Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Dad's Naked Ladies

Sam Hanson, 1987
 A couple of years before he died at age 90 in 2004, my dad and I had a kerfuffle over nude women.  Or rather, we had an argument over whether or not he had agreed to allow me to use his nude paintings to illustrate a small collection of poems I'd written about strippers.  In my version of the story, he agreed to let me to use his pictures and I shelled out a grand to a vanity press imprint.  But I mistakenly took this action before he actually read my poems.  Sadly, upon said reading, he became quite upset and immediately withdrew permission to use his paintings.  

So I too got upset because I'd already paid a substantial amount of money on the project. (I didn't know at the time that I'd eventually get it back.)  There followed some tense phone conversations between Bend, Oregon, and Pocatello, Idaho.

Sam Hanson, 2004
Eventually he pulled the "old man" card:  "Kakie, dear, you know I'm an old man and sometimes get confused."  Well, no card beats that card, so I gave in and we went back to being friends.  I abandoned that project.

Why was he upset about my poetry?  Not because of its quality or lack thereof.  Dad could recognize good prose writing but knew bupkis about poetry.  No, it was because my poetry was about strippers and sexuality.  He spoke with harsh tones when he told me that there were no similarities between strippers and artist's models.  "They take their clothes off in another room."  He might even have said that titillation wasn't part of their job.

And I got angry and confused when he said that. I thought he'd broken his word to me, of course.  But at a deeper level, I interpreted his rejection as a rejection of me, of my vision of the world, a vision that linked the naked female form to eros.

Is it wrong to think of life models as representations of sexuality?  Perhaps not.  Certainly, it's really wrong to hit on models.  And life-modeling itself isn't all that sexy.  I've worked as a life model and it's a painful and difficult way to make money.  Posing, holding one position for up to 30 minutes, challenges the mind and muscles.  It allows you to find all those little muscles you didn't know you had because they will hurt for days after.

Nevertheless, a picture of a model is different from the model.  The map is not the territory, you might say.  And even when I know that the work of a model or models is just that, work, I can still find the captured image of a naked woman erotic.  Was it just one of my typical solipsisms to think Dad found naked women sexy as well?

Sam Hanson at Lupin Lodge, 1957
Dad wasn't always a painter.  He spent most of his 90 years as a writer and journalist.  For more information about that aspect of his life, please see the blog, "Off The Beat" by Sam Hanson.   One of his favorite stories of his days in journalism was about his visit to a the Lupin Lodge nudist resort.  He won an award from the National Sunbathing Association  for the intelligence and sensitivity of his reporting. He enjoyed telling the story of how he interviewed the nudists while wearing only his clipboard.   He "dined out" for many years on his stories about both his visit and the way he reported it.  I found among his files copies of speeches he gave to such groups as Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce.  While drawing humor from the image of the fearless reporting going naked, he also focused on the "just folks and families" reality of the Sunbathers.  His stories purposefully downplayed any hint of the erotic.  In his notes there were unpublished photos from this old assignment, including a picture of him naked in a swimming pool with a couple of naked women.  (I have drawn some artistic modesty on them.)  

Dad started painting seriously after he retired from the San Jose Mercury News in 1976.  A year after retirement he divorced my mom and moved back to Pocatello, where he'd lived as a child and young man.  There he also married again for the third time.  There  he developed as an artist.  For two decades he was a well known figure in the local arts community.  He  helped organize an artists' cooperative and had a shared studio downtown as well as a painting space in the basement study of the house owned by his spouse.

His primary subject matter was the female nude.  His paintings hung in various businesses around Pocatello.  He paid professional models, both as a member of his arts group and on his own.  He also had the chutzpa to ask complete strangers, like a waitress in a restaurant displaying one of his paintings, if they wanted to pose for him.

As much as I grew to like his final paintings, for a long time I found his choice of subject matter somewhat problematic because of personal and social history.

I experienced the household in which I grew up as highly sex- negative.  Sex education was left up to the public schools.  My very rare embarrassing questions were sometimes miss-answered or answered with obvious nonverbal discomfort and obliquity by my parents.

While sex was absent from family discussion, it was very present in my Dad's Los Gatos study where, in the days before he painted, he would go to read.  In 8th grade I discovered the stacks of Playboys in his private magazine rack.  When I was home from school sick, I would sneak into his study to peruse both the Playboys and the copies of Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterly's Lover he had locked in a glass-doored cabinet.  (The key was very easy to find.)  While I wasn't all that interested in the Playmate fold-outs, I did enjoy the cartoons (especially "Little Annie Fanny") and the famous Arthur Knight, Hollis Alpert articles on the "History of Sex in the Cinema."  It was while looking at these magazines in my adolescence that I made a personal connection between naked women and sexual arousal.  

So pictures of naked women were available in our house but allegedly not where the children could find them.  And of course there were no nudes on the walls.  Nevertheless,  European cultural traditions were highly respected.  My folks had a collection of slide shows about the world's great museums.  These were the Panorama Colorslide Tours issued in the early 60s by the Columbia Record Club.  A thin cardboard bar with tiny slides  slid through a projector as a famous voice on a half size vinyl record narrated the stories of different paintings.  Narration was provided by a small collection of art-interested Hollywood actors.   At the "Sound of Vincent Price" website you can find samples of his performances.  I don't remember if any of these "virtual" tours had nude ladies in them, though I can't imagine a "trip" to the Uffizi without Botticelli's Venus.  It's also possible saw a nude or two during family outings to the de Young Museum and the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

The very art history I learned in childhood by visiting museums came under attack in graduate school.  I'd started reading Ms. Magazine as an undergraduate but didn't actually know the words "male gaze" until my masters and doctoral programs.  My first year at the University of Utah I graduate-assisted in a class that drew on John Berger's book,  Ways of Seeing, based on the BBC tv program of 1972.  The second episode/chapter is a complex essay about the meaning of the nude in the history of European painting.  "A woman in the culture of privileged Europeans is first and foremost a sight to be looked at."  Shortly after teaching that class in 1984 I sent a copy of the book to Dad for his birthday.  I doubt he read it.  Certainly, we never discussed the concepts therein.

I had a plan two years ago to put together Dad's Naked Ladies in a book with a long personal/academic essay.  I've scrapped that idea, but include here two quotes I was going to use:

The representation of the female body within the forms and frames of high art is a metaphor for the value and significance of art generally. It symbolizes the transformation of the base matter of nature into the elevated forms of culture and the spirit. The female nude can thus be understood as a means of containing femininity and female sexuality.

Nakedness is the most potent visual sign that a body is available for sexual encounter with another body. Since art stands between the artist and the spectator, it might be argued that art that represents the naked body serves the artist both as a sexual lure and as a shield against intimacy. 1 This might explain why the female nude has given rise to an astonishing variety of ambiguities related to the construction of gender and identity.  . . . the female nude became the most fascinating and disturbing symbol in Western visual culture. For centuries artists refined and exploited it, while art-lovers succumbed to and were shocked by it. Psychoanalysts and feminists, however, were the first to probe the ambiguity of its erotic appeal.

"The ambiguity of its erotic appeal."  What does the picturing of nude women mean, if not eroticism?  Why was Dad so drawn to painting naked ladies?   Here are some notes he made in 1995.

Why I paint nudes?
      Because they are there.
      Because the female figure is the most beautiful form in nature.
      Because -- unlike mountains, trees or barns -- they will come to where you are.
      Because they involve a matter of mutual trust.
      Because I like women as people.
      Because of the infinite variety of forms and the unending ways of presenting them.
      Because they are said to be the most difficult to draw and paint.
      Because without talent to draw or understand form or color, it is a never-ending challenge to     produce acceptable results.

Trust, challenge, friendship -- and nothing of eros.  An academic philosopher I knew in Pocatello once said that Dad seemed drawn to drawing the female form in the same way that  the Richard Dreyfus character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is drawn to making shape of the Devil's Tower in his mashed potatoes.  Certain shapes pull on the unconscious mind with a force that isn't purely sexual.

Dad might have thought that was horseshit. He was not someone who thought that he had an unconscious that  motivated him in ways not controlled by his rational mind.   Of course, a Jungian would say that denying the power of the unconscious (especially in the shape of the Shadow) just makes it stronger.

But no matter the "real" reason for Dad's focus on the female form, his persistent focus at last gave his work a kind of vibrant energy that got beyond his poor technique.  Although his work is derivative and he can't draw hands worth beans, his use of color puts him beside the best of the Fauves and their friends.  Or so say I.


That's why I want to make his works available to people who may enjoy them. In a few weeks I'm having a party and anyone who comes with a "ticket" will get to take home a painting.  If you, reader, are a friend, family member or local artist, be sure to email me if you do not receive your invitation.   Then sometimes in the fall, I'll have some art garage sales for whatever remains.

In the meantime, enjoy more of his work on Tumblr.

Or check out this video on Vimeo of the 124 pictures I inherited.

1 comment:

Thanks for commenting. I will post and respond when I have the energy.