Although I did not get to spend enough time with my grandfather he was an important part of my early childhood. Pandelis, or Peter as many more commonly called him, was a sensitive and caring individual who sadly suffered from and eventually died from alcoholism. My parents were divorced when I was very young, perhaps I was two or three years of age, as a result I did not see much of my father for quite a while so grandpa would sometimes fill in.
My grandfather would often almost "magically" appear with an offer to take me out for a walk or to the park. He had been exiled from the house by his wife, my grandmother because of his frequent drinking. I never knew if he started drinking heavily before or later when his son was killed during WWII.
He was born in Greece on the island of Chios where he served in the Navy as a very young man. Eventually he developed an interest in cooking and worked at various restaurants in Greece, and later here, at small diners in the New York area.. Among his other flaws, he was apparently extremely jealous of any attention another male in particular might direct towards his wife. There were a few stories of Pandelis chasing people away from my grandmother, one such story depicted him with a clever in his hand, although I never witnessed it or confirmed the validity.
We lived in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan which at the time provided a community for a rather vast Greek-American population among others. The were many other groups including latinos, Irish, Italian, and Jews depending on which specific part of the neighborhood you wandered into.
Highbridge park and the Harlem River were nearby which often became our day-hike destinations. Holding onto my grandfather's hand we would seemingly explore the universe, train tracks, boats, freight trains, and the not so clean water ways. One of the habits I developed was collecting all sorts of small rocks and carrying them home in a tin bucket. I was able to sustain this "hobby" until my mother discovered my collection. Insisting that the rocks were very dirty, I was "encouraged" to carry the rocks into our Clawfoot bathtub and proceed to wash them with soap and water. Needless to say, the result was gradually making the tub filthy, so I almost ended my rock collecting career were it not for my Aunt Dorothy who later introduced me to the "geological collections" at the Museum of Natural History.
On many occasions, Papoo as we knew him (Greek for grandpa), would take me for walks around the neighborhood, for a while these were exciting. Unfortunately a negative pattern eventually evolved. As time transpired, Papoo would begin to notice the many nearby bars. These bars became his priority and the subject of his thoughts. I am estimating that I was 10, 11, or 12 years old at the time. From that point on, Grandpa would come to the house and take me out to the park or for a walk in or around the neighborhood. Unfortunately quite often he would "discover" another local bar, enter it and seemingly never return. Frequently I waited outside of a bar because I was told it would only take a few minutes. Of course at 10 or 11 years of age, I gradually understood what was happening. Grandpa would often give me a quarter or 50 cents to keep me occupied while I waited. Eventually I learned to walk back home since I knew the neighborhood well.
This pattern continued for a while and was not much of a problem as I grew a little older and could eventually find my way back. It was not much of a problem at all until the day I think of as the "final straw." Back then there was an amusement park just across the George Washington bridge. It was named Palisades Amusement Park. Papoo showed up at the house early one morning and offered to take me there. Of course I was excited about the idea.
For the better part of the day I was able to enjoy myself and try a several rides and amusements. Sometime in the late afternoon grandpa discovered one of his bars in a large white tent. Sure enough, he suggested I wait nearby for a few minutes while he went inside. I recall him giving me a couple of quarters as per usual to buy ice cream or find something to drink.
As the afternoon turned into evening I continued to patiently wait near the tent. Not certain what to do, I eventually dicided to walk into the tent. I was immediately hollered at by the proprieter and several others. I tried to explain why I was there but an eleven year old had no business in a bar and I was forced to vacate. I found my way back to another bench and sat there waiting, this time impatiently. The sun was setting and I was at a loss as to what to do but I continued to wait. Several strangers passed by and asked why I was there alone. I repeated the story of my predicament several times. It became darker as another stranger again asked me why I was alone. After hearing my explanation, he suggested I call someone but at this point I had no more coins. He suggested I use the payphone to dial the operator. I managed to reach my grandmother who was with two of her best friends, I often referred to them as "The God Squad." They instructed me to sit on the bench near the phone booth and wait until they met me. To this day I can't comprehend how quickly they arrived. They were a motley crew of characters, my grandmother, my "godmother" who knew how to address any sort of problem, and their friend who we appropriately refered to as "Red" due to the bright red color of her hair.
I found myself daydreaming and falling asleep as a bus stopped near by and the three friends swiftly ran through the front door. I noticed each of them wielding an umbrella and grasping it as one might hold a club! They eventually found me and of course asked if I was okay. I was then told to wait there for few minutes. The last image I remember seeing was of the three women walking into the the tent bar together and eventually hearing a muffled shouting in the distance.
After that incident I only saw my grandfather one last time. He was permitted to visit with me after being hospitalized. Prior to his hospitalization he had been living in a tiny rented room at a strangers apartment. He died shortly thereafter from liver failure. In spite of his problems and in spite of his unintentional abandonment, I always thought of him as a loving and compassionate man.
Before I address my multitude of experiences in the woods, I would like to include a little information about about how I came to be there. The painting above has been with me both physically and mentally for many years. It is a profound and disturbing image that led me up one of the many paths I followed in my life, in this case art therapy.
Art in general was always an outlet for me during my childhood in particular. It served as a pastime, a hobby, and eventually as a career that helped me persevere throughout many challenging circumstances. One of my first opportunities to escape the discomforts of home came in the form of a summer camp position as an "arts specialist." My responsibility was to travel to what were known as "villages" at the camp, and provide some sort of structured art activity for groups of approximately twenty to twenty five children. It began with typical arts and crafts "projects" including bead work, mandalas, paper bag puppets, craft sticks, and felt art among other possibilities.
The camp was designed to provide an escape from the city life for many young children who could not afford to leave the city. It operated under the direction of a wonderful young couple who shared the many tasks necessary for a safe and educational camp experience.
One afternoon while I was alone eating lunch, I was sitting in a small space that doubled as an art supply storage center. From this location, I would select my supplies for the day's village visits. The camp Director happened to stop by for a chat. She eventually suggested that I run an "art class" in the storage space. Approximately 8 or 10 children would stop by on a daily basis around lunch time to be given an "extra" opportunity to express themselves and be creative. I had no idea as to what might keep them interested enough to spend an hour painting and drawing. The Director (Ruth) suggested we set up several available easels and use them to create paintings. She recommended using a few boxes of "cake tempera." a hard circular-solid form of paint that could render various colors when wet with a water-soaked brush. I agreed to the experiment, as naive as I was back then, I thought we would give it a go.
The next afternoon, at about noon, eight young boys arrived via a mini-bus. The villages were located a distance apart, too far for each camper to walk alone. I explained the workings of our art sessions, and assigned each child an easel, stiff brushes, a bucket of water, and paint. Not knowing what to suggest, I thought of the idea of each person selecting a particular "feeling" and attempting to paint it out. I turned it into a little game, and thought they might later each try to guess the emotions being rendered.
Once the paintings were completed, the children took turns guessing what each of the emotions were. The painting above was among the most profound images. The emotion chosen was "Fear." I asked the young artist, who was approximately 10 years old, to share the story behind it if he felt comfortable enough. He described the image as depicting his bedroom at home. He often stayed awake late at night in fear of his stepfather coming home drunk and beating him for no reason. The blue-green surface represented his bed, the brown was his bed room door, and the upper left hand corner represented his basement windows overlooking the sidewalk above. His hair stood on edge as he cringed thinking he might be beaten.
Following this painting session, I shared my concerns with Ruth who was a social-worker as well. She stated that she would follow up on the case and be certain someone addressed the problem at the child's home. This all occurred sometime during the late 60's, Ruth turned to me and suggested that I might want to consider a career in "art therapy." At this early point in my career, I had never heard of the profession, and Ruth became the first of two special people to suggest this career choice.
Years later I met and befriended the second person to suggest art therapy as a possible career, to this day we are still good friends. Mike is his name, and we met in a most unusual manner. Back in the Seventies there existed a phenomena know as "encounter groups or T-groups." A rather motley mixture of young adults, including myself were somehow convinced to join in. Groups met on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and offered an opportunity for "quasi" group therapy. The group facilitators were essentially untrained, or poorly trained "therapists."
At first, participants paid a few dollars per session. At this reasonable fee, many of us enjoyed the opportunity to meet other people, make friends, and in some cases openly share some of our personal issues. I recall, there was a young man, George who was missing one arm, and a young girl whose sister had recently passed away. There was also a close friend, David, who suffered from epileptic seizures, and your's truly who at the time was missing more than a few marbles.
One evening about a dozen of us ventured out for dinner at a local buffet style restaurant. I recall the food being rather excellent, including fresh turkey, pastrami, potatoes, salad etc. I was sitting on the outside edge of a large table, next to my friend David. We were all enjoying our meals when suddenly, David, on my left, went into an epileptic seizure. He fell from his chair and lay on the restaurant floor enduring convulsions. To his left kneeled my current friend Mike M., David was between us and continued to have seizures. Having recently been trained in C.P.R. and First-Aid, I was not uncomfortable on the ground watching over David. I looked up at the room briefly, and noticed everyone with exception of Mike, had quickly vacated the restaurant.
To this day, I still assume it was fear that led our "company" to disappear. Michael and I remained at Davids side and eventually accompanied him to the hospital. I had not yet been introduced to Michael until he spoke out stating he would hold his wallet. Not knowing who Mike was, I responded by stating the same! This went back and forth until I conceded and agreed that he could hold the wallet. Neither of us knew how long we knew David, or how close we were as friends but we nevertheless kept an eye on the wallet and on each other.
Our concern was the well-being of a mutual friend. Since that moment back in the late Seventies, Mike and I have remained good friends. Mike is now a supervising Social Worker who provides therapy assistance for military personnel and their families. An amazing person who as a single parent, adopted and successfully raised three separate children who had learning and emotional challenges. I have learned a great deal from him.
This will likely be a lengthy entry given the many years and thousands of young and old people who I met along the way, in fact I will probably be compiling this into a book-like format eventually. There are a multitude of stories and adventures that occurred within the walls and outside of what once was the "art" room appearing in the above photograph. I always found it both interesting and inspiring that there were a wide range of sometimes conflicting expectations of what "art class" should be like.
I must confess that I did not always follow the "great plan' that transformed, evolved, and often was radically changed on an annual basis. Like most of education, there was always someone.attempting to reinvent the wheel. My belief has remained consistent that art could not be "force fed" externally, it had to develop naturally from within. A passion for creativity could be developed in most everyone but it would require a great deal of patience and perseverance, and often a commitment of time. I think that in part explains the "cookie cutter" approach to teaching art. It is certainly much easier to specify where the eyes should be pasted on a piece of paper, what color they should be, and where the placement of the lips should be. I am going to share a tiny bit of my "philosophy" now and then, but more importantly I would like to share the inspiration and wonderful contributions of my students. Don't be surprised if you find yourself among the many stories henceforth. At times it may be necessary to "read between the lines."
Within the walls of this room, a hundred different events occured throughout the day. Ceramics, drawing, painting, designing, cartooning, mask-making, print-making, sculpting and photography among others. For many years it served as a "sanctuary" of sorts and a "safe zone." Many stressed out students enjoyed an opportunity to relax and become creative during lunch or after school.
Many years earlier I visited a private school in the Bronx. While there, I met an artist-in-residence who was working full-time within the confines of a relatively small room. His approach was to provide a space where students could stop by, as available, to work on their individual art projects. Traditional classical sculpture blended in with abstract painting, drawing and cartooning shared the same table. The artist was an inspiration to his students who were each able to excel at their own pace. Grading and competition were not a concern, guidance, learning, and development were more important.
My first cameras were an 8mm Keystone and a great big box containing a tiny Kodak Brownie "Holiday Flash" and all the equipment necessary for lighting and film development. I recall jumping for joy when I viewed my first self-processed image including fingerprints, dust marks, and faded grey edges! The joy of my chemical darkroom work had begun!