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Monday, February 05, 2007

Eric von Schmidt: Westporters Who Knew Him

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By Emily Hamilton Laux

Eric von Schmidt, the renowned Westport artist and folk musician who died Friday at the age of 75, was known to many, but a few Westporters had a special insight into him and his work.WestportNow.com Image
Howard Munce (l) with Eric von Schmidt in 2004. Contributed photo

Among them was Howard Munce, 91, a fellow Westport artist.

“I knew him from the age of 5,” Munce said. “In 1935, I was in the process of applying to the Pratt Institute, and I couldn’t have been more of an amateur.”

Someone in Westport suggested that Munce go see Harold von Schmidt, Eric’s father who was a very well known painter and illustrator, specializing in scenes of the American West.

‘Von’ was flourishing at the time,” Munce said.

“On the door of his studio (on Evergreen Avenue) was a knocker in the shape of a horseshoe. I knocked, and a distant voice told me to come in. Well, I opened the door and fell right over the model stand that was in the entrance.”

Harold von Schmidt reviewed Munce’s portfolio.

“It was my first smell of oil plaint. And also his studio was a wonderland of cowboy memorabilia,” Munce said.

“Well I stayed and stayed, even after his wife had rung her bell for lunch several times. I finally came out of the studio and found that my old Chevrolet had a flat tire.

“I jacked up the tire and got under the car, and then this little boy crawled under the car with me. Well that was Eric and he was 5 years old.”

Munce said he watched young von Schmidt grow up.

“Although he was not born in Westport, he took great pride in calling himself a ‘townie,’” Munce said.

“He played on the Staples football team—which his father coached—and grew up playing with the Saugatuck kids.”WestportNow.com Image
One of von Schmidt’s “Giants of the Blues” series. Emily Hamilton Laux for WestportNow.com

Both von Schmidt and Munce studied with the American painter Julian Levi, who taught at the Art Students League.

Munce spent summer of 1947 studying with Levi at Springs in East Hampton, N.Y.

“Eric had the most beautiful handwriting,” Munce recalled.

“He never stopped working. You could drive by his place on Evergreen Avenue any time of day or night and the lights were always on.”

Munce said of von Schmidt’s “Giants of the Blues” series of paintings that now hang at Staples High School:

“He knew history and knew that the history of jazz and blues was disappearing. For those paintings he did voluminous research on the musicians—the clothing, the hairstyles.

“Also he had a great knowledge of native Americans, one of most famous paintings is ‘Custer’s Last Stand.’”

Munce said he visited von Schmidt regularly. The last three times, von Schmidt was sleeping much of the time.

Westport artist Ann Chernow also knew von Schmidt well.WestportNow.com Image
Ann Chernow:  von Schmidt ‘s work was “always very emotional.” File photo

“His work was wonderful,” she said.

“It was always very emotional, which is something that may also have come from his music. He was a great painter and musician and it’s very rare to find someone with all of these talents.”

Chernow added: “Eric felt all of these things. His work was accessible and it was also very modern even though it was narrative.”

She said von Schmidt was never afraid to tackle any subject.

“His ‘9/11’ painting is magnificent,” Chernow said.

“You know it is very difficult to deal with tragedy artistically. If you go to the Holocaust museum you’ll see many abstract images.

“Events like 9/11 cannot easily be depicted with realistic imagery yet Eric did this in his painting. His work was heroic.”

I, too, knew von Schmidt, but only much more recently.

He was most significant as a visionary historian. Through his music and his painting, he breathed vitality into events and cultural ideas and trends in wonderfully new and creative ways.

For the last two decades he has painted prolifically. That light in his Evergreen studio was always burning.

He spent more late nights researching and preparing for his paintings as he did actually executing them. He did meticulous photo archival research for his “Giants” series.

Yet his paintings are vivid and fresh and fluid with life. I would even say they’re quite spiritual.

His “Giants of the Blues” figures are definitely spiritual.

In his “Custer’s Last Stand” and “9/11” paintings, he creates a moment in space and time with meaning that no photographer could ever hope to capture.

Posted 02/05/07 at 05:51 AM

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My husband, Kendall Smith, went to a workshop at Kirkridge Retreat Center in PA that Pete Seeger led.  Ken bought one of Pete’s books on music and playing the guitar and Pete autographed it for our son out in Berkeley, CA.  When Ken came home, he realized that Eric von Schmidt had illustrated it so he called up and went by Rick’s house and he graciously autographed it to our son.  Ken and I are so sad to hear that Rick has died, although we knew how difficult his struggle had been recently.  What a massive talent he had, and all of us have lost a national treasure, musically, artistically (and anyone can drop by Staples to see his wonderful “Giants of the Blues” paintings) and personally.  I knew his mom and dad (Von & Reb) and it’s the end of an era.  Eric von Schmidt will be sorely missed, but his music and art remain to soothe us.

Linda Gramatky Smith

Posted by Longtime Westporter on February 05, 2007 at 08:06 PM | #
 

I am pleased to read the fine articles on Eric Von Schmidt. I happen to reside in his former home in Siesta Key, FLorida. I am in the process of gathering info to apply for Historical Designation on my home. He was one of several famous and talented artists/ musicians that stayed or visited. I would like to get in touch with Caitlin and Megan if possible to help in completing my report.

Thank you

Posted by Julie Castelo on November 09, 2007 at 09:26 PM | #
 

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