I dropped out of high school in my senior year and a year went by in which I studied to be a beat
poet. I don’t remember writing much poetry that year, but I did a lot of reading and I rode my
bicycle around West Palm Beach and I smoked pot.
A friend had a plan to have a show on the public access cable TV station, but that never came
about. He lived in an old house in Palm Beach that had been the headquarters for an underground
newspaper that folded a couple of years earlier and we hadn’t yet figured out what it meant that
the sixties were over. He also had a plan to get a caravan of vans to make a road trip to the West
Coast, but that didn’t happen, either. He always had weed, though, so we smoked and watched
When summer came I took Greyhound to Chautauqua, New York, to take a writing seminar
conducted by a poet and an editor from some notable publishing house, I forget which one. The
poet was well known, for a poet, and was not a beat, but an academic who had translated Dante’s
Divine Comedy. He gave very interesting lectures that took very good poems apart to show how
The seminar was over in two weeks and I never showed the teachers any writing, because I was
intimidated by them, and the study of great poetry showed me how weak my own writing was. I
had signed up for a painting class also, but had low expectations, because high school art classes
had not worked out for me, or I didn’t work out for them, and I’d discovered Duchamp, which
confused me about art. Picasso died that year and that seemed significant, somehow, but I didn’t
Chautauqua Institute is a strange charming place—a gated community of 19th century wooden
buildings—a big fire trap, my cousin called it—where there were summer classes for people in
search of culture, and an orchestra made up of musicians from real orchestras on their summer
The art center smelled like turpentine and oil paint and was peopled with teenagers and retired
people and art students and weekend painters and the painting class was taught by an eccentric
from Connecticut named Revington Arthur who wore bermuda shorts, sandals, a sport shirt, and
a bucket hat like Gilligan’s. He was painter who made big surrealist pictures with hard edge
architectural forms. He used acrylic paint, and masking tape to make the edges. His young
assistant suggested I buy a sketchbook and pencil, since I had no supplies with me. I sat at a little
antique school desk and made a cartoonish drawing of a man being sucked into a TV set.
Revington was intrigued and Blair, the young assistant, and Bob, the older assistant, were also
Blair suggested I buy some acrylics and a painting pad and do a painted version of the drawing,
which I did.
On Friday, they hung the student work on a wall and Revington performed a critique. I had never
been interested in composition before, but the poetry lectures had prepared me to look at pictures
as something like poems in that all the elements work together.
In his critiques he would often suggest that a painting needed something else to make it
interesting and the example he came up with was invariably a cat.
“What if you had a CAT peering over his shoulder?” he would say, about some retiree’s first
attempt at portraiture.
Revington was very enthusiastic about Picasso—he pronounced the “a” like the “a” in “cat”—Pi-
Revington was the first person I met who had devoted his life to painting, He had studied with
Arshile Gorky at the Art Students League. He told me I should read Andre Breton. He was a
good teacher for me, because he encouraged me, and taught me to extend myself. I went back to
Chautauqua after trying to teach myself to paint and I felt I’d need to go to art school to learn the
skills I wanted and he recommended the Cleveland Institute of Art, which is where I went.
I visited him at Chautauqua a few years after I got my BFA.
“They fired me,” he said. He was now a “professor emeritus” and he had the same old studio in
the art center. He was working on a painting that had an elephant chained to a post.
“The elephant is us,” he said, “or we are the elephant.”
I remember watching him one day as he walked across the lawn toward his studio, along a grassy
ridge in his bermuda shorts, sandals, and bucket hat.
The cat following him completed the picture.