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 Wiley Chef Annette

"Color matters." ~ Charlie & Peter

As it was for most of our students, the highlight of our day at John Bowne High School was our lunch period. Since Charlie was the Chairman of the art department, he made the teaching schedules and he always gave us both the same lunch periods so we might talk about the day so far and if nothing seemed in need of urgent repair, or particularly unusual student behavior, we could talk about art, any topic within which all was urgent and unusual for us. But this story involves yet another trait of Charlie; his manner of selecting items for our lunch. Neither Charlie nor I were gourmets. At that time, the 1960’s in American, or at least in New York City public schools, there were no gourmets on staff and if there were, it would have been poor form to admit it. Of course everyone in America is now, or thinks of themselves as being, an epicure whose palette can discriminate between asparagus flown in from Paraguay and those arriving from Baja California. Then, most people we knew were quite pleased if they had something hot and clean and generally tasty to eat.

Which is not to say we did not have our preferences. What distinguished Charlie’s preferences from our colleagues who came to the trough was the existential anxiety with which the fateful choices of the day would be made. Knowing the usual fare offered in public school cafeterias you might, and correctly so, dismiss this selection-anxiety as an affectation, as out of proportion to the consequences. But that would be because you did not know the chef that our Principal brought with him to the newly opened and the most beautiful high school in New York City. Long before chefs had first or last names who every well educated foodie knows, John Bowne high school had the most renowned chef in the New York city school system; Chef Annette, we shall call her.

Our chef understood that the lunch period was the great oasis that both students and faculty looked forward to in the often harsh and arid terrain of the school day. And so Chef Pricilla reframed the John Bowne High School lunchroom as Bowne’s Restaurant.  Here again, in today’s age where anything goes, then the faculty and staff had a separate dinning room from the students. Mayhem and brown gravy over meatloaf and a side of Jell-O might prevail in the students lunchroom, but in the faculty dinning room there were real wooden tables, real wooden chairs, table cloths, porcelain tableware, unbendable cutlery, and, this is true, fresh cut flowers in vases one to a table for six. A quiet hum filled the air of tinkling glasses, silverware gliding across porcelain accompanied by  the amusing and clever chatter of the highly educated diners. What a pleasure to have some quiet, some adult civil conversation, unhurried time to dine- we had fifty minute lunch periods then.

And now to make our selection of the day. There’s the rub, so much to choose from. Well, not that very much, but difficult choices non the less. Will it be the salmon fillets with a dill sauce or perhaps the flounder with capers and beurre noir? Yes! Two choices of fish on the same day. Now what about a veggie? The butternut squash looks good dribbled (or is it drizzled?)  with genuine maple syrup, - not the Caro corn syrup with caramel coloring served in other schools. On the other hand, look at the potatoes simmered in cream and onion sauce. The peas look especially nice today as well, plump, bright green plump little fellas with tiny pearl onions. Oh and the rolls- fresh from the ovens with, what is that? little ramekins of honey butter. Every item examined by Charlie for color, texture, moisture, sparkle, and, true, size.

It was almost too much for him; starting off down the hall we were both excited for the prospects ahead, but as we drew closer to the dinning room I could tell Charlie began to frown a bit, grow silent. It seemed to me that Charlie became more acutely aware that the choices he was about to confront; for you could only have one choice of appetizer, one choice of entrĂ©e, with a choice of two sides, and one dessert, that the old problem of the road not taken was once again before him. Although he had made many hard decisions before in his life- and in this very same lunch room, that this time he might not have what it takes to make the most satisfactory choices.  And of course there really was no way of knowing if he did make the correct choice; after all, you had only one choice of appetizer, and the sampling of other patrons food was not the practice. There already was enough collegial rivalry amongst the various departments; for office space, for convenient scheduling of classes, and such, it is not hard to imagine the difficulties that might arise if say, the choice of lasagna by someone in the Music department was seen to be inferior to the baked ziti from someone in Geography, no less Woodworking. No, better that one simply accepted the consequences of ones own choices. It is therefore not unreasonable that Charlie would say to me as we entered the lunch room -every day-  Peter, why don’t you go first, I’ll probably need a little extra time for this today.

The truth is that this was much the same way things happened when Charlie and I went to buy some art supplies. On the way to the store we would discuss the comparative merits of say flake white compared with those of titanium white.  Or, we might take up the issue of Winsor Newton’s Geranium lake with the Scarlet Madder of the Van Gogh line. Of course this may seem like trifling fare – and it is for people who do not themselves express themselves in terms of blue or red, concave and convex lines, but please remember what Oscar Wilde responded to a friend who inquired about his day. Wilde said, “Well, in the morning I put in a comma. In the afternoon, I took it out.”

Finally settled- more or less- in our opinions on route, as soon as we entered the store and found the aisle displaying paints- oil paints, water color paints, acrylic and gauche and alkyd paints, imported and domestic brands, stuff selling for $ 34 dollars a tube, and those of student grade at $3.99. Hundreds of choices of the most delicious looking – and sounding colours (colours is the way they spell colors in England. English colours are more expensive than American colors, so and extra “u” is to be expected.) Assailed by this vast array of beauties shamelessly spread before us, our earlier resolves failed, and we were left as humbled and vulnerable as we were when we first entered a real art store- not the skimpy bunch of things you could get at any 5 and 10. Jeesus, Charlie, look at this viridian that Grumbacher has. Come here Peter, How about this Payne’s gray? Abandoning the white’s altogether we might fall into a discussion about how Naples Yellow works so well with- what a surprise- surprise- cobalt blue, creating a tint of green to be found in the shadows of a Corot lakeside afternoon. Finally we arrived at a contested selection of a few tubes of paint and not entirely happy- nor unhappy- with the choices we made. For how many other colors equally noble, who called to us, did we have to abandon.

Turning from the paints we had to thread our way along the isle of brushes. What a catastrophe. You always could use another brush. My gawd, Charlie would say, look at them. Will you please look at what we have here. Handsomely sculpted handles of ebony, Chinese red, crimson, or natural fruit and hardwoods.  Gleaming ferrules of silver and bronze and gold. the shapes of the brushes themselves Brights and  flats and fan tails and rounds. Boars hair, rabbit hair, red sable and nylon. Go ahead, pick up one of these beauties, feel its balance, its heft, its swelling then tapering belly. Yes, and some are 20% off this week. Go ahead, it’s not all that much.

Charlie, we don’t have the time, stay away from the paper aisle, No, and I don’t need any more canvas, Ends of rolls? Deep discounts? Well, we are here already, just a quick run through otherwise this could really kill the day. 

Color matters. Texture matters. Shape and size matter. Tint and tone matter for the artist just as each note and interval and timing matter for the musician, and word selection and punctuation matter for the writer. Carrying this same sensibility forward to the choosing of food- now not only its aesthetic appeal and expressive clarity, but in nutritional value; the lunch room dilemmas of Charlie may well be understood. 
Peter London

Weighed down by these heady choices of the lunch room Charlie and I slowly made our way down the line to the dessert section. Charlie, hunched over the steam tables, adjusting and wiping his glasses as if it must be something on his lenses that is getting in the way of his other wise clear thinking, sighed, rub his head, adjust his jacket, groans. It’s clearly approaching the limits of his abilities to make delicate aesthetic decisions. Here we come to that section of life that our artistic training, our classes in art history, classes in the psychology of art, of the dynamics of compositional systems, the study of line, texture and form, color, and semiotics has prepared us for. We should have easily been able to choose between the glazed Raisin Danish and the puff pastry filled with fluffy Ricotta. But no. Charlie and I wrestled with issues of beauty no less than did Plato or Kant, only the objects before us now (soon to be in us) were Danish. We understood these entities as objects in the world not meant to be trifled with, things that matter, in a way different only in category not severity of importance (sort of) than art itself. What may at first appear to the uninitiated as a mere excess of raisins, might in the end turn out to be just (surprise) the exact quantity to off set the extra rich butter-laced dough. You could never tell. Except of course if you could taste both. And that of course is what we mostly ended up doing; Charlie had one thing and I had the other, then at the table we could discuss the merits of each. No matter what particular crises was just then affecting the school, or New York City or the nation, our luncheon conversation never strayed far from how the dilled salmon and the fillet of sole with capers were prepared that day.

The other faculty looked down their over educated noses at our antics, but we knew that underneath the particular sauce we may be sampling at the moment, this was all about the harsh realities of aesthetic theory made manifest, and the existential dilemmas we all constantly face as we thread our way towards an end we could not know. Our companion educator’s titters and snide coughs only made our dawdling in line more protracted. Our intent was not, as some assumed, to be particularly obnoxious, but rather to point out just how important aesthetics are in constructing a meaningful and a beautiful life. The Chef Annette alone understood us. No matter, we were artists, we were accustomed to dinning alone.

~ Peter London

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