In David Park, Painter, Park's younger daughter, writer Helen Park Bigelow, paints a mesmerizing, deeply moving portrait of her father's life and early, difficult death. Park left high school in New England without graduating and came west in order to paint. He married Lydia (Deedie) Newell when he was nineteen and was the father of two by the time he was twenty-two. We are brought into a family rich with moral conviction, ingenuity, smart and gifted friends, music, and art: four complex people guided and inspired by values of integrity. Those same values guided and inspired David Park's painting.
Yet this is much more than an artist biography. David Park, Painter is a skillful blend of memoir and observations about life in the Bay Area just before and just after World War II, when some of America's most original, even radical, artists and writers gathered there. This close-up portrayal is unlike other accounts of artists. It is the story of a family built on the love and dedication of one man who held nothing back from his art, and of the spirit of the wife and daughters who supported him. Richard Armstrong, in reflecting on Park's generation of artists in his foreword to this beautiful book, observes that David Park, Painter is "especially valuable as we persist in seeking to make real and human the commanding artistic figures."
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PART ONE THE EARLY YEARS
I never expect it when it comes — a sudden, random gift from the past. It happened again the day the package finally arrived. I sat in my car at the post office, tearing it open, a thick, glossy auction catalogue from Christie's for its November 2005 sale. I turned the pages to a painting of my father's that had sold just a week before. It was a large 1958 oil called Red Bather, an image of a male figure in black bathing trunks, standing face forward. I hadn't seen the painting for years. As always, the strong, beautiful brushstrokes drew me in. The dark swimming trunks on the bather reminded me exactly of David's — the same color and style — dug out a few times each summer for a day of picnicking and sketching at the beach.
The figure stands with one arm behind his back, clasping the other forearm. That pose appeared a few times in my father's paintings from the 1950s, and it caught my attention. Back then, as a young woman, once or twice I'd stood in front of a mirror trying it out, and found it uncomfortable. Staring at the odd stance, I wished I'd asked David what exactly he liked about the position. Lately, I'd hardly been able to look at any of my father's work without having more and more questions come up.
Reading the caption in the catalogue, I nodded in agreement over one sentence: "Park often painted figures looking out to the viewer with haunting eyes, eyes that don't seem to look out as much as allow us to look in." Yes, exactly. As I sat gazing at the page, the painted face dissolved into David's own features, the catalogue's words fusing with my own thoughts. Looking fully into my father's eyes was to know more about him, about life, about myself, than I could fathom. To look deeply into his face was like falling into his soul — or falling into mine.
After a while I put the catalogue and its wrapping aside and drove away to go on about my day, but with more of David in it than before. All my life people have asked me what it is like having David Park as my father, and the answer lies in the gift of rich minutes like those in front of the post office. It lies in the questions I can never ask. David died in 1960, when I was twenty-seven and he was forty-nine, and the older I get the more I grasp how much about him I do not know. The flip side of rich minutes is often a void.
David was born in Boston on March 17, 1911, in an upstairs bedroom of my Park grandparents' Back Bay home. The whole family has always referred to that house by its street number, 347. Granny, David's mother, once pointed to a bed and told me that was where David had been born. I was about four and knew nothing of childbirth, but I never forgot that moment. Now the house belongs to others, but whenever I'm in Boston I go to the sidewalk in front of it, and look up at the window of that bedroom.
March 17th is Saint Patrick's Day. For all the years of my older sister Natalie's and my childhood, David gamely endured bright green frosting on his birthday cakes. By that time of year in Boston, yellow and purple crocuses might have thrust up through sooty clumps of snowmelt on my grandparents' tiny front lawn, bordered by an iron picket fence. Inside the house, a long wooden staircase switchbacked up four flights. Far above at the ceiling, a skylight, probably scoured by decades of Boston's grit, cast a dim, pale blue haze down onto the hallways and stairs. The house was connected to others on both sides, so the only windows were front and back.
For all my adult life I paid no attention to the pale blue haze that appeared in my mind when I thought of 347, and then one morning on Maui, where I live, I stood on a beach gazing out across a broad bay. The water, the mountain to my left, the island in the distance — all were bathed in pale blue, the air itself seemed luminously blue, and I stood for long minutes, taking it all in. Then, in a mindless transition, what I saw was not the scene before me, was not the blue filtered light on the stairwell at 347, but was, instead, a painting of David's from the mid-1930s called Two Violinists, done when he was a young man living under the bright skies of California, nearly three thousand miles from Boston. It was an unforgettable moment for me, realizing that the ambient color-mood of Two Violinists is the same faint blue shading that illuminated the long staircase at 347, as if in the thousands of times David climbed up and down those stairs in his youth he internalized that light, and years later it lay ready in his paintbrush.
An inconspicuous brass plaque on the front wall of 347 states that the Reverend Charles Edwards Park once lived there. The plaque does not tell us that Mary Turner Park, his wife, a devoted mother, grandmother, hostess, and storyteller supreme, also lived there. Grandpop, tall, balding, and dignified, was a Unitarian minister for more than forty years at what was then known as the First Church in Boston. High-spirited people who loved parlor games and family dinners, Granny and Grandpop, though never wealthy, were comfortably off.
Growing up, David differed from his older sister and brother, Marion and Dick, and from his younger brother, Ted. Their interests were varied and many, but all David wanted to do was draw and paint, or play the piano. He played daily, sometimes for hours, and when he wasn't playing he was drawing. He drew every day, wherever he was. In the winter he took his watercolors outside and painted pictures on the snow.
At church each Sunday, to quiet her small children during their father's sermons, Granny handed out pencils and notepads. She noticed David drawing in perspective when he was very young, four or five. In 1917, when he was six, in a watercolor called Black Car, he attempted to indicate the vehicle turning by showing its front tires and axle. It's a distorted view of an early convertible, but he knew and quickly suggested its running board, its fenders and doors, and the car's canvas top folded back at the rear. Considering his age, trees by the road are painted with surprising authority; one is clearly an evergreen, the other deciduous.
By everyone's account an engaging, eager boy, David thrived in his harmonious and cultivated home. Then school came along and interrupted everything. He did poorly, noticeable in that household where education was highly valued. David's father and grandfather were Yale men, and Grandpop expected to send his sons there. Aunts of David's had started a respected private school for boys and girls; it was and is known as the Park School. A second cousin had been the president of Bryn Mawr.
In ninth grade, David entered boarding school at Loomis Academy in Connecticut. The academic schedule kept him so busy he had no free time. In later years he still grumbled about it, saying that the schedule provided painting one Sunday afternoon a month. There was not even time to play the piano. For David, school felt like an amputation of his greatest needs and interests. Cut off from any time that was his own, he languished and had no energy for his studies.
Finally the school year ended, and David and his family piled into the car and moved to their summer place in the woods and fields near Peterborough, New Hampshire. The minute they got in the car the children took off their shoes and socks and David claimed they didn't put them back on until September. The Peterborough house is still in the family.
Thanks to New Hampshire's ponds, David grew up with rowboats and canoes. Forever fresh in his memory from his childhood on New Hampshire ponds, those boats appeared in his paintings throughout his life. He loved to quote a passage from The Wind in the Willows, a book read aloud to all the children in the family, in which River Rat says, "There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." For all of his life after leaving Peterborough, David's "messing about" took place on canvas and on watercolor paper.
The frame-within-the-frame in the early work Rowboat and Canoe (page 10) may be the remains of a previous painting, for David often painted over something or scraped off an old image and used the canvas again. My guess is that he liked the look of the old painted portion and let the double-framing effect invite him toward setting his image in an additional inner border made up of the broad brown swath at the right, the blue line of water against trees in the upper left, and the swimmer at the bottom of the canvas, who has broken out of all but the actual frame. The curved bridge at the top of the piece appears again in a scroll David created in 1960. And at Peterborough, a wooden canoe, its exterior painted dark green, still resides upside down on rafters in the garage.
In that first summer of David's boarding school years, he always had his paints and sketchpads close by. He played charades with the family, shouted out the lyrics to "Green Grow the Rushes, O" and to songs from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. He ranged over the countryside with his sister and brothers, exploring. To his parents, it seemed he'd passed through a difficult time and was now back to normal.
Then school started again, and David's energy faded. He couldn't concentrate on schoolwork, couldn't shake his lethargy, and at the end of the term was not passed on from his sophomore year. During the next summer Grandpop and his three sons built a sturdy one-room cottage in the woods. It was to be David's studio, planned and designed and built just for him. With this kind of support, David thrived until it was time to go back to school.
When I was a child, Granny loved to tell her version of the story of Persephone and the four seasons. As I recall Granny's story, Persephone tugged at the pomegranate bush and was abducted to the dark and dismal underworld, whereupon all the trees, deep in mourning over her disappearance, started losing their leaves. Six months later, Persephone was allowed up to the light again, to the woods and the fields, and the joyous world came back to life. Looking at David as a teenager, at his academic year and then the way his spirits were renewed by Peterborough, I see a strange parallel between Granny's account of Persephone and the story of David's time in school.
Again, he failed to be passed on from his sophomore year.
Then one day in his third try at tenth grade, his aunt, Edith Park Truesdell, visited him at boarding school. Fully involved in painting, teaching, and studying art for all her adult life, Edith had naturally formed a bond with her young nephew David. She lived in California, but sometimes she traveled to the East to stay with the family at 347 while she taught a session of classes at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Edith was the last of Grandpop's five younger sisters. With bright blue eyes and a mat of short brown curls, she earned admiration in the family for her vigorous, forthright manner. A small woman with abounding energy, she had a chirpy, brisk New England voice best described as sounding like Eleanor Roosevelt's.
She was not at all prepared for what she found at Loomis. David's eyes were dull, his face expressionless. His usual humor and fair share of the family's high spirits had vanished. He'd always been so animated and now was listless. Edith asked to see recent drawings and was appalled to find there weren't any. She had not known that he was so deeply unhappy.
After her visit, Edith drove back to Boston wondering about David and what was best for him. At 347, she sat with her brother and sister-in-law, carefully reporting everything she had seen and perceived, and she said, "This simply will not do."
Her suggestion: David should be taken out of school. He should go out to California with her, and she would put him in art school there. She felt strongly that he needed some formal training, and that he would make painting his life work. If he never graduated from high school or attended college it didn't matter. He was obviously bright and would educate himself. The fact that Granny and Grandpop agreed to try Edith's radical approach tells me they must have been profoundly worried about their son.
In the same years that David languished at Loomis and recovered during his vacations in Peterborough, three thousand miles west in California, a man, his wife, his son and daughter, and a pack of boys his son's age camped high in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada range each summer. They set up dark-green canvas tents at the edge of a meadow by a creek and built a circle of stones for a campfire. Every day the man, James Blair Newell, took the boys hiking and exploring all over the mountains. It was their job to bring fresh-caught trout back to the campground for supper.
During the day while they were gone, Harriet See Newell and her daughter tended the camp, aired out sleeping bags, swept twigs and grit out of tents, gathered armloads of firewood, and washed everyone's clothes in creek water they hauled in buckets and heated on the campfire.
The girl was my mother, Lydia Elizabeth Newell, although the nickname "Deedie" was what everyone called her as I was growing up. Her brother, four years older but sickly as a child, was to be the sculptor Gordon Newell (1905–1998). The mountain summers were designed to give him back his health, and my grandfather made a little money by being a mountain guide for the other boys. A passionate amateur naturalist, he had hiked the high Sierra since childhood. He knew John Muir, not well, but as an acquaintance.
Deedie was a tall, beautiful girl with bouncy curls and long, slender legs. In all of her growing-up years, she was counted on to help in the care of her brother. She retreated into the background whenever necessary, caused no trouble, made no demands, and in every way supported her parents in their primary concern, which was Gordon's health. As a teenager, sometimes Deedie would slump in a chair with a book. Not reading, she would sit there for most of the day and crawl into bed at twilight.
My Newell grandfather was a high school teacher and a historian, an intellectual gentleman whose life shame was his failure to be admitted for graduate work at Harvard. He struggled with intermittent tuberculosis, which meant more help was needed from Deedie with the household and with caring for him. Sometimes he was hospitalized for months at a time. Deedie attended a teacher's college in Missouri for a year but was unhappy there and glad when an appendectomy gave her the excuse to move back to California. So there she was, a lovely, lonesome young woman living with her parents in Los Angeles, none of them having heard of an illness called depression, or that one of its symptoms is excessive desire for sleep. Evening after evening, when it was barely dark, Deedie took her book and sank into bed.
In Boston, in 1928, David was seventeen when he packed his suitcase, left his parents, and started his journey to California with Edith in her Model T Ford. What a grand adventure for a New England boy so recently depressed and lethargic. At night they stopped at appealing spots by a creek or a meadow and spread out bedrolls near their parked car. They detoured to the Grand Canyon where nothing could have kept David from exploring. He headed off alone down the steep, crumbly path of Bright Angel Trail, all the way to the beckoning water at the floor of the canyon. Huffing his way back up the steep trail hours later, he found Edith propped against a tree, drawing. Nearby, a group of tourists had been watching his red-faced ascent and applauded when he reached the top.
When David arrived in California, he lived in Edith's cabin up a rocky canyon behind Los Angeles. He attended Otis Art Institute, where one of his classes was cast drawing, a classical technique wherein students draw from plaster casts of body parts, such as an ear, a hand, a head. David applied himself and soaked up everything he could.
He was a wiry young man without an ounce of fat, five feet nine inches tall, with deep blue eyes that burned with intensity. He had a long face, a broad nose, and full lips. His straight hair, fine and dark brown, usually flopped across his forehead.
He stayed at Otis for one year, but was attracted by stories of stimulating people and art in San Francisco and Berkeley. When David was eighteen, in the spring of 1929, with Edith's blessing he set out for the Bay Area.
Right away he made friends with Gordon Newell in a philosophy class David audited at the University of California in Berkeley. The two sat around in inexpensive restaurants with other new friends. Conversations roamed over the arts, being an artist, what exactly they wanted to do, and how to make a living at it. Smoking and drinking and dissecting these subjects during long evenings, David joined in less than the others.
Unlike most of them, he did not doubt what he was going to do with his life. It would pay his way or it wouldn't, but he was going to do it. As a boy he used to wonder if he would give his life to painting or playing the piano. Listening to the others talk, he realized that along the way he'd made up his mind. He had no doubt, he did not question, and he didn't have much to add to the discussions because he already knew. He would paint. Maybe he'd end up teaching. Maybe the day would come when he would have enough money to buy himself a piano.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "David Park, Painter"
Copyright © 2009 Helen Park Bigelow.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
FOREWORD by Richard Armstrong,
AUTHOR'S PREFACE — STANDING THERE LOOKING,
PART ONE — THE EARLY YEARS,
PART TWO — THE FORTIES,
PART THREE — THE FIFTIES,
PART FOUR — THE LAST WORK,
PART FIVE — AFTERWARD,
SELECTED READING AND EXHIBITION CATALOGUES,
DAVID PARK: ILLUSTRATED WORKS,