My earliest memories of my uncle are of a dapper man from New York visiting his big sister (my mother) in Virginia during the summers. He would hang out with my dad drinking my dad’s homemade wine. Then in later years I remember that we would receive beautifully printed Christmas cards that were unlike anything my younger brother and I had ever seen. Several decades have passed since then. My parents have passed away. He’s since moved from New York to settle in South Carolina. Now that travel is difficult for him visiting him was the primary impetus for my recent southern travels.
Uncle Freeman was a silkscreen printer in New York who, while employed at institutions like American Image Editions, printed the works of Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers, Robert Indiana, Ed Paschke and many other artists. Once he’d learned the art of screen printing he informally taught others including Isabelle Collin Dufresne, known as Ultra Violet. A signed copy of her memoir sits on his bookshelf. “She was famous, right?” I asked my uncle. He said, “She wanted to be.”
When we went to visit my uncle, now 80 years old, I was anticipating an interview where I’d collect tawdry details of Warhol and his parties, the lowdown on the New York arts scene of the 80s and 90s, and so on. But my uncle, ever the gentleman, would only chuckle or smile as we queried him relentlessly. He did share some of the prints he still has in his possession and would describe the techniques used to produce the colors and shading on the page. His wife, who loves butterflies, mentioned accidentally cutting up a Salvador Dali screen print because she was so intent on obtaining the butterflies at the top of the page she did not notice Dali’s signature at the bottom. The altered print hangs quite lovely on a bedroom wall.
It was the art on the walls that kept drawing my attention in my uncle’s modest home. A few screen prints hung, but mostly the walls were lined with canvas paintings. I began to notice artwork outside as well, paintings on trees and wooden panels. Finally I asked who did all of the paintings and he said, “I did.” His wife pulled more from under a bed and those tucked away in closets. As for when he did them, he said the majority were done while recovering from prostate cancer. As he received treatment, “I couldn’t do much but I could paint.”
He shared no rhyme or reason for his subjects. “Just whatever came to mind and whatever pens and paints I had available.”
Birds seemed to be a favorite theme.
And then there was Obama. Born in the south in the 1930s, having experienced the realities of racism firsthand, Obama’s election meant a great deal. “I have a better painting of him,” he said as I gazed at this one on the wall, but we never got around to finding it.
He hadn’t painted before the cancer, he said, and he hasn’t really painted since his recovery. But I have encouraged him to do so. In fact I suggested a subject.
In the evenings as we sat down to dinner he would make his way slowly to the front door and open it wide. For the first few days that we visited, there was nothing to see but then the final evening, he said, “Cynthia, come over here.” And there they were, this magnificent flock of birds flying overhead, filling the sky with their dark silhouettes. They all seemed to settle in one far distant tree. My uncle said, “Sometimes there are so many in the canopy they turn the tree into a square.” “That’s it!” I said. “That’s what you should paint next. The birds in the sky.” He listened patiently as I described my vision but in the end he just shook his head and chuckled. 🙂