Monday, May 23, 2011

Studying with Mr. Gammell . Part 2

Today's post - and the final one - will be a continuation of Stapleton Kearn's account of his meeting and studies with RH Ives Gammell. Already Stape has traveled from Minneapolis to Massachusetts to meet Mr. Gammell. The big question now was, "Would Ives accept him as his student?" He would find out soon as he arrived at Rm. 401 in the Fenway Studios for his 9 a.m. appointment:

"I opened the massive wooden doors with their black iron strap hinges and entered the balconied two story lobby area. It smelled of paint and varnish. Oliver Brothers, the restorers were the closest tenant to the lobby and in those days they did hot wax relining , that and the varnish combined into the most fabulous and evocative smell. It smelled like art history.

The old black man who was the guard and elevator operator, Reggie, cackled endearingly and waved around hands that were the size of tennis rackets as he talked nonstop. He opened the steel door to the elevator and piloted it with one of those bronze and black Bakelite levers mounted waist high on the wall. I believe there was one of those accordion style iron gates that had to be pulled closed before the elevator would run.

Reggie stopped the elevator at the 4th floor where Ives had his studio, and I walked down the narrow, creaking wood floored hallway to the oak door that belonged to studio 401. One of the students let me in and I descended the stairway from the balcony to the floor level of the two story studio. One wall was taken up by high windows facing north and divided into about a thousand panes. There were blackout shades drawn not from the tops of the windows but halfway up from the bottom.This had been William Paxton's studio, and I don't believe Ives had changed it much. Paxton's enormous blonde wooden studio easel with its crank and high mast stood in the middle of the room.

Ives spoke briefly to the other students, he had newspaper clippings of art criticism from the New York Times in his hand, and he was incensed at something a critic, perhaps Clement Greenberg had said. He dismissed his two students to studio 408 to spend the morning drawing figures as they did every day. Ives then beckoned me to a tiny living room under the balcony where he had a little sofa and a couple of chairs. Wearing a blue painters smock, he laid down on the sofa and told me what the format of our meetings would to be. Each day for three days I was to meet with him at 9:00. He would ask me three questions, and I would ask him three questions, each day.

He began by showing me a folio of his drawings from when he was very young at about the time of the Spanish American War. The drawings were, I think, of scenes of knights on horseback, perhaps they were illustrations for Ivanhoe. I don't remember too much about them other than that they looked OK, and that I thought I could match them. I didn't say that to Ives of course.

Each of the three days we met, and he asked me his three questions and I asked him mine. I remember him inquiring about my background and my interest in art. I have always spoken pretty well and I gave a good account of myself. He asked me about painters and painting. I had been studying for months to be ready.

The last question he asked me, I do remember, and that was, "Who was Alfred Stevens?" Now today with so many books around about 19th century painting you would find some artists who would know the answer to the question, but in 1974 being able to answer that was unusual in a 22 year old art student to say the least. I answered that there were actually two Alfred Stevens, one a painter from Belgium and the other an English sculptor whose lion for the railings of the British museum I had read about in Harold Speed. It was like an artistic version of the bar exam, and I had just passed it.

My last question to Ives was "Will you teach me to paint?" He answered that he had a full contingent of students already, but if I could secure a place in the studios somewhere, he would give me criticism. At no point did he have an interest at all in seeing my portfolio. He explained that it was impossible that I could know anything about drawing from the inadequate training I had received in the art schools . He merely wished to ascertain whether I was sufficiently interested to work diligently to learn the art and that I was smart enough to be worth the trouble of teaching.

Someone suggested that I talk to a student of another artist, Robert Cormier who had a studio in the building in which I could rent a place to sleep. There was no room in that studio for me to work, but the cadre of students quickly found me a spot to work that I could rent from an artist a few floors below, Sam Rose. I now had a studio and a place to sleep in Fenway studios. I took the bus back to Minnesota and packed a few belongings into my fathers old army footlocker, grabbed my Epiphone six string and took the train, The Empire Builder, back to Boston to begin my training in the art of Classical oil painting at the hands of R.H. Ives Gammell.

...Next, the final episode . Stapleton's Studies with Mr. Gammell

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