’s a good one, full of hope for the future, the beginning of a heroic journey and a brand new life.  Is craft involved?  Did my grandfather conflate two separate events to make a compelling narrative?  He wasn’t writing a newspaper account, he was creating a family myth.  I believe in the absolute value of verifiable facts but I also believe in the value of a good story. I’m sorry he’s not here for me to ask.

  Our stories make us who we are and they are ours to tell. Sometimes they’re absolutely true in the verifiable, fact-checking sense.  And sometimes they’re true in the sense of legend and myth. 

My father was a storyteller who often repeated himself and we teased him for it. One Christmas as we drove away from his house my son Sam, age ten, said, 

‘I don’t know why you give PopPop such a hard time.  I think his stories are great and I love them every time.”

Oft-repeated, well-loved stories make up our family lore.  When they move into the next generation they bring back lost loved ones.  Sam reminded us to be grateful for them.

Will you tell me your story?

The Pelican

This collage made of pen and ink and watercolor is one of my favorite creations but I needed a little serendipity to complete it.
First I drew the table without thinking of anything else. I echoed the curve of that leg with the billowing curtain. I got very wrapped up in drawing the ivy leaves on the wall paper, and then gave it a gray wash to make the table stand out. Unfortunately the empty space out the window left me uninspired and I put the piece away in the flat file.
At another time on another piece of paper I drew the pelican. He was better than the background I had given him so cut him out, and put him away.
The two pieces lay in obscurity until I decided to clean out the overflowing drawers, making piles of Keep, Throw Away and What Do I Do With This? The Pelican and the table by the window fell together and Voila! They were made for each other. The swell of the pelican’s chest echoes the curtain and the table leg, the colors in his feathers echo the gray in the sky. The unexpectedness of his being there rates a double-take. Did he just fly in the window? What’s he doing there? So many questions. Thank you, Muse.
The pelican is a favorite of mine; so goofy on land, so graceful in flight. You will often see a pelican sculpture in an old graveyard. He’s a symbol for Christ because early observers noted red on the breasts of nesting pelicans. They surmised that the mother plucked at herself to make her blood flow to feed her chicks; thus she became a symbol of self sacrifice. Turns out the red was just a phase in the plumage but the idea stuck; that’s why you see pelicans standing over the graves of the long ago dead.
Was it the muse or the holy spirit who put my two images together? Are “muse” and “holy spirit” two names for the same inspiration?

Four Yankees hold a conference in the Unicorn Tapestry

Conference in the Paris Opera House

no images were found

Engine 252

Art History for Second Graders

When I was teaching second grade Art one of the parents asked if we ever talked about art appreciation.  That’s a good idea I thought and so we made an art history book.  I gathered postcards of famous works of art and dealt them out to the kids, face down.   I then asked them to draw the work and write an essay about it.

Some suggestions for the essay were;  first, name the artist and the work.  Then, what do you think the artist was thinking about?  What does this piece of art make you think about, or how does it make you feel?  And, What would it be like if you were in this picture?

The results were fabulous and sometimes hilarious. The artist who wrote about The birth of Adam from the Sistine Chapel said; “You can tell which one is God because he’s the only one with clothes on.”

The student who chose the Portrait of Princess Alberte de Broglie was, happily, a girl.  when she turned over the card her eyes popped, and she wrote in her essay; “If I were in this picture I’d be a princess and I’d have a new dress every day.”  She is now an adult and I’m sure her ambitions and her achievements have far surpassed her early dreams.  But it is a great dress.