Monday, January 28, 2013

Portraits

Two American Nobel laureates in literature have with some frequency addressed the man you are sitting next to by his first name or its less formal version.  A third Nobel laureate has called him mendacious.

In kind, the man you are visiting, Barnaby Conrad, refers to the first two as Mr. Lewis and Mr. Steinbeck.  He refers to the third either by his initials, EH, or the title-less Hemingway, although when he does so, his voice conveys an endorsement of respect.

Talking about these individuals in one of those One-word-to-describe contexts, you assign outrage to Sinclair Lewis, concern to John Steinbeck, appearance to EMH, and respect to Barnaby Conrad.

Among the many portraits he has drawn or painted, Conrad has done at least one of each of the laureates.  Mr. Lewis, suitably framed, is right there in the room with you, catching a bounced glint of morning light.  When Conrad says, "As you know, Mr. Steinbeck [1902-68]has moved on, he means the lively, appreciative charcoal is no longer in his studio but now hangs in the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

"E.H." he reminds you, "is still out in the studio."

Later, on your way out of the house, you tread over the large black, rubberized mat with the distinctive white lettering, El Matador, that used to repose in the entryway to Conrad's eponymous San Francisco bistro, where you first met him in person, having been lured there after reading his books and essays.

When you peek into the nearby studio, E.H. is not only there, he emerges as a person captured in a moment of happiness and celebration of, say, landing a big fish or a paragraph or two of a day's writing.  He is by all of Conrad's account in this portrait, approachable rather than the prickly writer of letters accusing Conrad of poaching on his turf.

Below E.H., a self-portrait of B.C., kneeling, paintbrush in hand, mischievous in his contemplation of some spatial blend of reality and art in the making.

The interior of the studio holds you for a moment, its B.C.-assembled models of World War I airplanes dangling from the ceiling, stacks of books bursting from shelves like youngsters in anticipation of morning recess, amusing monuments to neatness, revealing themselves as piles of what are best referred to as "stuff" and "unclassified treasures."  You could spend hours playing here, a reminder of what "work" was for the man who caused all this mischievous clutter.

Leaving the studio, you're brought up short by a large, perhaps 3 x 4 plaque lying on the gravel, its patina reminiscent of a perfect plum.  You'd seen it once before with a similar, shivery reaction, as it lay against the entryway to the studio.  The lettering is as somber as the lettering on the El Matador mat is welcoming.  Barnaby Conrad, the serifed letters read.  There is no mistaking the function of the plaque.

When you spoke to him the first time you'd seen it, he smiled.  "You didn't read the second line," he said.  "The dates.  This one has beginning dates and ending dates.  This was for my father.  We replaced it.  He spread his hands.  "A story is not over, you see, until the final date is added."

You find yourself back in the studio for a moment, taking in all the remarkable clutter once again.

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