When I was an undergrad at SUNY Binghamton, I was fortunate enough to have an amazing mentor, who basically told me “it’s ok to chose to be an artist” (“even if you’re from Binghamton….”, he added “...the Valley of the Shadow of Opportunity”). Charles Eldred was an eccentric man; he ate every meal out, and kept only wax figures and milk for his coffee in the fridge. He had a phone but never answered it: “…my mother has to send me postcards if she wants to get I touch with me”. He would set up elaborate, fantastical still lives for drawing class that would involve hanging old window frames with dirty glass from the ceiling between the still life set ups so we would learn about space. He had a quiet way about him, mumbling almost everything, coupled with the most mischievous eyes. When there was a model on the model stand in the middle of the room, he would walk in a circle between the stand and the drawing tables, chain-smoking those skinny brown cigarettes, mumbling things underneath his breath. I think that most of the students were not paying much attention to what he was saying, but every once in a while, he would say something really funny, and I would laugh out loud, joined by one or two other students.
My brother had him for class too, and a group of us would go out after openings, sometimes out to art parties or dinner. We fight over this picture, which Bob took, then I made a copy of, now he can’t find his copy (just emailed one to him).
One summer, on the last day of school for the semester, Eldred gave me a crumpled brown grocery bag with 7 books in them, saying only, “These are the books you need to read…” I read all of them, but I only remember the ones that have eventually made it into my own library: Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content, Tom Wolfe’s’ The Painted Word, Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, and Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit.
I remember towards the end of undergrad, I was obsessing over getting into an exhibition, and he said, “exhibitions are nice, Kathleen, but don’t forget… the ART is the thing.” This stuck with me so strongly that when I was away at grad school, I decided to make him a drawing, of “The Art is the Thing” seemingly carved into granite (something that you could do in Photoshop in 5 minutes now). He died of a heart attack before I could give it to him.
For the past ten years, I have lived in Miami, making art, but becoming increasingly frustrated and incensed at the kind of work that is gaining attention, the hype, the process where art stars are made through a validation machine that monetarily benefits each participating party. It became overwhelming at times, and I would periodically “drop out” and not go to any openings or lectures, just sit home and make my art. Six months ago, at Art Basel, I ran into one of my students, a really good painter who was gaining some notoriety in Miami, but had just spent his first six months in grad school at University of Iowa. “it’s amazing,” he said, “my professors don’t want to hear about all the Miami shit, they want us to make good art!… that’s all they care about… it feels so good… we are in competition, but it is not to see who gets in the best collection or the best show, we are working our butts off to make the best art!”
So, I have moved to NC, and there are days that I miss the action, the gossip, the big openings, the community, the buzz, but then I look up at the sign on my wall and remember…
The Art is the Thing.
I miss you, Charles.