A lecture presented by Leo Segedin on October 25, 2012, at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield
Leo Segedin | October 25, 2012 | Print this essay
I have been asked to talk about me and my paintings. As a long time art professor, I've lectured about the works of Da Vinci and Cezanne, but — as a painter — I am reluctant to talk about my own work. I've always felt that my paintings should speak for themselves. Words can point to what you should look at and create a context for what you should see, but I don't think that anyone can really communicate in words what works of art communicate any more than they can create in words the taste of a good wine. The experiences of striking colors, of delicate lines and bold shapes — especially, as they create dramatic, metaphoric images — are like — well — the tang of garlic in a good, Vienna hot dog — if we can imagine such experiences as being more serious — more profound — than pleasurable. Paintings have to be ‘tasted› to be known. It is not an intellectual process, although some art critics have made their careers trying to describe and explain it. The meaning – the significance of a painting — is in the work itself — in the personal responses to the aesthetic and metaphoric qualities of the image.
Although paintings can be decorative or entertaining, the perception of serious works of art is transformative. Looking critically at great paintings changes us. We are not the same after we've seen Michelangelo's “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel or Goya's “Third of May” or a late self portrait by Rembrandt. Such images not only change the way we experience our lives. They help us understand life. They give us insight into what wea call the ‘human condition›. There is something almost miraculous about works of art that give form to those wordless sensibilities which play so important a part in our lives – paintings which create our visions of nature — of society — of the human psyche – which give form to our sense of morality and injustice – which reflect on memory, mortality and death – even those which express all those corny, clichŽd sentiments which just happen to be meaningful to us. And — in this personal sense – the meanings of such paintings are more true and real to us than the objective truths of science. At least, they touch us in ways that science never can. They create the model – set the standard — for my own work.
But – after having said all that – since I have been asked to talk about me and my paintings – I will say a few words.
For much of my life as an artist, I have looked back to the experiences of my childhood as a source for my paintings. Many of my paintings have been about memory and, most recently, the significance of memory in my life as I age. They are about Chicago — the Chicago I lived in when I began painting — a Chicago that now exists only in my memory — and memory is always a reconstruction. As my life changes, so do my memories. Every time I paint them, I create them all over again. What was once description of how things looked when I was a child becomes metaphor for how I see things now that I am an old man.
Many of my paintings are of the neighborhood in which I grew up — the West Side of Chicago back in the 1940's. They are not scenes of particular places — they are not about specific events that occurred in my life. Rather, they are about the feel of the spaces we lived in — the streets and rooms — the back yards – the porches and alleys — transformed by my memory. (New York, Los Angeles, Boston spaces feel different) We used to fly the model airplanes we built in those spaces – Spads, Neuports, Fokker D7s, and – during WW II — P40s, P38s, B17s and B24s – as we fantasized about shooting down Messerschmitts and Zeros. We played Relievio and Cops and Robbers in that schoolyard with all the intensity of adult competition. Fearfully, we confronted the threats of bigger, tougher kids. And — on long walks and on back porches — we discussed with intimate friends the deep, momentous issues of our lives.
I didn't start out to be an artist. Although I always liked to draw, I was a practical kid. My mother once told me that even as a 7 years old, I had said that art was OK as a hobby, but no way to make a living. I wanted to be a pilot. (I actually flew a plane myself for the first – and only — time when I was 70). By the time I was in high school, I was going to be a chemical engineer, then, an aeronautical engineer. But, when I was 15 years old, in 1942, during a cold, snowy day in December, an artist friend of my Aunt Hannah, named Arthur Polansky, unexpectedly appeared at the door of my family's apartment, carrying paints, brushes, easels and canvases. I remember him saying to me with a big smile, “Come on! We are going out painting!”
He took me to a 2nd floor back porch overlooking the Garfield Park “L” tracks near Independence Blvd. and got permission from the tenants to set up our easels there. We painted for hours, my hands freezing even though I was wearing mittens. That was the first time I painted ‘L' tracks, brick walls and back porches, and on and off — in one way or another — I've been painting them ever since.
But I was still a practical kid. I went to a technical high school — became an engineering draftsman. My first job was as a conveyer—belt draftsman and during the Korean War, I taught engineering drawing for the Army Engineers. But I did make art while in high school, (my homeroom teacher was the art teacher) and studied painting while at the University Of Illinois where I got my MFA in Painting in 1950. My graduate thesis painting was a 5' by 3' oil painting of an ‘L' station in Chicago's Loop. While in the Army, at Fort Belvoir, I had a studio above the bowling alley and even there, I made a picture of an empty Chicago &ldquoL&rdquo station – a Christmas card called &ldquoNo—el&rdquo.
When I was discharged from the Army in 1954, I decided that I would try to make it as an artist, but instead of moving to New York — which was the center of the art world then — I stayed in Chicago. I realized I couldn't live off of what I could sell at art fairs and there were only three contemporary art galleries in Chicago at the time, so I became an art teacher, ultimately an art professor at Northeastern Illinois University. I met and married Jan, and for over 46 years, she kept me on the straight and narrow. She was an unsparing and invaluable critic of my painting and writing, for which I will always be grateful. Together, we raised two wonderful sons, for which I am also grateful. I continued to paint full time during my summers off and — as much as I could while teaching — exhibiting wherever possible. With Jan's encouragement, I retired from teaching 25 years ago and have been painting full time ever since.
Over the years, I have painted subjects other than Chicago. In the 50s, I painted on the coast of Maine — but as much as I was excited by surf pounding on a rocky shore, I never felt that I had captured that dynamism. I made satirical paintings of the 1968 and 1972 political conventions. But — most important to me — I also made paintings which reflected my response to the appalling events occurring in the world during that time. I had always been interested in social issues, but I also felt a strong sense of futility, especially after — as a child — I became aware of the Holocaust and the indifference of people to do anything about it when they could. I had a desire to represent such issues in my painting, but felt it was impossible to do so without trivializing them. At first, I had no adequate visual vocabulary, but — in 1967 — the United States was involved in a fruitless war with the Vietnamese. Marches in the streets protested American involvement, but the war kept escalating. In newspaper reports, Viet Cong deaths were reduced to ‘body counts' and drafted, young men returned from Viet Nam with body parts missing. I began to develop some ideas about how this visualization might be achieved. So, between 1967 and 1979, I attempted to confront some of these issues in my paintings and drawings.
In the crayon drawings, Babel, done in 1967 and 1968, I tried to create a sense of the desperation we feel when our efforts to communicate are futile – of our inability to hear each other or see what each other sees – of the isolation we feel when our political institutions don't respond to our needs. At its most extreme, how do we feel when our existence is being threatened and no one hears our cries.
In the Polifiction series, I was concerned with the obliviousness of political institutions to the realities which they create. Our leaders — our elected politicians – distant — impervious — all caught up on an eternal carrousel — a merry—go—round in which the same responselessness repeats itself endlessly.
In the acrylic paintings and drawings called Parts of Man and Body Count, I tried to suggest depersonalization — the loss of individuality — of personality, passion, even hate. These paintings are not about mutilation or decapitation — the parts of bodies reassembled imply dehumanization, not butchery. If the colors in these paintings are beautiful, that beauty embodies horror, making horror appear good and attractive. These are paintings that most people would probably find too disturbing to hang in their living room, but of which I am still proud.
In 1982, I returned to my memories of Chicago. I am still fascinated by Chicago. I continue to take the ‘L' downtown from Evanston where I live. I still stare out of the ‘L' windows onto back porches — into kitchen windows — down into back yards, streets and alleys. I still respond to the surfaces of these spaces:
Old brick walls — It is not the bricks themselves — it is what happens to the bricks over time. Bricks age differently. Disintegrating bricks are replaced with fresh, new brick. Dirt accumulates in different patterns. No two walls are the same.
Worn, patterned wallpaper — the shapes left where paintings and mirrors were hung, — traces of the people who lived there — vestiges – histories – memories. Scuffed linoleum and varnished floors. Peeling windowsills and door moldings. Battered streets and alleys. Cracked sidewalks. The patterns left on walls by old buildings after they are torn down. The remains of old advertisements on those brick walls. (They are like the palimpsests on old medieval manuscripts) All this has changed since I was a child. The old brick has been sandblasted — there is fresh mortar between them. It's hard to see through storm windows and around air conditioners. Back porches are enclosed — or the old, painted, gray railings, replaced with stained wood ones. New buildings are built out of concrete and cinder blocks ….
I was especially fascinated by the quality of light in Chicago – not only sunlight or the cold light of a cloudy day – but also by the different kinds of light — from bedroom and kitchen windows – storefronts — back porches – streets and ‘L’ platforms. Jerusalem and Venice had nothing on Chicago. I remember the golden glow of evening light on building facades and streets — but the light now is different…. more neon, florescent, halogen.
I remember when — at night — you could see the Milky Way over Chicago. You could actually read by starlight.
In my descriptions of old Chicago spaces, I try to create an experience – a particular taste, if you will — of my memory. I try to paint with the sense that so much of the world in which I lived – a world that I once took for granted — has disappeared. I remember that the neighborhood of my childhood was full of people, but all those people are gone — moved out — died. So the streets in many of my paintings are empty, but those spaces are still there. The empty rooms — the streets and sidewalks I paint — remind me of the people who once lived and walked there. Gritty side brick and wallpaper embody the passage of time on their surfaces and thus remind me of the passage of my own life.
Jan came across this line in Doris Grumbach's book, Life in a Day, Abandonment leaves few traces behind. But my mind always works hard over the traces, recreating what might have been there, the lives wiped out or moved away, the warm existence of a past lost forever in the cold, unpeopled collapse of the present.
That reminds me of some of my paintings.
Several years ago, the folksinger, Michael Smith, wrote a song based in one of my paintings, called ‘Hey, Kid!'. Some of the lines in the song go:
“Here's who I am, a stranger in my own hometown. Everything's the same; not a thing hasn't changed. This is my dream, that all the places we remember, they remember us. That somewhere we are always children…”Michael Smith is right. Those paintings are about loss — about loneliness — about search. They are about the loss of a loved one – and also the loss of all those people who were part of my life — even those I never knew.
As I look back on my life – my work – what strikes me is how fast time passes — the temporary, fragile quality of all life.
Steven Sondheim wrote in “Bowler Hat”, in the musical, Pacific Overtures,
“The swallow flying through the sky is not as swift as I am flying through my life.”Children leave home. Illness and accident take away dear friends. Those empty rooms will be filled with others. Tomorrow, other people will be walking on those sidewalks and I will be gone. I try to confront my own mortality. I paint myself as I am today — and as I was before — when — as a child — I fantasized about what I would be as an adult. What did I think I would be at 75 when I was 9? How would I see myself now? Would I be surprised? Disappointed? Gratified? Should I have gone to the Art Institute instead of to the University of Illinois? Should I have moved to New York in 1954 instead of staying in Chicago? All unanswerable questions. What difference do the possible futures of my past make to me now?
I am still startled when that adolescent kid that I still am in my mind's eye looks into the morning mirror and sees an old man. I still wonder why old friends I haven't seen in years have aged so much more than I have. There was a time not too long ago when my son, Paul, was mistaken for me. I wondered whether that meant that my son had aged more than I wanted to believe or that I looked younger than I thought (which was OK with me). On the other hand, George Orwell said that at 50, a man had the face he deserved — and the biologist, Midas Dekkers, said, “With every step you take in the direction of the grave, you look less like another and more like yourself…” so, at 85, this old face must be the real me.
But everybody grows old — everyone has memories. What still really matters to me as an artist is how do I use those memories in my work? How does being old affect my work? I ask myself – what do those memories mean to me now that I am approaching the end of my life? In fact — more fundamentally — how do I confront mortality – my mortality — in my work? Can I work productively despite the inevitable diminishing of my skills and creativity? Do I fear that I am repeating myself because I have no new ideas? Am I depressed because people no longer seem to be interested in my work? Do I want to continue to work if no one sees my work? Am I afraid of becoming invisible? Such anxieties cause some old artists to give up painting and fill their remaining time with other, less stressful activities. I, though, have not given up. As long as I am physically able to paint — until my body changes my mind and I have no choice — I intend to continue to work. I think that the difference between young and old people is that, while old people reminisce, young people look forward to what they are going to do. I am still looking forward to my next painting. I want to show that I am still working — that I am still here — that I have not disappeared. So, in my recent paintings — as in my memories — I am still dancing. I am still playing games. And — since the games I played as a child foreshadow my life as an adult – these games are metaphors for the present. The past is not dead. As William Faulkner said, “It is not even past”. New is not necessarily better than old. And there is so much in my past that I have not yet explored. After painting for over 60 years, I still feel as though I am just beginning. I have so much to learn and there are so many unrealized images in my mind.
And – finally — my need as an artist — as a human being –– is still to leave something behind — and the only special, magical, miraculous things I can acknowledge are children – and art.