Updated: Jun 11, 2019
"Three Flags" 1958
by Jasper Johns
My Uncle Dick spent 32 years serving our country. Both in the Navy then the Air Force before he retired with my Aunt Sissy in the recesses of the Adirondacks way up northern in NY. It was not my uncle's career aspiration to be a Colonel in the Air Force, he wanted to be an artist. But that wasn't encouraged back in the 1950s. In fact, he was ridiculed by his family and even brought his masculinity into question. So he relegated his talents away in sketchbooks and buried his passions deep. He went forth and lived as a career officer. With two tours in Korea, and three in Vietnam.
Upon retiring from military service around 1985, he decided that he would do what he always wanted, formally study art. He enrolled at Plattsburgh College and booked a full course load for the following fall. In anticipation he even registered for artist workshop classes at the college over the summer.
He then went out and purchased everything to outfit his own studio. From oils, acrylics, brushes, pastels, watercolors to sketchbooks and heavy weight drawing paper. All top of the line products from Grumbacher, Windsor and Newton, just to name a few. Being resourceful and possessing the skill set, he bought lumber to build his own simple easel.
That summer he painted and sketched everything he could. Arranging still lives around the house to Plein Air landscapes of the Au Sable River and Saranac Lake. He threw himself into the summer workshops as well.
One early August day in 1985 my Aunt Sissy noticed Uncle Dick didn't look so good. He was complaining of tightness in his chest and short of breath. He dismissed the symptoms to Sissy. After reassuring my Aunt, he told my aunt he was driving into town to pick up a few things he needed. Putting Sissy's mind at ease, he got in his truck and drove to the Air Force base in Plattsburgh about 20 miles away. He then walked into the medical center, crashed through the emergency room doors and collapsed on the floor and died from a massive coronary.
As my family attended my uncle's funeral, a full military presentation, my aunt pulled me aside and said "Bobby, I want you to take all of your Uncle's art stuff." I was fifteen and really didn't know my Uncle the way my older siblings knew him. Obviously they spent more summers with my Aunt and Uncle. All I had was distant memories of being a curly haired little dude, around 8 or 9, playing in Lake George or at the Au Sable Forks. I had recollections of him showing me his gun collection.
So I returned to Rochester with six large cardboard boxes filled with art supplies, and my Uncle's easel. I had dabbled with drawing and painting, but nothing disciplined. My mind was still set on making the starting rotation of a major league club. As I stumbled towards the end of high school, another dream emerged. If a major league mound wasn't going to be my landing spot, a light filled studio would.
Someday, if I'm compelled to write a book, I'll give you all the details. But let's just say, the rest is history. Besides, if you know me, you already know the story.
Fast forward thirty years, I have modestly made a career as an artist. I've built a business out of teaching others to appreciate the joy of quality time through painting, like a traveling minstrel who shares his music from town to town.
So having 32 years as an artist instead of a career solider, who knows what my Uncle would have accomplished. I could see him tooling around Long Island on a bicycle with Jackson Pollack, getting smashed and bitching about the New York City cultural bourgeois. Or even living in the East Village with the likes of Rothko or DeKooning and the rest of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. I suspect he'd stay tucked away in the mountains painting uninfluenced by any critics or writers, just my aunt.
"Charcoal Figure Study" (circa 1978)
by Dick Taylor
My Uncle Dick, my Aunt Sissy, nor my grandfather (also a veteran of WWII) or for that matter, my mother, all of whom I've lost, never really got to know me as the man I've become. I want to believe they're smiling down from on high on me and what I've been able to accomplish, as a husband, father, and artist. I imagine my grandfather (who we referred to as Tot) and my Uncle Dick chuckling and quipping, "Look at you Boy, and all your fancy pictures. Good for you...now go get a haircut, you look like hell."