EULOGY FOR HERBERT ABRAMS
(Delivered at a memorial service in Kent, CT, October 18, 2003)
Id like to speak of Herb as a friend and mentor. Herb and my father, Ross Muir, went to high school together in Hartford, and Herb was Ross' best friend for life. He became my friend, too and my mentor.
|Herb came into my life whan I was four. He and Ross met on the street in Manhattan in 1950, and Ross brought Herb home to dinner to our apartment on North Brother Island. He stayed for a year. My mother called Herb "The Man Who Came To Dinner."|
Those were heady days for the young men who'd been through that war. They were chasing their dreams, and anything seemed possible. Herb had decided he was going to paint, and nothing was going to stop him not even a lack of accommodations. He moved into my room, and for the rest of my life the smell of turpentine and oil paint has meant home to me.
After you, Alphonse
|Herb and Ross loved a joke, and they set about making me their straight man. I was taught to answer the gushing question, "What's you name, little boy?" with, " Crawdwell H. I. Hackmatack the Third, mam." I learned to meow like a dog, and bark like a cat, and back speakward with orotundity. It's a wonder they didn't confuse me for life. Those boys did spark good humor in each other for life. Even in their 80s, when Herb and Ross were together their was mischief in their eyes, and laughter all around.|
Back on North Brother Island, Herb and Ross conspired to tell me tall tales at bedtime. They made up a serial cowboy adventure about Alamagordo Sam and Black Charlie, and as they passed the story back and forth, Herb would doodle on a sketch pad. At the climax of each episode he'd run a single line through the "doodles" and a picture would jump out at us. Pure magic.
|Herb and Ross got so sick of Alamagordo Sam they kept
trying to kill him off, but I would kick up such a fuss they'd have to
resurrect Sam the next night. In the end they fed Sam to the sharks off
Santa Barbara, and they explained you can't argue with sharks.
But Herb did argue with sharks. He set about making a living as a painter, and never looked back. My family's homes were full of Herb's early paintings, and I grew up watching an artist's work mature.
I always thought I'd be a writer and follow my
father's path, but a different war turned my plans upside down, and I began
selling wood carvings in the early 70s, trying to make a living as an artist/craftsman
a toymaker. That might have seemed absurdly idealistic, if I hadn't
had Herb as an example.
|Herb and Lois encouraged me. They had a toy party and invited their neighbors to come and buy my wooden amusements. But their greatest encouragement was the example of their life. Herb taught me that making art is a matter of getting up every morning and doing your work. Inspiration is wonderful, when it comes, but you have to on the job to capture it. And Herb's example convinced me that you will get paid eventually for the hours you work even if you have to wear the same tweed suit for years, or eat carrot soup for a month.|
I watched Herb's technique evolve and perfect.
I remember being struck by the power of Herb's portrait underpainting even
before the colors were laid on. I realized how much of an artist's work is
invisible. And I came to learn how much invisible support goes into making
an artist's life all the underpainting that Lois and Kathy and Billy
Herb's paintings deepend and clarified over the years, until the people in his portraits stepped out of the canvas to meet you. We all applauded when Herb got the recognition he deserved for his Carter portrait, but we already knew his paintings were masterworks.
In time my toy carvings turned into sculptural portraits, and I discovered Herb had been my mentor all along. The best kind of mentor one who simply teaches by being himself. Whenever we visited, Herb did offer precious practical advice: about the proportion of limbs, or the inconsistency of dealers. But most of all he taught me about seeing. Because that's what the daily work of an artist is looking intently and conveying what you see. Herb's lessons are in his paintings, if we have eyes to see.
Herb saw the play of light in the world, and captured it in oils. I once asked if he wouldn't rather paint more landscapres. He shook his head: "The human face is ther most interesting subject in the world," he said. It wasn't just the play of light across a face that Herb recorded, of course. He also saw the light in everyone he painted and his best portraits are luminous.
The last time we saw Herb he said, "After my body is gone, my soul will be in my paintings." I'd say the soul of all of us is in Herb's paintings.
If true friends are those who bring out the best in us who show us our true selves we were all truly lucky to know Herb.
[Click on images to see blowups]