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Sunday morning by Samuel Rosenberg  (source)

My parents were good friends with the respected American artist, Samuel Rosenberg and his wife Libby. When I was still a child, they asked him advice on how to encourage my love for drawing and he suggested that when I was old enough they should send me for lessons with Pittsburgh artist, Abe Weiner.

I’ve mentioned my dear teacher and mentor here in previous posts, but I’ve been wanting to write in depth about that relationship. Before I even had a blog, I’d written an essay on what those years meant to me, but it has been lost. So I will try to recreate that tribute to him here.

My father was a doctor and both my parents were anxious to move out of the little duplex in the crowded Jewish neighbourhood they had come to as immigrants from Ireland, into the more spacious suburbs. I’d grown up in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh from age 3-9, and was used to walking everywhere with my mom to do errands on Murray avenue or Forbes.

That intimate relationship with the city stopped when we moved to Churchill and everything was done by car. Our shopping focus shifted from the city to the malls and we became suburbanites. I only went into town via carpool to go to temple, and later to go to my lessons with Abe.

But those lessons were what reconnected me to my city in a way growing up in my affluent family never could.

Abe Weiner was a quiet, humble man. He must have been in his early 40s when I came to him as a 10 year old. I only every remember gentleness from him, and humour, and the most all encompassing belief in me as an artist with ability.

Every Saturday for 6 years, except for summer vacation, I went by bus from Temple to the Weiner’s home in Squirrel Hill. In the first years we drew in and around their home. Abe and Anne’s 3 children were often present in the house, sometimes sitting down to draw with us. Friends would drop by, and since Abe’s studio was on the ground floor between the living room and kitchen, we were always at the heart of whatever was happening in the house.

After a few lessons when my teacher got an idea of what my stage of development was, we started to venture farther afield. Pittsburgh’s rich cultural heritage opened for this child, as Abe took me and often Shari his eldest girl, to draw at Phipp’s conservatory or the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. First I drew Greek statues in charcoal and pencil, when I could handle values well we graduated to my first box of pastels. I remember opening it for the first time, and all the colours took my breath away.

Abe’s method of teaching art was……

continued in part 2   (scroll down)

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Picture

Untitled, Abe Weiner,  acrylic and dry pigments
source

Abe Weiner’s method of teaching art was to present the student with a subject to draw which would be familiar enough to provide security at the beginning, but complex enough to challenge them to go beyond their current level of ability.

It was a classic way of teaching,- perspective, chiaroscuro, proportion, composition were all handled. And when we worked with colour, complements, colour wheel, colour theory all were addressed. But none of this was presented as theory. It all came up naturally during the course of drawing; when I’d hit on a problem I couldn’t solve, only then would a piece of information be offered which I could use right away to go to the next level.

The lessons went like this- I’d arrive and we’d gather some materials and in the later years,almost always go directly out in the car with one of more of his kids (Shari the eldest- just a bit younger than I, Jonathan, and Kim, the youngest) . We’d arrive at the museum (admission was free in those days), and seek out a subject to draw. I remember spending several consecutive lessons on one dinosaur skull. When I revisited the museum 30 years later, I went right to this particular skull out of dozens displayed, because I’d come to know it so intimately.

What did he do during the lessons? He’d talk, make jokes, he was totally present without ever interfering or steering too obviously. He might give a few pointers while I was doing the first sketch if I was going horribly wrong with the composition or had missed an important element. But he usually simply held the space unobtrusively and was there when I got myself into a pickle, to help with kind suggestions as to how to dig myself out. He guided quietly, he observed, he didn’t praise or cut down, he was with you during the process and his total trust in your own abilities was palpable. If I was pleased with the result, so was he. And he also knew how to navigate my increasingly stormy teenage moods when things went wrong.

I learned through doing, through being supported in a safe space where the ante was upped a little more every time I made a step in my own development. So that learning to draw with Abe and paint with pastels was a slow, gentle curve to increasing skill and confidence.

My family life in those teenage years was chaotic. My father was bi polar and had a personality disorder; he’d been institutionalised a few times, but no one outside the family ever knew about that.  And I only knew he’d been ‘ill’ and had to ‘go away’ for a few months. When he was home my mother and I were at the mercy of his manic moods and depressions and rages.  That is why for 6 years, my weekly 3 hours in Abe’s home and even-keeled presence helped me through that turbulent childhood, and is why I am probably less scarred by it all than I might have been had I not had that refuge.

And I learned to draw, really draw. And to see, which is the heart of being able to draw.

On the days when we stayed at their home, Abe would occasionally work on one of his paintings while I was drawing. Looking back I see how much effect seeing his art unfold colour by colour, had on my own artistic vision. That merits another post.

My dear friend and mentor died in 1993. Luckily, I’d had the gift of another series of lessons from him after I was married and gone to live in Holland. I came back to Pittsburgh for several months and revisited his home with lovely Anne still there as well, and I learned to paint.

This man was a key person in my life, he not only grew me as an artist and influenced my vision and work, but his generosity and his family’s provided a haven for a sensitive child surrounded by the emotional turmoil of her own dysfunctional home.

And together we went and drew the still mills from the Hill. We went dahntahn and drew skyscrapers, we went to East Liberty, to Schenley park and drew the cherry trees in blossom, we lost ourselves in the tropical green houses of Phipp’s conservatory, we drew  animals at Frick Natural History museum. Through Abe’s eyes, I learned Pittsburgh in a way my parents never saw it,from their dinners at the Park Schenley or Concordia club, or dos at Montefiore where my father practiced.

It is Abe’s and my Pittsburgh I carry in my heart, and in my art.