I am just back from Cincinnati, where I grew up and where I attended a special exhibit celebrating 150 years of the Art Academy of Cincinnati. My father was a student there from 1947 to 1952, and I toured the show, taking note of the artists he encountered there: Paul Chidlaw, Charlie Harper, Noel Martin, Josef Albers, John Ruthven, Donald P. Sowell. Some were his teachers, some his classmates. Some, like him, were in art school thanks to the GI Bill of Rights.
He never talked that much about his days at the academy. I know he worked in the dishroom for spending money. He lived at a nearby YMCA, where he was a wrestler on the Y's team and where he met a big, tough veteran of the Battle of the Bulge who eventually introduced Dad to his sister—my eventual mother.
I have some trouble picturing him as an art student. He would have been six feet in height, strong and tough, with a flat belly and big arms. When he was discharged from the Army Air Corps in 1945, he weighed 130 pounds. But two years of working in a cement factory and a lumber yard—and eating his mother's cooking—had built him up to about 175 pounds. His hair was already in retreat, his ears were prominent (in scale with his nose), and he had an intense gaze. He had been a boxer in the army, apparently a pretty good one; his face was unmarked when he came to Cincinnati in ’47. He probably wore white t-shirts and khaki trousers from the military, and workboots. I think he liked beer, but I doubt he ever drank too much. He was not a party guy. When he practiced wrestling at the Y, he wore grey sweats that he still had when I was a little boy. He was quiet, a loner.
Okay, so I can picture him as an art student. But I have trouble imagining how he was as a person, how he behaved, how his mind worked, his personality. The man I knew was practical and had little ambition as a painter, so I don't see him in late-night conversations over coffee and cigarettes about painters or new trends in art, I don't see him enjoying the company of oddball creative people. He was probably relieved to be among other GIs who had seen too much and were too old, in so many ways, to be amused by bohemians, both real and wannabe.
I do know that for five years, every day began with four hours of drawing class; the academy put a premium on draftsmanship, and that would have appealed to him because I think he was confused by any sort of non-representational art. The abstract impressionists left him cold. I remember the time he chuckled as he recalled one of his first days, when an instructor asked the class to name their favorite painter. "Everybody said Norman Rockwell," my dad said, "and the instructor said, 'He's not a painter, he's an illustrator.'"
What else? He said his teachers spent as much time teaching him how to see as how to paint. He once sold a drawing from a student show. And that's about all I can remember.
Now I wish I'd interviewed him about his art school years, or at least pressed him a little about what he did and what he was like. Too late.