Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Funny Edward Hopper Story


My wife Alice standing at the top of Edward
Hopper's driveway, S. Truro, MA, September 2010.

Do you notice anything missing from this scene?

A funny story about Edward Hopper, which in itself is funny as he was hardly known as an exemplar of humor. Way back in 1983 my wife Alice and I stayed in the Hopper studio for the first time. As Hopper has been almost a guiding star to me as a young artist, I was over-the-top excited. Back then the trees hadn't re-grown so high from the 19th century deforestation of Cape Cod, and one could view the Hopper studio from quite a distance. I found a particularly good view of it standing on a sand bank along the dirt road and started a panoramic oil of the studio sitting on the dunes.

The painting was going really well when an older woman came out of a nearby house and angrily yelled at me for standing on the sand bank's plants. She had a point.

I'm usually really careful about trampling the local flora. But I was determined to stand my ground and finish the painting. Unable to think of a better response, I decided to play dumb and replied to the woman by saying only "yes." After an awkward silence, she repeated her protest. I smiled as warmly as possible and nodded my head, again saying only "yes." Another uncomfortable silence ensued and I continued painting. Finally the woman, perhaps concluding she had an impossible artist on her hands, shrugged her shoulders and retreated to her house.

A minute later her grown son came out to talk to me. He apologized for his mother's edgy tone and said I should stay and finish the painting (which really did turn out beautifully). We got to talking and he explained he'd grown up on that road. Asked if he'd known Hopper he said he had, so I asked "What was he like."

"Nobody liked Hopper" he said and, pointing to the power lines running over our heads, told me a story. When the Hopper's built their studio in 1934 none of the houses on its back road had electricity. A few years later the utility company announced they would install the electical cables for the neighborhood. The normal practice was to string the power lines overhead on road side wooden poles, but for an extra fee they would bury the cables instead if the homeowners on the road would agree.

Hopper was adamant that the lines be buried, but no one else wanted to pay the extra money which angered Hopper. Apparently he let this be known to all his neighbors in a none too graceful way. Afterwards the neighbors regarded him as something of a crank.

What amazed me about this story was that Hopper is thought of in art circles as a painter who celebrated the unvarnished side of America, finding the poetry in the commonplace storefront or rail yard. So many of his paintings, like the one below, include telephone poles and power lines, yet when it came to his own yard, Hopper said no dice. Unlike his neighbors, Hopper went ahead and paid the "burial fee."





Below is a photo taken near Hopper's driveway of one of the power poles carrying the wires along the road.




Hopper's place was then the last house on the road and to this day when you come to the edge of his property, the last wooden power pole (below) stands at the end of the line as the cable then heads underground. Hopper's studio stands just to the left of this photo.



I thanked the man for his story about Hopper. Without realizing it, he was helping me come to see this hero of my youthful imagination in a more rounded way. While a complex and talented man, Hopper had his share of character faults. In many ways he could be ordinary and petty, just like the rest of us. When you grasp that on a gut level, you realize that you yourself, with all your limitations, can potentially still do exceptional things.

Below is another of the drawings I did while staying in the studio this September. It's on Mill Pond Road. which heads from the Hopper studio over to the little harbor at the mouth of the Pamet River. Hopper knew it well and did at least one watercolor of the sand bank that was just to my right as I worked on this piece.

For reasons of my own, I eliminated from the drawing the four telephone poles that were actually there. I wanted to draw it without the trace of human intervention. But I was smiling as I did this, thinking of cranky Edward grumbling about his neighbors' power lines.




Philip Koch, Cape Charcoal #6, vine charcoal, acrylic
wash, pastel, 9 x 12", 2010.

5 comments:

  1. Love the charcoal, Philip. You do make your marks count.

    Great story! Interestingly, his biographer says that neighbors—and one in particular—continuously refused the easements needed to get the house electricity; twenty years after it was built (in 1954), they were finally "empowered."

    I also find it interesting that most of his paintings which include poles don't include the wires. Maybe that was his way of showing his "disconnection" and/or desire not to be connected with others? (Of course, and most likely, it was a compositional decision made for reasons similar to your own).

    For me, the story also illustrates how it takes many perspectives to more fully understand an individual, an event, even a life. In fact, I wonder if it's even possible at all given our human limitations? Every piece helps... Thanks for sharing once again. How wonderful for you and Alice to have had the "Hopper House Experience."

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  2. David, thanks for your kind words. Haven't read the biography in years (assume you mean Gail Levin's book) and am fuzzy on the part you refer to. Who knows what the real story was. Still, Hopper's a fun guy to speculate about.

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  3. Agreed—fun indeed! Speaking for myself as an artist, I have to say that I'm deeply grateful I knew Hopper the painter rather than as the withdrawn, edgy man (at least, as portrayed by others, his wife in particular).

    My story is similar to yours: I was inspired to become an artist specifically and powerfully by my exposure to his work. THAT ALONE. And as someone sensitive to people who are poor and/or hostile communicators, his personality would have pushed me away—which is something his art could never do.

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  4. David, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Sometimes it's easier just to know the art rather than the whole person. I think we both appreciate how Hopper's best and most generous side came through to us through his brush.

    I once read an interview with a woman who had modeled for Degas. If her report was accurate, he sounded like a dreadful personality in real life. But oh what a beautiful painter.

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  5. Maybe Hopper's work often has such power within it--even to this day--because it has such purity. It's a very direct means of communicating what he felt and thought for a simple reason: he so rarely and so judiciously offered any other forms to anyone. He stayed within himself to an extreme.

    My own goal is to achieve the greatest power of expression in my art while simultaneously having the greatest possible interpersonal experiences with my fellow human beings—at least to the highest degree I can accomplish given my current skill set. I wonder if it's possible to be great at both?

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