How My Art Career Began

January 14, 2017

How My Art Career Began (or How I Killed Leonard Bernstein)

 

It was in May, as I remember, in Boston, and I'm almost certain that the year was 1969. I was a graduate student at Simmons School of Library Science, and was having profound doubts about my career choice. During the winter before, I had become involved with two other librarians in opening a private art studio. We could only afford to purchase one piece of equipment, so we had drawn lots: Penny wanted a loom, I wanted a potter's wheel, and John wanted a printing press. John won.

 

We called the place Wayzgoose Studios (it was in a basement storefront on St. Botolph Street), and working on the press was great. John taught us how to set type, and Penny showed me how to cut linoleum blocks for prints. Soon we were making art prints and limited edition books. I spent more and more time in the studio.

 

One morning in May (or was it June?) I was taking my customary walk to school from my apartment in the Fenway section (where there are gardens, a park, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, Fenway Park, etc). It was a gorgeous day, and the trees were just beginning to blossom. I lingered under a large tree for a while, briefcase in hand, dressed in jacket and tie, as joggers and dog-walkers passed by.

 

The weather the next day was just as beautiful, and this time I decided to climb up this particular tree for a few minutes. It was the third day that I ended up sitting in the tree for quite a while. The unresolved question of career choice was causing me to stall out. I didn't want to attend classes. I didn't want to go to the studio. I was just enjoying this wonderful old maple tree. It looked a lot like this stock photo.

 

 

 

One of the joggers I had previously observed was Leonard Bernstein, and to my surprise, he trotted over to the tree and stopped. He lit up a cigarette, and without looking up, asked me what I was doing up there in a jacket and tie. I told him about my indecision, and he told me that I had already decided; I just didn't know it yet. He said that a librarian in a jacket & tie was unlikely to climb a tree, but that it was a perfectly usual thing for an artist to do.

 

I thanked him: I told him how the perspective he brought to me as an uninvolved observer, and his resultant clarity of perspective, made my choice seem so obvious to him, just as his conflict seemed so obvious to me. He asked me what conflict I had observed, and I answered that it was likely that the healthful effects of jogging would be cancelled out by smoking. He said he would quit jogging. 

 

 

From this event, my art career began. I dropped out of graduate school and have been a full-time artist ever since. Leonard Bernstein died of lung cancer in 1990. I really don't think of myself as his murderer. I'm sure that he knew what the consequences of smoking were, but I do remember the event as a tragic-comedy lurking behind the scenes of my past.

 

Many years later, I was exhibiting my work near DC and had this story open in my notebook of information, when Stephen Sondheim happened by and saw the title. We chatted very briefly. Among other remarks, he said that Bernstein had related the story more than once, albeit from his own perspective.

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