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.
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.
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):
- Bobbin lace
- Dark room photography
- Fresco painting
- Chair caning
- Stained glass
- Wood carving
- Book binding
- Life drawing
- 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.
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?