This is another type of digital art I’m doing now.
My brother used to tell people that he was an only-child; most of them knew that wasn’t true.
“But what about Mike?” they’d ask. My name is Mike.
“Oh, he’s just a guy that’s staying with us while his parents are in Europe. I think they are spies.”
I was three years older than Tim, so maybe that’s why he didn’t acknowledge me as being a part of the family. He wanted to be the oldest, the only.
It’s not that we didn’t get along. In private, he’d say that he was really glad that I was his brother and that I was his best friend. Actually, Tim didn’t seem to have many friends. To tell the absolute truth, Tim didn’t have any friends.
When my friends came to the house, Tim would go out to the tool shed in the back yard and tinker with his bike or that ancient lawnmower he used to earn spending money. He never seemed to want to be around my friends, which was just as well; they were a pretty worthless bunch.
Eddie, my best friend, besides Tim, was what was usually called in those days a “juvenile delinquent.” He was the stereotypical JD, right down to his motorcycle boots and the pack of cigarettes rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve. He was also Fonzi from “Happy Days” around my parents and the rest of our gangs’ parents, as polite and deferential as he could be. How he managed to stay out of jail was a wonder. He must have been a hypnotist because every time he got into a scrape with the principal or the police, he’d look them right in the eye and talk his way out of it. As far as I know, he never made anyone cluck like a chicken, though. Whenever Ronnie and Ned and I were with him, when Eddie was speeding or stealing soda from the gas station cooler, it was the three of us who were caught and punished, not Eddie. We managed to stay out of jail because of Eddie’s skill at explaining the situation as our youthful indiscretions and his promise to keep us in line in the future. I think I heard that Eddie is in the State Department now, a job that I’m sure he’s very good at.
But back to Tim. Being an only child (well pretending that he was) meant that he got special privileges from my parents, and especially from my grandparents. Not only was he the only child, he was also the first grandchild and the first male grandchild back in the days when that really, really mattered. You’d think that we were English nobility, the way our family rewarded birth order.
The first son, of course, inherited the title and money from his father. The second son was expected to go into the church and the third son joined the army. Subsequent male off-spring and daughters basically didn’t count. If you were the fourth, fifth, or sixth son, you might as well have been born into another family, though there had only been one fourth son in eight generations of Watcyn in the “colonies,” he being a complete surprise. Roy Watcyn was my great-great-great Uncle and that’s about all I know about him. No one talks about him, and the family historian, the Rt. Rev. Norman Watcyn, M Div, PhD Psychology, added an asterisk beside his name in the official account of Watcyns down through the ages, with the footnote saying that he was “the fourth son of Grenville and Hilda Watcyn, and a complete surprise.”
My father, Timothy Franklin Watcyn the third, followed his father, my grandfather, Timothy Franklin Watcyn II, in the family business, namely being a modern day robber baron. The family fortune had been assured in the late 1790s when General Augustus Louis Watcyn was granted 75,500 acres of land in western Virginia (now the state of…. West Virginia) by George Washington. Augustus had been one of Washington’s trusted generals in the later stages of the Revolutionary War. Family legend has it, though not entirely confirmed by recorded history, that he had urged Washington to follow General Cornwallis and the British army down to Yorktown, Virginia and engage them in battle. Washington was always conservative when it came to a big fight and he wanted to stay on his plantation at Mount Vernon and wait for the British to make the first move. Again, according to family legend, Augustus went behind Washington’s back and convinced the French to get into the fight and the rest, as they say is history.
Washington never found out what great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Augustus had done, but since the result was so favorable, a reward was due, hence the land-grant, under which just happened to be tons and tons of coal. Now in the 1790s, no one was looking for coal, but the forests were exploitable, as Grandfather Augustus certainly did, after he divided up and ostensibly “sold” off the land to the participants in westward settlement of the new country. As it turned out, when coal was finally discovered, the deeds to parcels sitting atop that coal had a clause that stated that if any minerals were ever found, those minerals could be extracted without permission of or compensation to the owner of the land. At first, the disruptions were minimal, with mines that were little more than shallow holes in ground. But by the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, Augustus’ grandson, Grenville, had established an extensive extraction operation that some say (again family legend) helped the Union to win the war. Moving the great amounts of war equipment and provisions necessary for the war effort would not have been possible had it not been for the extensive rail system in the east, railroads that ran on coal.
By the end of the war, Grandfather Grenville was one of the richest men in the country and his sole goal in life was to increase that wealth. He was pretty good at it, but his son, Timothy the first, was even better. Coal mines turned into railroads which turned into oil wells which turned into banks which turned into mansions in Pittsburgh and Manhattan, Grandfather Grenville having abandoned Wheeling for the centers of wealth and power. Pied a terre were planted in London and Paris, and a trek to some far-off locale was an annual occurrence.
The first chink in the wall of the family fortune happened in 1905 when Grenville decided to build a house at Oyster Bay, New York, next to the Summer White House of President Theodore Roosevelt. Grenville and Roosevelt had become acquainted when Roosevelt was the police commissioner of New York City. Grandfather Grenville had been an early backer of Roosevelt’s political career, but had become more and more critical of his progressive ideas. By the time Roosevelt had become President, Grenville was a sworn enemy and the house on Oyster Bay was meant to be a snub to the President, being three times the size and many times more luxurious.
At first, Roosevelt and his family ignored their new neighbors, but when the Watcyn parties (which sometimes went on for several days, with hundreds of guests) began to disrupt the Sagamore Hill tranquility, Teddy started looking for ways to take Grenville down a peg or two. He found it at the Federal Security Trust Bank, owned by Grandfather Grenville. The bank was the center of a web of interlocking companies and financial institutions which controlled much of the economy of the country, and thereby, the politicians in scores of cities, counties, states and Washington, D.C. Now not all of Grandfather Grenville’s dealings were corrupt (he was a noted philanthropist, though there aren’t any Watcyn Libraries around the country; he was more inclined to having the family name on hospitals and, ironically, “insane asylums”), but enough questions were asked on occasion to raise suspicions and along with other notables such as Gould, Frick and Morgan before him, he began to lose his grip on his political power and on his empire. By the time Roosevelt left office, most of the Watcyn family fortune had vanished, as had Grenville’s grasp on the world. For the last years of his life, he was confined to a room in the Watcyn State Lunatic Hospital, an institution he endowed with his money from the sale of a couple of oil fields to some guy named Rockefeller.
My great grandfather, Timothy Franklin Watcyn determined to undue damage done by his father and through the remaining connections the family had, obtained a position on the staff of Congressman Nicholas Longworth, who you may remember was married to Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice. It seems that while their fathers were feuding back in Oyster Bay, Tim and Alice became playmates and life-long friends, which hastened Timothy’s reentry into the world of power and wealth. When Nick Longworth became Speaker of the House in 1925, Timothy was in a position to grant and withhold favors all day long, which he was remarkably good at. When the Republicans lost the majority in the House in 1930, Tim used his influence (and the small fortune he managed to amass on his salary as assistant to Nick Longworth!) to buy a bank in Cincinnati that was about to close as a result of the aftermath of the 1929 crash. He renamed it the Federal Security Trust Bank, thumbing his nose at the people who deserted the family after his father’s fall from grace.
The bank had grown to be one of the largest and most influential in Ohio when my father joined it in 1941, having just graduated from the Wharton School of Business. His fledgling finance career was cut short by the entry of the United States into the Second World War. Given the family connections, it was quite possible that my father could have avoided serving, that honor to have befallen my Uncle Richmond, the third son. But my father’s sense of duty (and my grandfather’s insistence) led him to sign up for the Army Air Corp on the same day that my Uncle Gus joined the navy as a chaplain and Uncle Richmond volunteered for the army.
My father came home from the war a hero, having flown some of the final missions over Germany in 1945. Uncle Gus landed on Iwo Jima and Uncle Richmond served out the war as a clerk at Fort Riley, Kansas. Dad picked up where he left off at the bank and in the early ‘50s was in charge of buying up properties along the Cincinnati waterfront because my grandfather got news that the Federal government was about to begin a program to build a network of “super highways” across the nation. He and Uncle Gus (who had, as a second son was expected to, gone into the church) got into a fight one day because many of the properties dad was buying belonged to some of the poorest of the poor residents of our town. My dad said it was just business, but Uncle Gus said it was immoral to offer almost nothing for their homes, especially since they would have little money to buy anything else. That was the last time I saw my Uncle Gus at our house.
One day, Tim asked, “Mike, do you think it would be OK if we went to St. Auben’s to see Uncle Gus?” Tim knew about the fight between the adults, but he and Uncle Gus seemed to have a special bond and Tim didn’t want to lose that connection.
“Well, I don’t think it would hurt, as long as dad doesn’t find out.”
“Does your dad know Uncle Gus?” Tim asked. I couldn’t tell if he was just kidding or if he was really puzzled by my statement.
This was a new development in our relationship. In public, he never acknowledged that we were brothers, but in private, it was never a question. Something had changed.
“Tim, he’s my uncle, too. You know that. Why would you ask that question?”
“Sorry, Mike, I forgot.”
Maybe Tim was beginning to think that I really wasn’t his brother. Maybe he’d said it so many times that it was becoming real.
A few days later, we hopped on a streetcar and went to St.Auben’s to see Uncle Gus. St.Auben’s was one of the largest Episcopal churches in Cincinnati and Uncle Gus was the Assistant Rector. Our great Uncle Harrison had once been the Rector at St.Auben’s until his elevation to Bishop of Cincinnati. It was assumed that Uncle Gus would become Rector when Rev. Nelson retired, which seemed imminent, family connections paving the way even in the world of religion.
When we got to St.Auben’s, we found Uncle Gus in the garden, tending to the roses; he was an avid gardener, having won medals at the Cincinnati Rose Show, three years in a row. When he saw us he said, “Hi, Tim. How are you doing? Whose your friend?”
Whose your friend?
“This is Mike. He’s staying with us until his parents get back from Europe.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mike. Having a good time with Tim and his family?”
I was so taken aback by this that I didn’t respond right away. By the time I had gained some composure, Tim was asking Uncle Gus what kind of roses he was growing.
“Uncle Gus, quit kidding around. Have you forgotten that I’m Tim’s older brother?”
Tim and Uncle Gus looked at each other with one of those looks that you use when you want to humor someone.
“Mike, I’m sure that Tim appreciates having an ‘older brother.’ It’s always been hard on him, being an only child.”
Uncle Gus was trying to be kind, but it came across as slightly condescending, like somehow I couldn’t possibly be a part of the family. It was also clear that no other discussion or explanation was possible. Tim was an only child and I was a friend whose parents were in Europe. Period. Full stop. OK, that’s redundant, but you get the point.
On the way home, Tim was quieter than usual. Several times I started to ask about what had just happened, but it didn’t seem to be something he wanted to talk about. I let it drop, but a few days later, I heard our dad talking to Tim.
“Tim, I know that you are just a freshman in high school, but you need to be thinking about your future,” dad began. “This is the time in your life to start getting serious about your studies. You know that after high school, your grandfather and I want you to go to Wharton and then come work with us in the bank.”
Wait, he wants Tim to go to work in the bank? That’s what I’m supposed to do when I graduate. I’m going to send my college application off in a few weeks and I have no doubt that I’ll be accepted, considering who my father and grandfather are. Before I knew what I was doing, I walked into the next room where Tim and my dad were talking and I said, “Why are you making plans with Tim when the oldest son in this family always goes into the family business? That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
For the first time in my life, I actually felt like an outsider. Perhaps that was when I realized that I was an outsider.
“Mike, I’d be happy to talk to you about making banking a career, but I have some news for you that I think will make you much happier: I got a telegram from your parents this morning. They are coming home from Europe and will land tomorrow afternoon in Washington. They’ve asked me to get a ticket for you on the Friday morning flight to Dulles, so you’d better go start packing. They’ll meet you at the airport.”
I suppose the look on my face could have been mistaken for joy, but in fact it must have reflected my incredulity. The man I thought was my dad wasn’t and Tim wasn’t my brother. Like my Uncle Gus said, Tim really was an only child.
Book 1 — boy meets girl
Book 2 — boy and girl fall in love
Book 3 — girl’s friends dislike boy
Book 4 — girl dumps boy
Book 5 — in despair, boy drives too fast and hits a tree
Book 6 — girl realizes her friends were wrong and sells her hair to pay for boy’s funeral
Book 7 — girl adopts a puppy from the local animal shelter to keep her company
Book 8 — puppy digs up boy’s corpse
Book 9 — boy has become a zombie
Book 10 — as revenge, boy finds girl and eats her brain
Book 11 — puppy grows up to win the Westminster Dog Show three years in a row
Preparations for painting are going well. This stage is rather tedious, but it’s a part of the creative process: the base leads to the finished product.
Here’s a panel with the mesh base applied. You’ll notice that there are what appear to be circles under the mess. A bit of serendipity there: as I unroll the mesh and cut it into strips on the board, the strands on the edges sometimes get separated from the inner part of the roll. Most of the time, I just cut these off and toss them, but for this piece, and one other that I’m doing, I’ve applied them to the base. In one of Octavio Paz’s poems, he refers to the circle as the perfect representation of the impulse of art, so I include a few in some of my pieces.
The second image below shows the beginning of the application of the joint compound. The type I’ve started using starts out pink, as you can see, and turns white as it dries. I’ve found this very helpful. Some areas of some of my pieces have a thicker coat, so it’s good to know when those spots have dried completely before applying the gesso.
This photo shows a panel to which I earlier applied compound. As I looked at the piece, I decided that it needed more texture, so I’ve added another layer, with some deep gouges. We’ll see how those look when they dry. I may need to adjust them some, which I do with sandpaper. This piece may need even more layers. I’ll know when it’s dry.
I’ve been painting a lot over the last four weeks, getting ready for a show in August. Most people think that an artist picks up a brush, dips it into paint and a picture magically appears. Oh that it were so!
If you paint on canvas, that might come fairly close to the reality (though stretching, sizing, and priming might take a few days unless one buys canvas pre-mounted and primed; and of course, this says nothing about the thought process that goes into deciding what to paint, which sometimes takes years), but in my case the process is a bit more involved.
I paint on hardboard that I buy from Home Depot. Nothing fancy. It has a nice smooth surface and works well for my highly-textured images. When I get the 2′ x 4′ sheets home, I have to decide what size paintings I’m going to do. I usually cut the larger sheets into smaller sizes, glue blocks for hanging on the back, prime the pieces with latex, apply drywall mesh and joint compound to create texture, shape the compound, and when that is dry, apply a couple of coats of gesso. Then, I’m ready to paint.
I paint with acrylic using a brush and wet rags. While the first several steps take three or four days, I can usually complete a painting in about one to two hours, depending upon the size. I paint quickly, but a painting doesn’t happen quickly. As I said before, the thought process takes much longer. I am not a realist painter, by any stretch of the imagination. If you see something in my painting that you recognize, it is something that you have created in your mind, not something that I intended for you to see. My technique is very much “stream-of-consciousness,” perhaps even Surrealist, and the inspiration for a painting may come from a poem, piece of music, book I’ve been reading, a TV advertisement, a dream, something that someone says in passing…
Right now, I’m working from the inspiration of the poetry of Octavio Paz, the great Mexican poet, diplomat, teacher, Nobel Laureate. Seven years ago, I started a series based on the stanzas of the poem “Salamander.” So far, I’ve completed twelve of the twenty pieces and hope to finish the rest in the next couple of years. I’ve also done paintings based on about a dozen other poems by Paz.
One of these days, another inspiration will arise and I might be doing paintings based on “Gilligan’s Island” or “The Andy Griffith Show.” Now, that will truly be Surreal.
Here’s a look at the process I use and a few new paintings.
Panel with hanging blocks applied
Panel being primed. Yes, I use house paint.
A couple of panels primed.
Next, I apply drywall mesh to provide a surface for the joint compound to grab on to.
A panel with joint compound applied and shaped.
A panel that has been gessoed.
A finished piece. This one is called “Salamander 4 – Yellow claw”
Another finished piece. “Salamander 15 – Solar Arrow”
“Salamander 19 – Red word of beginning”
I got a letter from my doctor a while back letting me know that he was changing his practice type (he’s becoming a concierge doctor, in effect) and beginning in May, I would have the opportunity to become part of his “smaller, more personal” practice… for a small monthly fee. He promises to see fewer patients, be on time, spend more time with each of his patients, and provide on-demand service, 24/7 as they say. And because he’ll have a smaller case-load, he’ll be able to stay up-to-date with the latest medical information and techniques.
This news was disappointing because I’ve really come to like my doctor. He’s about my age, so he’s got some experience and I’ve never felt that he was rushing my appointments. I always trusted that he was staying current with his medical know-how and lord knows I’ve gotten lots of tests over the years. The only difference I can see in the change in his practice is that it will cost me more out-of-pocket (“For about the cost of your monthly cable bill. Isn’t your health worth it?” That’s the way it’s advertised. Well, to tell you the truth, I’m not that happy with my cable service.)
I’ve decided not to continue with my current doctor, but here’s what I’ll be proposing to the new one, when I find him or her: I’m going to become your “concierge patient.” For a small monthly fee (I haven’t decided how much yet, but it will probably be about the cost of your monthly car payment, if your car is a Mercedes S550), I will be available for medical issues 24/7. If I’m ill at 3:00 a.m., I’ll be happy to let you come to my house to diagnose my problem. If I need tests or referral to a specialist, I’ll split the cost with you, over and above what Medicare pays. I promise to be on time to my appointments (or no more than an hour late) and spend as much time with you as you think appropriate, even if it takes all afternoon to figure out why I have a pain in my elbow/knee/big toe. I’ll gladly let you take your free time in the evening to keep up with your reading (except when I need you to come to my house at 3:00 a.m., of course) and even bid you “bon voyage” when you go on vacation, except that I expect you to come right back from Spain, Greece or the Caymans if I’m sick.
If you agree to these terms (and why wouldn’t you; I’ll be a great patient), please sign and date below and expect a call at say… 3:00 a.m.
Art History 101
“Good morning, Dr. Johnson. How’s your day going so far?”
Eddie Spenser, the owner of Marlowe’s Book Store, greeted me like he had every morning for the last ten years.
You see, for the past decade (could it possibly be that long?), right after my cappuccino and croissant at Lakota, I’ve stopped in his shop on the way to my office to prepare for a class or for an endless round of meetings with students, other faculty members in the Department of Art History and Archeology , or nosy administrators inquiring about progress toward our “Standards of Excellence” goals. I’ve found the fifteen or twenty minutes I’ve allowed myself to pick through the stacks of books that constitute Eddie’s merchandising system have had an effect not unlike what some commuters report about their drive to work: it clears the mind for the day ahead.
An unfortunate consequence of my daily ritual, however, is that I almost always leave with one or two books — some gems, some tailings. This morning was no different, but I’m not yet sure what the outcome of my purchase will be. You see the book that I bought, and which I just finished reading, is entitled “James Henry Johnson: The Life and Crimes of a Master Art Thief.”
My full name, curiously, is also James Henry Johnson.
“Eddie, do you know anything about this book?” I asked, hoping that he could tell me something about its source.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Johnson, I don’t remember buying that one. Where did you find it?”
“It was in that new stack up by the biography shelves,” I said.
I was more than a little surprised that Eddie couldn’t identify the book. In spite of the studied chaos of the store, he seemed to know every book that came in or went out. Want a book about Napoleon’s horse, Marengo? He could tell you about four he had had over the years and just where to find the remaining one in the three floor of his shop. Looking for a book on trout fishing on the Flathead River in Montana? Chances are he had two down in the sports and recreation section in the basement. Need a textbook for Dr. Formsby’s English Lit class? Yes, he had that and just about any other textbook that the faculty of the University of Missouri might be using this semester.
“The author is Grant Fields. Can you find him in your database?”
Eddie’s “database” was a massive card catalog he had created over the forty years he owned Marlowe’s. A few years ago, a student in library science offered to computerize his index as a project for a class, but Eddie declined, not because he is a Luddite who eschews computers, but because he believes his system is faster and more accurate, a belief that has been proved correct a couple of times when other students have come in with their laptops and challenged him to a book search.
“Give me a second. Yes, right here. ‘Grant Fields (b. 1934, d. 2009). The author of fifteen biographies of famous criminals, including Pretty Boy Floyd, Clyde Barrow, Machine Gun Kelly, and James Henry Johnson. Fields taught at Stephens College from 1962 to 2004.’
“Now that’s odd. Why did I forget about him? I’ve had most of his books at one time or another and I remember him coming in to buy now and then.” Eddie seemed perplexed and a little embarrassed by his lapse in memory. “Say, is this criminal James Henry Johnson a relative of yours?”
“I’ve never heard of him before,” I replied. “I suppose we all have black sheep in our families, but this one must be from an entirely different branch of the family tree.”
I handed Eddie ten dollars for the book and headed to my office. It was a beautiful spring day, as spring days often are on college campuses. There is nothing like a stroll through Peace Park when the air is warm and the daffodils are in bloom. We had suffered through a particularly brutal winter in Columbia and everyone was glad to be able to walk from the Heidelberg to the Medical School after breakfast or from Jesse Hall to Booche’s for lunch without getting frostbite.
When I arrived at Pickard Hall, I found a note on my door from a student who was scheduled for an 8:30 appointment. Apparently, she had come down with some virulent disease and had been advised by “someone at the Student Health Center” to stay home for a couple of days to heal. Likely the “someone” was another student who decided that the weather was just too good to waste on appointments with advisors and had convinced her of the same.
Since I had a free half hour, I decided to open the book I had just purchased and see who this other James Henry Johnson was. Chapter 1 recounted the daring theft of Cezanne’s “The Boy in the Red Vest” from a museum in Switzerland. The painting has never been recovered, but all the evidence pointed to Johnson, who was in Zurich at the time, according to his passport, which was examined by the police upon his short detention. He was released for lack of evidence, as apparently he was many times in his career. Zurich is one of my favorite cities and oddly enough, I was there at the same time attending an international conference on the “sound poems” of Kurt Schwitters. My specialty is the visual literature of Dada, which my colleague, Myrna Samuels refers to as Dadature.
As I was finishing Chapter 1, Lois, the department administrative assistant knocked on my door and asked if it would be a problem if Robby North rescheduled his meeting with me (to discuss the faculty picnic planned for the end of the semester; not a big priority by any means). Robby (Doctor Robert North, professor of Ancient Art), she said, had come down with some bug and wouldn’t be in today.
“There seems to be something going around,” I said.
“Yes, I think I’m coming down with it, too,” Lois said, laughing. “I think it’s spring fever. I could barely get my kids off to school this morning. They were both complaining of headaches. They’ve never had a headache in their lives.”
Well, with Dr. North out of the way, I had another hour before my first class. Perhaps enough time to read another chapter or two to see what my doppelgänger had gotten himself into in times past.
Chapter 2 began at the beginning: Johnson’s birth and early childhood in northwest Missouri, in the little town of Skidmore. You might remember that Skidmore was the scene of a series of crimes back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, attributed to one Ken Rex McElroy. For a period of eight or nine years, McElroy terrorized the town with assaults, arson and robberies. He came to be known as the “bully of Skidmore.” One day, as he sat in his truck outside a bar in town, he was shot twice and killed. Although there were as many as fifty potential witnesses to the crime, no one came forward to identify the killer or killers. Local and Federal investigations failed to uncover the person responsible for the murder and the case remains officially unsolved and to this day and no one in town has talked about it.
While all of this was widely known at the time, it was of particularly interest to me because I grew up in the next town over, in Maryville. It turns out that I was born the same year as the other James Henry Johnson, but in all the time I lived there, I never heard his name mentioned. According to his biography, Johnson was a gifted but troubled youth. His parents divorced when he was two and he was mainly reared by his grandmother. His only contact with his father was when he was sixteen. Johnson was called out of class to identify his father’s body, the senior Johnson having been shot and killed in a hunting accident. His mother showed up at the coroner’s office at the same time, but she was too drunk to even recognize her own son, let alone the husband who had abused and abandoned her fourteen years before.
By all accounts, Johnson was a good student and talented artist, but beginning about that time, he started having brushes with law enforcement. At first, his run-ins were minor violations: underage drinking and driving, fights after football games, shop lifting at the convenience store in Skidmore, but by the time he was eighteen, his escapades had escalated to more serious crimes. Two days after his graduation from high school, he was arrested for breaking into the bookstore on the Northwest Missouri State College campus and stealing $200 worth of art supplies. He was sentenced to thirty days in the county jail. His arrest resulted in his scholarship to Northwest being rescinded and his future becoming even cloudier.
My growing-up years were a bit different from his, but I had some of the same difficulties. My parents also divorced when I was quite young and I went to live with my grandparents in St.Joseph. I imagine my interest in art and architecture developed in St.Joe, as it is call by the natives. My grandparents lived in a sprawling old house on North 5th Street that had once been owned by Eugene Field. I used to wander around Hall Street, just north of the downtown, marveling at the ornate houses, especially at Christmas time when they all seemed to glow from within. The light coming through the stained glass windows made them look like they were encrusted with diamonds and rubies. Local legend, or perhaps just gossip, held that the windows in one of the houses actually had gems embedded. In any case, those windows inspired some of my earliest drawings.
My artistic talent was recognized by one of my teachers at Lafayette High School, Miss Lilian West, who encouraged me to pursue a college degree in the field. I was fortunate to earn a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute and completed my BFA and MFA there. What followed was a series of teaching jobs on the east coast and sabbaticals in the art capitals of Europe. Finally, I settled here in Columbia and have lived in the Grasslands for these ten years. It is, all in all, an idyllic life. I teach and paint and listen to the roar from the football stadium on crisp fall afternoons.
Meanwhile, the other James Henry Johnson was completing a five year term in the Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery, having held up a convenience store in Brookfield (convenience stores being easy targets at that time, the early ‘70s; security cameras were something that were only written about in science fiction then). While in prison, Johnson apparently found his real calling, robbery being a risky and uncertain business at best. He started taking art history classes through an outreach program from Washington University in St.Louis and painting portraits of his fellow prisoners in the little free time that was available to him. A local art gallery owner happened to see one of his paintings at a prison art show and arranged to exhibit his work in her shop. Several of his works (in addition to portraits, Johnson painted scenes of life inside the prison) sold over the course of a year and the gallery owner set up a bank account in his name so when he was released, he had a $3000 nest egg to begin his new life.
I had just started reading Chapter 3 when Lois again knocked on my door to tell me that my class was set to begin in half an hour, she having sensed that I was losing track of time. Lois keeps everyone in this department on our toes; most of us exhibit the absent-minded professor syndrome to a T. Today’s lecture was on the embedded poetry in Francis Picabia’s painting “L’oeil cacodylate,” a soliloquy I’ve given a couple of dozen times or more and one that never fails to put at least one or two students to sleep. I’ve always told myself that it is not my words that induce somnolence, but the stuffy lecture hall in Pickard that does the trick.
Today, my lecture managed to put about half the class in a state of untroubled torpor and I must admit that there were a couple of times when I thought that my droning was going to make me drop off, too. While I was giving voice to the genius of Dada, my mind was back in my office, wondering what was going to happen to James Henry Johnson in Chapter 3, and 4, and 5, and…
Mercifully, I reached the end of my disquisition and the accompanying sixty slides (despite the prodding of our new, young department chair, most of the faculty in Art History still use a slide projector for our lectures; at one point, Dr. Royce even refused to have the ancient projectors repaired in hopes that that would force us to adopt modern digital technology, but Dr. Warner thwarted that scheme by buying six nearly-new projectors on eBay, which we all applauded, but we also sensed that one day, that equipment would suddenly disappear and we’d be stuck with pixilated Paladinos, Picassos, and Poussins), dismissed the still-conscious students (being careful not to awaken the others), and hurried back to my office and the book. A quick check of my desk calendar indicated that I had no other appointments for the day, so I settled in with a cup of tea (Earl Grey, hot) to read.
Chapter 3 was entitled “The First Forgery.” It seems that Johnson had picked up a few skills in prison besides portraiture: he had become adept at copying art from any period in history. While he didn’t have access to authentic materials, he was able to mimic the look and feel of a Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Raphael, Cezanne, Thomas Eakins, Manet, Schiele, Whistler, or Courbet. His paintings of Missouri scenes would fool even the most knowledgeable Benton expert and more than one person immediately recognized an undiscovered Rothko he created. Now the Missouri State Penitentiary is not known as the place to make connections in the art forgery underworld, but inmates there know people who know people who know people. Once on the outside, Johnson used his bank account to begin purchasing old canvasses, pigments and the binders he needed to begin his new career. His first fake was a Titian created for a dealer in Minneapolis who had a client who had more money than art sense. The dealer created the provenance for the painting and had it “authenticated” by a supposed “curator” at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Minneapolis dealer also connected Johnson to associates in New York, London and Paris who had clients looking for works by specific artists, paintings that had long before disappeared from sight or works in the style of a particular artist, works that had never actually existed. Johnson was well compensated for his efforts and they took him to Europe, South America and the Far East. While “on assignment” in Vienna, he was approached about another type of activity; his client wanted him to steal a painting by Cezanne from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. The client had a large collection of Cezannes (most of which Johnson recognized as forgeries, a couple of which he had painted himself, but he decided not to reveal that in case there was some question later about the one that he stole) and wanted to add a specific piece entitled “Auvers-sur-Oise at Dusk.” The description of the theft was the subject of Chapter 4 and it showed how Johnson gradually shifted from art forgery to art theft.
As I read of his exploits in subsequent chapter, an unease came over me. Many of the locations from which Johnson stole art were places I had visited, sometimes on vacation but more often as part of a conference I was attending or lecture I was presenting. I was in London in 1978 when Johnson stole a Turner from the National Maritime Museum. I attended a conference in Paris in 1981 at the same time that Johnson took three Renoirs from the Musee de Monmartre, just two block from my hotel. Johnson and I were both in Barcelona in 1994 when a Picasso went missing from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. My lectures on Dada in Berlin, Tokyo, Tbilisi, Georgia and Mantova, Italy incredibly happened at the same time that paintings, prints, engravings, etchings, and photographs disappeared from collections, galleries and museums in those cities. Was the other James Henry Johnson following me around the globe? Was I somehow following him?
And then about 2000, he just disappeared from the map (oddly, that was just about the time that I came to the University of Missouri from Yale). During the ‘70s, ‘80s and late ‘90s, he came close to being caught several times, but managed to slip through the fingers of the art crimes units of Interpol, Scotland Yard and the FBI. Where had he gone? Why had he given up his spectacular and, one imagines, very lucrative career? Had he been killed by a disgruntled client? The last chapter of the book speculated on his whereabouts (was he living a quiet life back in Skidmore, unrecognized after all these years?), but concludes that unless a crime with his “fingerprints” occurs we may never know what happened to one of the most famous criminals of all time.
As I closed the book, I glanced at the clock and saw that it was already 4:15. I stood up to gather a few things to work on at home just as Lois knocked on the door.
“Dr. Johnson, there are a couple of men here to see you. They say they are from the FBI.”
Startled, I knocked the book I had spent the day reading off the desk and it landed with the back of the dust jacket facing up. I had not noticed it before, but there, in black and white, was a photo of the master art forger and thief, James Henry Johnson. It was my picture.
© Charles St.Clair, 2014
This is my first post in months. It’s not that I haven’t been busy being creative; it’s just that the journey from computer screen to blog has been circuitous and interrupted. But, today, I’m getting started again. To begin…
I had one of those “duh” moments yesterday (they used to be called “ah ha” moments; I’m not sure when that changed; something to look into). Over the last few months, we’ve collected a box of old documents that need to be shredded to avoid the dreaded “identity theft” that seems to be so ubiquitous these days (actually, I think the threat is actually more ubiquitous than the actual theft, but I could be wrong; I’ve always been of the opinion that if some fool really wants my identity, he needs to be prepared to pay my bills, too). Usually I take the stuff to one of those free shredding events that happens around town now and then, but I haven’t been able to find one and I’ve been carting the box around in my car for a couple of months. Finally, I called a commercial shredding company to see what it would cost to shred my copy paper-sized box of documents. After I recovered from the shock, I realized that I could buy an adequate shredder for only a little more than what I would have to pay to have them take care of the box. And so I did.
I went to Best Buy and bought. When I got home, I set it up the shredder as directed and proceeded to pulverize old tax documents and bank statements and credit card stuff. The shredder came with a smallish wastepaper basket to catch the tiny little pieces of paper it produced. When the basket was filled (which the machine helpfully signaled by a flashing red light; at first, I had an image of Robbie the Robot waving his arms and saying “Danger, Will Robinson” but it was just part of the vocabulary of the instrument panel on this thing), I removed the shredding apparatus and dumped the pieces in a plastic trash bag. Pieces went everywhere. Tiny little pieces, no bigger than neutrons or quarks or one of those viruses that grow into fifty-foot long worms in your stomach, and come out your eyeballs while you are sleeping (according to a program on Animal Planet I saw last week) (well, maybe the pieces of shredded paper were the size of Chiclets — do they still make Chiclets? — something to look into). Then the “duh” moment arrived: why not put the plastic trash bag in the wastepaper basket first? Why not indeed. And so I did.
When I took the shredding thingy off the basket this time, most of the pieces stayed in the trash bag (there were still a few that escaped, but not nearly as many; a couple of them looked like one of those Animal Planet viruses, but I’m going to pretend I didn’t see them scurry away). Problem solved. I’m going to write a letter to the shredder-maker and suggest that they include this option (trash bag in basket first) in their set-up directions. It might save others a bit of a mess.
You can thank me later.
A couple of days ago, I posted this photo showing several icons of Kansas City:
Ironically, yesterday Halls announced that it would close this store on the Country Club Plaza and consolidate it with its store in Crown Center. Halls had been an anchor on the Plaza for nearly fifty years. Rumor has it that the space will become a food court with all the Yum! Brand products you know and love: Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut.