Lus­trous clus­ters Wil­liam Ge­or­genes’ lit­tle gal­ax­ies

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Michael Abatemarco The New Mex­i­can WIL­LIAM GE­OR­GENES’ LIT­TLE GAL­AX­IES

Wil­liam Ge­or­genes’ (1929-2017) art was never more eclec­tic than his life. His light shone brightly since he was a child, de­spite hard­ships that seem es­pe­cially tough com­pared to most child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences. Ge­or­genes, known for his as­sem­blage sculp­tures made mostly from toys, was born in Bos­ton just as the Great De­pres­sion hit. His mother had tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, and his fam­ily kept him away from her out of fear that he would catch it. Un­til he was three, he lived in near iso­la­tion in an at­tic room, where other fam­ily mem­bers brought him his food. He knew lit­tle to no English, nor any other lan­guage, hav­ing not been around peo­ple enough to learn any. He saw his mother briefly be­fore she died, and then so­cial workers placed him in a TB sana­to­rium, where he lived un­til he was twelve years old.

“There was no one to take care of him,” said He­len Ma­cLeod, his wife of many years. “He never went to school un­til he was twelve, and so the pa­tients taught him. He said he was like a lit­tle kit­ten be­cause he was young and he would roam around the place. They thought he was mute. Un­til then he had no one to talk to.” Ma­cLeod re­counted how a res­i­dent priest asked to speak to him when he first ar­rived, and young Wil­liam didn’t un­der­stand, earn­ing him a smack. It wouldn’t be the first time. “Twelve years later, he gets out of the sana­to­rium, his sis­ter takes him to a Greek church, and the priest says, in Greek, ‘Come here, lit­tle boy,’ and he just stands there be­cause he doesn’t know Greek,” she said. “So the priest comes over and hits him, and he said, ‘That’s it. No re­li­gion for me.’ ”

Ge­or­genes was by no means wealthy but painted most of his work, cur­rently on view at 5. Gallery in Santa Fe, in bronze, cop­per, sil­ver, and gold — noble and re­splen­dent col­ors for such hum­ble ma­te­ri­als as plas­tic Army men, Dis­ney char­ac­ters, dolls, chintzy beaded gar­lands, di­nosaurs, horses, tur­tles, and other baubles and toys. He worked al­most like an al­chemist, seek­ing to trans­form base metal into pre­cious trea­sure. Ge­or­genes, who was also a painter of ab­stract pointil­list works he called dot paint­ings, rarely ex­hib­ited in Santa Fe. His last show, Unity and Mul­ti­tude, was held at the Vis­ual Arts Gallery of Santa Fe Com­mu­nity Col­lege in 2015.

He and Ma­cLeod moved to Santa Fe about 35 years ago. For five years he ran Aura Gallery, next door to La Posada, but never showed his own work there.

Aura was also the name of a pho­to­graphic mag­a­zine he pub­lished for a short time when teach­ing art at SUNY Buf­falo in New York, in the 1970s. “He did the mag­a­zines as a com­pe­ti­tion,” Ma­cLeod said. “Peo­ple would send in their pho­to­graphs. He didn’t make any money off it. But even if a per­son was re­jected, he sent them a mag­a­zine and a note say­ing, ‘We didn’t ac­cept your work but this is what was ac­cepted and please sub­mit again.’ It kept him busy and he was happy.”

Ge­or­genes’ ca­reer as an artist and ed­u­ca­tor was ex­ten­sive. He at­tended the Mas­sachusetts Col­lege of Art in the 1950s and Yale Univer­sity in the early 1960s, study­ing un­der James Brooks and ab­stract painter and color the­o­rist Josef Al­bers. Ac­cord­ing to Ma­cLeod, his in­tro­duc­tion to Yale was serendip­i­tous. “He was hav­ing an open­ing on [Bos­ton’s] New­bury Street and, across the street, was an open­ing of the works of Bernard Chaet.” At the time, Chaet, a mem­ber of the Bos­ton Ex­pres­sion­ists, was teach­ing in Yale’s art depart­ment, where he was em­ployed for sev­eral decades (even­tu­ally be­com­ing the depart­ment’s chair and the Wil­liam Leff­in­g­well Pro­fes­sor of Paint­ing). “Some­one said to Bernard Chaet that he should go across the street and see Bill’s work. So he came over and said to Bill, ‘If you’re in­ter­ested in com­ing to Yale, just send me a let­ter.’ Bill had planned to go to France. A friend was giv­ing him a house­boat, but that fell through. So he wrote to Bernard Chaet and said, ‘I’ll take you up on your of­fer.’ It was just a lit­tle hand­writ­ten note. That’s how he got into Yale.” By the time he came to Yale, Ge­or­genes had al­ready held teach­ing po­si­tions at var­i­ous col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, in­clud­ing Bos­ton State Teach­ers Col­lege, the Ves­per Ge­orge School of Art, and Har­vard Univer­sity. At some point, ap­par­ently while still en­gaged with his stud­ies at Yale, he did restora­tion work for a man named Mor­ton C. Bradley, who was a re­storer at Har­vard’s Fogg Mu­seum. “So Bill worked on Monets and Rem­brandts, and his best friend was Kahlil Gi­bran, who was a sculp­tor,” Ma­cleod said. Gi­bran was an Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ist and a de­scen­dant of Gi­bran Khalil Gi­bran, au­thor of The Prophet (1923). “Kahlil had a shop on New­bury Street and sold pre-Columbian art­work. Bill used to take the work to Yale and set up a blan­ket and the stu­dents would buy it.” One day Al­bers came by and was quite taken with the items, and so Ge­or­genes put him in touch with Gi­bran and, ac­cord­ing to Ma­cLeod, that was the start of Al­bers’ preColumbian col­lec­tion. “Bill be­came good friends with Josef Al­bers,” she said. “They worked to­gether on a stained-glass win­dow, but the com­mis­sion never went through. It was for some monastery, but one of the monks was a stained-glass worker and the monastery didn’t want to hurt that per­son’s feel­ings, so they didn’t use the Al­bers.”

Ma­cLeod first met Ge­or­genes at Ves­per Ge­orge School of Art, where she worked as a sec­re­tary. “He had gone off to teach in Mex­ico but he had a house in Bos­ton and he was back for a cou­ple of weeks,” she said. “I went to a Marie Cosin­das open­ing [Cosin­das was a Bos­ton-born pi­o­neer of color photography known for her still lifes and por­traits] and he was there.” The two were mar­ried in 1981.

For the last 12 years of his life, Ge­or­genes, who suf­fered a bout of po­lio at age twenty, was con­fined to a wheel­chair — the re­sult of post-po­lio syn­drome. As his strength wa­vered, his work got smaller. Large-scale paint­ings and works in as­sem­blage were con­densed to about a foot in height and width. “He didn’t have the arm reach any­more,” Ma­cLeod said. Still, even the smaller pieces, like the as­sem­blages on view at 5. Gallery, are en­er­getic, play­ful works that are mostly

Ge­or­genes painted most of his work in bronze, cop­per, sil­ver, and gold — noble and re­splen­dent col­ors for such hum­ble ma­te­ri­als as plas­tic Army men, Dis­ney char­ac­ters, dolls, chintzy beaded gar­lands, di­nosaurs, horses, tur­tles, and other baubles and toys.

un­ti­tled. When he did ti­tle them, he gave them whim­si­cal names be­fit­ting their ap­pear­ance. There are no de­fin­i­tive nar­ra­tive el­e­ments at play in the works, but view­ers can tease out sto­ries if they wish, mak­ing con­nec­tions from one el­e­ment to the next. “He used to draw comic books for the pa­tients in the sana­to­rium, and that’s sort of what th­ese as­sem­blages are like,” Ma­cLeod said. “They’re like the comic books he did as a kid.” Ge­or­genes first started do­ing as­sem­blage work while work­ing at the In­sti­tuto Al­lende in San Miguel de Al­lende in Mex­ico in the 1970s. “He lived in a house that was owned by John Muir,” Ma­cLeod said. “Muir wrote How to Keep Your Volk­swa­gen Alive: A Man­ual of Step by Step Pro­ce­dures for the Com­pleat Id­iot. He made a for­tune with that book. It was a big old hip­pie house and peo­ple would come and visit Bill and would say, ‘We love it here. We love your life­style. We’re go­ing to move to San Miguel.’ And they would leave their suit­cases. Bill said that one time he ended up with about 20 suit­cases and th­ese peo­ple were not com­ing back so he started open­ing the suit­cases and us­ing the ma­te­rial. He did a lot of wrapped pieces made with the old clothes and shoes that peo­ple left.”

In his fi­nal years, de­spite be­ing in the wheel­chair, Ge­or­genes re­mained lively and en­gaged with mak­ing art un­til he he be­came un­able to do so be­cause of com­pli­ca­tions from his ill­ness. “Peo­ple loved Bill,” she said. “He lis­tened to peo­ple. He was in­ter­ested in peo­ple. He talked to them and re­ally cared about them. Grow­ing up in that TB sana­to­rium and see­ing peo­ple die — I mean, he told me this story once that, when he was young, he’d see the nurses bring­ing in this screen and he’d say, ‘What’s that?’ ” Ge­or­genes would won­der why, af­ter the screen came in, a pa­tient al­ways seemed to van­ish, never to re­turn. “‘Where did he go?’ ” Ma­cLeod said he would ask the nurses, “and they would say ‘He went home.’ Of course, that meant the per­son died. So he’d see the screen com­ing and he’d say ‘Over here, over here. I want to go home.’ If you be­lieve in karma, what­ever he did in his last life, I think he made up for it in this life.”


▼ Wil­liam Ge­or­genes; through Feb. 14 ▼ 5. Gallery, 2351 Fox Road #700 ▼ www.5point­, 505-257-8417

Hol­ly­wood Dream ,2004,mixed-me­di­aassem­blage

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