David Bruce: The Coolest People in Art — Gifts, Good Deeds

Gifts

• Cellist Pablo Casals observed the 200thanniversary of Bach’s death by performing at the great Baroque cathedral in the Catalan town of Prades. African-American artist Ashley Bryan attended some rehearsals, and he drew the musicians there and attended the first three concerts — students such as himself were given free tickets for those concerts. In addition to works by Bach, Mr. Casals played the Catalan song of longing “El cant dels ocells” at the end of each concert. Impressed by the song and by Mr. Casals’ playing of it, Mr. Bryan made a booklet that illustrated the song and sent it to Mr. Casals, who sent Mr. Bryan a thank-you letter that Mr. Bryan describes as “very moving.”

• Nancy Miller Elliott was a friend of jazz musician Buck Clayton, who encouraged her to be a photographer. One day, Mr. Clayton gave her a present: a box of cameras and lenses and other photographic materials. He had bought them from a man in the street, and he did NOT ask the man, “Is this merchandise stolen?” Ms. Elliott put the gift to good use. She immediately began taking portraits of jazz musicians. Many of her photographs appear in Chip Deffaw’s book titled Jazz Veterans: A Portrait Gallery.

• Before World War II, Lucy Carrington Wertheimer ran an art gallery that concentrated on the work of modern artists. Charles Merriott, art critic for the Timesin London, frequently wrote about her gallery. One day, she offered him the gift of a picture, but he replied that it was his rule never to accept such gifts. Ms. Wertheimer told the story later to the artist Frances Hodgkins, who replied, “Not without reason do they call him Marriott the Incorruptible.”

• Marc Chagall and his wife were friends to Sir Rudolf Bing and his wife. Once, Mr. Chagall sketched a vase of flowers, and Sir Rudolf’s wife said, “That’s pretty.” Happy with the compliment, Mr. Chagall gave her the sketch. Later, Sir Rudolf had the sketch framed, and the art dealer asked if he would take $15,000 for the sketch. (He declined, and the sketch instead hung in his and his wife’s apartment.)

Good Deeds

• Enrico Caruso did many good deeds. An old friend of his once told him, “I have the most wonderful painting of Naples to show you. I assure you that it was done by a great artist, and I came by it through a stroke of luck. It hangs in my restaurant. You must come see it immediately. You, who are a connoisseur in these matters, will appreciate it.” Enrico, accompanied by his wife, Dorothy, and by his friend, did see the painting, which Dorothy recognized as very bad — she even expected her husband to reproach his friend for recommending that he see such a bad painting. Enrico, however, looked at the painting seriously, and then he asked how much it would cost to buy the painting. Hearing the answer — $500, a very large sum of money at the time — he said he would buy it. Later, Dorothy asked why he wanted such a painting. Enrico explained that his friend needed money and would never ask him for it, and that this was his way of giving his friend money. Besides, he would send the painting to another friend as a joke. (When Enrico learned that the friend to whom he had sent the painting had actually hung it on a wall out of respect for him, he was horrified and told him to take it down because he had been “making a funny” — Enrico’s term for a joke).

• When the marriage of Emerald, the younger sister of African-American artist Ashley Bryan, ended, she had five children to provide for. Her parents took her and her family in, and Ashley helped her out financially. Some of his salary as an art teacher and his income as an artist went to raise her children until they were grown. The children helped him out by posing for him, although since they were young, occasionally he had trouble getting them to stand still for the pose: “Come back! Come back! Come back to the pose!” In his life, Mr. Bryan has tried to do what the members of his church told him when they gave him a room and art supplies so he could teach art to children: “You have a talent. Share your gifts with others.” By the way, children sometimes ask him if he is rich. He replies, “Am I rich? Oh, I am SO rich! I have the blue sky overhead, the green grass underfoot, the clouds, the trees, the flowers!” African-American author Walter Dean Myers learned from Mr. Bryan, “It’s about the art.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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THE COOLEST PEOPLE IN ART

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