Tuesday, October 20, 2009

35. pen, and therefore John Groth

These are from last week (Oct. 15, 2009). The paper had been left behind by someone in the studio. Very slick, and roughly 1' x 2'. I decided to try my hand with a pen, and therefore spent most of the evening thinking about an old family friend and artist, John Groth (1908 – 1988), who taught and mentored my aunt Hopie.

As John himself told it, the story goes that as a very young man, let’s say 20, he had managed his way into the office of the one of the editors of the city desk of some Chicago paper – I’m not sure which – in hopes of getting a job as a resident artist. This was back in the day way newspapers hired artists, not just for court proceedings, but street scenes, the crime beat, sports and the like. The editor must have been busy. He didn’t want to be bothered with this young punk with the portfolio, so just to get him out of his office, he said, “Go do a hundred drawings a day and get back to me.” John, in his innocence took the assignment seriously, went off and proceeded to draw a hundred drawings a day, every day.

Whether the story is true or not, it’s an excellent origin myth, it so well explains John’s mature style. As a younger man, there seems to have been a lot more Daumier to what he did. The figures were more solid and stolid, the lines more deliberate, the medium more often oil. But the later work is almost always in ink and watercolor, and always rendered in that distinctive style, a style which was every bit as dashing as John himself was. He was very handsome, with a jutting chin, pure white hair (when I knew him) cut to a page boy's length, a pencil thin mustache, fisherman’s cap, a vest, and a pipe. And he always had his pen in breast pocket, ready at any moment to whip out his sketch book and go. To be with him was to see him draw, and he was one of those artist who was fun to watch. His hand and wrist were a little like the ink-stem of a polygraph machine, but not at all mechanical. Maybe it was because of that editor in Chicago, maybe because that’s who he was, but drawing was itself a kind of sport for him, explosive, fast, reactive, and he chose his subject matter accordingly. An illustrator at heart (by which I mean no insult; I suspect I am too), he depicted a lot of the same things in his art as Hemingway depicted in his fiction: bullfights, war, cockfights, safari, the sporting life, all caught in motion and emotion. He was definitely a romantic. As much as he traveled for his work, he also often drew straight from the imagination. Any time he gave a gift or a note, he’d ad a sketch right there of a charging bull or an Indian on horseback, or himself, and that was fun to see - a grown-up pulling it right out of head. One didn’t see that often.

John also taught a lifedrawing course at the Arts Students League in New York. Outside of elementary school, it’s the only other drawing class I ever attended before the one I’m in now, and I probably only went to one or two sessions. I was young, and not all that comfortable in the space, but the lesson was still clear. John had long recognized me as a potential heir to the family business, but clearly expressed -- as I’d expect any good teacher of mine would likely express -- the desire to see me loosen up a little. Let it rip. Stop being so fucking precious with my lines.

Some years later, when I revealed to him that I was thinking about being a writer instead, I can remember his expression of disappointment. “Writing? Aw…” His face twisted as if someone had jammed his pen into his gut. “But writers…” He shook his head. I’m not sure he finished the sentence, but he didn’t have to. My understanding then is my understanding now:

Writers don’t really live.


  1. "writers don't really live" also can be said moments-time when the voyeur in the artist or photojournalist predominates and he Observes the Scene, Extracting himself to somewhere outside of life.