Chester Martin Remembers Cym's Art Classes At Kirkman

Tuesday, November 3, 2015
Chester Martin
Chester Martin

After it was decided that I was going to Kirkman Vocational High School, I was very positive about the decision. Mrs. Huffaker's husband was principal there and so I felt comfortable that things would go smoothly. Miss Newcomb, Art teacher at Brainerd Junior High School, had inspired me irrevocably toward the field of Art, where I entered with anticipation.

Mrs. Huffaker had spent some time telling my mom and me about the new Art teacher there, Stephen A. Harding. Stephen, we learned, was from New York City where he had already acquired a full resume of accomplishments. He was, for example, a director of plays (the off-Broadway sort, and was capable of building stage scenery, etc., besides being a full-fledged visual artist. So it was with great positivity that I started in his classes.   What I found from day one was a most interesting mix of students - each with his own idea of what "Art" entailed. There was a good list of "Special Students", who were chiefly adults who had been deprived of an art education in their younger days, or who wished to improve their skills. These lucky people were immune from academic classes, but, of course, had to be supervised by Mr. Harding to see that they were making progress.

Another group was the World War II vets who were attending on the G.I. Bill, and also were able to do pretty much as they pleased. In all my school experience I have never known a more enthusiastic and serious group of students. And yet another group was the upper classmen, who, again, did much as they pleased, but under a much closer scrutiny by the teacher. One of these students, George Thompson, had developed a truly wonderful "way" with charcoal drawing, oils, or whatever. In those days - before the Modernist School had hit Chattanooga - it was a "given" that Art students everywhere had to learn to draw from plaster casts, study human anatomy, 3-point perspective, Art history, and all the Academic subjects. George would spend hours "blocking in" these casts on a full sheet of charcoal paper and proceed to shade it in as he saw fit, to bring out all the details with their proper relationships to one another. There was the cast of a lion's head in the room, and this was one of the several tasks he set for himself. He kept his "chamois" (leather-skin eraser) busy, drawing and re-drawing parts of the head in as large a scale as his 22" x 18" paper permitted.

Harding would  come around (not too frequently) to sit down and look at the work from the artist's perspective. He would take the charcoal and study the subject, sometimes saying, You're off HERE, and make a mark to indicate where the error was. No attempt was made to correct the student, graciously leaving that to the student. Harding treated everyone pretty much the same - except for the girls of the class, whom he did not seem to like. But that is another story... Other plaster casts included an "ecorche" figure, showing all the human musculature, small reproductions of Classical Greek and Roman figures, and facial features cast directly from Michelangelo's "David". We drew as many of these as possible between regular assignments. When Harding left Kirkman High School he called me up and gave me that anatomical ecorche, and I still have it in my studio.  

Others of the class - mainly the Special Students and Seniors - were into oil painting. Freshmen were not allowed to work in oils because there was much too much to learn before we were deemed capable of handling that medium. So, from Day One at Kirkman Vocational High School I got the smell of Artists' oil paint into my system, never to be forgotten! To this day it is a joy for me to walk into any venue where the pleasant odors of turpentine, linseed oil, and oil paint are blended together. Sad that odorless Acrylic paint has taken over, and also Digital art. These latter two mediums have nothing to recommend themselves to the art purist, as did the oil technique. At least that is my own experience. 

Steve liked setting up still-lifes and would bring in personal effects from his own collection of small figurines, wondrous bric-a-brac, etc., which he kept at home, and perhaps adding fresh vegetables and fruits purchased that morning from a market. Sometimes, in the spring, he would add japonica or cherry blossoms. His arrangements were rarely simple, and so some of us elected just to do a partial view, as seen from our own angle of vision. Steve was also an aficionado of exotic fabrics, and so he would often add a delightful printed drapery to the background. Somewhere among my souvenirs I have a watercolor painting which depicts an oriental theme showing a small "camel" figurine, reflective vessel of some sort, and a piece of either Japanese or Chinese cloth as a backdrop. (This won a prize in a city-wide school art show. It was one of many such awards I received).

But Kirkman was a vocational school. We were expected to learn something which could later be translated into money. I had been impressed from the start by a middle-aged veteran who came to class every morning and cut a piece of white wrapping paper from a large roll that Mr. Harding kept for anyone to use. Everyone said this vet had been shell-shocked during the war, and he rarely spoke. Only his lettering brush spoke beautifully for him. He was learning the basic strokes used in hand lettering...first a line of 3" tall vertical strokes; maybe a whole sheet of these. Then, a sheet of horizontal strokes, followed later by semi-circles...first to the left and then to the right. Diagonals were added to the repertoire, and after perhaps weeks or months he put them all together. The result was a most beautiful sheet of perfect "Gothic" (a printers' term for letters without serifs) lettering, properly spaced and easily readable at a distance (which is a requirement for such work).

Being an impressionable young student, I was really "taken" with Rex Gennoe's work. I had to try it, of course, and although I pursued it passionately for a time it did not compare well with Rex's. I kept trying off and on throughout my Kirkman years, but never got as good as Rex. I never gave up, however.  (Even to this day I would love to sit down with a lettering brush and renew my old friendship with that art.)  Meantime, when I was later employed as a commercial artist, I learned to lay out lettering in pencil, and sometimes by Speedball pen. Pencil lettering, of course, involved nothing of the glamour of the freehand brush.

A young married lady at Vandsco Posters taught me the art of pencil lettering. She had developed her own methodology for drawing and spacing the letters, and I dubbed her alphabet "Jean Ryan Gothic". Sadly, Jean has been dead for "many years", according to her former sister-in-law. More on Jean elsewhere. Anyway, when I was much later employed by the U.S. Mint, I refreshed my memory of Jean's lettering techniques (mainly for achieving correct spacing of the letters), and applied it to my lettering for U.S. commemorative coins and medals.  

It is true that Kirkman's art department got called upon for many favors - even as individual artists frequently do. For example, I have already alluded to Harding's interest in the Theater. By what means the job came to us I do not know, but one year the relatively new Chattanooga Opera Association asked for help from our department. They needed scenery and other props. We were able to provide what they wanted, and a Chattanooga newspaper gave us a good deal of publicity for our help. It was a production of "Rigoletto", and one of our plaster casts was pressed into service for the skull Mephistopheles had to laugh over, Also, there were large imitation paintings we had to "fake" on organdy material, and I think everyone in the department had some role to play in this.

Also, throughout all four of my Kirkman years, Steve directed plays for the Frye Institute, a highly respected "endowed" organization, housed in a large building on Cherry Street in downtown Chattanooga. Tickets to the plays were free, and they went like wild-fire. So, Steve used his position as play-director to "commission" his Kirkman art department to create posters for the events. Only his most trusted Seniors were granted the honor to design the promotional material to be exhibited inside the Frye, and their work was amazingly professional. Each play, of course, had its own distinct theme, and some of the titles were, "The Importance of Being Earnest", "Cornzapoppin'", "Dracula", "Peg o' My Heart", etc. - all former Broadway plays. The amount of truly great commercial art generated by these plays and our art department was mind-boggling. And, I want to emphasize that it was all hand-done work. We had no computer or lesser machine to generate the work. Our highest-tech equipment was the silk-screen, which we used for smaller posters. The larger, more elaborate versions for display inside the Frye Institute were all hand-produced.  

In my Junior and Senior years, also, a business man from North Georgia would come to the department wanting signs for his "Sunset Motel", located on U.S. Highway 27 below Chickamauga. The man scavenged 2' x 3' cast-off enamelled metal panels from Samuels Stamping and Enameling Company, just across the Market Street Bridge. He would bring some panels to the department, wanting to get them lettered free. Steve took the job at first, as the practice would be good for us students., but soon he was cautioned that our free work could easily be "found out", and we would be in trouble with the local sign-painter's union. After some negotiating, I agreed to take the work, and do the painting at home. The man would pay me by the piece. It was fun, and, although the pay was minimal, I was right happy to get paid, and later see it along U.S. 27, reading, "Sunset Motel, __ miles". I painted these signs for a long time, and they outlasted the demise of the motel. I still secretly look for them when traveling the LaFayette Road. 

Another job came to me through the school: the A&P food stores needed someone to letter signs on paper for their four stores. I was given space in one of the executive offices to spread out my paints, brushes, water jars, etc. Mr. Marvin Abbott, the store manager (and a GOOD person), would give me the text for each set of signs, and, of course, I had free access to all the paper stock I needed. I continued doing these signs weekly until some time after I had left Kirkman and was already at the University.  

Throughout my four years at Kirkman H.S., Steve made sure we saw all the University art shows. They were always held downstairs below the University library, easily accessed from McCallie Avenue. We, the students, thoroughly enjoyed these shows, and we would discuss each work and tell what we either liked or didn't like about it. Sometimes we did not like the selections of the judge, but always tried to come away with a better understanding of Art in general. Steve frequently went with us to these shows and helped us in our thinking, as any good teacher should do. The smell of the oil paint was infectious, and I love to enter an art gallery to this day if only to enjoy the pleasant odor.                                              

In those much simpler days, we students were allowed privileges which would never be granted in this day and time. For example, we could ask Mr. Harding for permission to go out sketching. That was fun, and we usually came back with acceptable results. We would frequently go down to the river, which was only a couple of blocks  away. There was always a variety of "life" there that was worthy of being sketched - people fishing, boats of all descriptions, bridges, the landscape across the river, etc., etc. I was into watercolors and made some sketches in that medium. Another worthy place for sketching was inside the Courthouse. It was farther away than the river, but was really great for learning to sketch from life. The subject being drawn might move about abruptly, but always came back to the same position after a short time. When he had moved away from the desired pose, you simply drew another figure, waiting for him to move. By alternating in this manner it was possible to get good likenesses. Plus, it was fun, and nobody ever queried us as to what we were up to. Neither did anyone ever stop us while we were walking en-route to a sketching venue. I think we always had a written "pass", but nobody ever stopped us - that group of juveniles wandering the streets during regular school hours.... Could never happen in the 21st Century! 

Vaguely aware that we were supposed to be learning a "trade" which could soon be translated into a job, and livelihood, we would take note of the various sign-painters working out-of-doors in both hot and cold weather. In those days, there was a great deal more physical work than today. Signs had to be generated, NOT by a computer, but by HAND. We boys would watch and try to learn. The extra-large billboards were called "bulletins", and amounted to several day's work for a team of men. Sometimes, where a face or body was required, there would be one gifted painter who had established a reputation for doing figure work. Coca-Cola bulletins nearly always included such a figure - and our local artisans were excellent. There were numerous sign-shops in the city at that time - Ortwein, Faulkner, Regan, Daugherty, Wilmot, and many others. I was acquainted with Mr. Wilmot, who lived near the school, and he had worked in his younger days doing signs for oil companies in "Old Mexico", and he told me all about working in San Luis Potosi, Central Mexico. Throughout my life in the field of Art I have always been able to draw heavily on what I learned at Kirkman Vocational High School. I never got seriously into painting signs, although I did quite a few. There were areas, such as neon, that we learned nothing about as it was beyond the scope of our art department and our teacher, Mr. Harding.

Although highly tangential, I will relate a story which only recently emerged regarding a specific neon sign, very popular in the early 1950's. It is the now locally famous "Leaping Frog" neon window sign at the Ellis Restaurant, across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo. That is where my 1952 Class had our Senior Banquet. Mr. Jim Ortwein, CREATOR of the sign has recently been asked to help in the restoration of that frog's leap as one of Chattanooga's unique focal points!  Hope to see it hopping again soon!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

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