I was born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, a historic Upper Peninsula city on the Canadian border encircled by the St. Mary’s River carrying Lake Superior water to the lower lakes. Day and night the deep thunder of steam whistles echoed through town from the freighters in the river and the Soo Locks. My earliest memory: sunlight through elm leaves. Magnificent Dutch elms arcaded our streets and parks with a majesty I can’t forget.
We had little money in the house built by our great-grandfather, but plenty of books of the sort our preacher grandpa had peddled to get through the 1920s in the mining and lumber towns. To us they were a dreamland, an inspiration.
My first new hardcover was Robin Hood by Howard Pyle, whose drawings and storytelling won me to the kind of chivalric romance I cherish to this day. Then there was N.C. Wyeth, in whose rich Scribner’s illustrations heroes glowed with a power of expression and gesture still unequalled (at left). They awoke my interests in art, swordplay and history.
Our uncles, sailing the lakes, connected us to the water. I’ll never forget sleeping with the peaveys in the old logging bunkhouse on Sugar Island, building rafts or paddling pulp logs right into the shipping channel! (See Ruthie’s Freighter, right.)
We all participated in historical pageants at the Locks’ 1955 Centennial.
My particular personality quirk is this: whether great book, swordfight adventure, violin performance, or artist’s masterwork, I could not be content to read, watch, listen, admire. I had to participate. I privately conducted 78 rpm symphonies, took frightful risks with lath swords, and drew and wrote my own stories in cartoon form, even filmstrips on cellophane, inspired by the great “uncle” Walt Disney.
I studied thumbnails of the great masterworks in an art print catalog until, when I was 12, the “Art Train” brought the real thing to town: Canalettos, Claude-Lorrains, a Turner. OMG.
That was it: I had to be a painter.
In high school I took three years of art. Our wonderful teachers treated me with great respect and taught me all they could. I did my first oil paintings at home at age 15. But I wasn’t allowed to keep that dream. During the the fifties all three main industries closed their doors, leaving depression. By 1960 local unemployment and the draft were the facts of life. Sault Ste. Marie had become a tourist town. I was told “Forget art. Go to college and get a real career… somewhere else.”
We were lucky. The great teachers hired in the boom years were still there. We knew that only the smart would escape the poverty, and those only by hard work. Even fewer would get into Michigan, our Holy Grail. I became a journalism geek. My sisters waitressed for tuition money, but guys only got paying jobs if they had connections. Accepted by five colleges, I couldn’t afford to go. If the future looked bad it wasn’t just the draft: it was Viet Nam.
But in July 1964, with less than two months before college would start without me, a full-tuition scholarship for low-income students was announced. Time was tight, but miraculously, I got one and entered the local two-year branch of Michigan Tech.
There, I became the Humanities department’s wonder boy. As a freshman I corrected sophomore English essays, made department-store signs and illustrated a book. As a sophomore, I re-created the the college paper, taught the journalism course, and won my dream: a prestigious scholarship to the University of Michigan. But one year later, after unbelievably flunking a required course graded on attendance, I skulked home.
There, MTU-Soo was now the four-year Lake Superior State College. I entered the new BA program in English. Once again I became Mr. Energy. Throwing myself into my Theatre minor, I became the paid department assistant, designing sets, lighting and publications. I also acted in four plays. Off campus, I designed a restaurant and a tourist mall. I sold two paintings in a campus one-man show. In high school, I had gotten deeply into fencing; now I helped LSSC fencing go varsity. I partnered in an “olde-tyme” print shop/newspaper; we lost our shirts. Finally, the youngest of four, I got my degree in 1969. My sisters got theirs from Michigan.
But the draft was still waiting. Rather than two years in the Army, I chose four in the Coast Guard, hoping to stay far from the Orient, doing the bare minimum to get by.
Boy, was I surprised. My successes so far had been largely academic. I finished college with bad teeth, no visible physique, no confidence, no social skills, no money and no love life whatsoever. I knew how to write but had no tale to tell.
The Coast Guard solved all these problems, conquered my fears and set me on my feet. I was rated Electrician, but also got to do photography, art and journalism. I sailed two years on a west Pacific freighter, did far more than the minimum, learned the love of the sea and a thousand things one can only learn on shipboard or climbing Mt. Fuji (yeah, that’s in the Orient) where I knew but three native words. Then I was given two years’ duty at the Soo, where I also became LSSC assistant varsity fencing coach. The CG paid for some important surgery and my way to the 1973 Nationals. I even got a love life.
The Coast Guard had done what college could not: it had put the draft in the past and enabled me to believe in my dreams. If I was meant to be an artist, that’s what I should do. My amateur portfolio got me admitted to U-M art school as a junior. But the Coast Guard didn’t give up: they offered me ten grand for four more years. I wavered. Then the Detroit Free Press called, asking me to paint a magazine cover. That settled it.
The second time at Michigan, going for a BFA, I made no mistake, but my savings and the GI Bill turned out to be insufficient to finish up. Dropping out, I resolved to work in art no matter how low the level. I started on the ground floor as a keyliner. In a few years I was doing advertising design, illustration, photography and writing for automotive clients. I got to be Creative Director of a small Ann Arbor agency working for GM and Oldsmobile, hiring artists with BFAs. I did pro-level new-car location shoots for our Oldsmobile brochures.
Endlessly fascinating activities kept painting on the back burner. My love life made up for lost years. I competed hard in fencing – four more trips to the Nationals – and co-founded the Ann Arbor Sword Club (still going strong). I got intensely into photography (2 weeks shooting landscapes in Scotland plus figure studies). Got active in the SCA, co-founding the Ann Arbor chapter, also going strong today. I got into shining armor, did manuscript illumination and thrived in leadership roles. From there I got into medieval scholarship, giving papers at a world congress and getting published in 2014.
But in 1989 things got tough. I had to go free-lance, barely scraping by for years. By 2000 things had stabilized, and I had an in-house graphic design gig for eight years.
In 2007, a crew reunion of my old Coast Guard ship inspired a major painting. It also revived my yearning for the sea. I read Patrick O’Brian’s stories and began touring tall ships.
In 2012, when commercial work slowed, I tried painting full time. It’s a work in progress. Did a couple of small shows before trying for the big Ann Arbor fair in 2013. That year I was in five shows – very few for a “pro.” Kept going, but didn’t sell as much as I had hoped.
I began to realize that most of my new paintings, based on photos taken for the purpose, were too “photographic.” Now, in 2017, I have completely re-evaluated my approach. For details, click the link.