David Bruce: Art Anecdotes


American artist Wayne Thiebaud frequently paints food and especially desserts; in fact, a critic once wrote that Mr. Thiebaud had to be “the hungriest artist in California.” Unfortunately, this subject matter kept his paintings from achieving recognition for a while. In New York, he went from art gallery to art gallery, carrying his paintings and being rejected. Eventually, he made his way to the Allan Stone Gallery, and Mr. Stone told him, “You look like you need to sit down and take it easy. Let’s go out for a hamburger. I know a great place.” The two men talked, and Mr. Stone asked him to leave his paintings behind for him to look at. Mr. Stone frequently lived with works of art for a while before deciding whether to represent an artist. Eventually, he offered Mr. Thibaud a one-man show. About Mr. Thibaud’s paintings of desserts, Mr. Stone said, “At first I thought they were kind of silly, but I couldn’t get them out of my mind. The stuff is serious stuff. There are layers beneath the layer cakes.”

The art of Howard Hodgkin is loved by the public. Early in his life, he knew that he wanted to be an artist, and he ran away from nearly every school he was sent to. Once, a police officer asked him why he had run away from a school: “Why did you do this? Are they maltreating you?” The young Howard replied, “No, I ran away to be an artist.” The understanding police officer replied, “Good for you.” For many years, Mr. Hodgkin taught art, which he believes is actually “a great trap for an artist as it becomes a substitute life.” When he decided to tell art teacher Clifford Ellis that he was going to stop teaching, Mr. Ellis told him, “I know what you’re going to say and I’m amazed it’s taken you so long.” At age 75, Mr. Hodgkin was working hard on his art, for a practical reason: “Old age.” He told reporter Tim Teeman, “I think the time comes when you think, ‘Well there’s not much time left.’ When I was your age, I thought time was endless and suddenly it becomes clear that it’s not.”

Chris Van Allsburg started his professional artistic life as a sculptor, then began illustrating children’s books. He has won two Caldecott Medals, including one for The Polar Express, and he has illustrated a Caldecott Honor book: The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. When he branched out from sculpture to make his first picture book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, he used pencil because that was what he used to create sketches for his work in sculpture. Mr. Van Allsburg says, “At the time, there were not many books illustrated with pencil drawings (there still aren’t). When the book came out, many people complimented me on how creative and original they thought I was for having chosen to illustrate the book with charcoal pencil drawings. The truth was, I couldn’t have done it any other way.”

Comic-book artist Jack Kirby once attended a comic-book art festival at a public library in Los Angeles. One of the librarians asked him whether, in his opinion, comic books mirrored reality. Mr. Kirby replied, “No, comics transcend reality.” The librarian then stated, “If you were to mirror reality, then perhaps others could begin to understand it.” This is something that Mr. Kirby strongly disagreed with. He told the librarian, ‘Madam, when you mirror reality, you see it all backward. When you start transcending it, that’s when you have a real good shot at figuring out what’s going on.”

Some events that might be seen as revolutionary are treated in a very matter-of-fact way. For example, in 1968, Charles Schultz, creator of Peanuts, quietly introduced a black child, Franklin, into his comic strip. Franklin attended a non-segregated school, and he went on non-segregated school trips, and this was accepted as a matter of course, without fanfare, as it should be. (And who knows? Maybe Peppermint Patty is a baby lesbian. In any case, Mr. Schultz, his characters, and his readers accepted her remarkable athletic ability, which can be seen as revolutionary—for the time—in a girl.)

Tomie dePaola has written and illustrated a number of children’s books featuring Strega Nona, who has magical powers. Seeming inconsistencies appear in the books, which have been created over a number of years, with sometimes years passing in between books. For example, near Stega Nona’s house in various books appear a bare tree, a cypress, and a stylized design. In addition, a small goat shed may or may not appear near her house. Mr. dePaola is not bothered by such seeming inconsistencies, claiming, “It’s part of Strega Nona’s magic.”

At 11 years old age, actor Brian Blessed met Pablo Picasso when his father took him to Sheffield to visit the World Peace Congress. Young Brian told Picasso, “You’re not Picasso—you sound more like Carmen Miranda. Prove it—draw me something.” Picasso drew his famous peace dove, but young Brian told him, “That’s not a dove!”—and then Brian gave it back to him. Picasso said, “It’s the first time I have a true critic.” In 2008, the then 71-year-old Brian said, “The drawing is now in the Sheffield City Hall and worth £11.5 million.”

In 2008, HBO broadcast the TV miniseries John Adams, which starred David Morse as George Washington. Much attention was paid to detail, and craftspeople built much period furniture. In fact, Mr. Morse saw a portrait of George Washington on a set, but when he looked closer at it, he saw that “it was actually a portrait of me as Washington, that they’d made a point of making sure the portraits were of the actors as the characters.”

Readers of James Thurber tend to love his drawings of people and dogs and life. For a long time at The New Yorker, Mr. Thurber would create the drawings, then throw them away. However, his officemate, E.B. White, fished some drawings out of the wastepaper basket, liked what he saw, showed them to his boss, Harold Ross, who also liked them and started publishing Thurber’s doodles in The New Yorker.


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