A YEAR AT PRATT
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
In Merry Old England, “prat” was a four-letter word. It described an area of a ladies anatomy that is rarely spoken of in polite company. Its equivalent would have been the dreaded “C word” in the USA. Over time, prat’s meaning became more general, and it came to signify, “bottom,” the origin of the expression “pratfall” Nonetheless, my future wife’s parents, being Old English, themselves, did a double take, when she informed them that their new "son-in-law to be," was a student at “Pratt Institute!”
Venturing into the murky depths of the basement, yesterday, I found myself digging through foot high piles of ancient artwork, most of which I did at Pratt. There, before me, lay the entire history of my earliest attempts to be an artist, beginning with things I did at the National Music Camp when I was thirteen, right through high school, several art schools, and terminating with some drawings that I did in Paris. This panorama of my life in art has been there in the basement for over forty-five years now, where it is disintegrating from old age and the omnipresent dampness. Curiously, this does not upset me, for most of it, in my opinion, was rotten to begin with.
Flipping through a stack of color charts that we were stupidly required to render, in my freshman year at Michigan, I suddenly came upon a matted print by Daumier, or, at least, that’s what it appeared to be. Closer examination revealed the fact that it was actually original art. I stared at it in disbelief, as the faintest hint of a long forgotten history stirred in the deepest recesses of my memory. Could it be that I did this? The art was signed “Daumier,” but the name, “BIRNKRANT” was boldly scribed across the back of the modern illustration board that it was painted on. Bit by bit, it all came back to me, the dreary days I spent at Pratt, enrolled in a curriculum called, "Illustration" when I was nineteen.
To give credit where it is due, Pratt did make an effort to offer teachers who were successful and distinguished artists. This bogus Daumier had been the assignment of my illustration teacher, a relatively famous illustrator, named John Groth. John Groth might well have been a character, right out of Hemmingway, who he had known personally. His claim to fame was the fact that he went to the battlefields during the Second World War, and sketched the action for the Chicago Sun. He drew in a style that he called “Quick Sketch.” It was made up of many hundreds of action lines, and thus his drawings allowed the viewer to choose the ones he liked. To my eye, these near scribbles disguised the fact that John Groth was not a great draftsman. But he was, most assuredly, a great guy. On the other hand, I hated his class.
Each week, he assigned us another book to read and illustrate. The reading and illustrating constituted homework, and ate up any vestige of our nonexistent “spare time.” Then, in class, he would discuss each students illustration, one at a time. That consisted of Mr. Groth talking, reminiscing, and joking, for two, four hour sessions every week. In all that time, he never said anything meaningful. He was great at pointing out stupid mistakes, and turning these into jokes that were often hilarious, like, “Has that dog got five legs?” or, “Is that tree growing out of that man’s back?” Most of the art was really bad, so there were enough booboos to keep us all in stitches. But if an illustration had no gross errors in it, he had nothing to say about it. Anything pertaining to art, color, composition, characterization, was never mentioned.
What I found most fascinating about John Groth was the fact that he sincerely believed that he was the living reincarnation of Honoré Daumier! I kid you not; he certainly wasn’t kidding. Thus, the first assignment our class was given, was to copy a print by Daumier as accurately as we were able. This, he figured, would teach us how to draw like he did. As was the case with so many challenges that lay in my multifaceted future, to my amazement, I rose to the occasion. This rendition, which was totally out of character for me, transcended merely copying, and bordered upon forgery. Ironically, I even fooled myself, in the basement, yesterday. I found the idea that I rendered this bogus Daumier difficult to believe. This versatility, later, came in handy, when restoring a vast variety of antiques, as well as visualizing and sculpting anything, in any style, from Space Monsters to Baby Face.
This chance discovery of this forgotten fragment of my past was, no doubt, the reason I lay awake last night, reliving the two years I spent at Pratt. The sum total of my stay there was depressing. Pratt was not unlike a prison, and I had willingly accepted a two year sentence. The school itself was the very essence of ugliness. It resembled a factory, a huge brick building with a giant smokestack, rising into the Brooklyn sky.
Directly across the street from this ominous edifice was a relatively new addition, an entire city block of Bedford Stuyvesant transformed into a kind of park. There was a rectangular dormitory building at either end; one for girls and one for boys, and in between them was a seldom used walkway. This oasis was surrounded by a high wrought iron fence with spikes to dissuade the neighbors, native to this area, from entering.
Pratt Institute had always been a trade school, offering a two year curriculum and a certificate, upon graduation. But, just a few years before I went there, those dorms were built, and Pratt Institute became Pratt College, offering a four year program and a Bachelor of Arts degree. Before and after, there was a kind of unspoken guarantee that if one attended Pratt, and went through the program, they would be able to earn a living doing something, ranging from creating to cutting and pasting in the field of art. The curriculum was engineered like an assembly line. They sought students who had only a modicum of talent to begin with, and then, like vehicles on the conveyor belt of an assembly line, new skills were added, one at a time.
The first day there, the moment of truth was upon me, and I lied outrageously. I had been easily accepted, based on my grades at U of M, and my “art talent test,” which, while my teacher at Michigan said it was the worst thing he ever saw me do, and I agreed, Pratt told me was the best they had received. Now, I had to see the Dean, and show him my portfolio to decide what year I would be in. God knows I didn’t want to have to begin at the beginning, once again. I was, waiting on a bench outside the Dean’s office, when another new student arrived, and sat beside me. His name was Harley Wolfe, and he, like me, was interviewing to see what year he would be placed in, after a year at school in his home state of Ohio. I went into the office first. From outside, Harley could hear every word I said, as I bull shitted my way through the interview.
Some of the stuff I in my portfolio was OK, and what I hadn’t learned in school, I said, I did, implying that my work was so good, that the U of M insisted on keeping it! But I couldn’t hoodwink the Dean with my mediocre figure drawing. Nonetheless, the he let me enter second year, and tagged an extra drawing course onto my curriculum to remedy the fact that I drew badly. Thank God for that!
When I stepped out of his office, Harley’s jaw was dropping in astonishment! He went in next, and, following my lead, did the same thing. Only, as he was studying industrial design, he didn’t have to add remedial figure drawing. I mention this, because, ironically, Harley and I were not only the first student we met, upon arriving at Pratt, we also became best friends. And our second year there, with a third roommate, Chris, whose last name I forget, shared an off campus apartment. Our lives and destinies continued to intermingle for many years, thereafter. Four years later, Harley assumed the role of our first daughter, Samantha’s Godfather.
Ironically, Harley became a toy designer, before me, and worked in the toy industry for a man named, Ned Strongen. Ned was a typical toy-biz type, who passed himself off as a toy inventor by capitalizing on the talent of others, such as Harley. Ned would strut bombastically around the toy building at Toy Fair time, offering to share his maven-hood by delivering mind-numbing lectures on “how to succeed in toy biz,” to anybody who was buying. My “employer," Harry Kislevitz fell for Ned’s pompous hype, and actually paid him to recite his canned speech to Colorform’s so-called executives, including me. Afterwards, I had new sympathy for Harley.
In a further twist of fate, Ned came up with one of the worst action figure concepts ever made, a half-naked dude, who resembled Rick Santorum in long underwear, except for the fact that he had two faces and four thumbs. The concept was based entirely on a simple product feature, in which the figure’s upper torso spun around to show one side, and then, the other, which was the same, except that it was painted blue with popping veins, sometimes known as, a “blue-veiner.” Ironically this stinker, which died, before year one was over, came back from the grave, thirty years later to put a nasty end to the ongoing revival of my own series of action figures, The Outer Space Men. And thus, in writing down these memoires, I find one of the benefits of living a long life is discovering the curious way the threads of fate are intertwined.
Meanwhile, getting back to Pratt, I had John Growth for three semesters, which would have been four, had I not quit. Three semesters of the same ..... In the beginning we carried on the Daumier tradition by working in one color only. Here is the first assignment, and the only one that didn’t involve reading. We were required to walk around the city, making sketches, and then combine them into a street scene.
Our first attempt at actually illustrating was a story that I already knew. So I didn’t need to read Robinson Caruso.
Still in a style, reminiscent of Daumier, we illustrated this scene from Rabelais, in which Gargantua parks his butt on Notre Dame, and urinates on Gay Paree, drowning several citizens in oui oui.
It always seemed to me that to be a successful illustrator in the 1950s, one had to have a “style,” a certain look that was recognizable. Even then, a career in illustration might only last as long as one’s particular style was in vogue. That’s why I loved figure drawing. It’s totally honest! With every 20 minute pose, there is no time to play around, no time to think, just get all the information down. But with Illustration, as a beginner, I had time to experiment, trying to find a “look” that I might call “mine.” I can’t say that I ever found it. My heart was never really in it. The art, below, was just an exercise in stylized composition. My arbitrary stabs at various styles were quite divergent.
I fared far better with two other teachers. The first, and my favorite, was Calvin Albert. I looked him up on Google, today, and I was surprised to find that there was not more about him. He was both a sculptor and a draftsman. But, above all, he was a teacher, and wrote a book on figure drawing that set forth his groundbreaking method of teaching. Thanks to him, drawing the human body became my favorite activity. But that was not always the case. At one time, it was just hard work, discouraging and intimidating. I remember painful days of holding a pencil at arm’s length, trying in vain to measure off so many heads, and other frustrating attempts to get the proportions correct.
Then my life was blessed by having Calvin Albert as a teacher. He made figure drawing an adventure, and set us free from timidity and hesitation. Some days, we drew the figure merely as a bunch of scribbles, at other times, we drew only the shape of the negative space around it. We were invited to see in a multitude of daring ways that really brought figure drawing to life. Well, that was the name of his book, and it was effective. His own drawings and sculptures were almost abstract, with just an elusive hint of the human form, in motion and intact.
A point of commonality that Calvin Albert and I shared, was the fact that we both displayed the same hunched over posture. He explained that his deformity was the result of working long hours, throughout his youth, toiling over a drawing table in a freezing cold studio.
One day, in class, he said something that changed my life. It was a simple statement, but one that I never forgot. It changed the way I thought about myself and drawing. And I suddenly realized how misdirected and uptight I had been, up till then, trying so hard to do things right. Maybe, it was just the way the stars were aligned at that moment in time, but his words were life altering. They told me it was quite all right to do things my way. Well, when it came to figure drawing, anyway.
The curious thing about a figure drawing class is the fact that one can walk around the room and look over everybody’s shoulder and see exactly where they’re at. It’s all out there to be seen! Everybody is struggling, but some are struggling with simple matters, like getting the right number of fingers on a hand, while others, infinitely more advanced, are trying to accomplish things that the fellows sitting next to them will never in their lifetimes be able to perceive, let alone, achieve.
Each day, in Calvin’s class, we would stop drawing early. The class was four hours long, so there was time to do that. Then, Mr. Albert would pick out certain drawings for the students to discuss. I don't mean to imply that my drawings were the best, for they were not. There was one guy, in particular, who was a far better draftsman than I would ever be. Nonetheless, on this particular day, my drawing was before the class. Below, darkened with age, is the very drawng they discussed.
One jackass who had good reason to be envious of three quarters of the other students in the class, said triumphantly: “Mr. Birnkrant’s drawing is out of proportion! The head's too small!” And Calvin Albert fired back, with an air of great profundity; “Mr. Birnkrants drawings are ALWAYS out of proportion, but they are ALWAYS INTERESTING!”
My God, that was a revelation! It told me that there was merit to what I was doing, even though I could not master anatomy. His words literally set me free. From that moment forward, I changed the way that I saw figure drawing. I just did as I pleased, took precarious chances, dared to exaggerate, and the act of drawing, which had once been arduous and boring became high adventure to me. I had been given a pass on proportions, and, henceforth, strove for “interesting”.
My third teacher was Richard Lindner. As an artist, he was, by far, the best. At the time, my favorite living artist was Ben Shahn. I looked him up the other day, on Google, and I was shocked! His art that I once thought wonderful, does not hold up for me. But Richard Lindner’s sophisticated, highly stylized, mysteriously erotic paintings have withstood the test of time. They remain powerful and amazing to this day.
Lindner’s class, too, consisted of him talking for four hours, two days a week. But what a talker! Everything he said was fascinating. His heavy German accent gave his words air of authority and profundity. Each week, he offered us another challenge. We were required to write something, as short as just one sentence, or an entire essay, and illustrate it. Some weeks he would suggest the topic. I still recall our first assignment: a portrait drawn from memory of someone we admired. I chose my ninth grade biology teacher, Elsie McCall.
Mrs. McCall was fascinating. She was very sweet and very small. I hesitate to use the term “little old lady,” as in spirit, she was young. And how sweet was she? Therein, lies a mystery, for her voice was sweet and tiny, and it was clear that she saw life through rose colored glasses. I mean literally; her delicate granny lenses with thin wire frames were tinted a bright shade of pink! On the other hand, she spoke about the ins and outs of biology with a candor that was shocking. She could describe the most disgusting things in a matter-of-fact way, as if she was relating a recipe for making brownies.
Her class was indeed not for the squeamish. Once a week, we were required to dissect a different specimen, previously pickled, and reeking of foul smelling formaldehyde. When each small creature was disemboweled and dismembered we were required to render the remains. Thus, as it lay there, drawn and quartered, each of us did a drawing. Naturally, Mrs. McCall thought mine were amazing. And she made it clear that she considered me to be the best artist to ever lend his talents to biology. And so, Biology one, along with Mr. Siddal’s art class, joined the ranks of “my favorite subjects.” And for that brief semester, Mrs. McCall became my favorite teacher.
I was, indeed, so fond of her that I made her a painting. I copied it verbatim from a Christmas card. Here I am, holding it up for the camera. I usually avoided being the subject of photography, but, in this case, the canvas was just big enough to hide my double-wide body. And so, at the tender age of fourteen, I became a teacher’s pet .
I’ll never forget the day Mrs. McCall told the tale of her good friends, a married couple who, by mistake, gathered and ate some poison mushrooms. She graphically related every stomach-turning detail of their agonizing death, including the milkman’s discovery of them, paralyzed, in time to hear their story, but too late to save their lives. She did this with a benign smile on her face, and a melody in her voice, as if we were small children and she was telling us a bedtime story.
Her most prized possession was a two headed kitten. She kept it in a jar of formaldehyde on her desk; and would proudly show it off, when asked. The jar was hardly bigger than the cat, so, in order to see its two faces, it was necessary to remove the lid. This act, and the accompanying odor, which many might find nauseating, she gladly did, without the slightest hesitation. And that is the moment, and the memory that I chose to illustrate. The caption, in which I tried to capture her aura of naivety, is still attached to the back of the illustration. First, we had to read the words out loud to the class, and then disclose the illustration. Clearly, what I wrote required an explanation.
“Sugar and spice and everything’s nice. Would you like to see my pussy?”
On other weeks, Mr. Lindner would send us someplace of his choosing to observe, and then, write our thoughts, and illustrate them. One trip was to S. Kline, a depressing discount store on Union Square and 14th Street. I remember writing: “Give me your poor, your huddled masses, yearning for a bargain.”
Our most memorable outing was Times Square. This was the first time in my illiterate life that I became aware of the possibility that my writing was better than my art. Certainly, in this case that was true. What I chose to write about was the fascinating little man whose career consisted of winding up a line of several windup toys one after another; never letting a single one run down. I recall that on that warm autumn day the class was held out on the lawn, rather than in the basement of the boy’s dorm, where it usually took place. I read what I had written out loud. And it was met with a round of applause.
From the turning on of the first light, until Broadway is turned off and shut away for the night, you sit there, a God! In your chubby little hands is the gift of life!
Mechanical animals, the living dead of Toyland! You give them life! Only that they may, in turn, take away yours. The toys make a toy of you.
Your arms move in rhythm to the infernal tapping of their tiny drums. Up and down. Up and down. Pick up the first; wind it! Set it down. Pick up the next, wind it, set it down, and the next, and the next.
Quick, the first is running down. Pick it up! Wind it! Set it down! Keep them moving. If one should stop, the spell would be broken, the little game lost. And along with it, your pride. For what have you in this world to be proud of, except how well you wind?
Pick it up! Wind it! Set it down. You are the only visible sign of the hidden force that lies behind Broadway, the selfsame force that flashes the lights on and off. That which lies in the bowels of a peanut, tapping on the window pane, or hidden behind a hole, blowing smoke rings.
But, alas, little man, all these things are but machines, and you alone are human.
Why do you look at me that way? I can see it in your eyes that you know I don’t intend to buy. But wait! Here comes a likely looking customer; prepare yourself! Smile! The spell is wound! Toys, you almost look alive!
Then, alas, I had to turn the illustration board around to reveal one of the worst pieces of art I ever did!
In the world of art, beyond the walls of illustration class, abstract expressionism was the going thing. So, in this case, I thought that smears and blurs of paint would indicate the action of the moving toys. The result, which I reluctantly show below, was simply a mess.
Nonetheless, this moment in time became a life changing experience. In the discussion that followed, I remarked something about the triviality of this man’s life, asking: Who buys these toys, anyway? And Mr. Linder spoke up and said, I do! He added that he "often purchased windup toys!" Wow! Here was this great artist who I admired immensely, which was, by the way, an opinion that I had formed, solely on listening to him speak. I had not seen his artwork, yet. Now, he was telling me that it was OK for an intelligent adult, to purchase toys!
And, suddenly, another barrier that I had set up, in my misguided attempts to be grown up, was wiped away. I had been given authoritative permission to see toys and other childhood things in a new and different way. In the late 1950s this was a concept that, although, it seems obvious today, was revolutionary in that era of conformity! Nowadays, toy collectors abound, but, back then, there were none around.
Weeks later, I was heading home for Thanksgiving, when at the airport, a small windup toy caught my eye. It was an almost ugly fur covered monkey, licking an ice cream cone. Although, he was not very pleasing to the eye, his action made me smile. Only his head and red tin tongue were animated, while, at the same time, his body vibrated, causing him to scoot around. I still have this little toy. It is stored away, in a box, beneath the floor. Writing this is certainly awakening dormant memories. I now recall that I became so attached to this modest mascot that I took him to France with me. He represents a minute, but major step, towards the fulfillment of my destiny. I think I’ll crawl into that storage area, today, and see if I can find him. In the event that I can, I’ll place him on my desk, again, in an effort to atone for hiding him away.
ODDS AND ENDS
Here are a couple of fragments that caught my eye, this morning. I mentioned earlier that I liked Ben Shawn. His characteristic style and line greatly influenced me. To what degree can easily be seen in the little sketch below. It was rendered in red pencil on black board, and became the basis for a whole series of linoleum block prints that I abhorred. But I still rather like the drawing.
When I said that the artwork in the basement was disintegrating, I wasn’t kidding. Here is a fragment of a memory of a man and a class I liked. It was called, Animal Anatomy. The teacher was an extraordinary man. In the sixty years that have transpired, since I took his class, I have forgotten his name. But, he was a person of great importance at the Museum of Natural History; and he really knew his craft. He created most of the animal displays. We spent a semester in his class, making a horse out of wax, beginning with the skeleton. One by one, we added muscles, until the creature was complete. Then, we threw our waxworks into a vat, to be melted down and used again. The knowledge we had gained was, hopefully, stored inside our brain. For about a week, I tried to sketch horses. Alas, horses didn’t interest me; centaurs were more exciting. This rotting fragment of a doodle on tissue paper is all that remains. Something about it pleases me. I can’t really call it good, today, but for kid of nineteen, it was OK.
As we graduated to full color, I dreamt up this Midsummer Nightmare:
I remember well the sketch below. It began as just a doodle. I don’t know what it was intended to represent. It was not a class assignment. But there was something that I liked about it, something that conveyed a hidden message to me. So, I mounted the page on a piece of illustration board, and added paint. Then, I messed around with it, until I wrecked it. Those decorative doodles on the auto are an embarrassment to me today. I really should have thrown it away. But something embodied in this cryptic drawing still speaks to me, from beneath the layers of misplaced paint. For fifty-eight years now, I have been waiting for that garish pink background to fade. But, even though the color is highly fugitive, it has hung on with tenacity, not unlike me.
Digging through boxes old art, the other day, I made this discovery. I will add it here. It was the final version of the above sketch. Lost artwork, and lost memories; they have a way of coming back to me.