An Artist In America

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Had we remained in the little town of Neosho, I don’t know whether I would have had the early training that made it possible for me, at seventeen, to take up a professional job as an artist. But in Washington, both in the grade schools and in high school, my drawing was encouraged. I also spent a lot of time imitating a Washington cartoonist named Berryman. His style of crosshatching fascinated me, and when my father would take me up to the House, I’d sit there for hours sketching the congressmen, especially Unclejoe Cannon, the famous Speaker. I ’ll bet I drew him a hundred times.

It sounds as if you enjoyed your years in Washington.

You live in a city like Washington, even as a boy of fourteen or so, and you learn more about life than any school has to teach you. We lived a few doors from the Chinese embassy, and that was a fascinating damned place to hang around. And as a congressman’s son I had access to the shelves of the Library of Congress, and there I ran into Burton’s translation of the tales of the Arabian Nights , and for a kid, that was highly seductive stuff, let me tell you. I still read it, twenty-four volumes, footnotes and all, and when I get to the end, I start again because I Ve forgotten the language of the first part. I Ve done that for years and years.

At first drawing was just a hobby with you?

Until I was seventeen, yes. That was when I broke up my father’s plan to make a lawyer out of me, and the break was accidental. I was working up in Joplin with my cousin’s surveying outfit, and one Saturday night I wandered into the town’s main saloon, the House of Lords, to have a beer. Well, over the bar was a huge painting of a masked nude, which, as you can imagine, I got to studying pretty intently. The next thing I knew, a bunch of miners and roughnecks started kidding me with a barrage of obscene suggestions. I was so embarrassed that, in desperation, I started insisting that the reason I was looking at the picture was that I was a professional artist. Well, one of those hecklers happened to know that the local paper needed an artist, and he decided to call my bluff, so the first thing I knew we were on our way over to the offices of the Joplin American . As a test the editor had me go make a sketch of a local druggist, and I got the job at fourteen dollars a week. Once I got that job, I didn’t want to go back to monkeying with the law. Besides, there weren’t any law clerks in that part of the country making fourteen dollars a week, and my father knew that, and he knew I knew it, too. He gave in finally, and sent me to art school in Chicago, but he was very much disappointed.

H ow old were you when you moved on to study in Paris?

That was in 1909, and I was just nineteen. It was exciting and very highly stimulating for a young man, perhaps too stimulating for someone so young. The Paris of my time was really the beginning of all these colossal nervous changes in the art world. What was good one year, two years later you were doubtful about. Of course, today it’s next week you’re doubtful about it.

Paris left you confused as an artist?

There was too much ferment, too many directions all competing for the attention of the artist. And it was also a very lonely time for me. You see, I was too young for the café crowd. As I look back on it I don’t think it’s good psychologically for a young man to be that alone all the time, or alone with some damned woman to dominate you, which generally comes up, you know, when you’re that alone.

You once described Paris as the “usual story”a mistress, a studio, some work, and lots of talk.

I haven’t written too much about those days because, well, so many of the people involved, or their children, are still around. But it’s true, a mistress was generally accepted practice, and when you left, you left her what money you had, what furniture you had, and she hunted around for another artist. Most of those girls, I guess you could say, were very effective as “caretakers of the young.”

What finally made you leave Paris and return to this country?

Well, one day my mother and sister arrived unexpectedly to visit me, although I don’t particularly want to elaborate on that. Naturally, when a young fellow gets set up with a life of his own, he doesn’t want the interference of his family. I ran around making new arrangements as fast as I could, but of course they weren’t enough to disguise the situation.

What was your mother’s reaction?

It was the natural reaction of any mother who finds her son with a new woman dominating the situation.

Was that what prompted your parents to discontinue supporting your art study abroad?