Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Lasting Resonance: Deane G. Keller

(Another from the Way-Back Files – An interview with artist and sculptor Deane G. Keller, February 1982.) 


“Drawing offers a unique record of an encounter with a culture of experience transformed from fleeting moment to lasting resonance.”

                                                                        -- Deane G. Keller (1940 – 2005)

Like a character from one of Thomas Hardy’s novels, the figure about to head out over the wind-stirred field seems dwarfed by the vast sky and landscape. Yet that figure in its rough hat and jacket doesn’t strike us as being insignificant somehow. Pausing on the edge of the field, squarely confronting the horizon, it has a certain defiance about it – almost as though it’s striking out against a painfully beautiful, indifferent and unexpected universe. The great horizontals in the painting are, in its creator Deane G. Keller’s words, “broken, brought into focus by one little vertical figure.”

The image is one that repeats itself in Hardy’s novels, which are a passion of Keller’s. “The sense of scale is evident in his work,” the Marlborough, Connecticut-based artist explains, “and to the painter also. The idea under the surface in all Hardy’s work is that man acts out his destiny, defines himself against an expanded landscape.”

Keller, a painter and sculptor whose work has received numerous awards (among them, the Copley Winter Exhibition First Prize in 1969), teaches painting, life drawing, anatomy, and art history at the Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Old Lyme. He and other members of the faculty there are intent on reviving the tradition of Connecticut Impressionism. Since June, the majority of the classes have been taught in the new Foundation of the Arts Building: that building sits where the Connecticut Impressionists did much of their work at the turn of the century. Last fall, a film crew shot some scenes near the academy as well as in and around the town itself for a film on American Impressionism being produced by the Smithsonian Institute.

The artists’ colony established there by Florence Griswold in 1885 was one of the earliest in America. They were influenced by the current trends in French painting at the time: rural subjects painted in outdoor settings, unfinished painting surfaces, and “a romantic delight in color.” Among the first artists in the Old Lyme colony were Will Howe Foote and Lewis Cohen, who, working in the Barbizon style, emphasized rich but muted colors and man’s bond with nature. Later, with the arrival of Childs Hassam and Walter Griffin in 1903, many of the painters began experimenting with French Impressionist techniques – short,bright abstract brushwork and flat composition. The revival of this tradition, says Keller, signified “a return to nature as a source of art.”

And that is part of where his sense of connection with Hardy comes in. He has been fascinated with the British novelist’s work since high school – not just with Hardy’s characters but also with his emphasis on man’s mysterious relationship with nature. Keller’s love for the novels has kept pace with his development as an artist. Rambling along the southern coast of England during his last visit…visiting the Roman ruins there (both he and his wife Dorothy, an Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at St. Joseph College in West Hartford, share a deep interest in archaeology)…enjoying “the sense of history underfoot,” he talks now about picking up the author’s trail and exploring the places which “he [Hardy] knew and could describe so well.”

Keller moves over to another painting, one of a green field merging with a yellow wheat-filled one, the sky a rich, subtle blend of grays and purples with duller touches of rose. “Supposedly, Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd lived here,” he says. It’s almost as though he’s talking about an old friend. “And over here” – the artist gestures beyond the fields to a point not encompassed by the canvas – “Bathsheba Everdene lived.

“I drove into this driveway,” Keller continues with a faint smile, “and asked, ‘Pardon me for intruding, but is this where Bathsheba Everdene lived?’ The woman, who was very pleasant and responsive, said, ‘Absolutely. And this is the bay window where she stood and looked out at Oak’s hut.’”

What Keller has done is to translate the images from Hardy’s books into a visual media. The novelist was an artist of sorts himself: like his character Jude in Jude the Obscure, he had been trained as an architect and produced a number of sketches during his lifetime. Perhaps, Keller reflects, this explains why his writing has that intensely visual quality -- and why those “one-shot” images of startling vividness and clarity can make the leap from printed page to canvas so well.

“There was a constant resonance with his own experience and past which kept his work so animated and life-like,” Keller says. “As a painter, I have to deal with form and color. But my painter’s goal is to go beyond the form to the idea. Maybe his way of looking at things has become a vehicle for me – has become a vantage point. Some of his quality of looking at the world is readily adaptable for me as a painter.”

Hardy had a strong feeling for nature’s beauty and aloofness, something that Keller subtly plays upon in his paintings. It’s definitely a soul-met-soul connection: his empathy for the writer comes across both in his art and his conversation. Looking at a third painting – that of a road in Higher Bockhampton that Hardy walked as a youngster – Keller muses, “I daresay it was on this walk, a solitary sort of walk, that he picked up his feeling for nature.

“Hardy was sensitive to all sides – not just to writing – but there are probably images which we will never know. His own private responses to nature, some of which we know from the novels. Some may have taken the form of drawings, like the sketches he did in Cornwall.”

He talks about doing a portrait of Hardy himself and shows me a small preliminary study in oils. The writer’s craggy set face looks out at us with a reflective, somewhat bitter expression, eyebrows permanently arched in wry amusement. In it, we see the man who, “crushed” by the public outcry against his novels, turned to writing poetry. Who viewed life with all its ironies as a general drama of pain, only occasionally lightened with flickerings of happiness.

“He has a broad, broad speculative look,” Keller observes quietly from where he stands. “I would like to have two qualities developed [in the painting]. One is the facticity of the fellow. The other aspect is how very remote, distant he could be as his mind took him through sketches from his own past.”

Everything Dovetails: Louise E. Jefferson

(This is one from the Way-Back Files — an interview with Harlem Renaissance photographer Louise E. Jefferson, March 1984.)


“Everything dovetails, you know. You have no idea how many kinds of information, picked up one place or another, will come in handy….A commercial artist must have an encyclopaedic mind – for you can never tell what you will be called on to depict or interpret.” -- Louise E. Jefferson in an interview with Opportunity magazine, 1947

Louise E. Jefferson is a hard lady to pin down. A talented graphic artist, illustrator and photographer, the first black person to ever do Voice of America, and a close friend of such Harlem Renaissance figures as sculptor Augusta Savage and poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, she is oddly – and maddeningly – close-mouthed when she wants to be. She doesn’t like to be asked questions about dates, partly because she doesn’t want people to know how old she is (one of her stand-by lines is that she must be older than 65 because she’s retired) and partly because she prefers to think of things in “chunks of time” rather than in terms of actual dates. “Your mother,” she says with infinite scorn during an interview at the home that she has shared with her enormous and beloved white cat since 1972, “must’ve been frightened by a calendar.”

The Litchfield, Connecticut-based photographer doesn’t always take kindly to questions about her work either. She likes to downplay it all, especially the illustrations. “I don’t care much for illustrations,” she says shortly.

Other people do care considerably, however. Jonathan Bruce, director of the Community Renewal Team (CRT) of Greater Hartford, Inc. Craftery Gallery, and James A. Miller, Associate Professor of English and Intercultural Studies at Trinity College, have put together an exhibit of those illustrations. The exhibit, which contains a large number of pieces from Jefferson’s book The Decorative Arts of Africa (The Viking Press, 1973), opened at the Craftery gallery on Main Street on February 5 and will be running through March 30.

Jefferson, of course, makes her usual show of grumbling about the exhibit and everybody making her do it in the first place. She also spares a grumble or two for an upcoming exhibit of her photographs of Litchfield and New York. “I’m always busy,” Jefferson says. “I mean, anything’s work if you’d rather be doing something else.” Whether anybody ever really makes her do anything is another question altogether and one that she laughs at when it’s actually put to her. “Damn good question,” she admits. “I’m embarrassed….No, they sort of goose me into the deal. I like to think about what it is first – give it a good deal of thought.”

Jefferson, who will be honored by the Connecticut Historical Society this year, is the recipient of numerous awards and honors. Her works have been shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library, the New York Bank for Savings, the Oliver Wolcott Library in Litchfield, and Trinity’s Austin Arts Center. The illustrations in the Craftery exhibit have been selected from the cumulative results of her four trips to Africa between 1960 and 1972. (That first trip also led to Jefferson’s being asked to do the Voice of America program on account of her being the only black person -- actually one of the few people of any color -- traveling there to celebrate Ghana’s becoming a nation.)

“That’s from a photograph I took,” she says, glancing at an illustration of a 12-year-old Mangbetu tribe girl from northeastern Zaire. “You can’t do a lot of sketching in Africa like that. You can take field notes now….If I can sketch in a hurry, I bring field notes home, and then I have to write all over as to what I’m sketching so that I remember it when I do the finished work.” Sometimes, she adds, it takes her two or three attempts before she manages to get it all down on paper the way she really saw it.

Jefferson started out in typography, which her father Paul (himself a calligrapher for the U. S. Treasury Department) gave her a few rudimentary lessons in, and then moved on to cartography and calligraphy – “all those ‘phy’s,” as she puts it. She always loved drawing, and her father supplied her with all the paper she could possibly want. She trained herself as a photographer. She doesn’t remember exactly when she started but claims that she turned out her first successful photograph in 1940, when she was visiting the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

The photograph -- which Jefferson still has carefully tucked away in her files, even though she speaks disparagingly of it -- shows a sad-eyed shabbily dressed boy who looks like he stumbled out of a Walker Evans shot. “Do you like it that much?” the photographer demands. The disbelief in her voice is very well done. “I wandered of the campus, trying to get the feel of Alabama, which I didn’t much like. I was on a back road, and I heard this whimpering. And there was this little boy sitting on someone’s steps, and I asked him what was wrong. He said, ‘They won’t give me a penny,’ and he started crying all over again. I gave him a nickel, and that’s when he really did cry.” She laughs at the memory. “Gee whiz! A whole five-cent piece!”

She calls it her first real photograph because it was the first one she ever took that really felt like a photograph. “There’s a difference between a photograph and a snapshot,” she says, “and I hate snapshots. When I developed this and saw this, I said, ‘That’s not a snapshot, that’s a photograph.’”

She begins rooting through her files, grumbling some more but throwing out a tantalizing comment or two along the way. Just enough to hook you. “You don’t want to look at this stuff,” Jefferson remarks casually.

It’s worth being reeled in. There are photographs of Rosa Parks being finger-printed after her arrest; Eleanor Roosevelt (“I took such good pictures of her,” Jefferson remarks thoughtfully), Carl Rowan, Paul Robeson, Cab Calloway, and Louie Armstrong. She laughs at the shot of Calloway with his back to the camera. “That’s his background,” she hoots gently. She softens as she studies the Armstrong photograph, letting her genuine pride in it show for a second. “I still think I took the best picture of Louie Armstrong that’s ever been taken.”

On the walls of her workroom are a slew of photographs of Harlem Renaissance figures, some of them taken by Jefferson. She claims she came to New York in the early 1940s. Miller, the show’s curator, differs with her on this point, however. He says that the names figuring in her stories -- and the fact that the Harlem Renaissance had pretty much ended by 1940 – make it much more likely that she arrived in the city a decade earlier.

Jefferson’ll give you two different reasons for her going to the city in the first place. One is that she figured she might as well see if she could make it as a photographer and an illustrator in New York because if she couldn’t make it there, she wouldn’t be able to anywhere. The other – which is, on the whole, the better story – is that she came to New York to visit friends, was robbed, and ended up staying rather than wiring home for money.

“I went to spend 10 days,” she recalls laughingly. “I had just bought what I knew was the most beautiful raccoon coat in the world….I put all the money I had in that pocket. Now, this particular day – it’s in February, now – I decided to visit [activist and writer] Pauli [Murray, a good friend of hers] to see what she was writing, and I’m in the street, showing off…leather jacket and about 45 cents in my pocket. I left the raccoon coat home with all the paper money in it.” When she returned to her room to get some books for Murray, she found both coat and money gone. “I never went back home to live. I couldn’t face the family.”

Whichever story is true, Jefferson ended up staying in New York for at least 26 years, working as the art director of the Friendship Press (the publishing agent of the National Conferences of Churches) from 1942 to 1968. She studied graphic arts at Columbia University and fine arts at Hunter College but took degrees from neither. She worked in the Harlem Artists Guild with Savage, who was extremely active in the Work Projects Administration (WPA) in the 40s.

Savage was only one of the Harlem Renaissance figures whom Jefferson was friendly with. “You name `em all, and I met `em,” she says. Langston Hughes was “a doll” and Countee Cullen somebody whom she felt “very close” to. She gets up to find some copies of Cullen’s poems, which she bound in leather herself -- and which are inscribed “To Lou Jefferson, Cordially, Countee Cullen” – and a photo. “Here’s a picture of Countee,” Jefferson laughs, “on the lawn over there in a robe – he’s just gotten up, and he’s pretending he’s playing golf. He couldn’t tell you whether the ball was round or elliptical.”

When pressed for actual stories about these folks, however, she balks, protesting that the ones she knows are already in the books. What she does like to reflect back on is “Harlem as such. It was safe, comfortable, clean….Nothing like it today, nothing like it anywhere. The theaters were all doing well. There is no such thing as a theater in Harlem now, no such thing. There were fine stores on 125th Street, now which is a jungle – fine stores.” Jefferson takes a drag on her cigarette. “There were four theaters on one block….Night shows. It was a wonderful era.”

And that’s all she will tell you. You’re left with all the bits and pieces and contradictions that make up Lou Jefferson and a strong sense that you haven’t gotten even half her real story. “Just call it fiction,” she says. She shrugs. “It’s all fiction. Nobody’s ever going to believe all the things that have happened to me.”

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Working Life: Anna Bresnerkoff Cohen

In honor of Women’s History Month, I am re-running an interview that first appeared in Hartford Woman back in May 1987. The subject: my Great-Aunt Anna Bresnerkoff Cohen (1902 – 2001), a hard-working well-read to-the-point woman with a heart and spirit as big as she was short (very) and a truly impressive stage whisper. We need to celebrate the Anna Cohens, those not-so-commonplace women in our family trees. They just don’t make `em like that anymore.

She has cut down her volunteer work at the Outpatient Pediatric Clinic at Hartford Hospital to two mornings a week instead of three, but that’s the only concession that my great-aunt has made to being 87.

“I love the work I’m doing,” says Anna Cohen, who leaves her West Hartford home punctually every Monday and Tuesday morning to punch, sort, file, and collate the slips about the clinic’s patients. “The only thing is, when I don’t finish something, it’s still there when I come back next week.” Once in awhile, she considers giving up the work: “But I gotta have something else in mind before I do it.”

Cohen is no stranger to work. She came over from Russia as a small child in the early 1900s, and as soon as she and her sister Mary were old enough, they went to work at the now-defunct G. Fox department store in downtown Hartford during the summers.

“We made the big pay of three-and-a-half dollars,” Cohen recalls. “We gave my mother the envelope, she gave us 50 cents, and we thought we were millionaires, both Mary and I.” Every cent counted, so everybody who could work did: even Cohen’s mother, busy  raising both her own children and her stepchildren, peddled notions door-to-door in the adjoining tenement houses.

“My mother could not speak English, and the people she approached usually wouldn’t let her in. She showed them the basket, and they picked out what they wanted. She eventually learned to talk English, very broken, but she was understood, and she understood the people.”

Cohen worked in several stores until shortly after her marriage to my grandmother’s youngest brother, Iz. “From then on, I was a housewife,” she says. “I didn’t have to go to work. Iz never wanted me to go to work, and it was unheard of that a woman would go to work, especially if you had children. We didn’t have nurseries like they do now where we could put our children; and if there were any, which I didn’t have knowledge of, it was rather expensive.”

So she stayed at home until 1942. Then her oldest son, Sidney, went into the service and her daughter, Ruthie, left for college, leaving only her 9-year-old son Jerry. She got a part-time job in the fabric department at Sage-Allen, and her mother looked after Jerry in the afternoons when he got home from school. Iz, suffering from heart disease, was too ill to work himself or raise any objections to her doing so.

“During the time that I worked,” Cohen explains, “he was at home, more or less taking care of himself. And, to be honest with you, I never knew when I came home whether I’d find a corpse or a man. He shouldn’t have been left alone, but we were in dire straits. There was no income coming in, and what little I was earning – which was, part-time, $26 a week – was a gold mine to me. At least it covered the table.”

Cohen worked at Sage’s until after World War II, when the part-timers were laid off, “and things were quieter. During the war, people bought like crazy, whether they needed it or not.” Iz died in 1948; she remained at home a year and then, not wanting to be dependent on anybody, went to work at Aetna Life and Casualty. Her life became "a working life" until she retired at 65 in 1966.

Even after retirement, however, Cohen still worked.  She tried her hand at a number of odd jobs, such as babysitting at the Y in West Hartford. Around the same time, she also started volunteering at Hartford Hospital, working in a number of departments there before she found her present job at the Outpatient Pediatric Clinic.

“And that’s what I do now,” she says simply. “They’re very pleased with me; but, by the same token, I’m pleased, too, because it’s a lot for me as well as for them….I found my niche here, and I like it. They’ve been very wonderful to me. And, in spite of the fact that I don’t get any money, I enjoy it tremendously, and I look forward to it.”