Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Richmond, Virginia circa I won't say when. The year I began my college career, I had no idea how influential it would be for the rest of my life. The school, Richmond Professional Institute of the College of William & Mary (Now VCU), was the arts division of that renowned college. It was located near Monroe Park, from which the streets fanned out through the district that became known as "The Fan". The classrooms, with a few exceptions, the theatre, the visual arts buildings and a couple of academic buildings were housed in antebellum homes that were present when Robert E. Lee walked the streets.
It was not the buildings or even the District that truly defined what "The Fan" was. It was a center of creative energy such as I have never since been able to discover. Everyone, famous or infamous, was obsessed with the arts: music, theatre, dance, visual arts, sculpture, design, photography and illustration. It was a mecca that celebrated the avant garde and the unusual with great and not-so-great talents. The only way I can describe it is that it was what I imagined, through reading books like Shakespeare and Company, the history of Sylvia Beach's iconic Paris bookstore in the twenties and thirties, biographies and films, the "Left Bank" was during that period of "The Village" in the thirties.
The people, as well as the art, created the energy. College buds, Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, etc.) who was gone on to sell millions of books and be declared one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century, Bernard Martin, an internationally known artist whose paintings far exceed my budget, Bill Jones, a journeyman painter who could paint anything you desired, a Matisse, Picasso or a Monet. The only thing he couldn't paint was a "Bill Jones". Dick Carlyon, a well-known artist who became one of the great art history professors of all time. There were also recognized artists, actors, playwrights and musicians that were "Artists-in-Residence" during the period. The names go on and on.
It was the age of Abstract Expressionism in the visual arts and James Dean, Julie Harris, Christopher Plummer and others in the theatrical world. While the painters and sculptors headed off to study with Hans Hoffman in the summers, we actors found work wherever we could, adapting whatever image we felt would get us through the door. I mentioned James Dean. The picture included in the post was my first professional publicity photo, taken by my friend Bernard Martin, who mastered photography as well as paint.
The creativity wasn't limited to art. There was the time when, out of cash and thirsty, Bill Jones called the local brewery (They produced Richbrau Beer) at ten o'clock at night, announcing himself the president of The Walpole Art Association, a group visiting Richmond from Farmville, Virginia, and leaving in the morning. He asked if it was possible to tour the brewery. They agreed and fifteen or so thirsty college artists had as much beer to drink as they could manage.
I was very privileged to have experienced those people and granted an extraordinary life by them. In speaking with Martin and Robbins recently, we all agreed that one could not find that kind of creative energy, atmosphere and characters in one place in today's world ever again.