Artist And Model by Romare Bearden
Happy Father’s Day! The day always brings back great memories of my Dad. One of my favorite stories I call My Dad And The Naked Lady. Before I tell the story I want to tell you a little bit about my Dad.
He grew up on a 1000-acre farm in LaGrange, Georgia during the Great Depression. His father (my grandfather) was a widower who was raising his six children, when his brother and sister-in-law were killed in a car accident. My grandfather raised his brother’s six children, and the household expanded to thirteen.
It was a working farm so in addition to hired workers, the children had to also work. This resulted in the children only attending school half of the school year. By age eleven my father had only completed the third grade so he decided to leave school. Life was hard on the farm and my father was the oldest of the children so he was responsible for the eleven others. If there was a problem his father had a simple solution, instead of trying to find out “who dunit” he would just beat my father.
For his thirteenth birthday his father gave him an acre of land and a mule named Moby Dick. He unhitched the mule, slapped it on the ass and said, “Which ever way you run I’m running the other.” He soon met a white southern gent on a motorcycle who was heading west for adventure. They rode for days and their diet consisted primarily of canned sardines and orange NeHi sodas.
When they arrived in Waco, Texas my Dad saw “colored” people so he departed from his companion and found a job hauling water for the railroad workers. His weekly pay was two silver dollars- a more than fair sum in depression era Texas. Later he lied about his age and joined the army at fifteen, and by the time America entered World War II he was a master sergeant.
Every time I see Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge I see Sergeant Rutledge. He was one tough dude, but he had a soft spot for his children. My mother, his younger second wife, helped him start his contacting business, and by the time he became a father he was a successful contractor determined to give his children every opportunity he didn’t have.
Every Sunday was your day with Dad. He would take my brother and I on an all day adventure. And he would take us wherever we wanted to go. We never went to the movies it was always something hands on. The auto show, a Yankees game, the circus, fishing and swimming upstate. We often returned home asleep on the backseat of car.
When I was thirteen the Brooklyn Museum of Arts was offering Sunday art classes, and participants would receive credits towards high school graduation for each class taken. I discussed it with my parents and they agreed I could participant. My father sweetened the offering by telling me I could take all the classes I wanted. There was just one condition I had to be responsible enough to get there on my own; and he would pick me up at the end of the day.
We drove to the museum to register for the classes. We lived I the Northeast Bronx and by car it was a forty-five minute trip. So by subway I would have to allow about two hour travel time, but that was a small price to pay considering I could be “creative” all day.
I was a daredevil, which meant I was the kid that was always into something that could resulted in a Sunday afternoon spent in the hospital emergency room. So any activity that was focused was going to be a blessing to my parents. My dad stayed true to his word he signed me up for pottery making, lithography, and sculpture. “I’m sorry sir, but the youth drawing class is full”, the registrar explained to my dad. “Then put him in the adult class!” he demanded. Very quickly the man realized you didn’t debate Sergeant Rutledge and I was enrolled in the adult class.
That first day my mom woke me at 5:30 am, dressed, had breakfast I was on the subway by 7:30, arriving thirty minutes before the drawing class. I was the first one in the room and sat in the front eager to get started. As people began to arrive I realized I was the only young person in the room. The other students were mingling and talking, it seemed as if many had taken classes together before, and I was sitting alone doodling in my art pad.
Finally a woman sat down next to me and started a conversation. Her name was Natalie; she was in her twenties and she short cropped hair accentuated her high cheekbones and full lips. She asked to see my sketchbook and was very encouraging, the conversation was pleasant and she made me feel relaxed and welcomed. After complemented my drawings again she hoped I would enjoy the class, during our encounter I didn’t find it odd that she was bare foot and was wearing a robe.
Soon the teacher introduced himself and brought the room to order. Natalie smiled then stood up walk to a platform the front of the room, then took off the robe and sat down.
Oh my God! She was naked! If we hadn’t engaged in such a pleasant and personable conversation she would have been just a nude woman. But we had talked and she was very nice to me- so now she was The Naked Lady. At first out of respect I didn’t look up, then quickly I came to the realization if I didn’t look up I couldn’t draw her.
Things were progressing nicely; about thirty minute into the class Natalie announced she was still nursing her infant son. Soon her ample breast began to drip milk. That morning I got an art, anatomy and biology lesson.
The rest of the day was much more instructive and far less eventful. So when my dad finally picked me up around five. The “Natalie Experience” didn’t come up. My Mom greeted me and asked me how did it go? I gave the stock adolescent answer, “fine”. Then she asked to see my sketchbook. I could see the increasing shock on her face as she flipped from page to page, viewing the different renderings of Natalie.
When she asked me about the class I recapped the events that started my first day of art classes. She summoned my father to the kitchen. Flabbergasted she handed him the sketchbook and in a stern tone she said, “Look what you signed you son up to draw.”
He slowly and carefully surveyed the drawings, and then with a very serious and insight voice he concluded, “You know, maybe I should take a drawing class.” My mother shot him such a look before they both started laughing. It was too late to undue the day, so they let me remain in the class.
I excelled at sculpture and at the end of the course my dad purchased 400 pounds of professional modeling clay. Our garage became my studio and it wasn’t long before I was sculpting near life size Natalies. That entire summer I would plaster cast my work, which meant plaster dust somehow found its way into the entire house. And my parents seemed to just go with the flow they were happy because I was happy.
I look back on that time and other similar moments and I feel so blessed. My parents let me turn my dreams into reality and also supported whatever endeavor I choose to pursue. If I had decided I wanted to walk on the moon my Dad would have asked me, “What shoes do you need? “And where can we get them?”
He believed in me, so I grow up believing in myself. And he invested the most important thing in us- his time. So on this Father’s Day I would to commend all the Dads out there. Anyone can be a paternal parent, but it takes a real man to be a Dad. Happy Father’s Day.