Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Parrish Art Museum: Norman Jaffe Exhibition and Symposium

story by William Carpenter and Norman Jaffe
edited by LJ Stallings

Outside of Norman Jaffe’s Bridgehampton studio, carved in the concrete, were the words “truth and beauty.” Norman believed they belonged together. He searched for their presence in things he saw and experienced.

Our relationship was built through seeing, learning and discovering the art of design in the world. Norman was a teacher, unique and without the constraints of a classroom.

One of the most important events of my life was a trip I made with Norman when I was about 24 years old. I’d interned for him and one day, later, when I was working for another firm, he appeared, unannounced, and we traveled to Thorncrown Chapel. It was the trip of a lifetime – much like being here tonight. Sharing my connection to Norman is an honor. In thinking about this evening, I revisited my time with him, allowed memories to resurface -- reminded that I view his presence and influence as a gift to my life. This is not a new idea, created in response to the kairos of this occasion: I’ve known this. I’ve thought how some people knew him or hired him, worked with him or socialized with him, -- but it was he who did things with me. He gave to me in a way he may not have ever realized. I don’t live within the walls of one of his designs where his shadows and breath linger and I was not a contemporary or colleague – it was more than that: I shared the same air when his talent passed from mind to paper to creation; I witnessed him work and I learned about lifestyle, the art of design and the business of architecture and building; I laughed with him; I blushed in response to his teasing; I saw him through the way he described what stood in front of us at job sites and in the landscape and in the things he kept and said were important; I knew him because he revealed facets of his uniqueness in a simple, true light.
I want to show you a few of the things Norman revealed to me, gave to me, so you can see some of what I saw and what he was willing to reveal about himself to a young architect. A good place to start is on the trip we made.
It was fall 1987. Though I grew up in here, in Long Island, I’d moved south and was working in Nashville for a mid-sized firm focusing on hospital and hotel designs. I was actually enjoying the repetition of the days and the way I was learning to put buildings together. Prior to this, I’d spent two summers and a year before finishing college working with Norman. The weeks and months with Norman were not predictable. I might chauffeur him to the airport or accompany him to visit clients or potential clients. I remember one time we met with this couple – the woman was frumpy. She told Norman a pink bathroom was the only thing important to her. Norman told her, “Well, I can’t do a pink bathroom.” In the car he told me how glad he was that he did not have to do that project and that, he never wanted to see those people again. Norman was able to select his work and clients – they had to yield to him, grant him creative freedom. He didn’t build for the people as much as he carved and erected beauty to blend with and accentuate its surroundings.
I often found myself with tasks such as cleaning out his car or garage. On other days, I was drawing – kitchen cabinets or a BBQ for the Peter Cohen house or working on prospectives where Norman commanded me to interpret, not just copy. He let me work on amazing projects, like Gates of the Grove. Sometimes we would visit the job sites of competitors – actually sneak in – he would wander around, commenting on the things he liked and did not like. He would highlight what felt foreign and did not fit in the space and landscape. As I give you this range of duties, you might be creating a logical progression of added responsibility based upon tenure – but it wasn’t like that: the roles and assignments overlapped and circled and randomly came around throughout my time with him. Take our trip, for example.
I was in the office working when I received a call from Norman. “Bill, I am down at Charlie O’s,” he said.
“Charlie O’s? Do you mean O’Charlie’s,” I asked him. I did not even know he was in Nashville. I tried to explain to him that he was at O’Charlie’s – not Charlie O’s. Charlie O’s was in New York; O’Charlie’s was part of a chain. I distinction seemed to confuse him. It made me laugh then and it still makes me smile now as I think of trying to explain that to him because it really didn’t matter. The point was that he was in Nashville and across the street in a restaurant, wanting to see me.
I kept in close touch with Norman’s office. Keith Boyce and Norman’s son, Miles, and I talked and corresponded regularly. See, Norman gave me some things when I interned with him that prompted me to reach back to him when I was away. First, my tools – presented to me in a box as gift at the end of my first summer. Second, a Mont Blanc fountain pen – found amongst books and materials discarded while cleaning out his garage. I thought he would want it; he told me to keep it. Using these gifts, I wrote letters and sent copies of drawings to Norman’s office. I received critiques and comments in response. Though I did not get much direct feedback from Norman, I knew he looked at them – Keith and Miles would tell me he liked what he saw in my work. Occasionally I talked to him on the phone, but those around him were the ones who passed on his affirmation and through that, his belief in my drawing skills. On this particular fall day, he’d traveled from Knoxville to Nashville on a bus and when I met him, he told me that we needed to get in my car and drive to Thorncrown Chapel. Take a trip -- right then.
We’d talked about going to see it before, but set no plans. At this time, I had a job, deadlines, but I also had a boss who understood the significance of this opportunity. Though he told me he understood I needed to go, he may not have realized that I wasn’t seeking his permission: I was going regardless.
I packed a suitcase – my grandfather’s actually. It was old and worn: Norman told me he liked it. Norman carried no suitcase. He carried his things in a brown grocery bag. I brought t-shirts and jeans. Norman didn’t change clothes; he wore the same khakis, white linen button-up shirt, birkenstocks, and light brown jacket – the kind a photographer wears with lots of pockets. I wondered if he had extra underwear in his grocery bag. I never asked. By the end of our trip, his shirt rumpled and stained with food and smudges; he did not seem to care. These grocery bags were a curious thing to me. Over the years, I found myself studying them. They were a rich brown, heavy weight, with a green stripe near the top, and serrated triangle shaped cuts around the opening. He carried this particular kind of grocery bag. I knew sharpened ebony pencils, sketchbooks – those little steno ones with the curled metal binding – and a camera were in there. I guessed Norman also had grapefruits and blue corn chips hidden in his bag – Norman ate a lot of those: he didn’t like junk food. When we made the trip, he was about sixty, but he had the lightly lined face and body of a forty year old.
I loved the journey to Thorncrown. At a rest stop, Norman did Tai Chi as a crowd of people watched. I was used to Norman doing things like that. I just sat down, smiled a little, and waited for him to finish. When I worked in his office, he often walked in on his hands in a handstand; he would talk to us about projects and work in this upside down position, and then return outside, feet never touching the floor. He meditated or did yoga in the grass around the office. Some days his voice was gruff and I thought maybe that he didn’t like me. One time, he made me blush with lewd comments and told me my face was the color of my pink t-shirt. I think he sometimes wanted to see if I would “crack.” How could I crack when I was so excited to be there? When I first started working for him, I actually slept in my car in the parking lot. As we traveled from Nashville, he wanted to know how my parents were doing. When we got to Little Rock, which is about 350 miles from Nashville, my car broke down. We continued on, leaving my car and flying to Fayetteville in a six-seater plane. In Fayetteville, we rented a car and continued on to Eureka Springs, Arkansas where Fay Jones’ masterpiece rises on a hill in the forest.
Norman wanted to see the chapel when the sun was going down, so we checked into the hotel and went in search of the monastery designed by Fay Jones. We traveled about fifteen miles down a dirt road where it was still under construction. I recall Norman liked the site and the way Jones’ allowed the housing units in the back to appear built into the land. But, he did not think the monastery flowed smoothly into its environment. He eye was discerning and sharp when it came to design and the importance of fitting a structure into the world.
After that, we had a little trouble finding Thorncrown and had to ask for directions in town. When we got there, we saw the stone sign -- about eight feet long with metal letters resting in front of a parking lot. You cannot see the chapel. To get to it, you travel on a path. I clearly remember that walk to Thorncrown with Norman. The path was about six feet wide, paved with gray asphalt that ascended through trees – mostly pine, but there were some other kinds as well and together they created a dense forest above pine straw and laurel. Norman walked ahead of me. His good health and strength made his stride straight and effortless. The path changed to gravel about halfway through the quarter mile hike. As we moved onward, people were coming up and down the path – some were casually dressed and others were in suits, ties, tuxedos, and pink bridesmaid dresses. I recall women in flowered dresses with lace collars. The sky was blue mixed with the softness of gray and the sun was fading, turning the day to dusk. The temperature was dropping. Darkness was coming fast.
Excitement poured from Norman as we reached the top. He mumbled loud enough for me to hear because I was supposed to hear him, yet the conversation was not really with me. “Oh my God, it is so much better than I ever thought. I’ve got to go in there. The light,” he said. His Long Island accent followed the words that came from deep in his chest, his voice heavy and rich, reaching from the bottom of his lungs to the outside when he talked.
Norman smiled a lot as he walked around. He was so happy that we’d found it. That he was seeing it. That we were there. I was amazed at the crucifixes on the columns and the way they reached to infinity through the woods. I showed him. He looked, listened and seemed equally fascinated. The reflection held in the columns was breathtaking. Birds, larger than little sparrows or songbirds, circled above the chapel. As we finished our initial exterior wanderings, the guests who were milling around started into the church for the wedding. I only saw the bride from a distance. She looked young, early twenties maybe. Norman thought we should just follow them and if anyone were to ask, tell them,” We are with the bride.”
The chapel was full of light – illuminating itself powerfully from the inside like a flame in a lantern or bulb in a clear, glass sconce. We walked in together, side by side. The structure comes down from above. The mix of beauty and delicacy come together there: a tiny space with glass walls, twelve trusses, light from the sky pouring through the roof, and pews angled to the front, where the altar is insignificant to keep the focus on the glory of the building and the glory of the world outside. Photos do not capture the life that lives in, through and wraps itself around Thorncrown. We sat down. A man, in his early 50s, resembling James Gandolfini, approached us. Norman was silent, leaving me to do the talking. I told him we were with the bride. He told me he was the bride’s father. He did not invite us to the wedding. We had to leave. Norman laughed and grumbled. He thought they should have let us stay – he didn't care that it was a wedding and that they’d rented the chapel.
Before we left Thorncrown, I recall that Norman sat outside, alone for a while. I think he was praying. He did that sometimes – pray, meditate.
The car ride back to the hotel was quiet. My thoughts floated to Nashville, work and responsibilities, but I knew Norman wanted me to continue traveling with him to see the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. My brain was overloaded and tired – swollen and full.
The next morning when we checked out of the hotel, Norman chastised me when a charge for a movie in the room -- Lethal Weapon -- appeared on the bill. It was not the charge, but the choice. He’d opted for the other movie, some independent art film. He didn’t understand my need to rest and not think. I told him that I wanted to go on with him to Texas, but I had to get my car and go back to Nashville. I took him to the airport in Little Rock. He told me he wished I could go on with him. He told me to try to go see the Kimbell someday. He told me he had fun and thanked me for driving him to Arkansas. Finally, he asked me to please come and see him in New York.
Each day of that trip I felt so humbled by the honor that it was I accompanying him to Thorncrown – that he asked me to share in the experience with him. Being there in the presence of Norman, in the light of Fay Jones’ creation, an overpowering sensation of wanting to do work like Fay Jones, like Norman, rose in me. I regret not going on to Fort Worth with him, though I did go later without him. I think I saw him two times after that trip: once in 1990 when I was in Long Island; the second and final time in Washington, DC – I was in graduate school. He invited me to a reception at the Jefferson Memorial. Again, I was honored that he wanted me to go somewhere with him. There were moments when I thought I was almost a colleague, but I would feel myself revert to intern status.
Over the years, Norman gave me a chance to work, to see and to aspire. Though he didn’t offer many compliments or direct praise nor spend time teaching me to draw, Norman gave me the gift of confidence because he affirmed me by trusting me to do things with him and for him. He was a master, a genius. When I would clean out his car there were grapefruits thrown in the back along with crumpled sketches and drawings. See, Norman knew he was talented. The designs lived amongst the trash and fruit in his car. He wasn’t worried about them, because he knew he had a well of creativity from which he could draw whenever he needed to. I used to house sit for him sometimes. Norman’s designs are like sailboats – throughout, everything is built in, cohesive. The things he designed and built feel like they grew right out of the land. You can feel him within the walls. I still feel his presence in my work – I use the tools he bought for me and carry the images he created in my mind through the vision of his eyes.
I often think how everything in life is connected. The privilege of working with Norman came through the father of childhood friends my sister, brother and I grew up with -- The Januses. We lived in Deerfoot Hills. Jerry Janus and his brother, Ray, completed the finishing carpentry details on most of all Norman’s work in the Hamptons. When I went away to college to study architecture, I wanted to come home and intern with Norman. Because of Jerry’s relationship with Norman, he was able to arrange it for me. As years pass, I find so often the connection of things – friendships, professional relationships, events, experiences, opportunities. I knew after my time with Norman and Keith and Miles that I wanted not only to design, but also to teach. Norman hovers in my life, standing on his hands, calling to me to see something or sketching in one of his little pads in the corner of my classroom, my studio, and my mind.
Norman. Reflections about Norman prompt me to explore how we learn – how I learned from him. There seems to be a clear link between learning and discovery – their intricate connection reveals that we learn as we discover and our teachers, our mentors, allow us and encourage us to discover ourselves, our gifts, and our weaknesses. Those who strongly influence us model teaching methods and ways to mentor. I have now experienced the privilege of mentoring others. Norman has great presence in those relationships. I wonder at what point we move from mentor to colleague; as mentors, at what point those we mentor see that they are truly our colleagues. Norman will always be my mentor, but this does not reflect the gifts he gave to me that I carry with me wherever I go.


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