West of Woolwich: The hidden man

Posted Wednesday, August 8, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: The hidden man

Jason painting at the beach

by Fred Kahrl

After caretaking the Schoener summer home for nearly thirty years, I should not have been surprised when I was asked to help clean out the house after Jason and Ginny passed away and the estate was being closed. However, I was not prepared for the surprises that were waiting for me in their 18th Century home on Georgetown’s main thoroughfare.

The Schoeners wintered in Oakland, CA, where Jason taught art at the university level. I had heard that their home there enjoyed a commanding view over Oakland, and was miraculously skipped by a wildfire that swept through their community a decade ago. I assumed that the bulk of their “keepsakes” resided with them there overlooking San Francisco Bay; but as I was told later by Jason’s brother, Allon, California was where Jason made his living. Maine was where he and Ginny loved to be.

 The first surprise waited for me in the small safe deposit box in the vault at Bath Savings Institution. The usual legal papers, most  of them out of date, some silver-plate teaspoons of only sentimental value, and several old snapshots of their summer home were to be expected. But then there was a tiny envelope — almost lost amongst the photos — with Virginia’s faded message: To be opened only if I am unable to do so. Inside was a pale blue slip of paper, decorated with a sketch of a heron. Again, in Ginny’s clear hand, was revealed a long list of hiding places in the old house and the antiques concealed therein. At the end, squeezed into a tiny space left over from the original list, was a note warning that the list was out of date. . . . Oh, well.

It took my carpenter over two hours to open all the listed closet walls, lift all the specified old floorboards, and carefully remove the backs of some built-in shelving. Out came antique wooden bowls, blown glass bottles, wrought iron this-and-that, large earthen jugs, and some small wicker suitcases. The smaller case contained ten framed postcard-size miniatures that Jason had painted for Ginny for birthdays and other special days. All were scenes of Ginny’s wonderful flower gardens, each with a tender sentiment on the back, and all carefully wrapped. The larger case contained a handmade doll of an Uncle Remus-style character with a fishing pole. Dahlov recalls that Jason hung it from a rafter beside the large kitchen fireplace every summer, though no one knows its origin or the reason for Jason’s particular affection for it. An impressive haul, we all agreed. An antiques specialist then began to inventory the contents of the whole house. Previously, Susie Wren had inventoried the entire collection of Jason’s art that was visible in the house, so that work was done. . . . Or so we thought.

More than half of Jason’s studio had accumulated a lifetime of “delayed decisions.” Piled hip-high were countless shipping boxes for paintings, old picture frames, boxes of ancient copies of The New York Times, dressers full of old correspondence, and second-hand mailing envelopes, mixed with odd pieces of furniture, some of which was in the process of restoration. Through this mound of impedimenta wound a narrow path from the door to the house proper to Jason’s workspace at the opposite end of the studio, under the great studio window, and next to his wall-to-wall counter cupboard, which was also mostly heaped with relics of his various creative episodes. All of this was garnished with lavish accumulations of rodent “waste,” both chewed nesting materials and alimentary deposition (speaking politely: “Lavish” — as in “abundant”. It took us more than a week to clear out just the floor area of the studio, revealing (among other things) a long set of shallow cabinets along one wall with sliding hardboard “doors.”

I peeked inside and saw picture frames. I closed it up at once and called Susie. Here, she discovered, was a collection of Jason’s art supplies, intermingled with some of his own work, some unfinished and/or unmounted. While waiting for Susie to analyze and inventory this latest discovery, I literally rolled up my sleeves (and put on rubber gloves) to tackle the cabinets under his working counter under the big window. A cursory peek some time earlier had revealed there the ultimate rodent condo, their debris literally burying ancient bottles, cans, and bags of pigments and other artist’s chemicals that I knew must be scrupulously sorted out for appropriate disposal. Too, there were glimpses of ceramics, framing kits, expensive brushes, tubes of oils, not to mention clear-grained blocks of wood for carving and assorted beach stones — a lifetime of an artist’s curiosities and projects. And all festooned in mouse poop. (There! I said it!)

For two days I carefully removed each item, vacuumed it off, wiped it down, and put it with similar items on my worktable. Very quickly it became apparent there was more that just “supplies” in the deep cupboards.

First came some rough clay figures that Susie thought might have been scale studies for a possible larger sculpture. There was a stylized bull about the size of a football, fancifully decorated with large polka dots. The corner with the ceramic supplies also produced some finished tiles that Jason had painted and fired in his tiny, homemade kiln, reflecting scenes from his “Greek” period. Then there were small copper discs and “bowls” from a time when he experimented with powder pigments that only showed their true colors after firing in the kiln. There were pottery powders from a time when he “threw” and colored small vases and bowls that also passed through the kiln. I was discovering a diversity of craft and artistry I had not previously known.

And then, unexpectedly, the circle of discovery was closed. Way in back of the last cabinet was a pile of rolled canvasses. Susie removed them reverently, suspecting what we had found. Carefully unrolling them one at a time back home in her own studio, she revealed a snapshot of sorts of Jason’s differing painting “styles” through his career — pictures he had neither wanted the stretch onto frames nor discard. It was almost like adding a chapter to Jason’s “known” life, as much for the questions raised in some cases as by the additions to some known periods of his work. I was so very grateful for Susie’s contribution to understanding these “lost” works of art.

There were other small discoveries along they way, almost too numerous to mention. Almost discarded with the tissue paper lining a linen drawer was the lovely pencil sketch of Ginny by Jason’s cousin Dahlov Ipcar, drawn in the sixties. We gave it to the GHS. Consider the portrait’s potential peril, hidden as it was in layers of tissue paper! I shudder to think what might have happened if one my helpers, gathering up old linens by the armful for contribution, hadn’t felt the sketch paper’s different texture, and then asked me “Who’s ‘Guinea’ ?” (Hard G).