Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist's Memoirby Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin was cursed/blessed with an unusual childhood. The son of Italian immigrants—his father an electronics inventor and a mother so good looking UPS drivers swerved off their routes to see her—Selgin spent his formative years scrambling among the hat factory ruins of a small Connecticut town, visiting doting—and dotty—relatives
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Peter Selgin was cursed/blessed with an unusual childhood. The son of Italian immigrants—his father an electronics inventor and a mother so good looking UPS drivers swerved off their routes to see her—Selgin spent his formative years scrambling among the hat factory ruins of a small Connecticut town, visiting doting—and dotty—relatives in the “old world,” watching mental giants clash at Mensa gatherings, enduring Pavlovian training sessions with a grandmother bent on “curing” his left-handedness, and competing savagely with his right-handed twin.It’s no surprise, then, that Selgin went on from these peculiar beginnings to do . . . well, nearly everything. Confessions of a Left-Handed Man is a bold, unblushing journey down roads less traveled. Whether recounting his work driving a furniture delivery truck, his years as a caricaturist, his obsession with the Titanic that compelled him to complete seventy-five paintings of the ship(in sinking and nonsinking poses), or his daily life as a writer, from start to finish readers are treated to a vividly detailed, sometimes hilarious, often moving, but always memorable life. In this modern-day picaresque, Selgin narrates an artist’s journey from unconventional roots through gritty experience to artistic achievement. With an elegant narrative voice that is, by turns, frank, witty, and acid-tongued, Selgin confronts his past while coming to terms with approaching middle age, reaching self-understanding tempered by reflection, regret, and a sharply self-deprecating sense of humor.
“Peter Selgin is a born writer, capable of taking any subject and exploring it from a new angle, with wit, grace, and erudition. He has a keen eye for the telling detail and a voice that is deeply personal, appealing, and wholly original. Fans of Selgin’s fiction will know they are in for a treat, and those who are new to his work would do well to start with this marvelous memoir in essays, his finest writing yet.”Oliver Sacks
“In the title essay of Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, Peter Selgin displays, as he does time and time again in this finely wrought collection, wit and charm and disarming honesty. However circular these autobiographical narratives might be, they always come back to rest smartly and interestingly in the human heart.”Helen Schulman,author, This Beautiful Life
“Peter Selgin’s portrait of the artist as a restless, fretful, left-handed young man in search of serenity is thoughtful, erudite, and witty. In the essayistic tradition of Montaigne and Lopate, Selgin digs deep and holds nothing back. A fascinating read.”Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire
The quirky, intelligent memoir of an artist and fiction writer.
The left-handed brother of a right-handed fraternal twin and son of two Italians—a Sophia Loren look-alike mother who was "all instinct and innuendo" and a brilliant inventor father who was "all logic and intellect"—Selgin (Drowning Lessons: Stories, 2008, etc.) was a born misfit. Rather than trying to fit in like his more conventional brother, however, he consciously clung to his uniqueness "like the survivor of a shipwreck." He followed his creative leanings into art school at the Pratt Institute, where he discovered that his gift for caricature marginalized him even among artists. Although he continued to draw—and at one time earn money as a caricaturist to the rich and famous—he dropped out of art school and began dreaming of a literary life. "Where drawing had led me only to surfaces," he writes, "words (I promised myself) would take me deeper." With the zeal of an addict, Selgin recorded every detail of his life for 10 years, only to find that his writing would become "like kudzu strangling a forest"—something that consumed rather than clarified his existence.Humbled by this and other misadventures—including an encounter with an enraged canine that would cause him to lose left-hand dexterity—Selgin abandoned all artistic posturing. In its stead, he developed a more genuine, heartfelt passion for both art and storytelling that is vividly revealed in the often hilarious but always compassionate portraits he sketches of his eccentric family, assorted oddball friends and lovers.
An engaging, original modern-day picaresque.
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Confessions of a Left-Handed ManAn Artist's Memoir
By Peter Selgin
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 2011 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDead to Rights: Confessions of a Caricaturist
... and all the nice people will only see the exaggeration as caricature. —Vincent van Gogh Early Influences
In kindergarten, when I presented her with crayon drawings of the Queen Mary and of the Empire State Building lit up like a Christmas tree at night, Mrs. Decker kissed my cheek, my first taste of artistic glory. By fifth grade already I was drawing faces. At the summer camp where my parents sent me (called Silver Lake, though on the map the same body of water went by "Mudge Pond"), I sat with a nineteen-cent Bic and notebook at a picnic table and "did" everyone, portraits the size of postage stamps. My likenesses may have been hit or miss, but I was a hit. Thanks to my drawing pen, for the first time I felt popular. Heather McGowan even agreed to go out on a canoe with me. The canoe tipped over. Still, I felt triumphant.
In high school I drew Mr. Schnabel, with his manatee nose and outrageous comb-over, and Mrs. Rigsdale, my French teacher, with her twisting Carvel cone of white hair. Those teachers with a sense of humor praised my talent; the rest sent me down to Mr. DeMillo's office. Since I was of Italian lineage, like him, Principal DeMillo found me simpatico. Seeing my latest artistic affront, he shook his bald-as-a-bowling-ball head, but could not contain a smile. "Pete," he said, "in choosing your subjects you need to exercise more discretion." On the other hand he had to admit that I'd gotten Mrs. Rigsdale "dead to rights."
To pin someone's likeness to a page in a few deft strokes, to snatch not only people's faces but their souls from thin air, to own them on paper, there was magic in it, something talismanic and even voodoo-like. In sketching them I distilled their essences, and could do with those essences what I pleased. Heady powers for a teenager.
My artistic gods were Vincent van Gogh and Mort Drucker. The first cut off an ear and painted burning cypresses under pinwheel skies at night. The second you would know if, like most late baby boomers, you grew up on MAD magazine. Drucker drew the movie satires, comic-book-style parodies of the latest movies. If van Gogh was the god of color, Drucker was the god of line. What that man couldn't do with a pen and ink. With the faintest thickening of stroke he'd render the shadow under a nose or a shirt cuff. No one, not even Al Hirschfeld—whose style I found too "arty"—could better Drucker's likenesses. His Paul Newman looked more like Paul Newman than Paul Newman. He got their gestures, down, too: Brando scratching his jaw in The Godfather, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas each clenching three rows of teeth, Cary Grant always leaning slightly, like the Tower of Pisa, Katherine Ross ever on the verge of tears.
Through high school I taught myself to draw just like Drucker, carrying notebook and pen with me everywhere. When friends got sick of my drawing them, I worked from photos of movie stars. After graduating, not knowing what else to do with my life, I took a job as the helper on a furniture truck and kept my notebook with me as we rode to Wappinger's Falls to deliver a sofa bed, and to Great Barrington with someone's grandfather clock. The warehouse guys called me Leo, as in Leonardo da Vinci, and didn't mind my drawing them as long as I didn't make their beer bellies too big.
Going to art school felt more like a defeat than a decision. Drawing had been a personal, semi-intimate pleasure, with a tinge of naughtiness about it, like good sex. To expose it to pedagogy seemed a bad idea. My professors swiftly set to work to cure me of my bad habit, as if drawing caricatures were the equivalent not of sex but of something less productive, like nose or toenail picking. My protests—that Leonardo, Daumier, Monet, and Picasso, to name a few, had all been caricaturists—fell on deaf ears. An unrepentant sinner, I practiced my vice in secret, doodling likenesses of the model's face (we'd been instructed to ignore faces and genitals) on a corner of my newsprint pad, obliterating them with charcoal whenever the moderator came by. Telling me not to draw the model's face was like leading an alcoholic to an open bar with instructions to drink only ginger ale.
I tried to be good, I did, but always the impulse toward swift line and rude gesture rose up to defeat me. Blaustein, my painting professor, stepped up behind me one day in his studio and said, "You know what you are, Selgin? You're an artistic illiterate. Your paintings are all pat graphics and glib surface. They lack depth, struggle. You'll never be a fine artist."
Maybe Blaustein was right. Hell, I'd never even wanted to be a painter anyway. I hated the smell of turpentine and those little nubs in canvas that looked like plucked chicken flesh. I liked pens, ink, paper. I liked drawing; I liked to draw. For people like me, there wasn't even a decent name, nothing that carried the artistic panache of "painter." Draughtsman? Drawer? Sketch artist? Such was the prejudice of those who worked in pigment against those who expressed themselves by means of pure line, the dreg horses of the art world.
But even fine art drawers looked down upon caricaturists, just as they looked down on all those they lumped together as cartoonists: pen-wielding mercenaries, makers of comic strips and cartoons, frivolity for the hoi polloi. The closest thing to respect earned by such low enterprises came in the form of appropriation, with pop artists plagiarizing, blown up on canvas, the labors of unsung comic-book artists. If this was a form of flattery, it was booby-trapped. To accept it was to accept that the originals were anything but art. It took real artists to instill such works with a value beyond that of plebian amusement.
Around this time I met my hero, Mort Drucker. In despair of my low artistic status, I had written him a fan letter accompanied by a caricature of myself. He invited me to his home in a Long Island suburb, one of thousands of identical ranch houses clustered into a development, with water sprinklers spitting bows of water over half-acre lawns. Inside his house, in place of the bohemian wit, poetry, and irreverence I'd expected, I was met by the trappings of bourgeois conservatism, down to the framed Norman Rockwell prints on the wall. It was the home of a shoe salesman. In Mort's tidy studio, while I sipped a Coke on ice, he showed me the pens and paper he used, his kid-finish Bristol boards and Hunt crow quills. But by then my disenchantment was already complete. Superimposed over Drucker's voice I could hear Professor Blaustein sneering, artistic illiterate! Later, at the train station as we sat together in his station wagon waiting for my train, Drucker smoked an illicit cigarette and confessed to me how at times he still couldn't believe his fortune, that he could stay home drawing pictures while others toiled away at dull office jobs. Mort was a decent, modest, hard-working man, and talented, a superb technician, but not the person I had hoped he would be, someone to legitimize my artistic passions, and I rode the train home feeling betrayed.
A week later, after another dispiriting afternoon in Blaustein's class, I flicked on the portable TV in my room, and Richard Burton's acne-pocked face filled the screen. In his deep Welsh baritone, he murmured something about "bergin," "bergin and water." As he murmured on I kept watching, mesmerized. I watched the whole movie.
The next day at the Pratt Institute Library, among its glass-floored stacks, I found a copy of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? There, in black and white, was the "bergin" speech. I sat down on the glass floor and read the whole play. That a bunch of tiny black marks on a page had held me so in thrall astonished me. By the time I turned the last page, I'd made up my mind. I was going to be a writer.
I quit art school and hitchhiked around the country. I still carried a notebook and pen, only now instead of faces I filled the notebook with words. Where drawing had led me only to surfaces, words (I promised myself) would take me deeper.
Still, I had to eat. I was twenty-five and had worked all the usual shit jobs—waiting tables and washing dishes in restaurants, and driving trucks—when it occurred to me that I could live off my drawings of people. The bar down in Soho where I was washing dishes hired only struggling artists. It had an open kitchen and during slow periods, on the backs of yellow bar dupes, I'd sketch patrons as they sat at the bar. We taped the results to a wall next to the chalk menu. One day a customer asked one of the bar's owners who'd done the sketches. The boss pointed my way. The customer, a fashion designer, hired me to draw people at a party he was throwing. He paid me thirty dollars an hour, ten times my pearl-diving wage. I made a hundred bucks that night. A fluke, I thought then.
But then a few months later at a different job, this one at a copy shop, the same thing happened. Out of boredom I'd started drawing the other workers and our regular customers, putting their faces on display. It gave us all a laugh. The boss, Mr. Cheswick, didn't mind. He may have considered it good PR.
One day a woman came into the shop, pointed to a sketch of mine, and said, "How much?" I turned to Mr. Cheswick, who held up five fingers. "Five dollars." The woman nodded. I did her caricature, put it in a bag, and rang up the sale on the register. Soon the store was making good money on my caricatures, and I felt entitled to a raise. When Mr. Cheswick said no, I got huffy.
I put an ad in New York magazine's classified section, under "Entertainers": "THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE BEAUTIFUL: Fabulous Faces by Peter Selgin." With my ex-coworkers' help at the copy shop, and in Mr. Cheswick's absence, I created a brochure to mail to potential customers. Soon I got my first job, at a wedding reception in New Jersey. I had to rent a car and a tuxedo. After subtracting for them, the job netted me fifty dollars. I was launched.
Drawing an Income
For the next ten years I drew people at birthday parties, weddings, anniversaries, corporate events, and bar and bat mitzvahs. I worked at Sardi's, the Rainbow Room, the Four Seasons, 21, the Tavern on the Green, and Windows of the World. I was flown first-class to cities as far as Los Angeles, where, at a pool party in Beverly Hills, stars lined up for their likenesses. I drew my way across the Atlantic and back on the QE2, where I sketched the officers on duty on the bridge. When I sketched the captain standing in water up to his waist, he said, with a stiff British upper lip, "Hmm, I don't like the look of that." In gratitude the navigator flashed me the secret coordinates of the freshly discovered Titanic wreck.
I averaged fifty gigs a year, booked mostly between November and January first. In those weeks I would make enough money to carry me the whole year. I worked on yachts, trains, planes, and once on a private Learjet. I charged lawyers' fees, one hundred twenty-five dollars an hour, sometimes more, and insisted on being treated not as an entertainer, but as a special guest. Once, at a party thrown by a young Wall Street trader who'd just banked his first million, I arrived at the front door to be told by a butler that I had to use the servants' entrance.
"I'm not a servant," I informed him. "I'm a guest."
"All servants must use the servants' entrance," he repeated.
"In that case I hope you can draw," I replied and handed him my kit bag.
He let me in.
Five minutes, that's how long it took me to draw a caricature. Any longer would have been too slow. Like parts on an assembly line, the faces came and went. One face every five minutes, ten per hour, five hours per average gig, fifty caricatures per event. Times fifty events per year is twenty-five hundred faces; times ten years is twenty-five thousand—roughly the population of Aspen, Colorado, during high tourist season.
Some jobs were strange. Once my services were engaged by a guy who sought a novel way to propose to his girlfriend. Dressed up as a stereotypical French artist (striped shirt, beret) I sat, sketchpad in hand, on a bench in Central Park waiting for the couple to walk by. When they did, I all but assaulted the girl, saying, in my miserable French accent while framing her with my thumbs, "Excuze-moi, mademoiselle, but you have ze most magnifique vision. Please to allow me to draw it, s'il vous plaît." She demurred, but at her boyfriend's insistence she eventually gave in. What she didn't know was that the sketch had already been started and included a likeness of her beau genuflecting on the pavement in front of her. The image had scarcely registered when she turned to see the real man presenting her with a diamond ring as big as the Ritz. Since then I've often wondered, What if she had said no? What would I have done then? Given the money back?
Among the strangest events were what we called caricature "orgies," at which a dozen party caricaturists, the best in town, were herded into a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton or the St. Regis. We'd set up individual workstations, then the floodgates would open and our subjects would pour in by the hundreds, Japanese businessmen, typically. They'd spend the entire party lining up and going from station to station to get their caricatures drawn, collecting as many as possible.
How to Draw a Caricature
To draw someone's caricature is to grasp their essence, a Zen-like undertaking, archery with a pen. People would ask me: What do you look for? Which parts do you emphasize? My answer: All, none. The whole, the gestalt, is what matters. As Max Beerbohm, who wrote as beautifully as he drew, said in his essay "The Spirit of Caricature": "The perfect caricature (be it of a handsome man or a hideous or an insipid) must be an exaggeration of the whole creature, from top to toe. Whatsoever is salient must be magnified, whatsoever is subordinate must be proportionately diminished.... The perfect caricature is bold in its execution, simple and ingenuous to its beholder as a wild flower."
With caricature there's no separating the parts from the whole, no chin except in relation to the jaw, no nose except in conjunction with lips and brow, no eyes without sockets, no hair without a skull grinning under the scalp. If someone sat before me with a jaw like an anvil, eyebrows like Lincoln's, or a nose like a toadstool, there would be that moment of isolated appreciation—as one admires a single character in a novel—but then one steps back to take in the story as a whole, the theme, if you will. No caricaturist worthy of the name draws parts and then, like Dr. Frankenstein, stitches them together; everything exists as a fraction of some total. A good caricature never exaggerates or distorts for distortion's sake but to get at the truth. Some of my subjects asked me to lie. "Leave out my freckles," they'd say, or "Give me more hair," or "Don't draw my double chin." Such requests I never honored. It was like asking a surgeon to amputate a perfectly healthy limb. I, too, was bound by an oath, one best expressed by Picasso: "Art is the lie that tells the truth."
How to draw a caricature? You start with mechanics, the basic forms: square, cone, cylinder, cube. Using these, you plot the basic features (using the eyes, or their positions, as guideposts: the double hubs of the wheel of the face), the head reduced to a set of geometric possibilities. From there you refine these basic shapes, ignoring superficialities like hair.
Then comes what I call the moment, and here no mechanical reductionism can penetrate. What happens then can be explained only by vague words like magic and instinct. As a horse knows its way back to its stable, the pen finds its way deep into the subject's soul. It does so through the eyes. At first the eyes are dead, without light, inert and dull as stones. But then, suddenly, if things go well, they flicker to life, and there on the page is someone looking at you. Meanwhile, the light has left the sitter's eyes—transposed, smuggled into the sketch.
As with the pianist who is only vaguely aware of his fingers, which seem to find the keys on their own, propelled by the notes that leap from the keyboard into his body—as if the piano were playing his fingers—so, too, with the caricaturist. Using the caricaturist's hand the subject's face "draws" its own likeness. All I had to do was find it on a sheet of paper with my pen, as Michelangelo found his David in a block of Carrara marble.
Excerpted from Confessions of a Left-Handed Man by Peter Selgin Copyright © 2011 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Peter Selgin is currently the Viebranz Distinguished Writer in Residence at St. Lawrence University, in Canton, New York. Winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction for his story collection Drowning Lessons, Selgin has also published a novel, Life Goes to the Movies, and two works on the fiction writer’s craft, 179 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers and By Cunning and Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers.
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