Born with Talent, Blessed with Luck

After you’ve been doing family history for a while, you find yourself in a ringside seat observing  the role that “serendipity” —  fortunate circumstance –  has played in the evolution of your being.   And, I don’t think I’m the only one who  has developed an awareness that  many things seem strangely “connected”–  Kevin Bacon’s six degrees of separation concept  is a reality !

Such is the case for recent discoveries I have made about my father’s achievement of success.  But for a fortuitous sudden decision by a fellow artist to weather the Depression “Down South,”  I’m not certain at all that my Dad would have achieved anywhere near what he did, or done it where he did .  He arrived in Tallahassee, Florida at age 13 or so, a native of eastern Oklahoma.  His father, an educator, had taken a position there as Florida’s Supervisor of Trade and Industrial Education.   Even at an early age, Dad’s artistic ability had begun to show, and by the time he was only 16, he had his own sign shop on one of the capitol city’s main streets.  At about the same time, a fellow named Kenneth Hansen, six years older than Dad, was struggling to get his art career together.  In the 1930 Leon Co., FL census, Kenneth’s occupation was listed as “theater advertising.”

By the first days of the Depression, Kenneth got himself to New York City (NYC), where he became acquainted with an up-and-coming young artist by the name of David Lax.  David was having real troubles making ends meet, and Kenneth suggested that maybe he could survive better by moving South awhile; he could stay at the Hansen farm outside of Tallahassee for just $25 a month.  David–  no hesitation whatsoever–  jumped on the idea, and  about  1931 shortly after  the time my father graduated from high school and started college, Lax arrived in Tallahassee, where he painted for most of the next  two  years.  I cannot be certain how Kenneth and David met my father, but surely they did.  There was an art association in town, and it sounds like those with talent all found a way to “hang out” together.  What did they talk about?  What ideas did the older guys put in his head?  Had my father always planned to run off to the big city?

Fast forward a year or so, and I find my father earning money traveling from town to town in backwoods South Georgia talking theater managers into letting him draw/paint one-time entrance-way/lobby posters to advertise their currently playing movies.   Sounds like that’s exactly what Kenneth Hansen was doing in 1930.  Did Kenneth put that very novel idea into Dad’s head?  Did Kenneth perhaps participate?

Move forward another year or so; Dad has dropped out of the University of Florida, eloped to marry his sweetheart (just a junior at FSCW ), and moved off to study art in New York City.  David Lax in the meantime has temporarily moved back to NYC and gotten back on his financial feet.  Just after his arrival in the big city, and while Dad was still an art school student, David hired him to work in the art department of Mills Artists, Inc.  As David describes it, “It was another world. The company acted as business manager and agent for many popular orchestras and performers: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ina Ray Hutton, Lucky Millender, and others.  At Mills Artists, we had to get out all sorts of ‘paper’ for the attractions we managed—24 sheets, ads, press books, lobby displays, window cards, and so on. With publication deadlines to meet and the first rate technical finish required for ‘mechanicals.’ it was a difficult and demanding job.”

Undoubtedly this was the launch pad for my Dad’s career— at the age of only 20, he was doing publicity for many musical folks who were already, or eventually became, “greats.”  As if that was not enough, at the same time, Lax had hired another associate:  “Working with me in the art department were various artists of ability. One was Sol Immerman, who later became art director and vice-president of Pocket Books, Inc. Another was Bob Holley, whom I had met in Tallahassee.”  A few years later, Immerman, with formidable and unique connections into the jazz world, became my father’s business partner in a very successful NYC art studio that specialized in illustrating sheet music.

So, what if Dad had not met Kenneth Hansen whose farm family had come to Florida from Nebraska just a few years earlier than the Holleys?  Or what if Kenneth had not met up with David Lax in New York City?  Or what if David had not decided, just on the spur of the moment, to move to Tallahassee to bunk with the Hansens?  Or what if Dad had never hooked up with Immerman?   Serendipity for sure !

Until about a year ago, I knew nothing about my father’s earliest adventures in New York.  And, had it not been for a fortunate choice of “Google” search keywords, I might not ever have discovered them.  The search result was the above passage about Mills Artists found on page 103 of David Lax’s moving 1976 autobiography:  One Man Show: A Personal Adventure in American Art.   As referenced at the conclusion of my Tribute to Artist David Lax” , I composed a biography for David which summarizes to the best of my ability the key events he related in his book, but I can’t really do it justice. If you are interested in art or have any notion of becoming a professional artist, PLEASE, PLEASE obtain a copy of One Man Show and read every word.

I am not an artist—never will be–  can’t even draw a decent stick figure.  That God-given talent skipped a generation and passed (largely intact) to my daughter, but, through David’s book, for the first time, this son of an artist really began to grasp what it was like to try to make a living, as well as to feel fulfilled, in that challenging world.

For many of the years that I never knew anything about Lax or any of the influences he had on my life, a clue had been hanging right in front of me on the vestibule wall of my Long Island home.  I know I looked at this watercolor quite a few times—  unique– something surely done in the South I figured— signed “Oh, Susannah don’t you cry for me”  David Lax ’35.   Stupid boy… never occurred to me to ask Dad where it came from.  But when the Google search turned up that Lax name, it was immediately familiar to me —  I went and found my watercolor in storage still wrapped in paper— just as it had been when Mom passed away 20 years ago.  Now it’s hanging right on the wall right beside me as I type.

 

Lax Watercolor

 

And the Kevin Bacon business—

I’ve not yet been able to exactly locate the site of the large Hansen Farm where David Lax lived and painted for years, but I do know it was out on the Old St. Augustine Road southeast of the Capitol Grounds.  Seems odd now; but that particular road was for certain one of my favorite places during the thirteen years I lived, worked and went to school in Tallahassee–  especially  while I was courting my wife.  It was quite rural and changed very little over time.  Over scores of weekends, Jean and I took in many of the same sights that David had thirty years earlier— many of which he so skillfully put to canvas.

Even more  eerie and as unlikely a circumstance as one can imagine—-     while I was researching Lax’s career,  I found that he had first gained artistic fame at age 14, by sculpting a fantastic nude snowman on the streets of East Harlem.  Someone took a photo of it, which got in the newspapers, and the press notoriety led to an art scholarship for him at a prestigious school.  Now, take a deep breath! I also discovered (quite by accident, many months later) that the model for that famous snowman was none other than the father of one of my good friends and football teammates at the Wheatley School in Old Westbury.

 

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