Tuesday, November 29, 2011


My Life in Art
Part 1

My mother claimed that I drew pictures on the carpet with my baby shoe. Many years later I have switched to pens and brushes. The recent DeKooning exhibit at MOMA showed his later years consumed by large paintings with simple sweeping brush strokes. Older artists often turn to abstraction or simpler approaches. My later years have taken a different direction. For reasons unbeknown to me each painting seems to get more intricate and my number 2 brush needs to often be replaced. It has not always been that way.

The first drawing lesson I can remember happened in a back pew of the First Presbyterian Church in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania. I was young, pre-school, and the sermon was boring. To keep me occupied my father took a pencil and paper and showed me how to draw the profile of an automobile. I then proceeded to copy it. This was the last interest my father ever showed in my art career that I can remember. My parents never asked at any time what I was doing with my art that I can think of. I was pretty much a self-starter.

My next interest in art came with the inception of the comic book. When Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Submariner first appeared, I was in junior high-school and just the right age to latch on to them. They were a dime apiece, and I had a paper route that supplied me with the income I needed to purchase a few each month. Once again I would copy them with little pencil drawings. By doing this I got to know the different styles of drawing. My favorite was a character named Black Hawk. He led a band of heroes who each had a weird little airplane styled to the personality of the pilot. Of course month by month one of the heroes was killed by our Axis enemies.

At this time we lived in Steubenville Ohio. We seemed to live in communities that fostered singers. Canonsburg was the home of Perry Como, and Steubenville of Dean Martin. I never met either of them but I believe Perry’s father cut my hair, being one of the local barbers. If I had had the insight to save those early comic books I would be a multi-millionaire today.

The first serious interest in art came when I was in high-school, if you can consider cartooning a serious art. I read all the weekly magazines; Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, and Life. They were filled with wonderful story illustrations and cartoons. I became a student of the different cartoonists and decided I would like to be one of them. I began to submit ideas by mail to these unknown cartoon editors and acquired a large pile of rejection slips. Of course my style of drawing was primitive since I had no training. It is interesting to me that the present cartoon editor of the New Yorker seems to have reincarnated my style of the time. This, I fear, is a comment on the quality of drawing of the cartoons in that magazine now.

Which brings me to my discovery of that publication. I heard somehow that there was a magazine that had the best cartoons called the New Yorker and I became the only student in my ghetto high-school who read The New Yorker from cover to cover each week. And the cartoons were glorious. Peter Arno, Charles Addams, Mary Petty, Whitney Darrow Jr., and many many others inspired me. The ideas were sophisticated and the drawings were exquisite. I still remember Mr. Darrow’s cartoon of a nanny reading to her young wards, “Coked to the gills, Rodney lunged toward the supine figure on the red plush couch.”

I also submitted to the New Yorker my ideas with the same results. I never sold one, but became more educated by that magazine than by my feeble high-school curriculum.

I just became aware that Woody Allen was supporting his family by selling jokes when a sophomore in high-school. I’m afraid I didn’t have that same success, but art was now part of me and I had begun.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011



Recently the Curator for Contemporary Art at the Princeton University Art Museum was heard to say that whatever appears not to be art was “Art”. Turning this into a syllogism I assumed that whatever, then, appears to be art is not “Art”.

I know this seems to be a great leap forward, but after browsing through the contemporary galleries in Chelsea and the Museum of Modern Art I began to think the concept correct. What is now being accepted as contemporary art has little to do with what I have thought to be art. Specifically, my own work as an artist probably is no longer art.

I don’t do conceptual art, although I think every painting has some sort of concept, however old fashioned. I don’t do installations. I must admit I’m not handy at building things. And I don’t do videos. I do not feel qualified to judge these new versions of art, unless seventy years of attendance at movies, now called film, has any judgmental validity.

You will notice that I haven’t mentioned painting as a category of contemporary art. I do think there are great living painters still working today, but I get the feeling that more and more they are thought of as part of history.

Which brings me to my own personal dilemma. Since I no longer seem to do what is called Art in the contemporary world, what is it I do? If I am no longer an artist, what can I call myself? I have to find another genre or category into which I can fit.

I admit that some consider me elderly. I was fired from my last university teaching job by an art faculty that did not consider the drawing and painting skills I taught valuable enough to be part of a computerized curriculum. So age may be a factor. I do know that my work will increase in value after I have gone to that great art studio in the sky. I have even pondered faking my own demise to watch it happen, but that may be tempting fate. At any rate, I’m probably a part of history now, however minor a part that may be.

One day my wife, the excellent artist, Lucy Graves McVicker, and I were waiting at the train station to go to New York City, when we heard this conversation.

First Gentleman: “Don’t you have a seat in Club 100? (Club 100 was a special chair car on an earlier express train for high-powered executives. You had to wait for a member to die to get elected to the vacant seat. I believe inflation has changed the name to Club 200)

Second Gentleman: “Yes, but I find this later local more convenient for my time schedule at the office”.

First Gentleman: “Then why do you keep your seat in Club 100?”
Second Gentleman: “Well, because, to tell you the truth, I want it mentioned in my obituary in the Times.”

Moral: We’re all looking for our place.

Since none of the skills I have developed during my lifetime are any longer valid in the art world, do I create my own world? Perhaps, as I develop these blogs on my life in art, I will find my place.

Saturday, May 7, 2011


My earliest memory is not a pleasant one. My father, mother and I were living with my mother’s parents. It was a large brick house in Canonsburg, PA. It had a spacious yard and a barn in back to store large equipment my grandfather sold in his hardware store. It also had a chicken coop which was my five year-old hideout. I do not now remember what I had done, but I had displeased my father, and fearing his anger I ran as fast as I could to escape him. After some distance he caught me and tucked me under his arm and stomped back into the house. He carried me up to my parents’ bedroom and taking a leather soled slipper began to spank me.

At this point, hearing my screams, my mother came into the room and told him to stop. “Don’t you ever do that again,” she said to him. It was then he uttered those fateful words, “He’s yours.”

It turned out, he meant it. My relationship with my father from then on was distant. I must say, here, that my parents never deprived me of anything I needed and supported all my chosen activities. But my father never joined me in any of those activities. When I was playing high-school football, knowing him to have been a fine athlete, I asked for any tips he might give me to improve my inexperienced game. His answer was that my coaches would help me

At another time I must have expressed interest in the trumpet. He bought me one and handed it to me. He was a musician and had played the trumpet, but offered no instruction. I had no idea what to do with the instrument and put it away, never to play.

Carl McVicker was the second son in a family of eight children, four boys and four girls. My grandfather McVicker, for whom I was named was an immigrant Scot who had become a superintendent in a Western Pennsylvania coal mine. He died when I was quite young. I only remember him sitting in a living room chair with a blanket on his knees. My grandmother (and I don’t remember her first name} was a German immigrant from a family named Fehl.

I know that at least five of the children graduated from college. Sandy, a World l veteran, became an engineer. John was an educational administrator. Edna, a musician, married a bank executive. Esther became a nurse and married an oil engineer. Minnie was a school teacher.

Ann, the youngest, married and lived with her husband who’s profession was unclear, lived, it seemed, in various trailer parks. I long ago lost track of them.

Henry, the black sheep, was a bit of a gigolo,and escaped Canonsburg leaving behind an illegitimate daughter whom the McVicker clan never accepted. Only my parents kept contact and offered help and sympathy to the distraught mother. I later discovered Henry, as an assistant golf pro at a Los Angeles country club, picking up the balls at the driving range. Being the handsome fellow he was, he married a wealthy real-estate agent who loved him dearly and took care of him. But he ultimately left her and married a younger woman by whom he had another daughter.

My father did not go to college. It has been my suspicion that he may have been dyslexic. He had many talents. After his six-year unemployment during the depression, he did many things, among them, selling Electrolux vacuum-cleaners. His last working years were spent as a machinist in Southern California aircraft parts factory. But for many years he was employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad as an electrician. He could do anything with his hands, another skill he never passed on to me.

But his main love was singing. He had taken singing lessons from a fine teacher in Pittsburgh and become the baritone member of the Red Arrow Quartet. The quartet was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Railroad as representatives of the railroad all over the country. Their gimmick was that they were singing railroad workers. They were some of the first to perform on the new communications medium, radio, singing on KDKA, one of the first stations in the USA. These were the most happy days of his life, I believe. But the Depression descended on the country, and the first thing the PRR did was not only discontinue the quartet, but fire them as railroad workers. His singing career then became secondary. He sang as a church soloist and doing what are now called gigs at weddings and funerals and such.

Ruth Washabaugh met Carl in the church choir. I know little of her childhood. She had two sisters, Margaret and Alice. They all went to Geneva College, a Covenanter school. Margaret married a chiropractor and Alice, a dentist. After college Ruth became an elementary school teacher, a profession she maintained all her adult life, finally retiring in her seventies. As in all times of economic downturn both parents must work, and her income carried us through the tough years of the Depression when Carl was unemployed.

Ruth and Carl were married and became a couple dedicated to each other in every way. She to his talent and he to her intellect and stability. I still remember Sunday afternoons in my grandmother’s living room. Aunt Minnie would be at the piano, and a few family members would sit appreciatively while my father would go through his repertoire, all the baritone classics including “The Road to Mandalay.” Ruth adored his musical talent and he bowed to her every wish and and decision. This included being a constant chauffeur. She was never confident driving a car.

Although Carl was honest with all, to the point of tactlessness at times, Ruth would defend him fiercely. As she was the most loyal daughter, she was also the totally loyal wife.

She had strong views on many things. Many of them were political. At one time during the Depression, she was employed in Washington PA, the county seat, as an evaluator to determine who was eligible for welfare (at that time called relief). It was not supposed to be a political appointment, but a Republican administration was voted into office, fired her, and gave her job to a person whom she thought unworthy. That act was never forgiven till her death at 93. We all remember her shaking her finger and commentating about some news report on the TV that displeased her. And this was before Fox News!

In their late years, Carl, though physically able, was more difficult to care for. We would take them weekly to their favorite deli, and he would insist on his hamburger with butter on the roll and coffee “with the meal!” Badgered waitresses were a bit frightened when he would grab their wrist to make sure they got the proper instructions. As he declined mentally, ritual was what he latched onto to remain stable. My mother had reached her limit when one afternoon he suffered a stroke and was taken to the hospital. He fought desperately not to be taken from his home.

In the hospital, he insisted that Ruth not come to visit him. And she didn’t. I would see him daily, and try to comfort him. He had tubes coming out of every body opening and was not happy. They talked on the phone, but never saw each other again. He died after a few days in the hospital.

Ruth lived with us a short time, but we could not give her the complete dedication and chauffeuring services Carl had. She decided to return to her home territory in Western Pennsylvania to a Covenanter retirement home. There were friends from college there, and my beloved cousin, Jeanne, supplied all her extra needs weekly.

I would visit when I could, and we would have discussions of past times. I was an only child, and I knew that, because of the difficult birth, the doctor had advised no more children. Because of that she had had an abortion, and a later miscarriage. She told me she had never enjoyed sex and felt she had missed something.

She also seemed unaware of my distant relationship with Carl. I have felt that their complete dedication to each other left little room for me. Although I was free to pursue my chosen activities, they didn’t take part. Ruth never came to a sports event that I was part of, although I was on varsity teams in both high school and college. And she was surprised when a teacher told her I was master of ceremonies at the annual high school band concert.

However, my favorite memories of my childhood were times when something would amuse both Ruth and me and we would fall into uncontrollable laughter. It was those moments of shared understanding that I cling to.

Friday, April 1, 2011


The apocryphal story is that my father scored a touchdown while unconscious. Although I never saw him participate in any sport, his legend lived. I did not follow in his footsteps, and since we had a hands-off relationship, he gave me no hints as to any ways to improve my feeble athletic skills. Once, when I was trying to play high-school football, I asked for such aid, and he merely told me that my coaches would help.

The first active sport I remember taking part in was running home from school in first and second grade from a bully. I’m not sure whether the villain was male or female.

In later grades I was an vigorous roller-skater. We would strap those cheap metal skates on and try, going as fast as possible, to jump as many side-walk blocks as we could. I often landed on my nose or chin.

Other sports were kick-the-can and touch football. These were played in the street while waiting for the papers to be delivered for our paper routes. Often we were dodging the city buses. I was in junior high-school at this time in a medium sized city, Steubenville, Ohio. This was when I discovered my true love, basketball. But I guess it should really be called mini-basketball. Our court was an alley. Our basket, as such, was the space between a garage door track and the garage itself, and our ball was a tennis or small rubber ball. This bogus game really took hold of me and I continued to play, in one form or another, until I was in my fifties.

My first gym class in the large high-school was surprising. The instructor left the gym in order that the the older boys could beat-up on the freshmen. I doubt if the PTA would approve of this today. One of the older “boys” was Don Joyce, who later on would play tackle for, I believe, the Minnesota Viking. He and others would prowl around seeking those they wished to punish. I stood as inconspicuously as I could in a corner, pretending to be part of the wall. But the dreaded Don came toward me, looked me over, and kicked my feet from under me. I lay there quietly, while others took worse beatings. At that time, the Don was playing quarterback on the Steubenville team. That high-school league included Akron and Massilon, where Paul Brown started his illustrious coaching career. The Don would punt in the coldest winter games with a bare foot.

My father was a peripatetic railroad worker. I went to at least four different grade schools, and now, in the middle of my freshman year, he was transferred to Carnegie, PA. Thus I went from a large urban school, where gym class was the highest sporting achievement I could possibly attain, to a small rust-belt high-school with only five hundred students. But in Western Pennsylvania football was king. As a result, in the first class I attended, a school mate leaned over and asked, “You do football?” Of course I knew I was expected to answer in the affirmative, and I did. Little did the questioner know that my only experience playing football, beyond the previously mentioned touch football was a game or our own devising. Four or five of us would take a football to a vacant lot and throw it in the air. Whoever caught it was fair game, and would run with it until pummeled by the others. Then the ball would be thrown up again, and the process repeated.

Fortunately I arrived in Carnegie too late in my freshman year to participate in any sports activity. The other sport was basketball, my favorite, played only to maintain the football players’ conditioning over the winter. But in late August of my sophomore year I reported for football practice. It consisted of two weeks of two-a-day practices in the most humid hot part of the year before the regular season began.

We were issued equipment; shoulder, rib, and hip pads, cleated shoes, and helmets. My equipment was so antiquated that I had to tape the thigh pads to my legs because the pockets in my practice pants had been destroyed. And my leather helmet (yes , I said leather) was at least twenty years old. The scrub team got the dregs of the equipment.

The first day consisted of calisthenics and drills, for which I was not in condition.
The second day I could barely get out of bed. Everything ached. And the cleats made the condition of my feet unbearable. I did get foot pads to help with that situation.

Our locker room was in the basement of our antiquated high school. It was rumored that it had been condemned for many years. The room was cold and damp. The sweaty uniforms did not dry from day to day. I still remember putting on clammy jock straps each day. I don’t remember how or when our equipment got laundered.
There was a half-mile walk from the school to the football field. Later in the fall, this was pleasurable, but in August it was just another ordeal.
As the days went by, the team began to run plays. The coach knew pretty well who his better and experienced players were. The new people, like myself, were to become defensive fodder for the first team to run plays against. One day there seemed to be a dearth of centers. Not knowing what position I should play, I volunteered. And so I was a center for the rest of my football career, such as it was.

In those days one played on both offensive and defensive teams. As a center I became a line backer on defense. One day the coach decided that he would try our first string tackle at fullback. We were still using the single wing formation, so the ball was centered directly to Carmen Tavoletti, the largest player on our team. Quite suddenly, a large space opened up in front of me as our scrub defensive team got out of the way and I was aware that Carmen was pounding directly toward me. Not knowing what to do I lowered my head and went directly into him. My ancient leather helmet collided with his thigh and caved in, and so did Carmen who came up limping. I was unconscious for a brief moment. But the coach picked me up and held me perpendicular while he praised my courage to the rest of the team. I believe this may have been the highlight of my football career. Incidentally, it ended Carmen’s fullback experience. He returned to his tackle position.

This also made me official third string center. About midway through the season, in a game our first string center hurt his shoulder. And, for no apparent reason, the second string center passed out. I was to go in the game, a situation I was wholly unprepared for. One of the managers put his arm around my waist to encourage me, and asked why I was shaking. At this point we had switched to the T-formation. All I had to do was hand the ball back to the quarterback on the proper count. He started the count: “Hut-two-three-four----------”. When he reached twelve he shouted desperately, “Center the ball, damn it!” I remember none of the rest of the game.

The tragedy of my football career happened in my senior year. I had spent my grade-school years in Canonsburg. We were scheduled to play the Canonsburg team at a time when they were undefeated and we definitely were not undefeated. We were given little chance against them. There were even a couple of childhood friends on their team. It was in Canonsburg, and some of my cousins were in the crowd.

We played beyond our ability and even scored the first touchdown, which was called back, the ref claiming our end had pushed off the defensive player. The game remained scoreless into the fourth quarter and a scoreless tie would have been a moral victory for us. Although I had been kneed in the groin by one of my childhood friends, I had come back in the game and played well, particularly backing up the line on defense. But at one point we needed to punt. As center I had to throw the ball back to the punter, from between my legs, about fifteen yards. I have small hands, and this procedure was always an adventure for me. This time I threw it over the punters head, a Canonsburg player recovered the ball near their goal-line, and they quickly scored the winning touchdown. My heart was broken. I wept.

Later in the season, I had a rib broken and played little after that. I was happy to be done with football.

There will be more sports in a future blog.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


               My grandfather’s name was Jeremiah Snee Washabaugh.  He was the only son of a Western Pennsylvania farm family.  He had four sisters and three daughters.  He was gaunt and boney.  He never smiled and always wore a three-piece suit that could not disguise the farmer heritage from which he came.  He migrated from the farm to a small town in Western Pennsylvania and taught school.  Eventually he opened a hardware store and became active locally, serving on the school board.
             My grandmother was a helpless creature suffering from a severe case of asthma.  She spent much time at the kitchen table, making a tent of newspapers and inhaling strange incense-like fumes, which must have been thought therapeutic at the time.  She was a member of the DAR and had a noble family lineage.  The ladies of the DAR would meet at their home regularly.   
            The three daughters all became strong women, perhaps in rebellion against my grandfathers dominating attitude.  Surrounded by women he ruled over his lair.  My Mother was the only one who remained close.  My grandfather died in my parent’s bed which they had ceded to him on his final days.
            When my grandparents would take a vacation, my Mother and I would care for the hardware store.  It was a three-story brick building on a sloping street just off the main thoroughfare of the town.  The two upper floors were rental apartments.  The store had two large dusty showcase windows filled with farm hardware.  Not much thought was given to display.  The store itself was dimly lit and filled with glass cases containing the usual   accoutrements expected of such a store.  There were cases for firearms and tools and bins filled with nails and other small items that could be pulled into paper bags with a clawed rake and weighed on a balance scale.  The business center was an old roll-top desk with a handy spittoon.   There was a hand operated elevator that took one to the darker yet basement where larger pieces of farm equipment were stored.  The air reeked of decline.  Chain hardware stores had begun to appear, but my grandfather insisted that the better quality of that which he sold was worth the higher prices he had to charge.
            While my mother tended the store, I would play amid all the wonderful cases full of antiquated equipment.  I would go up and down in the elevator, being just strong enough to pull the rope that activated it.  I never would explore too far into the dark basement.  Before closing I would help sweep the oiled wood floor with a foul smelling compound.
            In the 1930’s, during the depression, my father was unemployed for six years.  We had income that my mother made by teaching elementary school.  However, this necessitated our family living with my grandparents.  This created a tense situation, since my grandfather could not understand why my father could not find work, and my father’s ego was injured since he could not help but sense this attitude. 
            An example of this friction concerned my grandfather’s pride in his automobiles.
            He had owned a Hupmobiole and at this time a La Salle, both considered luxury transportation.  One of the weekly events was a pleasure ride in this plush behemoth.  My grandfather, being the former farmer that he was would never let a lesser car, such as a mere Ford, pass him as he had never let a lesser horse and buggy pass him in his youth.
            This resulted in a couple of situations where we would end up in a ditch, and my father would insist on taking over the driving to protect his family.  For the rest of her life my Mother had an imaginary brake pedal on the passenger side of any car with her right foot vigorously active no matter who was actually driving.
            Preceding these Sunday afternoon adventures were hours of tinkering with the engine of JS’s pride and joy while the engine idled.  I remember my father, a trained mechanic, grumbling that this did nothing to enhance the vehicle, and even did it harm.
            The tense atmosphere in the stately, for the time, brick house came to a boiling point one weekday like any other.  Every day my frail grandmother prepared a hot meal for the family at lunchtime.  My grandfather came home in his vested suit and tie from the hardware store and we all sat down with me on his left.  The trigger was a glass of milk.  I reached for the glass and it toppled, spilling most of the milk in my grandfather’s lap onto his three-piece suit. Naturally, he began to reprimand me.  It was the middle of a business day, and I am not sure how many suits he actually owned. 
            This did not sit well with my already smarting father.  He declared, rather forcefully, that he was the one who should punish me, not my grandfather since I was his son.  At this point, the situation became Wagnerian.  My grandfather rose from his seat, dripping milk, went to the hat rack in the corner of the kitchen and found my small baseball bat, and raising it in a threatening way, in a quavering voice, told my father to leave the house, in no uncertain terms.  
            My mother, then in a quavering and squeaky voice declared that, ”if Carl goes, we all go.”  I was glad I was included.
            The rest is a muddle in my mind, but I do know that we moved down the street a couple of houses to an upstairs apartment owned by friends.
            Of course it was not long for all to be regretted and forgiven and we were asked to return to the brick house up the street, but that never happened. 
             After six years of unemployment my father finally was rehired by the Pennsylvania Railroad and continued in various occupations till he retired in his seventies.
My mother and I would  still care for the hardware store while my grandparents drove in the luxury mobile to exciting places like Natural Bridge, Virginia.
            My grandmother died before my grandfather and he finally poisoned himself with his own cooking and limped to our brick house in that car to die in my parent’s bed.