I grew up on Long Island. In 1949, the year I was born, Harry Truman was President; Grady the Cow, at 1,200 pounds, gained national attention for getting stuck inside a farm silo in Yukon, Oklahoma; South Pacific opened on Broadway; the first Polaroid camera was sold in New York; Hopalong Cassidy became the first network western; Mao Tse-Tung proclaimed the Communist People’s Republic of China; and J. Edgar Hoover gave Shirley Temple a tear gas fountain pen. Sixty years later, the Smithsonian emailed me that I’d been selected to exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery.
By the time I was five, my parents already sensed that paint and piano belonged in my path. They knew music was good for the visual synapses, and wisely started me on piano fresh out of kindergarten. My mom peeled potatoes while I practiced on an old upright in our basement.
The keys were yellowed and ivory. Some were chipped, and when no one was looking, I’d stand on the keyboard and pound as loudly as I could. Together, the piano and I made great, thunderous dissonance, as a cacophony of visual and auditory data found a home in my head. Years later I grew to understand the beauty and passion in Beethoven sonatas, while a flood of imagery took form in the design complexity of my photo collages.
A few years after the potato peeling, my older brother was becoming fascinated with crystal radios, a single AM station, and primitive smoke bombs. Mom and Dad moved the basement piano to the center of the long wall, laid linoleum tile on the concrete floor, and built my brother and me about 16 feet each of tabletop for whatever creative and/or scientific wanderings awaited. With unforgiving energy, we set to work in our opposing corners. According to family accounts, my earliest works seemed to rival the walls of Lascaux. More than half a century later, I still organize workspace with long, L-shaped surfaces.
Sometime in the late 1950s, my Dad’s best friend’s son shook my world. His name was Lee, and he showed me The Great Gift From The Universe In The Bright Red Metal Box: The Erector Set. I was hooked. Each year I waited for the upgrade, and on my L-shaped basement tabletop I whiled away endless hours building drawbridges, Ferris wheels, and merry-go-rounds with little else than the manufacturer’s poorly printed pictures of the finished piece. In the days of that decade, you couldn’t google for detailed directions of how-to. Observing my wellspring of creativity, my penchant for detail, and my uncanny eye for the way things work, my parents wondered aloud whether I’d someday design architectural magnificence.
Never one to be daunted by the expectations of years ahead, I knew instinctively to start at the bottom. With Ferris wheels at my side, a turtle in a box in the backyard, and a newfound drive to make some cash, I stumbled into paperweights. Possibly because my older brother had moved from crystal radios to geological meanderings with rocks and minerals, I easily embraced the idea of hammer and chisel. My basement workshop boasted anew an expanding collection of flat, grey-toned, smoothed-textured, five- to-eight-inch wide, one- to-two-pound, paperweight-destined rocks. I chiseled into them with a passion for design, and painted them with abandon.
My dad was a pharmacist and kept my paperweight rocks by the cash register on his drugstore counter. He sold them to his customers, and came home with coins and cash for my savings bank, but I think he secretly gave them away. “Here. Take a chiseled rock home with you. It’s a paperweight. My son Paul made it.” Apparently I didn’t get rich from this scheme. Today, many years later and a dad myself, I realize how proud he was each time I set forth anew, and how he marveled at the simplicity with which I viewed the world.
When my own daughter was five, she bounced excitedly into the master bedroom early one morning in 1991 with the announcement that Barbie and Ken were about to get married. I’d witnessed several previous nuptials of the couple, and had always been an enthusiastic participant. Deftly she assembled more than a dozen Barbie bridesmaids and attendants on my covers as I lay there, and neatly arranged all their coats and accessories on the mountain of my blankets. But it was her next pronouncement that struck so funny, struck so deep: “Daddy, you’re the coat rack.”
In the space of those few short words, my daughter defined me. How could I not be amused! And how could I ignore the clarity and profundity of what she’d said! Filling the role I’d been assigned, I was suddenly an object where clothes got hung.
Through the eyes of my five-year-old, I was everything and anything. In the transaction of that moment, I was a slate wiped clean; I was ready for definition. In the transaction of that moment, I was the coat rack.
As an artist, that’s not so bad a way to think of oneself: a slate wiped clean, ready for definition. I envision the school rooms of my youth with their black slate boards, the endless miles of teacher-perfect handwriting and quadratic equations in hard white chalk, and of course the erasers inviting obliteration, adventure, inquiry, and newness.