Thursday, January 21, 2016

Often a learning

Schulenberg never lost the need to take a blank page (the back of an envelope addressed to me in this case) and provide a little drama with some American historical context, and maybe a little laugh.
Thursday, January 21, 2016. Grey all day but above freezing.  The weatherman talk is still about the “oncoming” major snowstorm that is projected to cut a wide swath across the mid-Atlantic states right up into Massachusetts. The projections have been 6 to 10 inches, then 8 to 12, beginning on Friday. Now it’s Saturday afternoon back to a projected 6 to 10. It’s all in the drama, the forecast, that is. It wouldn’t shock me if we got a flurry and that’s it.

My friend Schulenberg’s Page today on the NYSD fascinated me more than usual, as I was reading new information about his life. We are old friends and I’ve always been fascinated by his work and sometimes, most times, even by his words. But today’s reminded me of his essence as an artist and as a friend. It provoked a conversation with JH about my friendship with Bob, which this year extends back fifty years. Gawd.

It began on the first day. We met through a mutual friend, Philip Carlson (who remains a close friend all these years later also). I’d gone to the Neighborhood Playhouse (School of the Theatre) and was preparing to go out in the world of making “rounds” with photos as actor. I needed some “headshots.” Philip knew Bob through his wife Patty Sauers who went to UCLA with him. Philip said only that Bob was a very good photographer.
A photo of the young artist out in the world, taken by his friend Caterine Milinaire, the photographer. On it she inscribed (in orange): "A mon ami Choux Lin Bergue, au souvenir d'une belle journée de printemps sans trop de soileil or caprice/whim/fantasy but just me, Mi Lin air."
I’m not sure of the time of year although it must have been Springtime. He came to our apartment about four in the afternoon. I had never seen him before he showed up at the door. A good looking guy about thirty, with dark, wavy hair, bright eyes behind black framed glasses, and a big smile on greeting. He was carrying a large black sketchbook under one arm, and camera in a case strapped around the opposite shoulder. I did not know, until that evening, that he was an artist and focusing on illustration. He also took photos.  I had no idea then or even until he began publishing his sketchbook-memoir, that he had already begun this odyssey of recording his life on paper in much the same way a filmmaker might record a life on film (or now, video).

No pictures were taken that day or night, but he stayed for dinner. My wife was a newly trained cook and was very good. The conversation continued wandering all over the field, as I would learn it does with Schulenberg.  Throughout, wherever he might be sitting, he also had the sketchbook in front of himself, and was sketching throughout the discussions. His exercise with the sketchbook, he explained, was to train himself to draw what was in front of him without looking (very much) at what he was putting on paper. He began his habit years before he went to UCLA.
The very young would-be (but not for long) actor in a "headshot" taken by his new friend, "Choux Lin Bergue."
He had recently returned from living for several years in Paris (the times we are seeing on his Page now). In his recounting of the people, the places, the situations and what his ever sharp eye could see, we too were seeing it. We had a grand piano in the new apartment, which I played. It turned out Bob did too. I could read music but he really played. He talked about the emotional content of composers’ private personalities, and how he could perceive it through their music.

It must have been about midnight when he took the conversation to the keyboard and demonstrated how Beethoven might play a Chopin piece, and then how Chopin would play Beethoven, or Mendelssohn playing Brahms. Or Tchaikovsky playing Gershwin or vice-versa, demonstrating with “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F.” All of this without any music in front of him. Anyone who liked to play the piano would be impressed.

It was close to four in the morning when he got up from the piano and decided he had to get home and get some sleep. So did my wife and I. I don’t believe in all the years since that he and I ever spent another eight hours steeped in conversation. Although no doubt we have spent thousands of hours exploring each others thoughts, memories and experiences. It is often a learning.
Bob in his house on Craig Drive in Los Angeles. Circa 1995. Photograph by Bob Stone.
Several days after that initial visit, he came over again and worked the camera on me for those “headshots.” We finished at a pre-midnight hour. For years after that when we were both living in New York (and even after I was living in Connecticut) we spoke and saw each other frequently, sometimes weekly. Phone conversations with Schulenberg are not unlike that first time in our living room on East 81st Street -- full of variety, interesting perceptions and information.

Bob was born and brought up in Los Angeles, and then in his teens in Fresno where his father had business interests. He went to college at UCLA, worked in costume houses that provided garments to the movie studios, and was generally – as it often is, or was, for young people growing up in what was then a one-industry town – enthralled with the movies. He came to New York after college (as his readers now know), and then accidentally moved to Paris for a few years, returned to New York, and then in the early 1980s, coincidentally after I’d moved my life to LA, he returned West.
Besides our phone conversations, when each is on the other side of the continent, there were letters. His, even his postcards, which is the flip side of that portrait of Bob in purple above, were always with the artist's touch and wit. This message, which was written in November 1997, reflected my becoming the editor-in-chief of Judy Price's Avenue Magazine.
So it has been a great pleasure to have the opportunity to share some of my friend’s talent, memories and his personality that is both very curious and very charming. He is always learning and seeing new things.

Discussing all this with JH over the phone this afternoon, I told him about Bob’s letters. Never was there an envelope containing one of his not infrequent epistles over the years that he hadn’t prepared it as  thoroughly as the message inside. I’ve saved almost all of them and so we’re sharing a few of them with you. They give you the gist of the man’s eye, wit, and observations.
Front of envelope.
Back of envelope.
Front of envelope.
Front of envelope.
Back of envelope.
Another back of an envelope. You can see I was very careful opening the letters to avoid tearing the art work.
You don't want to know what they're thinking ...
More back of envelope. And who sez anybody's thinking? Much.
 

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