annoying autobiographical post (2)

I took Life Drawing my first semester in college. The professor was Bob Barbee, a short-statured man with a mustache, vaguely military bearing, and a constant cigar in hand or mouth. He would walk around the classroom critiquing students' knowledge of anatomy and offered very little else in the way of art insight. Supposedly one of my classmates "came all the way from Los Angeles to Virginia to study with Bob Barbee" because of the professor's anatomical expertise.

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Above is one of my drawings from the class; I was 17 or 18. Were I the teacher I might compliment the aggressive foregrounding (Barbee didn't tell us which part of the skeleton to draw so that was my framing) and the almost abstract emphasis on patterning in the bones and shadows. Or perhaps the use of the hand bones as a punning coda to the rib arrangement. My recollection is that Barbee stopped in front of the drawing and said something like "The xiphoid process should be more elongated, and you need to work on the angle of the acromion." That's the only kind of comment he ever offered.

Later, I decided to complete a studio art major in my last year and a half of college (plus a couple of summers), after having finished my required courses for an English Lit major. Barbee was the only instructor who opposed this "crash course" of almost full-time art practice. He felt like a major should be stretched out over four years of schooling. I had "A" grades in every art class I took except Barbee's. He gave me a B for the Life Drawing class and a C+ for his figure painting class (where students hammered out anatomically correct "mud women," as another professor called them). His reasons for the grade had nothing to do with the quality of the paintings but his belief that I didn't work on them obsessively enough. He pointed admiringly to another classmate, Susan F________, who came in after class hours to work on her painting. (Which is true but she was a clumsy painter and her piece was probably worsened by all the extra effort.) Barbee also candidly admitted he gave me the C+ because he felt I shouldn't be taking so many art courses at the same time.

At the time I took his classes I had never seen his own work. Years later I saw an image of some tree logs in a swamp (I think) done in a somewhat Thomas Hart Benton-esque style. I wasn't too impressed. I was correct about his military background. An obituary notice for Barbee [https://art.as.virginia.edu/sites/art.as.virginia.edu/files/FallWinter2002.pdf] says that his "early training was interrupted by World War II, when he served in the Army Air Force as a bombardier/navigator in Italy." The writer goes on to note, diplomatically, that

"Bob’s work was widely exhibited early in his career. He was represented by a well-regarded gallery in New York, and was included in regional exhibitions in Virginia and the Southeast. His early paintings show the influence of Cézanne and some of the School of Paris painters who were fashionable at mid-century, influences that became less and less important as his art matured. His painting became less abstract and more personal. He came to rely more and more on his keen observation and his real gift as a draftsman. He worked slowly and carefully, sometimes spending years on a painting, and became less interested in exhibiting his work or promoting himself as an artist."

So the moral of the story is, spend years on a painting.

annoying autobiographical post

Over the years I've bounced among art, music, and writing, the third of these being mainly parasitic to the first two. Meaning, I don't write so much to tell a story as to grapple with some art idea.
My college years were happily spent studying all the arts. This was back when you could have a "life of the mind" without going deeply into debt.
I took classes in music appreciation, electronic music (with a focus on composing), poetry- and fiction-writing, and history, in addition to my "majors" in studio art and English lit. I had a weekly FM radio show for my entire four years in school, and was music director and then program director of the station.
This was "free form radio" of the WFMU variety (which started as a college station) where I played jazz, prog rock, classical, and the beginnings of punk, postpunk and electronic pop. The mid-'70s were contentious times in music, with battle lines drawn, and people would call the station and berate the DJ for playing Cecil Taylor or Van Der Graaf Generator, depending on which set of sensibilities those artists offended. Fans of The Stooges despised fans of Kraftwerk, etc.
I wrote a couple of music reviews for the college newspaper and did some music "zine" writing. The newspaper reviews were well-regarded by the editors and I received calls fairly regularly asking if I could please submit more. By that point I was cramming a studio art major into my last year and a half of school and had no time or inclination to write.
My first newspaper review described a campus pub concert by Grits, a Washington DC-area band that played rock of Zappa-esque complexity. Grits never got a record contract, which seems to have devastated them personally, but are remembered on some later-released CDs, including a fairly representative live concert [YouTube]. I also reviewed Mike Oldfield's third LP in a piece titled "Ommadawn Suffers from Overdubbing." For Hal Dean's music zine Brilliant Corners I did an overview of Soft Machine's career.
For my literary studies I was lucky to have three classes with Daniel Albright, a consistently brilliant scholar and critic who later achieved fame as a musical theorist. My classes were The Experimental Novel (Lawrence, Woolf, Pynchon, Nabokov, Beckett, et al), The Aesthetic Movement (Tennyson, Arnold, Wilde, Hopkins) and 20th Century British Poetry (Eliot, Yeats, Pound). I asked Albright to be my faculty adviser and he gave his somewhat befuddled consent. (A condescending grad student supervising undergrad majors asked "Did you just wander into his office?") Albright and I had very little interaction; if anything he made me realize I didn't want to be an English prof because I could never delve into the minutiae of other artists' lives and works to the extent he did. I felt that to be original I would have to be that voracious and I was grossly overmatched. Nevertheless his A- grade and the "well written indeed" he jotted on a paper I wrote on Eliot kept me in high spirits for years.
My best grades and greatest enthusiasm came in Studio Art classes. I had some initial discouragement in the classes of Bob Barbee, a life drawing and painting instructor who taught classical technique deprived of anything resembling joy (another prof noted that all his students' paintings were anatomically correct "mud women" rendered in burnt umber and lead white). Then, I discovered I could paint photorealistically in oils, and quickly got a handle on printmaking methods, and was able to start building a body of my own characteristic work. We majors had weekly seminars where we took field trips to Washington DC art galleries and museums and did slide talks on the minimal and conceptual art trends we found there. I did a talk on Daniel Brush, who combined Color Field and minimalist ideas and subsequently had an under-the-radar career making objects in pure gold for a wealthy, discreet clientele. He is in most ways my opposite but I spoke passionately about his straight line paintings made with a fountain pen on canvas.

[to be continued]

Breece D'J Pancake

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I took a fiction writing class with this author, when we were both undergrads at UVa. According to the Wikipedians, he "has become a semi-mythical figure of American Literature" whose "vivid, compact style has been compared to that of Ernest Hemingway." Like Hemingway, he "died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound" (although much younger, at age 26). I didn't learn about his unfortunate death or impressive reputation until years later.

Back then he signed his stories "Breece D. Pancake." The Wikipedians say "the unusual middle name 'D'J' originated when The Atlantic Monthly misprinted his middle initials (D.J., for Dexter John) in the byline of 'Trilobites,' a short story the magazine published in 1977." [1] Perversely, Pancake adopted this flub as his writer name; in the Afterword to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, John Casey, our teacher and Pancake's biggest advocate, calls the acquiescence a "celebration" of Pancake's first published tale, which "eased his sense of strain -- the strain of trying to get things perfect -- by adopting an oddity committed by a fancy magazine." [2]

I remember Pancake as a (sorry, it must be said) lumpish, brooding, but oddly entitled presence at the table where we sat and critiqued work. His type of fiction didn't interest me much at the time, and none of the stories we read were as good as the ones in this collection. Just achingly honest tales of rural America, without the bleak melodrama that came later. Possibly I missed it; possibly because I was one of those "middle class" students from the Washington DC area that James Alan McPherson, in his Foreword, says Breece, a West Virginia native, had a hard time fitting in with. (McPherson also taught Pancake at UVa.)

Lumpish or no, Pancake clearly had some pull outside the classroom. Casey fawned and fussed over his writing in front of the other students. At the time it seemed a condescending form of sympathy for an outsider who had drifted into the system. McPherson frames Pancake's outsiderdom as a matter of social class; to me it was a matter of the relative (lack of) interest in bucolic-details-as-story-material. It seemed old fashioned, but Casey ate it up.

I also didn't know until I read the Foreword and Afterword to The Stories that Pancake had been workin' the refs in his off hours, confidently marching into prospective teachers' offices and saying he wanted to study with them. (His exact words to McPherson were "Buddy, I want to work with you." Gag me.) His chutzpah and the quality of the stories he thrust on them got him an amazing amount of special treatment. But they also gave his benefactors perhaps more than they bargained for.

This anecdote from McPherson awakened me to a world of mentor-boundary-crossing I couldn't have even imagined back in the day:

In the winter of 1977 I went to Boston and mentioned the work of several of my students, Breece included, to Phoebe-Lou Adams of The Atlantic. She asked to be sent some of his stories. I encouraged Breece to correspond with her, and very soon afterward several of his stories were purchased by the magazine. The day the letter of acceptance and check arrived, Breece came to my office and invited me to dinner. We went to Tiffany’s, our favorite seafood restaurant. Far from being pleased by his success, he seemed morose and nervous. He said he had wired flowers to his mother that day but had not yet heard from her. He drank a great deal. After dinner he said that he had a gift for me and that I would have to go home with him in order to claim it.
He lived in a small room on an estate just on the outskirts of Charlottesville. It was more a workroom than a house, and his work in progress was neatly laid out along a square of plywood that served as his desk. He went immediately to a closet and opened it. Inside were guns -- rifles, shotguns, handguns -- of every possible kind. He selected a twelve-gauge shotgun from one of the racks and gave it to me. He also gave me the bill of sale for it -- purchased in West Virginia -- and two shells. He then invited me to go squirrel hunting with him. I promised that I would. But since I had never owned a gun or wanted one, I asked a friend who lived on a farm to hold on to it for me.

Pancake gave McPherson a gun; he asked Casey to be his godfather! This was a twenty-something-year-old man. From Casey's Afterword:

Not long before Breece and I got to be friends, his father and his best friend both died. Sometime after that Breece decided to become a Roman Catholic and began taking instruction...
Breece asked me to be his godfather. I told him I was a weak reed, but that I would be honored. This godfather arrangement soon turned upside down. Breece started getting after me about going to mass, going to confession, instructing my daughters. It wasn’t so much out of righteousness as out of gratitude and affection, but he could be blistering. And then penitent.

McPherson also recalls Pancake standing in the corridor of the fiction department shouting over and over "I'm Jimmy Carter and I'm running for President!" -- prompting more paragraphs of contorted, hagiographic justification (akin to Casey's riff on "D'J") -- about the New South and Pancake's place in it.

Pancake appears from the essays to have been bipolar or BPD, yet the teachers catered to him, built him up, hung out with him, at least until McPherson moved to Yale and stopped opening Pancake's mail. (Breece was his bosom buddy till he wasn't.) Regarding his suicide, McPherson quotes a letter from Pancake's mother stating that "God called [Breece] home because he saw too much dishonesty and evil in this world and he couldn’t cope," an explanation that covers a lot of territory.

Pancake's book sat on my shelf for several years; I was motivated to read it, finally, after encountering the fiction of Daniel Woodrell, an Ozarks writer who has been compared to Pancake. I prefer Woodrell, for the simple reason that his prose does not make me crave oblivion. Pancake's writing exudes a primal, all-encompassing pain; it's a freakishly intriguing body of work but not a very fun experience. Woodrell tempers the pain with stoic humor, at least; Pancake is rarely funny.

In Pancake's universe, if there is a mine, it is played out; if there is a field, it is shriveled; if there is a car, it is a wreck. People suffer black lung, cancer, brain damage, "spells." An animal will be slaughtered or a woman called a whore at least once per story. Characters can never quite escape them hills. In Woodrell's world people want to stay in the Ozarks. Some commenters on The Stories find resilience and life-affirmation in Pancake's work. This is surely not the case. The best reason to read it is to understand, to live, the levels of despair one might experience before the trigger is pulled, in a West Virginia that serves as a petri dish for all the toxins of Milton Friedman's America. The exquisite craft of Pancake's old-soul, Hemingway-informed prose makes it possible to go this deep.

Still, I don't like the stories much. They seem half-baked, or adolescent to me, for all their brilliant channeling of greater writers. More symptom than fiction.

1. The "John" was added by Pancake, the Wikipedians state, "after converting to Catholicism in his mid-20s."

2. For a writer whose last name is an oddity, to allow a thoughtless gatekeeper to choose an even odder one as his permanent "brand" seems more like an act of self-dislike than one of "celebration." As Pancake's champion both in life and posthumously, Casey seems to have avoided any darker explanations for his behaviour.

[revised after posting]