I don't know what the phenomenon is called where if you're watching television, every news channel you turn to the anchorperson is saying the same phrase. Or when reading more than one source, you see the exact same wording, as if repetition always means truth. In this particular case, I'm referring to a sentence about a man deciding to become an artist after seeing charcoal drawings in a Nazi death camp. I worked with this man for five years, and according to him, he sang in theatre productions in high school, sketched but hid his art from his Mennonite preacher father and took photographs, all before he joined the military as a conscientious objector in WW II.
By the time I met him, he was in his early 70's, well-established in the art world, but soft-spoken and humble most of the time. He was a widower but always had girlfriends even when married. I asked him once about his wife Ginny, after watching a documentary about Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Paul looked up from his daily list of things to be done, through his reading glasses and commented, "She was the love of my life, the girl next door," then he showed me her ashes in a Tupperware. I had already seen her worn clogs still at the door, the jewelry he made for her in a locked room, her smiling photo next to his bed, and an enormous angry abstract oil painting she made above his bed. Ginny was everywhere. He even saved all of her food-splattered cookbooks.
It was May of 1997; he flew me out to California, picked me up in Ginny's old Honda. As he drove to his home in Claremont, he gestured to a tree he liked or commented on the walk of a woman. We stopped at a car wash to get the car cleaned; he let me pick the air freshener scent. I was tired from the flight, but the next thing he asked me to do was cut his hair, with an electric buzzer. Now, I've been cutting hair since I played with dolls. If a doll had long hair, I chopped it off. Then I started cutting my two sisters' hair as well as my own. Over the years, I've cut many friends' and family members' hair, with no formal training. Either they tell me what they want or I visualize what would look good and they let me do it. It's immensely rewarding and saves everyone money, but Paul didn't know all this.
Here I am, pretty much a wild card who is also jetlagged, and later that day we have to set up and attend a gallery opening, showing his sculptures? I expressed some hesitation and his response was, "just do it and don't forget to clean the blade and oil it afterwards." Now my understanding of my job was to pack up the Claremont studio files and sculptures into a huge Suburban, drive 5 or 6 hours a day until we reached Aspen, Colorado, then unpack it all and get ready to help with all aspects of a week long workshop at Anderson Ranch. How wrong I was.
The next day, he had me pick bags and bags of ripe kumquats from the side yard, then handed me a chainsaw to prune an overgrown bush around a hot tub he had built, with the directions to make it look like the Loch Ness Monster for his grandchildren. Then he wandered off to tend to his many bonsai trees.
But in the five years, we talked of many things while driving from Claremont to Aspen and from Aspen to Claremont. He talked a lot about the war, as older men do when someone shows interest, and he never once mentioned charcoal drawings. He did however show me black and white original photographs that he took of the freed prisoners, most of them no more than walking skeletons. He added sadly, "we killed some of them with food, not knowing how long it had been since they had eaten or had water."