Friday, April 3, 2020

Kenneth Gogel | Recalling a wonderful teacher

Above Kenneth Gogel, The Nervous System. Collage (1973). Permanent Collection of Art, University of Northern Iowa. Among his most memorable artworks is Gogel's portrayal of “the [very] nervous system” of US President Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. Gift of Roy R. and Mary Snyder Behrens.

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In the late 1960s, when I was an undergraduate art student at the University of Northern Iowa, one of my favorite teachers was an art education professor named Kenneth Gogel. He had been a student of Victor Lowenfeld at Pennsylvania State University. He was particularly interested in children’s drawings, and what those might reveal about (in Lowenfeld’s words) their “creative and mental growth.”

Part of the reason I liked him so much was his eccentricity. He had "a mind of his own,” so his comments were often surprising. His artwork was equally unpredictable. He wasn’t committed to staying within a consistent approach to art-making, whether medium, style, or subject matter. In one of his experiments, he used photo booth self-portraits and xerox (innovative at the time). In another, he rigged up a kind of terrarium, the sides of which were covered with a card-like material punched with random circular holes; inside the terrarium were ladybugs, which changed the pattern of the holes (on-or-off, like digital punch cards) as they climbed up and down the interior walls.

Of the artworks he was making then, one I especially admire is a large mixed media work titled A Bride and Her Father Visit the World’s Largest Turtle, dated c1968 (below). It is now in the UNI Permanent Collection of Art. Gift of Roy R. and Mary Snyder Behrens. The original source for the turtle is the vintage print at the bottom of this post.

Kenneth Gogel (c1968), mixed media


Ken and I remained in contact now and then after I graduated, by exchanging cryptic notes. His were usually whimsical observations he made during lengthy faculty meetings or peculiar things he’d run across while nosing around in the library. One time, he sent me the patent diagram for a mechanical drawing device by Jean Tinguely. He was forever looking around at thrift shops and used bookstores, then sending me things that he thought I could use. He sent me my very first vintage World War I photograph of a dazzle-camouflaged ship, the USS Leviathan.

He even wrote to me when I was (miserably) in the US Marine Corps. When I answered candidly, he saved the letter (he saved nearly everything, repurposing the slightest scraps), then simply mailed it back to me fifteen years later.

Years later, when I was teaching temporarily at an awful art school in the South, I was surprised to hear his voice when I answered the phone one day at home. When I asked where he was calling from (I had heard that he was touring the country alone in a recreational vehicle), he replied, “Oh, I’m just a couple of blocks from your house. If you’re going to be there, I’d like to stop by briefly, just to say hello.” Moments later, he arrived, and, in spite of my insistence that he stay for a few days, we talked briefly and off he went. That time, I think he gave me a copy of Karl Gerstner’s A Compendium for Literates.

As an undergraduate, my major was Art Education, so that later, I would teach grades 7-12 for most of a school year, until the draft board broke my contract and sent me off to be a Marine. But in the last year before graduating with a BA degree, I was a student teacher for the first nine weeks of one semester. During the remaining half of that semester, Ken Gogel was my advisor for a full-time research project in which I proposed to read about the role of perception in visual art. I met with Ken only a few times, with the agreement that at the end of the term I would turn in a substantial paper about what I had discovered.

The paper I turned in was titled Perception in the Visual Arts. It anticipated many of the subjects that I would research and write about for the next fifty years. Although I was only an undergraduate, on a whim I submitted it to Art Education: The Journal of the National Art Education Association, the foremost journal in the field. It was published there in March 1969, just weeks in advance of being ejected from the classroom (not having a bone spur) and sent off to an unjust war. I am the same age as the man who now pretends to be the US President.

Public domain

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The blooming, buzzing confusion of daily life

Digital montage © Roy R. Behrens 2020
Lee Simonson, The Stage Is Set. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932, p. 51—

[Newspaper columnist] Walter Lippmann, in analyzing the creation of stereotypes that make public opinion, says: “For the most part we do not first see, and then define, we define first and then see. In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which has been picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.” And he goes on to demonstrate how largely our conclusions about the world we live in are based not on a fresh perception of experience, but on the stereotyped pictures of the world already in our heads.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A thud of consonants | an upholstery of tears

Roy R. Behrens © altered book collage (1992)
Above Roy R. Behrens, collage, mixed media, altered book. Private collection.

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Anatole Broyard, Aroused by Books [his dismissal of the poetry of Dylan Thomas]—

Such a fatigue of adjectives, a drone of alliterations, a huffing of hyphenated words hurdling the meter like tired horses. Such a faded upholstery of tears, stars, bells, bones, flood and blood…a thud of consonants in tongue, night, dark, see, wound and wind.

Friday, March 27, 2020

I don't think I could have withstood the pain

Ryan McAdam © 1996
Above Ryan McAdam, cover illustration for Ballast Quarterly Review. Vol 12 No 1, Fall 1996. Full issue is downloadable here.

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Guy Davenport in "Finding" in The Geography of the Imagination (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981 ), pp. 362-363—

Nor could I sing "The Birmingham Jail" at Granny Fant's, as Uncle Jamie had once spent a night in that place. Nor could we (later on, in adolescence) mention new births in Uncle Jamie's presence, for at forty he still did not know the facts of life, and Granny Fant was determined to keep up the illusion that humanity is restocked by the stork. She was, as my father and I discovered to our amazement, wrong. It turned out that Jamie thought pregnancy came about by the passage of a testicle into some unthinkable orifice of the female. He remarked reflectively that if he'd been married he could only have had two children. "And I don't think I could have stood the pain."

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Trammels | perception is always a transaction

© Mary Snyder Behrens (2005)
Above (with close-up below) Mary Snyder Behrens, one of a series of small (palm-sized) mixed media artworks called Trammels (2005). This is Trammel Box (Home II), made of cloth, thread, and twine in which a box-like metal form is encased.

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E.H. Gombrich, Topics of our Times, pp. 169-170—

Perception is always a transaction between us and the world, and the idea that we could or should ever perceive an image without the preconception or expectations we derive from prior knowledge and experience would resemble the demand that we should make an electric current flow from the positive pole without connecting the wire with the negative pole. The image is one pole, the title often provides the other, and if the set-up works, something new will emerge which is neither the image nor the words, but the product of their interaction.

Detail of the same artwork

The ingenious posters of designer Abram Games

Abram Games, WWII-era poster
Without hesitation, one of the finest designers in modern history was British graphic designer Abram Games (1914-1996). Shown here are two rather similar but equally excellent posters he made during World War II, both of them appealing to the wartime public to be self-sufficient. As is characteristic of many of his posters, they are astonishing visual puns. In an essay in his book, Topics of Our Times (London: Phaidon, 1991), British art historian E.H. Gombrich acknowledged that Games was indebted to the "deliberate ambiguities and illogicalities" of the work of such Surrealists as Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. But many of those works, he went on to say—

were pointless… [and] were aimed at defying the canons of reason to shake our complacency. In the art of Abram Games the very puzzlement caused by such arresting images is given an added purpose. We attend because we are momentarily baffled, and thus we are ready to seek for the message, which we will remember all the better for having discovered it in such a flash of recognition.

Abram Games, WWII-era poster

Thursday, March 12, 2020

A designer remembers the writer Guy Davenport

Remembering Guy Davenport
Guy Davenport was an American essayist, fiction writer, poet, translator, painter, illustrator, university scholar and professor, and a recipient in 1992 of a "genius award" from the MacArthur Foundation. For more than a decade, he and I exchanged letters of a length of one or two pages, sometimes as often as weekly. I saved all his letters, with copies of nearly all of mine. To correspond with him for so many years was among the wisest things I’ve done. Yet in truth, it was always exhausting since the intensity of his letters was forever a woeful reminder that I was writing not simply to an ordinary person but to a remarkably talented man whose powers of observation were astonishing at very least. more>>>

Acclaimed film of Jerzy Kosinski's Painted Bird

Cover of The Painted Bird (1976)
In 1976, I was asked by Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski to illustrate the dust jacket for the special tenth-year edition of his celebrated novel The Painted Bird. We have only recently learned that a much-acclaimed film version of his book has been completed, and is now on tour for screening. Produced and directed by Václav Marhoul, it will be released in the near future. more>>>

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Snaggle-toothed | a dancer and a mountain lion

Don Lorenzo Hubbell (n.d.)
Above Photograph of Don Lorenzo Hubbell, Arizona trading post owner. His family founded the Hubbell Trading Post (a National Historic Site) on Highway 191 near Ganado AZ. He was supportive of the efforts of American anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who worked with the Native Americans in the area of the Four Corners during FDR's implementation of the New Deal. Hall also described Hubbell in a later, brief memoir, titled West of the Thirties (NY: Doubleday, 1994), in which this photo was reproduced.

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Edward T. Hall, An Anthropology of Everyday Life: An Autobiography. NY: Doubleday, 1992—

Lorenzo had been given the Navajo name of Nakai Tso (the Big [or Fat] Mexican). A snaggle-toothed man of tremendous girth and immediately obvious appeal, Lorenzo chewed tobacco, which he spit into a coffee can on the floor next to his foot whenever he needed to stop and think. Each conversation was punctuated by a splat as Nakai Tso, like a practiced bombardier, zeroed in on that can. His skin was mottled from what must have been a liver disorder; he spoke with a gravelly rasp that was more like a thick whisper than an ordinary conversational voice. He was able to communicate expressively with his left eye while speaking out of the right side of his mouth. When he pushed himself out of his chair, the movement transformed what only a moment before had been a mass of flab into a cross between a ballet dancer and a mountain lion—the grace, ease, and speed of his movements were truly extraordinary. Relatively expressionless of face, he nevertheless had a twinkle in the eye that came and went with the tempo of the conversation. To know what was happening in his head, one had to attend the twinkle. When he encountered lies or fraud, the twinkle became a glint. Like most businessmen in the West, Lorenzo wore the pants of a nondescript gray business suit supported by narrow suspenders, a shirt to match, a tie, and a straight-brimmed four-X beaver Stetson hat. I never saw him dressed any other way. In spite of a rather rough exterior which was typical on the reservation in those times, Lorenzo had an air that set him apart. As I had suspected, he was no ordinary man.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Memoir | Learning from Iowa poet James Hearst

I still clearly remember the day I met Iowa poet James Hearst and his wife Meryl Hearst for the first time. I remember it in part because I have a photograph of it. It took place during my freshman year at the University of Northern Iowa (known as the State College of Iowa in those days). I was an art student, and I had just returned to Iowa from a summer in California, where I had the fortune to study pottery with a person who had been among the first women students at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. The UNI Department of Art hosted an on-campus event in which non-art members of the faculty were invited to a gathering at the ceramics studio quonset hut, where they painted their designs on greenware pots that had been wheel-thrown by the students. In that surviving photo, I am quietly standing beside music professor Don Wendt and Meryl Hearst. James Hearst is not in the photo, but he was nearby in his wheelchair. …more>>>

Thursday, February 20, 2020

More than 50 years ago | The Maucker Portrait

In 1966, University of Iowa painting professor James Lechay was commissioned to paint a portrait of the president of the State College of Iowa (now the University of Northern Iowa), J.W. Maucker. When the painting was completed and displayed prominently in the library, it prompted a controversy that went on for months, with most of the debate taking place in the student newspaper.

To a lot of people, both faculty and students, there was not enough resemblance between Lechay's portrait and its subject. "The first time I saw the President's picture," lamented sociology professor Louis Bultena, "I muttered, 'If that looks like President Maucker then there is no reason why it should not be said that I look like the Queen of Sheba.” (Possessed of a rare sense of humor, as well as a talent for sleight of hand magic, Professor Bultena later confessed that ”I have since been told that I do bear a distinct resemblance to the Queen of Sheba, so it's all very confusing.") more>>>

Monday, February 10, 2020

Salvador Dali's Dreams of Iowa Fields in 1952

Few people know the story about the visit of surrealist artist Salvador Dali to the University of Northern Iowa campus (Iowa State Teachers College at the time) in February 1952. Not surprisingly, it has moments of hilarity. An updated version (enlarged and redesigned) is now available online at this link.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Coming noon tomorrow to North Liberty, Iowa

For weeks I have been working on a new presentation for the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau, which I finally finished yesterday. Titled IOWANS IN NEW MEXICO: The Newcombs and the Navajos, it's the story of the involvement of my ancestors, for nearly four decades, with the Navajo people of the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.


My ancestors were from Manchester IA. Two of my great aunts (Pentony sisters) married Newcomb brothers (also from Manchester), while a third Newcomb married a Wisconsin woman, later known as Franc Johnson Newcomb, who became an authority on Navajo sandpainting and folktales. A third great aunt married a photographer in New Mexico, who worked for the National Geographic Society, and took some of the first archaeological photographs of the ancient dwellings in the region of Pueblo Bonito NM. As a child, I heard about these people (they sent kachina dolls as gifts) and now I have unearthed the details. What a story.


I will present it for the first time publicly tomorrow, Friday, January 31, 2020, starting at 12 noon, at the Community Center in North Liberty IA (just north of Iowa City) at 520 West Cherry Street. Sponsored by Humanities Iowa, it is free and open to the public.


Here is the formal description of the program, as posted on the website of the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau—

Around 1907, in advance of New Mexico's statehood, three brothers from Manchester, Iowa, moved to the vicinity of the Navajo Indian Reservation, near Gallup. For the next thirty-odd years, the Newcomb brothers (Charles, Arthur, and Earl) worked for, owned or managed remote trading posts on the vast reservation. Newcomb, New Mexico bears their name.  Two of them married sisters from Manchester (Madge and Isabel Pentony), the sheriff's daughters. A third Newcomb brother married a Wisconsin teacher (Franc Johnson Newcomb) who became a leading authority on ceremonial sandpainting and helped to establish the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. For decades, the Newcomb brothers and their wives lived among the Navajo, learned to respect their traditions and actively promoted handcrafted native arts and crafts. They later wrote insightful books about their years as Navajo friends and neighbors. Roy R. Behrens (the speaker) is descended from the Pentony family, and as a child, he often heard stories about his New Mexico relatives. This is a fast-paced 50-minute talk about the Newcombs, the Pentonys, and the Navajos, illustrated by rare archival photographs.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

As much chance of surviving as a sewer rat

American book designer Merle Armitage
In the early 1940s, shortly after the novelist Henry Miller had moved back to the US from Paris, he concluded that a noncommercial artist in America "has as much chance for survival as a sewer rat.”

Refusing to borrow or to hire out for "stultifying work," he sent out a letter inviting support from the readers of The New Republic, requesting, among other things. "old clothes, shirts. socks. etc. I am 5 feet 8 inches tall, weigh 150 pounds, 15 1/2 neck, 38 chest, 32 waist, hat and shoes both size 7 to 7 1/2. Love corduroys.”

The appeal worked and a number of curious mailings arrived, one of which contained a complete tuxedo. "What'll I ever do with this?” Miller asked a friend, then used it to dress up a scarecrow that sat for a generation on the picket fence in front of his Partington Ridge house in Big Sur, California.

Among other gifts was a cash contribution from Merle Armitage, an Iowa-born book designer, civil engineer, set designer, concert promoter, gourmet cook, art collector, and author. Armitage was living in California then, and soon after, when he visited Miller’s home for the first time, he described his own profession as that of an “impresario." "But I have heard that you were a writer,” replied Miller. "If the truth were known," Armitage explained, "I write books so that I will be able to design them.” In fact, by that time Armitage had designed nearly two dozen books, some of which he had also written.

But Miller was incredulous: “Does a book have to be designed?” he asked. “A book is a book, and I don’t see how you can do anything about it.” more>>>