Thursday, February 07, 2013

james dean in new york

Like many young artists, I ended up in New York, studying painting at Parsons School of Design and learning to live on my own. A lot of my fellow art students were into abstraction, but I was always drawn to figure painting and classic portraiture. I soon discovered that I wasn't really interested in the human body in the sense that a lot of painters, like Philip Pearlstein or Lucian Freud were. I did the class assignments, learning to draw and sketch and sculpt and paint nude models in various contorted postures to better understand their musculature. But what I really liked was drawing people in clothes — men in suits, people in various social situations.

Apartment dweller 3

So in my free time I worked from film stills and photographs of favorite actors and movies. In my search for some source material I discovered a book of photographs of actor James Dean, taken by photographer Roy Schatt. Like many young actors, James Dean ended up in New York, plying his craft in the theater, and also early television. Schatt documented the young actor, walking around town. I could relate to the lonely, solitary figure, so far from his Midwestern home, navigating rainy streets, in front of some of the same buildings I found myself passing on the way to school each day.

I knew who James Dean was. I had probably seen part of Rebel Without A Cause one late night on television with my movie-buff dad. Coincidentally, Cinema Village, a revival movie house just a few steps away from Parsons, ran a James Dean double feature of East of Eden and Rebel Without A Cause. I decided to check it out.  Seeing him up there, on the big screen, I finally got what all the fuss was about. That red jacket. The unruly hair. He really pulled the viewer in, making you feel his suffering. He was an angsty, alienated teen, and I could relate. A few months later an uptown theater screened Giant on an enormous screen, complete with intermission. Although Dean has a relatively small part in the epic Elizabeth Taylor/Rock Hudson sudser, he effortlessly steals the movie away from them every time he is on screen. I was transfixed. Giant really showed Dean's potential for becoming not a screen heartthrob, but a character actor. And seeing him stroll across the gigantic screen, across Texas, almost life-size, was beyond impressive.


I grabbed my book of photos and started doing sketches of the actor almost as soon as I got home from Giant. I unearthed some of these old drawings the other day when I was going through my mom's and my old artwork. Looking at a portrait based on a photo by Schatt brought back another Dean and Parsons-related memory. One of my senior year classmates in the painting program also happened to be the daughter of actress Betsy Palmer. She knew I loved Hollywood and movies and said she bet her mom would love some of my drawings. I never really thought much about it until one day she brought her mom into my studio space and Ms. Palmer took one look at a painting on paper that I had tacked up on the wall and declared, "Jimmy! I'd know him anywhere!" She was very gracious and sweet and said how much she liked the work, and then told me a few stories about working with Dean in early television.

Her daughter drifted away, probably back to her own studio space, and then Ms. Palmer confided with a mischievous smile that she had known "Jimmy" very well, and that they had a wonderful time together. I recently ran across an interview with the actress where she told of her early days in New York, including some of the same stories she had shared with me that day. It was fun to hear, then and now, about a film icon's humble struggles and beginnings. Young artists have always been drawn to big cities, to search out like minds and hopefully, artistic success. I don't do much drawing and painting these days. I prefer to be creative with words and photos. But I find that I am still drawn to doing portraits of people — portraits of artists that interest and inspire me.
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Andrew said...

Wow. Betsy Palmer and James Dean. That's going to color re-runs of "What's My Line" forever.

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