Welcome. This blog site places before you a remarkable man, Charles Beck, an artist and teacher. This monthly series of stories begins by describing Charlie’s ways of being in the world, through my encounters with Charlie in the last decade of his life first as my colleague, then mentor and finally or rather for ever as my dearest friend. Year two of this blog expands to include my own hopefully and enduringly perspectives on art, on teaching and of a certain slant on life inflected by Charlie. ~ Peter London

Charlie and the Ink Spot

"Stand up for us, be our champion." ~ Teens

Welcome you lucky few. Welcome to John Bowne High School. Each one of you have been chosen from a host of other deserving candidates to join the faculty of New York’s newest, and as you will soon see, finest high school in the city. If he is fortunate enough, only once in a lifetime of a principal, is he given the opportunity to select all his own key staff. I have been afforded this great privilege, and this school, this administration, and now you, are all part of a magnificent dream, a dream of mine for the last forty years of assembling the best of the brightest within the finest physical plant, and so create simply the best high school in the city- if not the country. I am thrilled to be the principal of this magnificent institution and I am so pleased to welcome you to share this dream come true.

For the last several years, I and my intended administration have been working on the design of the building, all its furnishings, desired organizational structures, and profiles of our dream faculty. And now here we are!  We will spend these next two weeks prior to the students’ arrival getting acquainted with each other and our magnificent building. You won’t find a more handsome, better equipped, educational facility to work than this, nor brighter colleagues. I love this place, I hope that you will learn to love it too. And when the students arrive, I hope you will instill in them the same pride of place, the same sense of appreciation for what a gift they have been given in attending JBHS that you and I now share.

Let’s make this beautiful school our legacy to generation after generation of students.

Let’s make history! So said our beaming Principal, Walter Woolf.

With that welcome and freshly brewed coffee served in real porcelain cups with saucers, scrumptious Danish baked right in our spanking new kitchen, served in our smartly designed faculty dinning room, I left my lucky companions, walked along the well lit, two tone blue, wide hallways to my very own room. Room 263, Fine Arts wing. My own art room (only slightly shared on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9:20 to 11:05). Pristine. Immaculate. Quiet. Unmarred paint. Unscuffed floors. Undented, uninitialed furniture. All window shades untorn and working. All lights and switches working. All doorknobs in place and working as are the doors All faucets working. All drains clear. No wobbly, nor missing parts of the furniture. No piles of stuff, no smells emanating from corners, desks, and closets.

And oh, the art supply closet! Boxes and boxes on unsagging shelves of paints, brushes, inks, pens, pencils, pastels, rulers, paper, tape, clay, mat board, and cartons of tools and equipment of things to assemble.

Thank you, thank you god for bringing me to this day. Thank you Walter for assembling this magnificent school and for selecting me to be a member of its faculty. Thank you dad for getting up every Saturday morning and taking me to art classes at Pratt. Thank you mom for saving the bakery string for me to compose my string drawings on our green high nap rug. Thank you uncle Herm for noticing my nascent talent and nicknaming me, Pete the Artist. Thank you Miss Nelson for allowing me to miss the spelling lessons to work on the Brotherhood Week and Safe Walking Home week posters.

Here I am, finally, in my own art room, a high school art teacher, in the Big Apple. Mr. London’s Art Room.

Yes, Walter, (the Principal’s first name) I do appreciate the honor of being selected as a member of your faculty. And Walter, I will not only maintain the pristine qualities of this magnificent art room, whatever the student, whatever the media being employed, I promise, Walter, to make this art room a center for the study and creation of the loftiest artistic expressions each and every student is capable of. Thank you for the trust you have placed in me, a new teacher still taking art education courses at night. Trust me, Walter, I will make you proud.

The students arrive. It is now two months into the first term, I am holding on by my fingernails. Today, I am teaching one of my five basic art classes. It is neither clear to me nor to the students, what I am teaching or what they are learning. What is perfectly clear even to the most casual observer, someone with only a passing familiarity with the history of art, is that I have been faithful to my pledge to keep the cabinets, the desks, the floor, the chairs the shades and the sink, in tip top condition. Look as hard as one might, not a single initial in the still shiny fruit wood desk tops, no paintbrushes stuffed down the drain. No window shades ripped off the walls. No legs pulled off either my chair or theirs.

We are drawing a still life. I am young, I am politically liberal. I am with it. No bottles and Indian corn and baskets in this still life set up. Broken bicycles! Twisted chairs lifted from the dumpster! Coats flung this way and that! Building scraps precariously cantilevered here complete this thoroughly modern, and with it, still life.

Yes, a stunning, modern cacophony of crap for the eager art student to set their artistic teeth into, to resolve the oh so clever problems of intertwining negative and positive space, dominance, subtle rhythmic variations, and tonal variation. Fascinating qualities that I now realize that only I happened to be interested in.

But it was a new school, it was the early sixties, I was a young and an earnest teacher, so the students mostly went along with what I presented them to do. Why not? At least the marks in art didn’t count, and it was kind of fun to mess around with pastels and clay and stuff. Besides, one or two of the students actually were eager art students, and did make things that were genuinely admired by the rest. And who knows, it might be only a matter of time before I would convince every teenager that drawing a contour line around a broken bicycle and a twisted chair was a worthy thing to do, not perhaps as worthy as worrying over a pesky zit, but worthy in some other hard to explain just then way.

A young lady in a starched dress comes up to me and asks, “Mr. London? Can we use pen and ink for this project?” “Of course you can!” “There’s none out.” “Here are the keys to the art supply closet. Get a bottle out.” (Am I not a modern art teacher? Of course I trust her with the keys to the supply closet. Of course I trust her to find the box of inks, open the large box of containing many brand new bottles of India ink, and bring one out for us all to use.) I give her my bunch of keys, and turn my attention to some student in need of instruction in carving an elegant line around a crumpled handle bar.

The young lady emerges from the closet with the bottle of ink.

One must not forget, that this being a new school, our ink bottles are not the stinky little bottles with crusty old stoppers you ordinarily find in a school that is under the way in years. No, our bottles are the full quart size, nice, new, shinny and full to the brim.

The young lady carries out the quart size, glass bottle of indelible black India ink, and walks across the center of the room on the way to her own desk. She is smiling. She is crossing the white, only two months old barely scuffed linoleum tiled floor.

When, Whoops. She stubs her toe on the leg of a fruitwood and stainless steel desk. Whoops, the quart size, as of yet unopened bottle of indelible black India ink flys out of her hand and begins to describe an upward arc. To mark the occasion, the young lady emits a high pitched shriek.

Alerted by the alarm, all the students, me too, turn our heads in the direction of the epicenter of what will turn out to be the turning point of a number of lives. Once aligned as in an amphitheater, all eyes simultaneously bulge out of their sockets, I suppose so that every possible photon that could register the upcoming event would have the opportunity to do so.

No one moves. Except for the bulging of eyes and the drooping of mouths, we are paralyzed. You might ask at this point, couldn’t any one leap out of their chair and catch or at least deflect this doomsday missile? Couldn’t I, the teacher, hurl myself under the thing, interrupt fate with a heroic act of self-sacrifice? After all, was I not a competently trained art teacher?

I have often asked myself that same question, played this scene over many times, usually before sunrise. What can I say, I was paralyzed, we all were.

Besides, having had some time since 1964 to review events and to time just how long it takes for a quart sized bottle of liquid to rise from a height of five feet to seven feet and then to descend back to earth, I have calculated the time to be about 1.7 seconds. Not a hell of a lot of time to transform oneself from a fully clothed modern art teacher helping a student with their contour drawing into a fully armed anti missile missile.

My body may have been frozen, but my mind raced 

ahead of the impending
catastrophe and began to imagine what it would be like to be out of work after only two months on the job. I also wondered (marvelous things brains, how much faster they are than muscle and bone) how I would explain to my wife what all the black spots were doing on my shoes, my socks, pants, jacket, shirt, tie, and face. Also the sudden drop in our family income. Was there perhaps still a position open in my uncle’s feather and hat factory? What would Walter’s face look like when he came to inspect the damage to his legacy? There seemed to be ample time, although it could only have been no more than 1.7 seconds, to reflect on these life wrenching consequences of a stupid quart size bottle of indelible India ink returning, rapidly its true, to earth.

Having reached the apogee of its unremarkable ascending flight path, the bottle seemed to pause, as if to be certain that it had the attention of all (bulging) eyes, then, quite flippantly I thought, began its descent to earth – more exactly, to the middle of the two moth old white linoleum floor of room 263 in the Fine Arts wing of JBHS.

Now comes the end of time. Paralyzed as we all may have been, up until the moment that bottle touched down, we all were still the people we always were. It was still just another school day towards the end of October. We were still students and teachers engaged drawing busted chairs and bicycles in an art class. Cars were still humming along outside the windows. The students were still on their ways towards graduation, college, well paying jobs, marriage, children, mortgage payments. I was still an art teacher, newly married, well thought of in my family.

All over.

When that bottle lands, it will release a genie that, once free, will never be confined again. Not ever.

The bottle lands. Then bursts. Each glass chard carries with it a tiny cargo of black indelible India ink. Kabooom.

A horizontal black mushroom cloud spreads out from the epicenter, quickly reassembling itself into a black pool five or six feet across the center of room 263. No one moves, no one utters a sound. Our world has just ended and we have nothing to say, nothing more to do.

The young lady –who I now understand was only the instrument of my undoing – who dropped the bottle, stood quaking, hands over her throat, similarly polka dotted as me, and turned her bug eyes towards me, as if to inquire what I had in mind for the next scene. So did every one else.

I, a well trained artist and now art teacher, took charge of the situation. I said, “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.” The students immediately understood, and their eyes bulged even wider, their mouths drooped further, awaiting further instruction.

“Buh Buh Buh Buh.” I said, pointing to the black pool that lapped the feet of the polka dotted young lady. She began to shake more violently. Clearly I was not getting through to her. In exasperation at what a clumsy dunderhead she turned out to be I said, maybe screamed, GET. MISTER. BECK.

Mr. Charles Beck was the chairperson of the Art Department, a beloved
and wise and generous gentleman, the man who hired me, and who I
considered as my mentor. Mr. Beck would deal with this.

Fortunately the sobbing, polka dotted young lady was on the shore of the black pond closest to the door, and flew out the door, wailing “MR. BECK. MR. BECK WAAAAAAA. MR.BECK.” The rest of us remained transfixed.

Some minutes pass. In comes Mr. Beck. A tall, stooped, balding eye glasses wearing, always an out of fashion tie, always shined if beat up sensible shoes, gentleman. Mr. Beck has his great thick big arm around the bony shoulders of the polka dotted young lady who is convulsing in impossible to suppress sobs.  Brought back to the scene of the crime, our little friend attempts to burrow into the folds of her protector’s jacket. The villain!

Following the trail of hurried little black foot prints from the door to the center of the room, Mr. Beck and polka dotted girl arrive at the edge of the pond. Looking into its shiny black surface, still clutching the quaking girl to his side, Mr. Beck turns to me and says, “Well, Mr. London, what seems to be the matter?”

Ga Ga Ga GA, Buh Buh Buh Buh, I say in way of explanation, pointing to the pond.

Mr. Beck looks down. He is standing at the very edge of the pond. Still clutching that goddamn kid, he eyes the pond seriously.

Not a sound, not a movement from the rest of the class. They realize that they, just like those Parisian crowds in the Place de la Bastille realized, that they were witnesses to a pivotal moment in history, a moment that would forever divide the present from the past, hurling us all into an unknowable future.

Mr. Beck, still considering the pond, says “Hmmmmmm.” He walks around
the circumference of the entire black spot, convulsing kid in tow. He pauses now and then, bending down examining something or other. Having completed his tour, he returns to a particular spot, puts the toe of one his shiny if battered shoes in the thing. Then, using the toe of his shoe like a paint brush, or maybe palette knife, he smears the ink this way and that. Satisfied by his efforts, and turning to the young lady clinging to him, he says, “Now darling (Mr. Beck never remembers the name of any student. He calls all the girls “darling” and all the boys “son”. And to all the boys and all the girls, they were in his esteem darling and they were his beloved son.) “Well now darling”, he says, “I think I like it better this way, don’t you?” The kid shakes her head in wild agreement.

“Well then, Mr. London. I think we’ve cleared things up now. Come darling.” And off the two of them go.

The door safely closed behind them, the class erupts in a roar of relief, hoots and laughter, jubilation and VICTORY. Having won, won everything worthwhile winning, the students would eventually take me in, allow me to go on teaching them. They understood that that game of teacher and student was over. No longer would they tolerate me as privileged other, as unapproachable, unassailable unreciprocal “over there.” No more assignments from my culture that was unquestionably more significant than the zit at the tip of their nose was to them.

Sure teach, sure we want to learn, but be on our side, ask us what we want to know, what we need, what we hope for, what our world is like and how to help us become the person we desire to become in a world that is one we wish to build and pass on to our loved ones. You want us to draw lines around busted chairs? ok, we’ll put up with that crap, but only if you put up with us, just as we are, with our dreams, needs, desires, with what we have to say about the world you have provided us to grow up in, and the making of a new, braver world that we would prefer to live in. Stand up for us, be our champion.

Having lost everything I thought I cherished, like Job, I was left with nothing, and nothing left to say. I was left, however, with something new, something that has no name but something that now after forty years, informs me still.



What's the most terrible thing (excerpt from Drawing Closer to Nature)

What's the most terrible thing

that happened to you

as a kid?

Here's the most terrible thing that happened to me.

I was about seven or eight and it was a school night.

My dad was painting the foyer of our apartment a gray blue.

My aunt was an interior decorator whose signature

colors were gray blue with gold trim.

He had the ladder in the middle of the small room.

You had to pass through this room to get to the bathroom,

the kitchen, the living room, and the door to the apartment.

He was working on the ceiling,

so he had a roller and brushes,

a large pan, and the can of paint

on the small shelf at the top of the ladder.

My dad said, Peter, be careful,

don't knock into the ladder, I have paint up here.

Then he climbed down for something.

I'm going to now cut directly to just after I

knocked over the ladder and splashed the paint

in the bucket over the walls,

carpet, little telephone seat and stand,

my sister, and me.

Although I was only seven or eight

and you wouldn't think that a child of that age could have thoughts

like these, but now, some fifty years later

I truly believe I did.

I remember having the thought that I was now on

the other side of my life.

That I had walked through a doorway.

(ran, really)

And now I was in another room, and there was no more door --

only a solid glass wall.

On one side was my father, mother, sister, brother,

all my aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, my block,

PS 177, the Dodgers, my clothes, toys, special sticks,


And on the other side -- the side where I was --

was just me.

In gray blue paint.

I was so upset I ran around the apartment.

My mother and father were upset too

and ran around after me.

Finally I ran through the foyer again

almost slipping on that goddamn paint

and ran out the door, down the steps,

down the hall, out the front door,

and outside and kept running until I was

way down the street.

I heard my parents screaming my name,

so I ran around the corner.

I ran to the Skell yard in back of the house

where we played punch ball.

Because there were no street lights,

it was mostly fences and garages and some trees,

it was very dark.

I could see the orange lights in peoples' apartments

and I could see a person or two but mostly all

you could see were ceilings and lights and curtains.

I felt I could never be a part of that life again;

children with parents,

food on the table that your mother cooked,

coffee tables with candies in cut glass bowls,

going places with your parents on the weekend,

taking a bath,

taking accordion lessons,


All that was over.

I remember sitting against a wooden fence on the rough ground,

I don't think I was crying

but I think my heart was pounding like crazy.

My parents stopped screaming for me,

so it was pretty quiet back there.

I wasn't cold,

and I remember it being a nice night.

With plenty of time now on my hands,

I noticed the sky. It had stars.

I'll tell you the truth, I don't remember seeing stars

at night in Brooklyn before this.

The moon, yes, but no stars.

I looked at the stars for a while and then

the thought came to me

They are outside, too.

They don't belong inside the house,

with living rooms and sofas and coffee tables and drapes,

and high boys and radiators and kitchens and closets

and carpets and photographs or paintings on the wall.

They are outside.

No yelling, no screaming,

no homework, no spelling bees, no looking for your shoes in the morning, no changing your good cloths after school, no milk and cookies after homework, no going off with your dad early Sunday morning to go fishing.

No big family dinners.

Outside,  with nothing.

Like me.

~ Peter London

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