Recalling an artist’s exercise

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Fire escape chat. Photo: JH.

Thursday, July 9, 2020.  It was warm with some humidity yesterday in New York. Some thunderstorms were expected and the dark clouds carrying them were in sight, but it never happened. By nighttime it was in the high 70s and not cooler.

Just before started today’s Diary, I had received Bob Schulenberg’s copy and sketches for his weekly Page (today). He and I have known each other since the late ‘60s, and well. We met through another mutual friend Philip Carlson, with whom I just had dinner the night before last at Sette Mezzo.

Bob Schulenberg photographed by Bob Stone on the stage at the Unicorn Coffee House on the Sunset Strip, 1959.

Back then, I was at the time an aspiring actor (very briefly) and needed photos to leave with appointments and auditions. Philip, who was a working actor, suggested Bob, who was a professional illustrator but also loved camera work. We’ve run some of those photographs. His idea was that I was a young Cary Grant-type and the camera could do the work. I felt completely awkward about the whole thing including my professional pursuit. But the show went on, and eventually a few years later the show went off, with no regrets and obvious relief.

It was arranged, and Schulenberg came to the apartment one late weekday afternoon about four to meet. He had another appointment but he never left until about seven. The conversation had begun. He’s the kind of person whom on meeting is so apparently open and verbal that it is very easy to fall into conversation.

To this day it is easy to fall into a conversation about all kinds of things and people. Furthermore this is a man who all his life has been observing, watching, which is listening. It is unconscious, with him. It is his nature and curiosity, assisted by an apt and sharp eye which is reflected in  his volumes of sketches and portraits over the decades. That sketchbook was like a third hand. It is always with him, or vice versa.

He told me early on that it was basically an exercise. An artist’s exercise, sharpening, improving, moving, changing. You can see changes in his moods in his drawings. While he’s naturally very good natured, and friendly in a neighborly way, he is also very intense. The eye and the ear are the artist’s equipment and their sharpness comes through exercise.  

A couple of weeks later when he came to photograph. He was using all of the techniques and lighting that fascinated him in the late 1930s when he was a kid (Bob will be 87 on August 27) growing up in Los Angeles and profoundly affected by the film industry and its world. 

At that time and at that age, I was very self-conscious and of course working all the time to appear not to be. The idea of a “Cary Grant” image was a big stretch. I was this kid just in New York from growing up in a small New England town. Jack Nicholson was my idea of cool and sophisticated. But I went along with Schulenberg’s production, and the result fifty years later is a completely made-up but fascinating image that does present the idea that Schulenberg (a film director) cooked up in me.

The final portrait — DPC as a Cary Grant-type (uhuh) photographed by Bob Schulenberg.

All this came back to me when I was reading Bob’s copy of his Page today. It’s from 1974, forty-six years ago in the United States of America where change was in the air but so was the excitement of the world changing I’ll definitely.  And the 21st century as we know was still a millennium away, or so it seemed.

Today’s Schulenberg’s Page portray the energy of the time and place. Reading it, I could feel the anxiety subliminal in a New York artist’s life. I realized how intense Bob’s daily life was. With intention. He was here, there and everywhere, meeting, greeting, listening, sketching, talking, reading, learning and putting it in the record, the Sketchbook. This is a memoir. An American Artist’s life in the last half of the 20th century that led to All This!!

The other thing that amazed me was the detail in his verbal descriptions. It just enough to see through the artist’s eye. This was all written off the top of his head. History moves in. We’re reading it, I had to remind myself that this was all set down, word for word from Schulenberg’s memory yesterday afternoon out in Fresno, California. 

It occurred to me that again, the sketchbook recorded non-verbally what he was thinking when he was looking at what he was sketching. It’s set in stone; none of it was written down until he was putting his Page to send to us.

I remembered his Bette Midler story at the time it occurred, but as it is written here on today’s Page, it is MUCH better than when he first told me about it over the phone the day after. Here he goes into the itsy-bitsy details, something a sketch couldn’t reveal. It’s brilliant and then some.  And all reflect the mood and the feelings of those moments 46 years ago in New York. He caught the powerful, magnetic intensity of New York, and that moment in its history.

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