The painter and the potter: voices in color and texture

Florence Gelo
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

 

Figure 1. “Armand’s Pot II” (1981), Jimmy Lueders (1927 – 1994),
oil on canvas,
(Woodmere Art Museum: gift of Arnold Kramer, 1991

Drawn to this painting of a vase at the edge of a table, I pause and think, “Don’t we all live on the edges of life, on stratums of the precarious and uncertain?”

Jimmy Lueders’ Armand’s Pot II projects from the wall on which it hangs at the Woodmere Art Museum. A burgundy silhouette vase poised at the edge of a table casts a slim shadow of flowers on the tablecloth beneath it. Below the table, a firework of shadows from the flowers above bursts forth from a square of darkness onto a brightly lit blond-colored floor. Tiny long-stemmed wildflowers in various stages of life are entangled in one another; a mess of green leaves, a red or white flower escapes from the tangle as if to catch its breath.

Behind this painting lies a compelling story of a friendship between two artists: Lueders, the painter, and Armand Mednick, the ceramic artist. Both lived life on the edges of history. Lueders, a gay man, was abused and marginalized by his family and experienced the social ostracism and repression besieging homosexuals in the 1950s. Mednick suffered antisemitism and emotional trauma resulting from the deaths of family members in the Holocaust. These experiences molded both men, their art, and the friendship they created.

Lueders was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1927. His family lived in poverty during the Depression. His parents were strict disciplinarians; his mother, a Southern Baptist, was “almost fanatical” about religion.1 They had no interest in art except for a few “third rate” religious paintings that hung on the walls of their home.2 Lueders remembered liking to draw and paint “right from first grade… I never had to choose this career. I always assumed this is what I was going to do.”3 Although his family was not supportive, he studied art for two years while in high school with Harold Hilton, a commercial and portrait artist from Jacksonville, who taught traditional British watercolor style. Lueders then applied what he learned from lessons with Hilton because, “I had a terrific art teacher in high school … Memphis Wood … always encouraged me and we remained friends until her death.”4

Lueders joined the Navy to escape a “terrible time” from the abuse at home and in the community for being a gay man.5  Mednick described Lueders’ life as “a series of compartments” where distinct aspects of himself were concealed and kept separate to manage “living at a time of turmoil as a gay man.” (oral communication, February 2018)

Lueders made a “buddy” while serving on the ship. When Lueders was discharged from the Navy, he came to Philadelphia to visit this friend in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “The bus took a route … down Broad Street and past the Academy. I was looking at it. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). It just thrilled me. I said, ‘Whoa. When I come back I’m going to check that one out.’”6 Through the GI Bill, Lueders studied art formally at PAFA. As Mednick recalls, Lueders supported himself by being a janitor. (e-mail correspondence, February 24, 2018) Later Lueders taught at PAFA, the Cheltenham Art Center, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Figure 2. “Poker Game” (1970), Larry Day (1921-1998), oil on canvas, (Woodmere Art Museum: gift of Ruth Fine 1999)

Armand Mednick, born Abraham Mednick in 1933 in Brussels, Belgium, was raised in a close family that experienced prejudice as a Jewish family in a non-Jewish neighborhood. His early life was a series of traumatic events. He contracted tuberculosis and was hospitalized in Belgium at age six. He was then taken from the hospital by his father, “an active political leftist,”7 when Mednick’s family, including his mother and one-year-old sister, were smuggled across the French border. Months later Mednick was placed in a sanitarium at Clermont-Ferrand under the new name “Armand” while his family went into hiding in the small town of Volvic near the sanatorium and passed as Christians. Rejoining his family, Armand attended Catholic school but observed Judaism at home. Mednick speaks about his memories of walking for seven miles with his father to attend a secret Seder. His family returned to Brussels after the war and moved to Philadelphia in 1947. These experiences during World War II and with the Nazis, according to Mednick, “formed a central inspiration for my art.”

Mednick studied with Rudy Staffel at Temple University’s Tyler School of Fine Arts and names Staffel as his main influence in choosing ceramics as his lifelong passion. Staffel encouraged Mednick to study at Alfred University, an important center of ceramics on the east coast.

After studying, Mednick launched a fifty-year career teaching children ages three to fourteen at Oak Lane Day School, an independent school located in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. “I taught art (a lot about clay), art history, French, and engaged students in learning about the Holocaust.” (oral conversation, 4/2/18)

Lueders and Mednick met in 1962 at the studio of Philadelphia artist Larry Day. At Day’s studio, artists Mednick, Lueders, Dennis Leon, Massimo Pierucci, and David Pease met regularly to talk and critique their latest works of art. Eventually, bored by these discussions, the group of artists began playing cards. Conversations once limited to examining and critiquing paintings now included playing poker and talking about their lives. They became close friends and met on the first Sunday of every month for fifty years.

Figure 3. “Portrait of Armand Mednick,” 1982, Jimmy Lueders (1927-1994), oil on canvas (Woodmere Art Museum: gift of Elizabeth Osborne, 2001)

Lueders and Mednick remained friends for thirty-one years. They lived in spiritual tandem and shared an artistic lens. As one lifted his paint brush to canvas, the other raised his fettling knife, the tip of each touching an ethereal and mythic interior space. Art making was therapeutic for both artists. Their art expressed feelings that escaped words – feelings of isolation, fragility, and longing. As Mednick described, “The inner lives of artists … the way you get it out in your work … that’s what Lueders did.”

Over the years, Lueders became friends with Armand’s wife, Anita. They both enjoyed food and were amazing cooks. According to Mednick, they had frequent discussions about cooking and at some point Lueders painted Portrait of Armand Mednick. In this portrait, Mednick is standing wearing a beret on his head and a blue shirt and suspenders, with his right hand in the pocket of his jeans. Behind Mednick are a series of three arches. Each arch is lined with tiles made by Mednick that refer to the Holocaust. Mednick painted twenty-six ceramic tiles, all about his experience in the war.

“A Holocaust survivor carries a special burden,” Mednick said. Making these tiles was therapeutic because after the war he was “obsessed by what happened in the Holocaust.” (oral communication, February 2018)

In front and to the side of Armand is painted a cloth-covered stool upon which a slender vase rests. The vase is one of Armand’s favorite pots. Mednick explained: “Lueders encompasses my whole life in that picture by having a huge version of one of my Holocaust tiles in the background and one of my pots in the lower-right foreground. It connects my past, present, and future. In the background of the painting are the ovens where the members of my family were burned. The arching forms are the ovens, and there’s a figure in one of them.” (oral communication, February 2018) Buchenwald death records confirmed that fifty-five members of his extended family were murdered there.9 The portrait of Armand Mednick stands 106 x 58 ¼ inches, a large-scale painting that “suggests the significance of the friendship between Lueders and Armand Mednick.” Ever since that portrait, Mednick has worn a beret.

Figure 4. “Jimmy’s Pot’ 1994, Armand Mednick, (Owned by artist)

Lueders listened to opera as he painted. When Lueders painted Mednick’s portrait, Mednick stated, “I was even tolerant of Lueders listening to Wagner.” (oral communication, February 2018) Earlier in his career, Lueders was an abstract expressionist and his process of painting included listening to “heavy aggressive music.” Charles Kalick, an abstract painter and Lueders’ lover of twenty years, revealed that Lueders enjoyed listening to the Metropolitan Opera. When painting, Lueders’ choice of music was Wagner and “he’d blast the Ring Cycle.” Music expressed on canvas was found in the “emotional thrust to his brush stroke,” said Kalick. Lueders loved and needed to paint. “If he didn’t paint or if he wasn’t in studio and working – then he’d get irritated.” Eventually, Lueders “settled down to a different speed. He painted still life.” (oral communication, October 2017)

When Lueders started painting pots, he visited Mednick’s home and studio. Looking around he would select a vase from the many that caught his eye to include in a painting. Witnessing Lueders’ appreciation of his pots, Mednick gave Lueders one pot to hold his brushes. Some of Mednick’s pots were rustic and “rough looking” and not the kind of pot that Lueders would have liked. According to one of Mednick’s friends, Lueders was “sophisticated and he liked clean pots that were symmetrical, balanced and ones that would allow him to balance flowers.” Sandy Bontempo, a former student and close friend of Lueders, remarked that Lueders “loved” Mednick’s pots, believing that they collectively embodied all the life experiences that Mednick had been through. “A living presence,” is how Lueders described Mednick’s pots. (oral communication, July 2017)

Lueders died in 1994 at the age of sixty-seven. He had been out shoveling snow. He picked up his mail, went into his house, sat on the couch, and had a heart attack. His body was found there.

Consistent with Lueders’ belief that Mednick’s pots were manifestations of Mednick’s life experiences, when Lueders died Mednick made a special pot. “I decided to make a pot with his ashes, and keep him close to me. It’s here, in my kitchen window.” (oral communication, July 2017). To this day, Lueders’ final resting place is in Armand’s pot.

 

References

  1. Oral History interview with Jimmy C. Lueders (1927-1994). 1990 Nov. 14, Archives of American Art Philadelphia Project. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/…/oral-history-interview-jimmy-c-lueders-12984
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Oral history interview with Armand Mednick. Oral History | Accession Number: 1997.A.0441.117 | RG Number: RG-50.462.0117Interviewee. Date 1983 June 15 (interview). The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, acquired from the Gratz College Hebrew Education Society. https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn515641
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid

 


 

REV. FLORENCE GELO, DMin, NCPsyA, has over twenty-five years’ experience working with patients receiving palliative care as a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She is a pastoral psychotherapist in private practice specializing in chronic and life-threatening illness. She has special expertise in cultural and religious diversity and medical decision making at the end of life. As Associate Professor of Family, Community and Preventive Medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine (DUCOM), Dr. Gelo teaches courses in whole person care, religion and medicine to undergraduate medical students. She serves as the Behavioral Science Coordinator of DUCOM’s Residency Program in Family Medicine.

 

Spring 2018  |  Hektorama  |  Art Essays