Profile: an Artist
When my parents first started talking about him, they whispered “he shot his shrink, do you think he will be safe around the kids?” I was starting high school and felt rather insulted to be called a kid and thought to not be able to handle myself around adults. But I always remained surprised by the crowd my father – a sea captain in the merchant marine – hung out with. While my dad was disciplined, controlled, and persistent, his friends always seemed wild, untamed, and living extraordinary lives without the trappings of fertilizing a lawn, painting a three bedroom cape, remembering errands for the wife, and supporting the kids. But when I listened discretely to my parents talk about these various acquaintances and their adventures a theme always came about; they were typically successful professionals that wrecked their lives and came to the Hamptons as a forgiving sanctuary to put it back together again. That’s when they needed my dad’s friendship, someone to lean on that seemed to understand their predicaments and lapses when giving up sovereignty to their destructive impulses.
They called him Bob the Artist. He was tall, had short grey hair offset by thick eyebrows, and remained trim in spite of a predilection to prepare three egg cheese omelets swimming in a pool of butter. When speaking, he took on both a manner of enthusiasm and command supported with a diction that projected his authority in having fun or being creative. And he loved to curse, especially when my parents were not around.
At one point Bob lived in a grand walk-in tent during the summer when the mansions he lived in over the winter were filled by their owners. The blue-green cotton duck structure was on a patch of land part of Ned’s Sailboats in the vicinity of what used to be called Baron’s Cove in Sag Harbor.
I had learned to sail by renting a Sunfish at Ned’s. We eventually purchased a used Sunfish at the end of the season and now Bob wanted me to take him out on Noyac Bay. Our agreed upon day was a windy one, and I was glad Bob’s frame carried some heft although as a young sailor I was surprised I had to remind this older person where to sit on a sailboat so we would not tip over. There were white caps and I didn’t have much experience in this kind of wind. Occasionally, the patented rudder would kick up from the hydraulic forces – not a shallow bay bottom as intended, and cause me much consternation as I snapped it back into the gudgeon as the boat would start to radically spin. Eventually I found I could avoid all this panic if I stayed close in the lee of Jessup’s Neck, blocking the summer’s prevailing southwest afternoon blast. Bob didn’t understand starboard from port, leeward from windward, or a rudder blade that spontaneously snaps out losing all control. He wanted us to get out around the tip of the Morton Wildlife preserve. I followed his wishes since, as I had said, he had this sense of command.
Just as we emerge from the protective lee of the preserve’s rise, I can see around the point where aggregates of fishermen are wildly bobbing up and down in the roiling bay. Over the frothy chop of Little Peconic Bay I see a large sandy dune in the far distance. If Bob was intending to go to Holmes Hill, it would not be with me at the helm. The even more rigorous waters blowing around the point started to crash over our craft. The Sunfish Company wisely installed an auto-baling feature in the small cockpit void, but it could not keep up as waves tumble six-to-twelve inches of water over us.
Bob is having a thrill. I’m about to split apart worrying about having the disaster at sea my father always warned me about. Dangerous things happen on the water. Finally, I convince Bob we have to go back and we turn around to have the wind fill our white and blue striped lateen sail from behind and push us into a whaler’s sleigh ride over the misty white caps back to Hallock’s Beach.
I learned Bob used part of Ned’s administrative cottage as an impromptu studio to do his yearly art show. Bob’s drop from being a Park Avenue designer must have been precipitous, but the way he rejected that lofty lifestyle with two weimaraners and a bevy of serial marriages was just as astonishing. Bob’s modus operandi was to frantically paint for most of the summer and then have an opening Labor Day weekend. When I heard the price of these creations, I wondered who would pay that much for something so abstract. At the time all I saw were different colored circles and amorphous shapes. Sometimes the paint was blended with the sand. The one I still have on my wall today is called Sunset and if you starred at it long enough you could connect the upper hemisphere to the sky and the gradient of the lower hemisphere to the beach and water. Now I no longer see it as peculiar yellow and blue shapes but become reminded of a feeling of harmony with the water and light of the East End. Bob somehow captured the sense of what it is like to relax on our beaches and see a sunset and turn this into an emotional affect.
Bob taught me how to hitch-hike, much to my parent’s chagrin. “The key,” he said,” is to not think about having to have a ride, but accepting it as it comes. “But,” he continued, “You have to project yourself to the driver. Raise your thumb high and with confidence. Look that driver right in the eye.” This way of wanting but not grabbing was key to Bob’s spirit. It was akin to the light touch you give to the reins of a horse, instead of jamming the bridle against the mouth, you instead focus on direction to aid your awareness to make it happen.
People that knew Bob would tell me the difficulty he had believing the psychiatric profession could help. I change the subject and ask what it was that made him so charismatic and creative. The librarian at the Hamptons Library tells me “He would do anything for you. One day I told him I really needed some fresh paint in the children’s reading room and he shows up the next day with paintbrush in hand.” One night after Bob prepares cream cheese and jelly dinner omelets, my mother mentions she can’t stand her kitchen. For six weeks Bob adds mirrors around the sink for light, moves the fridge into the closet for more space, and paints a trompe- l’oeil fill in for some missing parts of our 19th century Sag Harbor “De Castro Livery Stable” sign he used as an anchoring motif. He moves the redwood picnic table in to finish our country kitchen and paints it white, but not thickly so you can see warn spots through the finish. In short, using things found around our garage and attic and his ability to transform disparate objects into a unified theme, Bob creates a country kitchen as a full scale diorama. When visitors entered our kitchen, they plopped themselves down in amazement never getting to the living or dining room.
Bob had strong opinions about psychoanalysts, and most notably in that they were out to get him with their unethical experimentation with the new class of drugs. In one of these lectures he tells me “I shot him in the leg out of self-defense.” Bob went to prison, and through a network of concerned friends in the Hamptons, was progressively moved out from Riker’s Island to more endurable locations upstate.
After not seeing Bob for several years, I was home on spring break, and we agreed to get together for dinner at an upscale place next to the Bridgehampton Candy Kitchen. We catch up and as he orders a cocktail looks away and tells me he can stop any time he wants. Five years later I hear from my mother that Bob had moved out of the Hamptons and was part of the art scene at Rhinebeck, upstate New York. Someone found him face down on the village main street. No I.D., the coroner declared it a heart vein embolism. In a way, Bob was like the divining stick that brought our family closer to the true waters of the east end. Through him, we experienced how the openness of the potatoes fields and bays brought the feeling of possibility and renewal to all who came here, that discovering a back road was also how to see the same land in a new way, and a reminder how the seasons and people of the east end remake themselves every day.