Monday, February 22, 2010

The Narrows, 1942

I am posting here a fragment from a forthcoming book on the lives and art of Charles Massey West, Jr., and Anne Warner West, my parents. Based on what I know now, it is clear that my father had many dyslexic traits -- including many difficulties with spelling, reading and academic work as well as high level visual-spatial talents and skills. The article is quoted below without quotation marks.

It wasn’t the top prize. But it was major recognition in a major show.

In the fall of 1942, it was a show and catalogue that mainly honored Grant Wood, who had died earlier that year. Wood had already become an icon of American painting. With images such as “American Gothic,” “Daughters of Revolution” and “Good Influence” he had linked humor and satire with pride in the simplicity of middle America, using a flat, almost plastic palate, with smooth forms, high contrast and deep shadows -- not commonly seen again until the Pixar computer animation films some 70 years later.

The top prize at the Fifty-Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago had gone to Edward Hopper for “Nighthawks,” a canvas that was to become itself an icon of American painting. Lonely people in a bright diner in a dark cityscape -- familiar in numerous magazine articles, satirical imitations and young persons’ wall posters -- culminating as the central focus of the major show in the East Wing of the National Gallery, Washington, DC, that closed January 21, 2008.

Art historian and commentator Robert Hughes called Hopper the most important painter of the period and it is noteworthy that “Nighthawks” is the lone image that spans the backs of his multi-tape video history of American painting.

It is also notable how pivotal “Nighthawks” was in Hopper’s professional life. One writer notes in the National Gallery show catalogue: “In May 1945, having become famous and successful after his triumph with ‘Nighthawks,’ Hopper was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.” (Barter, 2007, p. 211.)

For West in 1942, it was not the top prize, but there he was, shoulder to shoulder with the top prizewinners.

His short biographical sketch was listed in facing pages with other short sketches of the top prizewinners. Hopper’s bio noted that his “early work aroused so little interest that he gave up painting for several years.” In West’s bio, his hometown is spelled incorrectly but his study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (PAFA, attended 1931-1934; the oldest and most prestigious art school in America) is noted along with his current teaching position and his award in 1934 of the Cresson Memorial Traveling Scholarship for study in Europe.

It is true that the year before the “The Narrows” had already been shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and published in Art Magazine. But this was somehow different.

In the Chicago show catalogue, there are black and white photographs of the winning paintings. Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is in the middle of the booklet, Plate VII, “Awarded the Ada S. Garrett Prize.” One page leaf away is “The Narrows” by Charles M. West, Jr., Plate IX, “Awarded the Honorable Mention for Landscape.”

Also listed in the show catalogue were paintings by well-known and not so well known artists of the period whose work was shown but did not win any prize at that exhibition. (The full catalogue listing is quoted below without quotation marks; comments from this writer are in brackets). Some of those listed were associated with the Pennsylvania Academy (many now know as Pennsylvania Impressionists) or with the Brandywine School of painters near Wilmington, Delaware.

Henriette Wyeth, born Wilmington, Delaware, 1907; lives in San Patricio, New Mexico, 233 [ref. number for paintings in this show], Portrait of N.C. Wyeth. [Daughter of N.C. Wyeth, sister of Andrew Wyeth.]

Peter Hurd, born Roswell, New Mexico, 1904; lives in San Patricio, New Mexico, 133, Prairie Shower. [Husband of Henriette Wyeth; much later famously commissioned to do portrait of LBJ.]

Walter Stuempfig, Jr., born Philadelphia, 1914; lives in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, 218, Family Reunion. [West’s classmate at the PAFA]

Francis Speight, born Windsor, North Carolina, 1896; lives in Roxborough, Pennsylvania, 217, Scene in West Manayunk. [West’s teacher at the PAFA; both were students of Daniel Garber.]

Donald M. Mattison, born Beloit, Wisconsin, 1905; lives in Indianapolis, 167, Good-by. [West’s boss at the time. As director of the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana, Mattison had recruited West, then at the University of Iowa, as raising young star teacher.]

Thomas [Hart] Benton, born Neosho, Missouri, 1889; lives in Kansas City, 59, Negro Soldier.

Georgia O’Keefe, born Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, 1887; lives in New York, 180, Red Hills and Bones.

It was not the top prize. But it was a long way to have traveled for the boy from Centreville -- a small river town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that had been in many ways unchanged for more than a century. The town of 2000 on the Corsica River in a timeless rural area of farmers and watermen on the Delmarva Peninsula, had long been a virtual island between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean (reachable from Baltimore or Annapolis on the Western Shore only by slow ferry boat and ancient steamer; the two bridges were not built until the 1950s and the 1970s).

Born in 1907, young Charlie West had spent his boyhood mostly in the town’s nearby wharf area (not far from the family home) -- very like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn -- following the river traffic, absorbing outrageous superstitions and travelers’ tales, seeing melodramas at Ford’s Floating Theater, escaping his four older sisters and his no-nonsense, small-town businessman father.

(Ford’s Floating Theater was a tiny theater on a barge towed from river town to river town around the Chesapeake Bay, said to be the actual basis for the stories used in the musical “Showboat.” Charles did one watercolor and several paintings of this theater.)

It wasn’t the top prize. But in the fall of 1942, at the age of 35, the recognition received at the Chicago show was special indeed -- a kind of watershed, a balance point in his life as a painter and artist, one generation off the farm.

It was only 10 years before that he had won a full scholarship to attend art school in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Academy Country School at Chester Springs, PA.

It was only 8 years before that he had been awarded the top art school prize to travel and study and paint in Europe -- almost losing his life from appendicitis as the grand ship steamed toward France.

At the hospital in Paris, after his operation, he was befriended by a Hungarian Countess and her rich American husband -- and was invited to recuperate at their grand chateau near Paris. In so doing, he saw, first hand, the last days of a style of life -- with lush gardens, expensive cars, grand estates and grander parties -- that was to end forever only five years later.

In his painting, West loved the dash and freshness and vitality of the French Impressionists of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s. He saw it as a style well suited to the rural landscapes and river scenes that he had known all of his life.

Two years before he had married a fellow art school student, Anne Dickie Warner. Their first son had been born in March of 1941. A second would follow in August of 1943.

The man who later became the head of the Pennsylvania Academy sent a note to the former student: “Dear Charlie: I can only take time for the merest word this morning, but the Chicago Art Institute catalogue has just come to my desk and I see that you have crashed through again. Heartiest congratulations and best wishes for all the Wests! Sincerely Yours, Joseph T. Fraser, November 11, 1942.”

When the Chicago show closed December 10, 1942, America had been at war for its first full year. The art school closed. West was retrained to become a draftsman in the local war industries in Indianapolis.

Thirty years later -- after teaching painting, sculpture and history of art at several schools and colleges, eventually resettling his young family in his own hometown -- at the end of December 1972, at the age of 65, West’s life was at an end. He was buried, with a small family service, along side his parents in the family plot in Centreville, as geese flew overhead in the cold of early January.

His wife Anne turned a small building, former law offices on Lawyer’s Row in the center of the town, into a gallery to honor her husband's paintings and those of others.

West’s father’s dream was that his son would become a lawyer, the top of the social scale of the small agricultural town and county, a northern most outpost of very Southern rural attitudes and traditions.

It is no small irony that West’s paintings -- his art and his career so much a puzzle to his father and virtually everyone else in this essentially provincial town and rural county -- finally ended up at the center of the law offices that face the old Queen Anne’s County Courthouse. There, deeds had been exchanged and fought over for hundreds of years -- land ownership long being in the area the main path to wealth and social position.

Anne Dickie Warner West -- descended from an old Quaker family of artists and engineers from Wilmington, Delaware, and, previously, Philadelphia (before the arrival of William Penn) -- lived on for another 34 years of painting and travel and grandchildren and family visits in Centreville and then Chestertown -- passing away in her sleep in the afternoon of November 10, 2006, at the age of 97, just a month short of her 98th birthday.


Art Institute of Chicago, 1942. Catalogue of the Fifty-Third Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Barter, Judith A., 2007. “Travels and Travails: Hopper’s Late Pictures” in Edward Hopper, Boston, MA: MFA Publications, pp. 211-225. The book was published in conjunction with the exhibition “Edward Hopper,” organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Other sections of this book were written by Carol Troyen, Janet L. Comey, Elliot Bostwick Davis and Ellen E. Roberts.

Note: A series of photographs of paintings by Anne and Charles West, Jr., is available on the web. Go to Google, click on images, picasa, request “Charles M. West, Jr.” (in quotation marks), then click on the portrait image to bring up the full set of 38 images, request slide show with full screen and commentary text below each image.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Dyslexic Talents Everywhere

In a previous blog (January 25, 2010), I made reference to the recent Miami conference for which I organized a roundtable discussion on the talents of dyslexics, indicating why I feel there ought to be greater research interest in this topic.

In my thank you email to the participants, I noted several points that I thought might be of interest to readers of this blog. Excerpts of this email follow (slightly modified and expanded in some places):

I want to thank you all once again for your willingness to participate in our small (but I think very high quality) roundtable discussion in Miami. I am most grateful for your time in doing background research and for your thoughtful comments.

As you know, I am deeply committed to this particular issue and I plan to continue several lines of investigation to try to move the discussion forward and to encourage the interest of other investigators -- in my talks, my blog and my third book as well as other venues, as appropriate.

If you have further thoughts on the topic, I would be most grateful if you would let me know. My intention is to address in some way each of the issues and concerns that have been raised -- in a effort to bridge the gap between my own certain feeling that this research is greatly needed and the feelings of others that it is deeply problematic and, on the whole, not very helpful.

I will be flying to Paris tomorrow to attend the World Dyslexia Forum at UNESCO Headquarters and I understand representatives of a great many countries will attend. The organizers wanted to focus their program almost exclusively on literacy and academic remediation, but I will be doing what I can to spread the word on the importance of looking at the talent side as well -- which, indeed, is part of their program, although a very small part.

It is worth noting that I will also be participating in a conference at the University of Maryland in March, called "Diamonds in the Rough," where the main theme will be gifts and talents and positive capabilities in a range of LD areas.

I continue to be puzzled by the wide divergence between two sets of groups working more or less in the same field.

It is noteworthy, that when I spend time with my friends working in the computer graphics field (whether colleagues working at Pixar or at the annual SIGGRAPH conferences) I see almost nothing but highly creative and highly visual dyslexics who are working at very high levels of proficiency, often at very high levels of income and prestige. They have gone where they are appreciated -- and they have largely avoided areas of academic failure and humiliation. Indeed, this behavior is common sense.

I was in our local Apple store earlier today and noticed a new version of "Kid Pix" for sale there in the children's section (4 to 8 years). I happen to know quite well the original developer of "Kid Pix." (I hope he continues to have a good contract with the company currently updating and distributing the product.)

A dyslexic father designed “Kid Pix” for his dyslexic son. In the early 1990s, the MIT Media Lab professors and students believed that the creator of "Kid Pix" had designed the most innovative and most error-free user interface ever developed to that date. The father taught photography at the University of Oregon at Eugene. I saw him and his family regularly at SIGGRAPH conferences for many years. He has given me several of his books and photography CDs.

So, I hope you can understand, I see the talents of dyslexics wherever I look -- and I wonder why others do not see it.

Increasingly, I think of it as a history of science question -- or perhaps an epistemological question (since I was originally trained as an undergraduate in philosophy and especially logic, epistemology and the philosophy of science).

How do we know what we think we know? Do our empirical studies actually address the right issues with the proper testing instruments? Or, do we keep doing the same kinds of studies with marginal or inconsequential results?

If we look at things with different eyes, do we get very different (and much better) answers? Do we need very different tests and instruments to begin to understand talents and capabilities that we never thought were important -- but are now clearly very important in work and life as well as a truly modern educational system? Like Lord Kelvin, can we be too easily fooled by working with “hard” numbers?

For example, why is it that we all agreed (and taught our students) for some 100 years that the ratio of dyslexic boys to girls was roughly 4 to 1 -- only to discover the real ratio was closer to 1 to 1 -- mainly because the girls had better social skills and did not act out -- so were not tested and were not identified.

Lately, it is looming larger in my mind that what we have here may be (what is called in medicine) a "referral bias" type problem.

Most professionals in the field see every day mostly a long line of school failures and “at risk” children -- those who are too young to have found a way to some measure of success (often necessarily outside of school), great or small. (Sometimes, even the needed brain structures and capacities are not there until later in the child’s development, we are told.)

In contrast, I, and a few others, see almost exclusively those who are highly successful or very highly successful, in our attempt to see what can be learned from them that may be useful to dyslexics and non-dyslexics alike.

Can it be that so much depends on what one sees every day -- as well as what we were taught to see in our own student days?

Almost all the extremely successful people I write about were never tested and were able to find, mostly on their own, some innovative way to excel and to think well of themselves outside of school, that is, outside of continuous failure situations.

(In recent years, often the situation has changed and these highly successful dyslexics learn about dyslexia and related conditions, and the significance of their own personal histories, through the testing of their children.)

As attachments, for your interest, I am including a copy of a summary paper I wrote years ago for the journal of the Hong Kong pediatricians as well as a set of several excerpts from the Epilogue for the new second edition of In the Mind's Eye. Please have a look and tell me what you think. (As it happens, I learned at the Miami conference that the Hong Kong paper is now required reading in an Israeli graduate program, among other places.)

Again, thanks so much for your thoughtful efforts. I hope the discussion will continue.

All best wishes, Tom West