Thursday, December 29, 2011

An Artistic Character

‘Tis a small world, indeed.  After reading an Internet article by Frank Paynter, I decided to play a long shot.  Paynter had contributed several articles plus occasional comments to “Time Goes By,” a blog I follow regularly that is mostly of interest to mature adults. I knew he lived somewhere in Wisconsin, but that’s all I knew about him.

Via e-mail, I asked Frank if there was any chance he was related to Richard Paynter, a close friend of ours in the early 1970s.  The reply: “Yup. He's my uncle.”

That brought back a flood of memories.  Richard Paynter and I made small talk during work breaks at the Forest Products Lab in Madison, WI, over a four-year period. He was an artist and I was an editor at the U.S. Forest Service research facility on the edge of the University of Wisconsin campus. I transferred to the Boise National Forest in a career move, worked in the West for most of the next 22 years, and retired in Utah.  As far as I knew, Richard  stayed in Madison.  We exchanged season’s greetings for years, but eventually the cards stopped coming.

Richard Paynter ranks high on the list of true characters my wife and I encountered over the years. Even his appearance was unique. He was born with only a small part of one forearm.  He had several little miniature “fingers” near the elbow joint, which many people might have tried to cover with a shirt sleeve.  He not only did not do that, he used the little digits.  To light his cigarettes, he would cradle an open matchbook between them and his upper arm and tear off and strike a match with his normal fingers.  Suggestions that a lighter might be easier to use were ignored.

When we were moving to Madison and needed a place to temporarily store some household goods, Richard offered space in his garage.  One of our items was a small antique safe.  One strong person could pick it up, but it wasn’t easy. While unloading our stuff, I took a break to prepare myself for the task of moving the little iron monster.  Richard lifted it off the trailer with his one complete arm and asked, “Where should I put this?”

Richard was a multi-talented artist. He produced four-color illustrations for the Laboratory’s annual report, the design for a beautiful carved wood door for a new conference room, and hundreds of illustrations for publications, some modernistic representations and some realistic depictions of research equipment and lab employees at work. He also designed many exhibits, both static and portable.

Some of Richard’s best personal art creations had nothing to do with the designs he developed so skillfully at his workplace.  He produced fanciful penciled portrait-like works with a few touches of color in key places. I have never seen that style used by another artist.

An annual highlight on the Madison art scene was an outdoor exhibition in the broad area surrounding the state Capitol.  Richard showed his works there for the first two years I knew him.  He once said his total sales were in the $2,000 to $3,000 range each year.  That was very nice extra-curricular money.  We were at the same pay level at the Forest Products Lab, which was about $10,000 per year. The next year, Richard refused to participate in the Capitol show.

After some prodding, he revealed that two exhibit visitors the previous year had made disparaging comments about several of his works.  He said something like, “I’m not going to waste my time catering to idiots who don’t know a damn thing about real art.” 

Richard’s distain for his few critics was more than balanced by his affinity for any new acquaintance he thought might be a good person to get to know better.  Whenever he met anyone he liked, he parted with directions and an invitation: “Come on over to our place Friday night.  We’re having a party.”

He did not keep track of the invitations.  There was a party at Paynter’s every Friday night, so that always worked out.  But what would happen if all the regulars and everybody Richard invited during the week showed up?  Well, I attended one Friday night gathering where the guests stood elbow-to-elbow throughout the living room, kitchen, and a closed-in porch, the only large rooms on the first floor of the Paynter home.

If a first-time guest had the audacity to ask if there were refreshments, Richard pointed across the park area adjacent to his backyard. The most conspicuous structure in that direction was a liquor store.  I’m not sure if Richard ventured to the store for any of his own refreshments, or if he just extracted a share from what the guests brought. At any rate, he always refreshed himself rather thoroughly. That produced a Friday night tradition.  At almost every party I attended, Richard passed out around midnight.  Several able-bodied guests carried him upstairs to bed and the party went right on without the host.

Two works of art by Richard Paynter occupy places of honor in the living room section of our home.  One shows a little girl modeled after one of his daughters gazing through a screened panel.  We didn’t have a lot of cash to buy art in the 1970s, but beautiful wife Sandy loved that work so much she scraped up $125 to pay Richard for it. Sandy earned the money working as a nanny for neighborhood kids. When I tried to suggest a price reduction, Richard’s stony countenance told me that was not going to happen.  It was clear that he did not haggle over prices for his art.

Our other piece is a larger work Richard said was “Susy,” a young woman about to sample an egg.  I knew the real-life Susy quite well, and I think she was the perfect choice as a model for that work.

"Susy" graces our living room
“Susy” was one of a dozen or so Paynter works displayed at a one-man show at Ripon College.  Most of them had been sold by the time we saw her at the Paynter home after the show.  Sandy loved the work.  Richard told me the price was $900.  I was shocked. We couldn’t come close to affording that, so despite knowing it wouldn’t do any good I pleaded for relief.  None came.  He said all the Ripon works were priced at $900, and that was that.  We went home empty handed.

Shortly before we left Madison, Richard appeared at our house.  He said he had come to deliver a going away present.  He went out to his car, came back carrying “Susy,” and presented the framed work to Sandy.


Kay Dennison said...

What a wonderful memory of a great friend!!!! Richard sounds like someone I would enjoy immensely!!!!
How blessed you were!!!!

It also jogged my memory -- my grandparents and uncles all farmed in that part of Wisconsin -- just a bit west in Princeton. Uncle Carl still farms my grandparents' farm.

fpaynter said...

I'm really glad to have read this. It brought back memories of "Daddy-o" or "Dads" as he was known to his siblings. (He came of age in the fifties and enjoyed his role as the family beatnik, I think). There were eight kids altogether. Four have passed away.

My dad, aunt Mary, uncle Thomas and Richard comprise "the final four," a darkly humorous appellation for sure.

On Christmas eve after visiting my sister, my wife and I drove through Maple Bluff to view the xmas light displays that the swells put on. The Governor's mansion was well lit but soul-less. Richard's home nearby was dark.

I had lunch today with dad and aunt Mary. Mary has spoken recently with Jan and the news is that Richard isn't getting out of the house much. Your blog post has sparked a new years resolution for me to get over there and see how he's doing.

Thanks for the remembrance. He's an original. I have an oil painting of his in my office--fifty years old now but subjectively fresh--and I have a pencil sketch on the wall in the living room. These are among the most real and substantial things I own, impossible to value, priceless.

Kay said...

What a wonderful friend Mr. Paynter was. This is a beautiful tribute to an amazing man. I wish you could have posted the painting so we could see the artwork.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

Goodness, how wonderful you discovered a long ago friend by simply being curious. I'm with Kay, I wish you had posted the painting you describe. Dianne

joared said...

Delightful recollection. Interesting connection with blogger Frank Paynter at "Listics."

Sightings said...

Nice remembrance -- I recall we had a kid in our neighborhood with that kind of congenital defect (I guess that's what it was). Dunno what happened to him; I just remember he was a good baseball player. First baseman. He'd catch the ball, take his glove off, then throw it. And ... he could hit.

Anyway, I second Kay and schmidley ... see if you can post a pics of Girl Gazing Thru Screened Panel, and Susy.

Dick Klade said...

Diane, Kay, Tom: Due to the rising groundswell of public opinion (at least you three!) "Susy" now is on display. It is difficult to photograph the fine pencil work, this second-hand image will give you the idea.

Kay said...

Wow! He was really talented! Thank you for showing this amazing piece, Dick.