Seven-thirty this morning, the temperature outside is 5 degrees, with a wind chill of -6. The sunlight streaming through the window creates a lovely double image of a wood carving that sits on a table in my Maryland house. My father made it, a carving of a lean and austere American pioneer woman. Look at her forearms and you will see that the carving is unfinished; Dad could never decide what she was carrying—ears of corn? a baby?—and for some reason never resolved the issue.
My father served in the 8th Army Air Corps in the Second World War, on a bomber base near the Irish Sea. After mustering out in Pennsylvania, he returned home to Cambridge, Ohio and spent the next two years working in a cement factory and a lumber yard, and napping on his parents' sofa. Perhaps wondering when he intended to get on with life, his mother reminded him that he had GI Bill of Rights educational benefits, which he had not used, and a fondness for drawing, which hadn't used much either. Why don't you go to art school? she asked.
This must have made sense to him, because he spent the next five years studying painting and sculpture at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He lived in a nearby YMCA, joined the Y's wrestling team (he'd been a boxer in the army), worked in the academy's dishroom, and before he was finished met a lively young woman who became my mother.
When I was a kid, he talked more about wrestling for the Y than he did about being in art school. I gather he wasn't a bohemian but a sober, methodical army veteran in his late 20s, but he once described walking a drunk young woman around and around a parking lot, getting her sober enough to report to work, and I figure he had some other young adult recreation. He was an art student after all, and Cincinnati was not Paris or New York but still...
He told me that every day at the academy, every day for five years, class began with four hours of drawing. Eight in the morning to noon, drawing, every day. The Art Academy of Cincinnati was not training abstract expressionists. This daily routine has stayed in my mind, and now I try to start every one of my days with four hours of writing.
I have seen little of his student work, none of his student carving. I only know of two pieces that he did after the academy. One is the pioneer woman with the vague forearms, and the other was a large carving of a bull, resting on his haunches. I loved them both. One day when I was in my 50s and visiting him at his house near Cincinnati, I told him how much I looked forward to putting some of his work in my own home and he told me that he had given the bull to a friend. I was crushed and angry. If he didn't want it anymore, how could he give it to a friend without first asking me if I wanted it? What was he thinking? He shrugged. He seemed genuinely baffled—it hadn't occurred to him, he said, that I'd want any of his artwork.
I didn't know what to say then and I still don't. I think perhaps he thought all of his painting and sculpture was mediocre and amateurish and he couldn't think of a reason I might want lousy art. Why couldn't he imagine that I'd want it just because he was my dad and his hands had fashioned it? You tell me.
There's a small vertical crack along the hem of the pioneer lady's dress, in the back. I think one of the cats knocked it over several years ago. That's all right. Adds a little something, in a way. I don't have much of his work—he made a living as a sign painter, not an artist—but this is my favorite. He claimed that he'd never been any good as a sculptor because he had a terrible time thinking in three dimensions, but I love this piece. There's something primitive and totemic and contemporary about it all at once, and he made it with the chisels that he always said he didn't know how to use.
Wish I could get that bull back.