©2014 By Bob Litton
I have made brief references in previous posts to my graphic art interests. And, truthfully, in my youth I seriously considered becoming an artist, primarily an illustrator. For, unlike some of my favorite artists, such as N.C. Wyeth and Edward Hopper, I did not view illustration as a prostitution of talent which they had to perform to survive financially.
In my early childhood, I learned much about drawing from comic books. I started a couple of comics pages myself, but never completed a story, an eternal fault in me. Also, my father occasionally brought me some Ford Times magazines, a small (4×6 inches) magazine that the motor car company distributed to its dealerships from the 1920’s until the 1980’s. Therein I saw delightfully finished watercolors, some of which I copied.
By the time I was in junior high, dreaming of becoming a cowboy, I read novels by Andy Adams (Smoky and Log of a Cowboy) and Tom Lea (The Wonderful Country), which they illustrated as well as authored. Some of my subsequent style was influenced, if ever so slightly, by Adams’ drawings. In particular, his drawings led me to try pen-and-ink sketching; and they suggested to me the importance of texture and shadowing.
In high school, I had pretty much outgrown my cowboy dreaming and given up the idea of an art career as well. At one point I “dedicated” my future to the ministry; a short while later, having read Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense, I shifted to a future as a lawyer.
Before I could enter any of those fields, however, I had to get my military obligation over with; so, not wanting to slog down a muddy road as a foot soldier, I joined the air force. And that’s when my artistic gifts — both as a graphic artist and as a writer — resumed their place in my life.
In the fall of 1959, I and about a dozen other airmen who had just arrived on the island of Okinawa had not received our permanent assignments yet. For a week or so we did menial type stuff, like cleaning up a storage building. Then, one morning as we stood in formation outside the barracks awaiting our day’s chore order, the first sergeant asked if there was an artist in the bunch. I raised my hand. The sergeant told me to go over to the crafts center and create a large Christmas scene to be placed above the hallway entry in Group headquarters (which was also our barracks building). I cannot recall if the sergeant gave me some money out of a petty fund box, or a requisition slip; anyway, it was not I who paid for the pastels and two large sheets of paper with which, that day, I finished the task: a Nativity scene. Just think, Uncle Sam was my first patron!
(You can enlarge this and the other images by clicking on them.)
Now, I realize that many of my readers are going to utter something like, “Ugh, how amateurish! The baby’s almost as big as his momma, Joseph’s staff looks like it is penetrating the child’s head, and those camels look more like overgrown cats!” But there are some positive elements here which I would like to point out to you: the baby looks like an actual baby instead of like a tiny adult, which too many “madonna and child” paintings present; the composition on the right-hand half of the picture (one of the two sheets of paper) is admirably balanced; and, on the left-hand page, the three magi arrive in a manner suggestive of progression. (One of the weaknesses in art, for me at that time, was that, compared to literature and music, one could hardly portray a sense of time passing.) Also, although I doubt that my notion of symbolism extended thus far at that time, the shepherd with the grossly long arm seems to be holding his staff in a manner that suggests a barrier to the pagan world: Thus far and no further!
I was not really very interested in religion when I did that Nativity scene; it was just my assignment. However, one day an airman, overtaking me in the barracks’ hallway, stopped me and said, “Here, Litton. I thought you might want this.” It was a slide negative of my Nativity piece as it appeared over the hallway entrance that holiday season. I carried the negative with me for 25 years before having it printed. By then I was a recovering alcoholic in AA and had just regained my spirituality; so, literally as well as spiritually, my spirituality went from negative to positive after 25 years.
The following year, at the Protestant chaplain’s request, I wrote a poetic treatment of the Nativity story. My free verse rendering, when read by the chaplain on AFRTS, was interspersed with carols sung by a small choir. When we were leaving the studio, the program director came out of his area, waving his copy of our script, and told us, “That was the best thing we’ve ever produced here!” Unfortunately, I gave the only copy of it I had to a girlfriend; she was a theology student. She told me shortly afterwards that she had thrown it away. I didn’t ask her why, but I believe it was because of her ultra-liberal mind-cast, which had little use for mythology. For a while I recalled many of the lines, but now I can summon up only a few:
Seven archangels stood before the Lord,
And their leader was Gabriel the “hero of God”;
The Lord spoke to Gabriel from his dais
Above the sun……………………..
“At first I thought my wrathful flood would cleanse them
But now I see that only love beyond reason will endure.”
A couple of years after leaving the service, I was an art major at the university. I did several pieces — water color, oil and tempera — during the two years before I changed my major to history. I sold one (a tempera of a modern Faust) to one of my classmates for $20; a few months later, while I was visiting at her apartment, I noticed the work on the floor with one corner chewed by her dog. I gave away most of the others, including two watercolors and an oil to a girlfriend who had them framed and years later admitted to me that she had lost them during her several moves. (She was the same young woman to whom I had given my Nativity poem.) I left an oil painting copy of Rembrandt’s “The Falconer” in my brother Elbert’s apartment; years later, one of his carpet layers, to whom Elbert had given the painting, told me somebody had offered him $50 for it. So, you see, financial gain was never a major incentive for me when it came to art.
I did do one art work on commission: a student majoring in another discipline told me his parents would like for me to do a sculpture of an old man and would pay me for it; I asked for $35 when I turned the finished piece over to his father. At the time, I had been admiring a popular “coffee table book” titled Family of Man. I resorted to it for my model: the late New York State Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand. (Don’t ask me how he got that moniker; I haven’t the faintest notion.) I sculpted a clay bust of Learned Hand and, being thoroughly irreligious by that point, titled it “Jehovah”:
My friend gave me these two Polaroid photos without my asking for them. Obviously they show the limits of photographing a gray object with a flash camera, but they are adequate to the purpose of retention as a memento. My friend’s name was Scott Lindsey. I don’t recall his parents’ names nor his sister’s. But they were a close family and good to me.
Before I leave “Jehovah”, I want to include another photo which my friends took, apparently using available light. It is weirdly dark except for some highlights on the heads and shoulders of Jehovah and myself, which, to me, makes it an artwork in itself of Impressionistic qualities. There is also a slight sense of the mystical resulting from the darkness/highlights aspect.
Before I gave up my art major, I completed another piece that I consider noteworthy in its draftsmanship, although I concede that the subject is not one fit for home decoration: It is the only mature work I have kept for myself and hangs now on my living room wall. I have titled it, humorously, “After Work H2O Cocktails”. It is a pencil-drawn copy of a whiskey ad I admired in a magazine. When I am blushing over memories of my artistic attempts, this drawing assures my soul that, once upon a time, I did indeed have the makings of an artist.
These guys are obviously professionals, possibly lawyers or CPA’s or Wall Street investment types, who work at the same firm. In fact, I would wager that the elder gentleman on the left is the firm’s founder, or at least the senior partner, and the fellow on the right with his elbow resting on the middle chap’s shoulder is next in line, while the latter is a “probie”. They might even be members of the same family — three generations!
Of late, I have wished I had kept at it with art. With the ease and inexpensiveness of publishing these days, everybody wants to be a writer. Would you believe that even the author of Ecclesiastes and Martin Luther both complained that too many books were being written? Also, while writing, depending on your memory of what you read long ago or “heard from a dead French lord”, you might be unintentionally inventing or carrying forward a falsehood; while in art, all you have to do is render what appears before you.
Just a few years ago I tried to resuscitate my artistic gift by copying with pencil some photographs in newspapers: It was a very disappointing exercise. What’s the old saying, “Use it or lose it”?
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