Thursday, May 17, 2012

Robert Hanson, Artist: A sister's memoir of life with her brother, 1946-1968

High School graduation picture 1955.
"When I first met Bob, he came to school wearing a jacket and tie.  He looked essentially like a businessman -- remember, this is an art school. And he always carried with him The New York Times and The New Yorker under his arm." [Artist Judy Cooke, his wife]

Anyone who knew my brother would acknowledge his art and his teaching of it were extraordinary. The intelligence and knowledge he could bring to bear upon a student work was memorable to his students, his observations unbelievably far-ranging and perceptive, and he could whip up in a quick sketch an illustration of just what he was talking about--he could draw what he meant to say as well as say it. Invariably his outlook would be positive, encouraging, and full of humor, never didactic or pretentious. He was great at what he did and in who he was as a human being, but aiming at being called great, either as an artist or as a teacher, was never what his life was about. 

He loved his art for its own sake--especially his wonderful little cartoons which he would draw in an instant when something ironic struck him, and which you just loved immediately. I always wanted to be just like him. I am happy that I was one of his first models: I have such clear memories of sitting still for him at age three or four (it is hard to do that at that age, but I loved doing it.)

Robert Jackson Hanson, aged ten in 1947, in front of our grandparent's house in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, where we lived during and after the war until moving to Virginia in 1949.

All of the above description of him as a teacher is based on projecting into the future what I knew of him to be true from my earliest recollections in 1947 or '48, when I was three or four, until 1968 when he left the East Coast (by then just New England) to go out west. I remember him, in other words, as he was from about age ten or eleven to when he was in his early thirties.  Most would remember him as an artist and teacher, but I think of him as being very capable of  so much more too--he was a great mimic, a great actor, scholar, writer, even a great athlete. 

Athlete?  Who would have known? Any of these things he could have pursued professionally, but he chose art--lucky art world! When my brother told my father he was dropping out of UVA majoring in history and into the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts in 1959, my mother related to me with a chuckle (I was not there), that our father had told Robert "Well, you better be a damned good one!"  He was that.  I suppose our father thought he would have a hard go of it making a living as an artist; but he managed to do even that well too.

Our father was a landscape architect who worked for the National Park Service designing national parks and recreation areas all over the country. Among his more successful designs was the placing of the trees around the Statue of Liberty, for which he earned a citation. "The Statue of Liberty is surrounded by my trees,"wrote my father to me, along with the citation it earned.

Trees around the Statue of Liberty, whose placement was designed by Park Service Landscape Architect Hodge Jackson Hanson, the artist's father.
Our father was not just an architect--he also was an artist with amazing drawing skills. There is no doubt our father had a great influence on Robert for his first five years, both in drawing and in fishing:

Midwest plowing scene drawn from memory by the artist's father Hodge Jackson Hanson.
It was due to our father's job that he and my mother and brother lived in different parts of the country before I was born, and it accounted for my brother being born in Washington D.C. and my being born in Maine. Before the war, our parents and my brother lived in Marblehead, Massachusetts and in Denver, Colorado among other places. 

Blazo-Leavitt House on the North Road at "Blazo's Corner," built in 1812 on land first settled by the artist's great, great, great, great grandfather in 1778.  

It was always to Parsonsfield, Maine, where our mother's family had lived since 1778 that we returned every summer. Specifically, it was to "Blazo's Corner"in North Parsonsfield we returned. The house had sixteen rooms and ten fireplaces. Generations of our family living in that house (six) had never thrown anything away, and so we grew up steeped in family stories and artifacts.  Thus, though Robert was born in Washington DC and later attended Christchurch School School and UVA in Virginia, we were really from Maine and as Yankee as could be--not southerners as you might think if you were me--it took me years to figure this out. Indeed, our house and Parsonsfield Seminary (across the road, family-connected) had been part of the Underground Railway until the Seminary was burned down in 1857. It was the one place, until our mother was forced to sell it in 1973, we always returned to.

When WWII broke out our father was in the Naval Reserves and was called up. He was made a Commander in the Pacific and ran a rest and recreation island for battle-fatigued marines on the island of Mog Mog. While he was away, our mother moved into her parents's house in Morrisville, Pennsylvania. Our grandfather, Robert Greenleaf Leavitt was the head of the biology department at New Jersey State Teacher's College and Professor of Botany emeritas at Harvard, where he taught in the summer school. He died in 1942. While we lived in our grandparent's house, my brother took art classes in Trenton. It was there he learned this concept, to quote Robert himself:

"The planes in my drawings should be elusive, and shift about. I need to leave breathing room, lots of white paper. I like to leave escape routes, ways out and into the drawing. No filled-in coloring books for me. No stained glass windows."  

As children we were not allowed to have coloring books (I felt deprived), and our mother told me the reason was because Robbie's teachers told him they were bad for children. You were supposed to draw your own pictures and color those (blah! That was fine for my brother who was talented I thought to myself. What about me? I loved coloring books.  My brother could, and probably would, make a funny cartoon out of that).

Robert Greenleaf Leavitt, Ph.D. Harvard, the artists grandfather, his namesake,  maternal grandfather.

Our grandfather, until his death in 1942, had a huge influence on my brother. As a researcher and teacher, he was a great observer of nature, a sketcher of plants, a writer, an author of books (Forest Trees of New England, and Leavitt's Outlines of Botany) and articles, and a very popular teacher--he was also very witty, according to all the stories, master of the bon mot. Our parents named my brother  after our grandfather (though his wife and friends always have called him Bob, in our family we always called him Robert, our mother always calling him "Rob.") He took him for many walks among the trees and plants, showing him and teaching him--I can only imagine the effect of those walks. I believe some of my brother's well-known gentle ways were learned from his grandfather. Our mother too was the gentlest of people, and Robert was much like her in that way. It was Robert who took care of our parents when they grew old.

Our grandfather was born in the house in Parsonsfield, as was his mother, our great grandmother, the protagonist of our uncle Robert Keith Leavitt's book about her The Chip On Grandma's Shoulder. When I say our grandfather influenced my brother greatly I mean in person certainly, for the first five years of his life; but I also mean the stories about him and the things he left behind--his books, microscope, papers and drawings--influenced us both. The house in Parsonsfield was full of people who had lived and died and left stories and relics of their lives behind them there for us to discover.  And these people who had lived in this house, our mother's family, abounded in artists and writers in particular.  

Our uncle Robert Keith Leavitt was a writer by vocation, but an artist by avocation--his paintings, prints, and drawings were there. Our grandfather's first cousin (who also lived in the house in Parsonsfield all her life) Maude Browne Varney, was a professional portrait artist. (My brother was not a portrait artist--but he had access to many fine portraits in various stages of development in that house in Parsonsfield.) Susan, our great grandmother, played piano, and painted; her sister Emily painted as well. It would have been strange if Robert Hanson had not been an artist, teacher, writer, or scholar. He was all of those and came to all of that naturally enough. We formed our feeling toward and thoughts about all these people as a result of reading what they had written and hearing stories from our mother and grandmother constantly about what they had done. It was like being handed a mythology about our ancestors and they were all interrelated somehow. It took us decades to figure out how.

My brother and I found these sketches (the one in the middle of our Uncle Russell, our mother's brother) in the closet of the Southeast bedroom of the house, the one on the second floor closest to the camera in the photo of the house.
In 1949 our grandmother sold our house in Morrisville, Pennsylvania and we--my mother, my brother, my grandmother and I--moved to Charlottesville, Virginia so that our mother could work on her degree in history and geography there. I attended Charlottesville schools and Robert was sent to Christchurch school for six years, from 1949 to 1955 when he graduated. 

Robert Hanson and Mimi Hanson on the banks of the Rappahannock River at Christchurch
 School,Christchurch, Virginia, Fall of 1951. Near here, my brother told me, 
he and his schoolmates found many arrowheads.

(But it was to Parsonsfield, Maine we returned every summer. )

Now, instead of spending time in Woods Hole and in Parsonsfield, we spent part of our summers in Orono, Maine where the University of Maine was, so that our mother could continue her studies there. We lived in South Apartments just off campus, which were old Army barracks with ice chests in them and wooden fire escapes. Whether in Parsonsfield on West Pond, or at Gilman Falls in Old Town, near Orono, my brother was always fishing. He was, of course, a great fisherman. 

Mimi Hanson and Robert Hanson summer of 1951 on the south lawn of the house in Parsonsfield, showing his sense of humor (he fought the large bass for half an hour off Sunken Island in West Pond, and I caught the sunfish:  he let me hold his fish for the picture) This picture also shows his dark, olive complexion against my very fair one. His dark skin earned him the nickname "Ludge"--short for "Luigi" because it made him look Italian in the eyes of his schoolmates.

Robert Hanson, aged thirteen, at South Apartments at the University of Maine 
showing fish caught at Gilman Falls near Old Town Maine, summer of 1950. 
The white buildings in the background were the old army barracks summer students
 and their families were housed in.  Estabrook Hall in the distance.
Robert flourished at Christchurch School in Virginia. He was very popular, not least because, I suspect, he was a great mimic and could make everyone laugh. Mr. Yarborough was the teacher he always talked about, someone who obviously encouraged him in writing, history, and literature, perhaps passed on wisdom of the kind respected teachers do, usually modeling it themselves. He excelled at sports, being a very fast runner, an excellent tennis player, and played varsity football as a very fast running end--he explained football and T formations to me at an early age. 

Robert also was a great actor:  he won the Best Actor of the Year award (a ham) for five years in a row at Christchurch. I still have vivid memories of the play he took the lead in, "Submerged," the story of the captain who had himself shot to the surface to show the sea patrol where the submarine was submerged--I was totally engaged. The following year at UVA he joined the drama group and acted in "Saint Joan"--again I was thrilled. I was then about twelve or thirteen. 

He took me to football games, where I saw YA Tiddle play, and Roger Stauback; he also took me to see Louis Armstrong play at UVA--unforgettable. By then he was very much into jazz, and tried both the trombone (like Tommy Dorsey) and clarinet (like Benny Goodman). He must have done something with the trombone, but he left me with the clarinet, which I still have. He loved dancing and dances, and music. He loved films. He loved reading, the Hornblower series in particular. He loved to dance.

At UVA he also went on with both tennis and boxing. He was a bantam-weight boxer, 5' 7 and 135 lbs. --pure muscle. About that time he found out, when he went to register for the draft, that his eye-sight (by which he would make his living) disqualified him for ever becoming a Navy Seal (an early ambition nipped in the bud--laughable later when he joined the anti-war resistance of the late Sixties). He was, as I am, extremely near-sighted. 

It is not surprising to me that my brother was such a good athlete:  our grandfather had been the intercollegiate pole vaulting champion at Harvard, and had won cups for high jumping and broad jumping as well. Our great grandfather had been a champion wrestler who had had to out-wrestle one of his students up in Aroostook County Maine) when he the teacher (younger than the student) was having trouble imposing discipline in the early 19th c.  It seemed natural that my brother was good at running and jumping, wrestling, boxing, tennis, all of these things.  

 Robert taught me how to whittle, shoot marbles, work a yo-yo, aim pea shooters, make slingshots from rubber tires, tree boughs and leather, box, kick and throw a football, row, fish and make charcoal for drawing. He showed me how to burn matches slowly to make charcoal for drawing with. He used pen knives to sharpen graphite pencils, and made very fine points. He and I practiced using our great great grandfather's quill pens we found.

Anything requiring large motor skills he mastered, and anything requiring the small motor skills he mastered in spades. His hands were beautiful and I liked seeing how he could move just the tips of his fingers when he was drawing if he wanted to.  He always seemed to excel and come up to the Olympian standards our family's athletic myths held forth.  His art was really athletic ability writ small.

He filled the shoes of Robert Greenleaf Leavitt, wonderfully, both in life and in death. My uncle, describing my grandfather's death (he was lucky enough to die at Blazo's Corner) wrote:

"He was walking on the road between the old house at Blazo's Corner and Maude Varney's, a few hundred feet away when life left him, one might say in a way characteristic of him, quietly and without bothering anyone.."

This might as well have been said of my brother.  We were, and are, as a group very private, never complaining--Stoic. He was this.

In Orono, during the summer from 1949 through 1955, it was the great water colorist and head of the UMO art department Vincent Hartgen discovered him, at age thirteen, and took him into his college art classes in the summer school. He was beyond the rest of us (in the children's art classes at UMO's Carnegie Hall), and Hartgen recognized it.

Watercolor painted by Robert around 1950 in Vincent Hartgen's class at 
the University of Maine in Orono.

This living in Maine and Virginia not consecutively, but simultaneously, was a very rich experience educationally for us both--it had to be. For my brother in particular, who vacationed in Charlottesville, Virginia and lived at Christchurch, Virginia, then migrated every summer to Orono, Maine, and Parsonsfield, Maine, it must have been even more enriching. Credit goes to our mother, the perennial student who drove us back and forth between these states every spring and fall; and our grandmother, Ida Ruggli Leavitt, who endured the trips so her daughter could get her degree and (now divorced from our father) support the family.  

Our grandmother was the one, helped by child support payments from our father, who supported our little family and tried to make her small investments in the stock market grow while we lived on the interest. She was a Radcliffe graduate, Class of '01, and had met our recently-widowed grandfather when he was her professor there (Radcliffe employed Harvard professors it was explained to me). 
Ida Gertrude Ruggli Leavitt, our mother's mother,  at graduation from Radcliffe in 1901,
magna cum laude. She lived with us and taught me Latin and Algebra in her mid 80s. She died in 1958.

Her youngest sister had also graduated from Radcliffe, Eva Ruggli, in the Class of 1905, along with Helen Keller--my brother and I first heard about Keller not in school but from our grandmother who had been in some of her classes with her. Another sister, Clara Ruggli, who was partially deaf from Scarlet Fever, had graduated from Amherst and eventually got a Masters degree from Harvard; still another, Louise Ruggli, the oldest, had gone to law school before the turn of the century, but was ultimately intimidated by the male dominated constituency of the Boston legal community. They were all unmarried and had no children of their own, and so doted on our mother, our grandmother's one surviving child (of two born to our grandmother), and on us. On my brother in particular he said, and I had to say no they liked me best:  they took us to museums, art exhibits, open air fruit, fish and vegetable stands, the theater, movies, Schrafft's candy store, the fireworks on the Fourth. Aunt Eva taught us all canasta; Aunt Clara gave me my first camera.

Our grandmother and all her sisters and one brother were Unitarians (of the First Parish of Cambridge), first generation Americans born to Bavarian and Swiss immigrants who arrived in Cambridge in the 1850s. They were upwardly mobile first- generation Americans--going to college, working as social workers, teachers and law clerks (our grandmother clerked in the offices of Justice Brandeis years before he joined the Supreme Court). They were suffragettes, marching for the vote (and winning it) in 1920. We loved them all, but especially we loved Aunt Eva. Especially, I think, we loved their sharp outspokenness and utter tactlessness, and the way each felt she was right; and the way they loved us and gave us chocolate and pears and turkey and books. And they always imparted their knowledge and learning to us. How lucky we felt!
l-r: Aunt Clara, Aunt Eva, our grandmother Ida and our great grandmother Eva Ursula Ruggli;
Uncle Ed, the only  surviving male child of Grandma Ruggli's twelve children,
and our grandmother's best friend among her siblings, stands behind them.

The artist's beloved Aunt Eva,  Radcliffe '05, Chemistry teacher at the
Cambridge Rindge and Latin school for four decades.
The artist's beloved Aunt Clara, Amherst College graduate and Harvard, M.S.,
teacher at the Agassiz School, Cambridge for many decades, world traveller.

Eva Ursula Naumann Ruggli, "Grandma Ruggli," the artist's great grandmother, 
mother of twelve (six survived) who came over from Bavaria when she was only fourteen and with her Swiss husband Joseph Anton Ruggli raised sic children in Cambridge, one of whom married her professor at Radcliffe and gave birth to the artist's mother.

Not many months before my brother died, he wrote to me (we wrote to each other always, and we were at the time exchanging old letters from the archives) "You can have the Blazo's, but the Ruggli's are all mine!" He claimed them--and they certainly loved him. Between Maine and Virginia, throughout the years, we had always visited them, and in the summers too. After my brother decided to enroll in The Boston Museum School of Fine Arts in 1959, he saw a lot of Aunt Eva, who lived until 1968, the same year he went out west. If we had never made that yearly trek back and forth from Virginia to Maine we might never have visited them--but we did and so the strange migratory life that we came to think of as so normal actually did pay off in the long run (no pun intended).

After Robert enrolled in the museum school he did a lot of self portraits and drawings.
This one would make him about twenty-four. 

It did not seem remarkable to me that he won prizes at school year after year for his drawing. I had been watching his drawing since I was a very young child:  I called it scribbling, how he drew--now that style is properly called "kenetic." I tried very hard and unsuccessfully to imitate it. I knew at a very young age I could not approach even into the foothills of his ability to turn those scribbles into looking exactly like things in the real world. I could only draw horses and trees. He drew whole battlefields of Army men--he could draw anything. He was constantly at it.  His favorite artists were the EC comic artists, the ones who illustrated Tales from the CryptThe Vault of Horror,  Weird ScienceWeird Fantasy, Two-Fisted Tales,  and Mad--he would enthusiastically show me the illustrations and I too would marvel at the beautiful drawings. He had a fit when my mother told me she had thrown them out years ago, when he asked for them--how was she to know they were him primary models for good drawing, valuable relics of an age when great art could be bought for a dime?

He famously drew women. I think that was because he loved women--and they loved him. This was true always, and I have evidence it wasn't just my prejudiced impression that girls liked him. Here he is showing off to a whole crowd of girls, being funny (he is the one in front with the striped shirt, the rest are all little girls being amused by his antics):


Some of that must have come from having so many women in his life who were admirable in more ways than simply being female. Our grandmother and our great aunts were all intellectual giants with strong political views and prejudices, strongly and loudly stated by each. Our great grandmother Grandma Ruggli was some kind of matriarch. Our own mother--very feminine and very strong-minded--was ultimately an English history scholar, very well educated, steeped in the classics, and a great writer. 

This letter from my best childhood friend who knew Robert when he was a young teenager will help render my brother in his true role--someone adored by younger children. She was responding to the news of his death after December 16, 2011, reflecting on a Robert first known when he was thirteen (she lived across the street) until he was about twenty-one when he was enrolled in UVA as a history major:

Dear Mimi,--Thank you for letting me know.  I hadn't seen Robert (I can't say Bob, he'll always be Robert) since the days when he was dating Terry Molyneaux, I guess when he was a first year at UVA and she (several years older than I) at St. Anne's - I don't remember much about that but I vividly remember the earlier era of sports and fort building and the wonderful drawings he was doing as a 12 or 13-year-old, including of course the one of us tomboys kicking dolls.  I do think of him as having a quiet sense of humor even at that age, which he probably needed living in a household of strong and outspoken women.  The highest honor any of us younger ones could aspire to was to be lent one of his tools/weapons/toys, which he was generous with.  I vaguely remember losing something he had lent me once and spending a night of tears and terror wondering how I would explain it.  He was very nice about it the next day, and my admiration was boundless from then on."

I have an early memory of my brother having me sit very still not moving so he could draw me, and my mother walking in and startling me so that I moved--that made the memory. I wish I had the pictures he drew then, I probably would have seen a good glimpse of me. I think he was truly interested in capturing some kind of thing he saw in people which he was somehow able to draw than relate in words (though he could do that too--and he became better and better at doing this. He moved on past realistic rendering, the merely anatomically correct, those his are at very least that too, into identity. At least that is my impression. Identity as an actor in a scene based on real life--that is, his drawings are in a way character-establishing the way actors create characters in a scene.

I remember how he spread out the products of his silk-screening all over the parlor (first room on the left entering the South-facing front door of the house in Parsonsfield--it contained our 1849 Emerson grand piano forte. He had his pictures draped out all over the piano and bookcases and chairs and on the carpet. He explained the whole process of silk-screening to me (I was seventeen he was about twenty-four)--I plan, when I exhibit paintings next summer, to say I studied with Robert Hanson. His silk screens were for a senior project, a short book--his illustrated Canterbury Tales Prologue. Here are some of the results:

In a long poem about the house I wrote for my children, hoping to describe every part of it since most had never lived in it, I described how my brother and I would go down cellar to bring up kerosene for the stove in the new kitchen. Here is this part, and the "she" in it is me--I refer to myself ("Mimi') in the third person. It shows perfectly, I think, how he would try to creep me out when we went down there.

I mean
To show you underneath the house.  There Mimi's been
With her big brother only--cobwebs never phase

Him--or the spiders, or the damp and creepy smell--
When they went down together there to get the oil,
The kerosene, from that old tank where it was kept.
She followed him with flashlight flickering, and crept
Along behind him down the stairs, the stairs that coiled
In crooked narrowness into a sort of well

Of darkness there.  Sometimes he'd open up the door
Outside, and let the sunshine in; more often not.
They'd go together cautiously--or he would stop
And scare her with a yell ("What's that??!!!"); or else he'd drop
His flashlight suddenly and laugh at her--he brought
Her with him just to try to scare her.  There the floor

You see, was dirt, and musty-smelling like a grave
(He'd tell her this) as they went down to get the oil.

The last thing he wrote to me before he died was "Thanks for the walks." I do believe he meant the ones we took to West Pond to go swimming and fishing. This is it:
West Pond, Parsonsfield, Maine



  1. Replies
    1. You are there everywhere I look Tone! You see this West Pond picture? Good small mouth bass, pickeral, and perch out there! :-) Thanks for responding.

  2. On reading, I realize we all have wonderful memories if we but choose to remember.