Lament for Lost Art


My dad, Max Ranft, made his living as a fine artist.   He really lived it.  He had a studio.  He taught life drawing.  He sketched on every scrap of paper.  He taught me how to draw.  He taught my brothers. He set up his easel in the snow.  He trekked through the forest preserves and churned out landscape after landscape after landscape.  Before he got his job at J. Walter Thompson, he traveled the Midwest doing church murals.   And he is one of the only people I ever met who knew–I mean really knew–how to draw the human figure.

Pop in 2003
Max in 2003

He hated working from photographs, whether he was painting a portrait or a bridge.  The light isn’t real.  The shadows aren’t real.  The colors are not real.  Whatever he was trying to convey was not containable in a snapshot.  He needed more than that to say what he had to say.

I remember when I finally got it.  He was painting, I was sketching.  I could see him from where I sat, measuring, looking, mixing, adjusting.   We were out there for hours, a beautiful spot by a lake.  The birds, the sunshine, the sound of leaves against the wind.  I realized my father spent a good deal of his life observing nature.  I thought he was just the guy I saw at dinner.  You know, eating.  Getting mad at world news.  Fixing the gutters.  But what I realized by the lake was that what was blue or white to me was not to him.  He’d cultivated a way of seeing, a way of knowing the natural world that most people don’t know.  He knew stuff, unique stuff, and he was trying to pass  this stuff along to me.

Today he has Alzheimer’s.   Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about lost arts.

If there’s someone in your life with Alzheimer’s, then you already know what I’m going to say.  Everyone’s personal or family disease is important: it makes its own strong and particular mark, it takes you down paths you don’t think you can walk.  Alzheimer’s–I’ll venture to say–is one of the more stranger ones.  What is it–what!–that allows him to play chess (and win) but not remember what he said five minutes ago?

Not long ago, we had a visit from the great nephew of my dad’s teacher, Louis Grell.   Richard is doing research on his relative for a book and my dad was one of his closest pupils.   (If you’ve ever been to the Chicago Theatre on State Street, you’ve looked at the murals inside–those are Grells.)  My dad revered Grell.   Mister Grell, as he called him even well after he died.  I grew up with stories about Grell and the impact he had not only on my dad’s art, but on his thinking.  It’s all lost.  My dad couldn’t recall anything significant about his apprenticeship to this man.  And no one in my family had written anything down.

Winter Scene Painted from Life
Winter Scene by Max Ranft, painted from life

You think the stories you have in your youth are the stories you’ll have your whole life.  They are the stories you live with, that shape you, that make you who you are.  If you forget a detail, no matter.  The storyteller will tell the story again.  You can have the story back in all its vivid detail any time you want.  Or so you think.

So much else is gone, too.  I’ve been wracking my brain to remember what he taught me about the color of clouds, about how to paint a sky, about how to measure the human form.  What was I supposed to do with half tones?  What exactly was I supposed to look for when the weight was on the opposite hip of a figure at three quarter turn?  What did you mean when you said to soften the shadow?  These are the stories I heard every day of my youth.  Of everything he taught me about art, I internalized only maybe ten percent.  The rest is gone.  Just gone.

This sudden and desperate sense of loss has made me frantic about the lost arts of our world.  Where does all the knowledge go?  Who is keeping track?  Who’s writing it down?  Better yet, who’s practicing it, making it present?  Here are a few on my current watch list (in no particular order):

  • Embroidery
  • Bobbin lace
  • Tatting
  • Basket-making
  • Dark room photography
  • Fresco painting
  • Chair caning
  • Stained glass
  • Wood carving
  • Book binding
  • Life drawing
  • Calligraphy
  • Blacksmithing
  • and, of course, hand spinning

Maybe you know some people who practice these arts.  Maybe you practice some of them yourself.  But let’s face it.  These crafts are endangered.  My list has a decidedly Western bent, but that’s the culture I know.  Please send me more and I’ll add them.

Spinning Wheel
Another Lost Art?

Recently, someone said that she struggled with deciding when to consign an art to history.  This really took me aback.  I don’t want to lose any of these arts to history.  But then I thought how many people I know who are looking to buy a hand-tatted collar.  Zero.  Who wants a hand-carved bed?  Who needs their books rebound?  There are reasons we don’t practice these crafts like we once did.  But, gosh–is that the reason to let them go?  Zip?  Gone? Disappear forever like my father’s memory?  Maybe I’m too emotionally invested here.  If I am, talk me out of it.  But somehow I don’t think so.  Besides all the practical use I get from my spinning wheel, there’s another reason I make yarn by hand.  I do it, damn it, because there’s value in the doing.  Like my father standing in the forest, under the sun, measuring, mixing, creating what only he could create out there that day, there’s a knowledge in the doing that only comes from doing.  Do we really want to lose that to history?  Really?

12 thoughts on “Lament for Lost Art

  1. Those are remarkable paintings. When i think of loss i imagine those moments leaving earth and returning to their home in the starlight. This might not help in your desire to retain craft skills, but it is an ancient form of mythic therapy that could help you keep your heart open to your father in his illness.
    Ursula K Le Guin wrote about pottery in “Always Coming Home,” as work of the ‘hand/mind.’ When practiced properly, it was valued more highly than thinking alone, which runs on ahead of the body, or (of course) mere mechanical repetition. For me, Walter Benjamin’s love of the ‘aura’ of original works also comes to mind here. But i wouldn’t want to intellectualise the beautiful, melancholic spirit of your post.
    Thanks for sharing it.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. Your words have brought me a kind of solace. I have been thinking about my father more intensely than usual. In fact, I just left him and am reminded that there is so much still to celebrate, even if he cannot paint like he used to. There is still this moment. The now. And it is a good now. I will ponder, too, what you’ve shared from Le Guin and Benjamin. Thank you for commenting. What good is a blog if it does not engender dialogue? -Kate

  2. fantastic, well written, story, Kate. Your words brought me many emotions. Having lost my mom 5 years ago, from a speedy decline from cancer. I am amazed at the similarity of grief you are feeling. Although your Dad is still with you, the memories are gone. That, indeed, is the hardest part of my grief. The early days of missing her “being” there, hves evolved into a deeper missing of her memories not being with me. I am so sorry for your journey of memory loss with your father. We continue to learn from our parents…even in their absence or absent mindedness. Continue to document, make your own yarn and challenge us to think about why things are the way they are. Thank you for making my day with a wonderful thought provoking read. From a wood carver’s granddaughter and a
    calligraphers daughter, Molly

    1. Molly! How great to hear from you, and I remember your mom so well. Thanks for your kind words.

      Your grief over missing your mother’s memories–isn’t it fascinating how our parents’ memories become part of us–I’m really moved by that and can offer my understanding of how frustrating and sad it is to find that we no longer have the clear and immediate access to them we once had.

      It’s so difficult to grasp that memories are stored in the brain. Even as I write this, I’m not sure I agree that this is solely the case and this is what I cling to–that memories are inscribed also in a way of knowing, of being, of thinking and doing. Are they not, as Proust suggests, stored up in the things around us, waiting for us to unlock them again by our re-encounters with those objects? The problem is that you can’t force them to be present. You must wait for the memory to reappear on its own, and therefore it’s always in a moment we don’t expect and may not be prepared to absorb. But I think they are still out there, existing somewhere, waiting for us to find them.

      Wohelo, -Kate

  3. Agree, agree. Thanks for liking my post on forgetfulness. What you express in Lament for Lost Art is akin to my reason for blogging, journaling, writing letters.There are extraordinary things about everyone’s ordinary life that are going to be precious to someone down the line, if not necessary.

    In my storage room I have the fleece from a very dirty sheep (daughter is a veterinarian who has a sheep or two…). I’m trying to learn what to do with it. It’s cleaner now after a washing or two but I would love someone to mentor me through the next steps. What if being clothed in the future depended on my knowledge? You are right, we need to not let these basic arts of production disappear.

    love your dad’s art.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind reply. We agree on so much!

      About the fleece, here are some starter questions:

      1. How dirty is dirty? Is it just lanolin in the fleece or are there bits of hay and other plant life? If so, how much?

      2. What kind of fleece is it? What breed of sheep?

      3. You mention you’ve had the fleece in storage. Has it matted at all? If so, how easily can it be picked apart?

  4. An interesting thing about crafts is that a lot of the time they die a quiet death. For example, very few people know how to net any more (something that was required back in the Civil War in order to make snoods and other hair pieces), and for awhile the people who did it just slowly dwindled down to none. But then, re-enactors started making historically correct netted pieces that are almost like works of art at this point. The craft moved from being a craft (everyone does it) to artisans who make something beautiful.

    It’s the same with tatting and other formerly common crafts. There are some beautiful pieces produced by Japanese artisans that command high prices because the pieces are treated as they should be – as works of art that deserve to be paid for at a fair wage. Same with Clones lace, Venetian point lace, etc. And book binding has moved from being a common craft to works of beautiful artwork done by artisans around the country. At this point, people are doing an outstanding job of archiving materials and finding new ways to present the content online, so that knowledge won’t be lost to time, but findable by a new generation eventually. Its astounding how much we can read about things and ways of the 1700s, 1800s, and in other languages, often things that are from before that! I was just reading a cookbook from the 1400s online the other day…it’s hard to believe the amount of information that will be out there once the massive archiving projects are completed.

    And there are more and more people who are tired of “cheap” that are coming back to the ideas of quality and art in their household. There’s more value that people think in these arts, and its sometimes hard to remember that in an age where the digital, the fleeting, and the cheap is most prevalent.

    1. I’ve been thoughtful about your comment, Concetta. There’s so much in it.

      To begin, I certainly agree that crafts drift in an out of popularity and are sometimes reborn. Anachronistic societies are one way to rediscover American craft: their attention to detail will probably save some crafts from disappearing entirely.

      I wonder, though, about the volume of information available on the web. Will it really help us preserve our craft heritage or will it unnecessarily obfuscate the task? To begin, there’s no easy way to dig through it and we don’t have the equivalent of a reference librarian to help us. I’m thinking of those excellent librarians I knew in graduate school who were responsible for a small area of a gargantuan collection. They seemed to know everything about their area and could point you right to the source you needed. Who’s doing that with the web?

      I seem to be in a constant game of catch-up with technology, so perhaps we already have an app for this.

  5. Kate
    I studies with Max at the American Academy and Palette and Chisel for many years. I owe much of my art skills and artistic enjoyment to his dedicated efforts to pass along his art knowledge and passion for his vocation. For that I am ever grateful.

    I have not visited Max because I know what a proud man he was and that trying to maintain a relationship when his memory was fading would have been difficult for him as well as me. I do think of him often of him and wish the best for him and the family. I enjoyed you comments and seeing some of his great art.

    Torsten Muehl

    1. Is this the famous Tor that I heard so much about when I was growing up? I believe I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you a few times, most recently just before Phil Renault died. We were at the P&C, sitting in the kitchen and you popped in. Don’t worry if this doesn’t ring a bell.

      Thank you for your kind words. One of the best parts about running this blog and Dad’s blog (even tho I’ve neglected both for some time) is the chance it has afforded me to connect with some of his former students.

      Dad really was a good teacher. I’m surprised how much I myself picked up over the years. My husband can attest that I know my proportions! I can take a stick and measure heads. I know how the lower torso sets when you place more weight on one foot, etc. I know that when the sun dabbles across a road on a certain day, the light you get is actually orange and the road is purple, not grey, and I know how to prove it! I could go on and on. I’m glad you remember him fondly. He is still a vibrant, wonderful man, just in a very different place.

  6. Hello Kate, your Dad was my instructor at the Palette and Chisel. I had been thinking a lot about him and I was saddened to read he has Alzheimer’s. I just wanted to share that he really influenced me and that his class was by far the best life drawing class. He really imparted the knowledge of looking at the whole subject/space before getting into the minute details. I still have a drawing from his class, one of my best because I was “in the zone.” He gave me the biggest compliment, made me feel like a true artist. Everyday I pass by my drawing, I think of Max.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments. Just when I think it’s time to stop this blog, another one of Dad’s students pops up. It’s been so gratifying to hear that he influenced people so positively. Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease, but you may be glad to know that as much as it has diminished his world, it’s also expanded it. He’s delightfully jocular around people. He loves being social these days in ways he would have found taxing before. He’s confused about what day it is or which room is the kitchen, but he’s still unbeatable in chess. He’s also slowly changing his politics. Where he once was staunchly right. He’s now centrist and even a bit to the left. He likes to sing. I don’t pretend to understand the why or wherefore, but I am glad he’s been given a chance to encounter the world in new ways. He’s happy. I think, above all, he’s taught me that it ain’t over until it’s over. Nice, at my age, to still be learning from my dad. Thank you, again, for your thoughtfulness. Kate

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