Monday, September 10, 2012

remy charlip, hooray for you!

when siena was about a year old, my sister lisa gave us a perfect day by remy charlip. in the book, what looks to be a father and son have a day's-worth of adventures - they eat breakfast, take a walk, meet friends for lunch, have a dance party, take a nap, paint pictures, read books, eat dinner, and go to sleep. remy's magical illustrations and simple, rhythmic writing ("invite some friends to eat some lunch / sing and dance with a friendly bunch") render the day perfect.

after a few reads of a perfect day, siena and i set out to our public library to find and fetch the rest of remy's books. we found, checked out, and read over and over fortunately, sleepytime rhyme, mother mother i feel sick send for the doctor quick quick quick, and, my favorite, little old big beard and big young little beard (or, as it's known 'round here, big beard and little beard). a year after lisa introduced me to remy charlip, i returned the favor by introducing big beard and little beard to lisa and jean's boys august and prosper.

sometime between reading a perfect day and big beard and little beard, i discovered that remy charlip spent thanksgiving 1951 and the summers of '52 and '53 at - where else? - black mountain college.

remy first learned about BMC through composer lou harrison, who, like remy, was a participant at reed college's summer institute of dance and theater in 1949. in fall 1951, remy accepted an invitation to visit BMC from harrison, then a faculty member at the college. remy drove with friends mc richards and david tudor in a car missing one door from new york city to black mountain, north carolina. from multiple accounts, remy was certainly at BMC for thanksgiving 1951.

remy returned to black mountain college in the summer of 1952. his most notable project / collaboration that summer was with john cage who, in addition to organizing what is now recognized as the world's first happening, was also working on sonatas and interludes, which he would eventually perform at BMC on august 16. remy designed the programs. as recounted in remembering black mountain college, remy made the programs out of cigarette papers: "I went to the print shop and set the whole text in the smallest possible type (8 pt). The type was so small, I had to use a magnifying glass and tweezers, and yet it filled the cigarette paper I printed it on. When I stacked all the programs up on the table near the entrance, they were less than a half an inch high. I placed matches and a bowl of tobacco next to them on the table. I arranged the seats in a circle looking in, with an ashtray on each seat, so that the audience could smoke their programs as they listened to the program" (p. 83).

it was the summer of 1953, though, that remy was part of history. when black mountain college invited dancer merce cunningham to take part in the college's 1953 summer institute, Merce agreed under the following conditions: he would not take a salary if four of his students (carolyn brown, remy charlip, jo anne melscher, and marianne preger simon) could spend the summer at BMC with free room and board. three other students (anita dencks, viola farber, and paul taylor) either paid tuition or received work-study scholarships. as mary emma harris notes in her landmark book the arts at black mountain college, "at Black Mountain Cunningham was able to have several weeks of concentrated work with both dancers and musicians without the distraction of parti-time jobs, hassles with unions, and the cost of studio space. The cavernous dining hall in which the dancers worked provided a flexible space for rehearsals and performances" (p. 234). that summer at black mountain college, the merce cunningham dance company, perhaps the most influential dance troupe in all modern dance, formed - and remy charlip was a part of it.

remy charlip was extraordinarily talented. his titles included dancer, choreographer, actor, costume designer, graphic designer, calligrapher, painter, mask maker, stage director and designer, educator, and, later, children's book author and illustrator. but the title that interests me the most was "food procurer." remy was an expert food thief.

in carolyn brown's wonderful book chance and circumstance: twenty years with cage and cunningham, we find remy in 1950, in the lower east side. putting into practice his experience as a costume designer, remy wears an army-surplus coat that "sported custom-made pockets that opened into cavernous inner linings ready to receive cartloads of produce from local grocery stores." brown continues: "Once a week for a month or two one winter, we gathered for dinner at 12 East Seventeenth Street in Merce's top-floor loft. A five-pound T-bone steak, brazenly dropped into the caverns of Remy's greatcoat, fed us all." later, she writes: "We rehearsed Thanksgiving Day, then a dozen or so people went to Merce's loft to address flyers for the season while John and M.C. and Nick [Cernovich] made a glorious dinner. The Thanksgiving turkey - mammoth size - was a gift from Remy and the A&P." brown concludes: "we felt guilty, but none of us ever said no to two-inch slabs of sirloin steak!" (quotes from pages 88, 89, 92, and 88).

as i'll explain in some future blog post, remy's food-lifting skills became essential learning during the 1950s at black mountain college. in fall 1954, due to dire financial realities, black mountain college moved out of its lower campus which included the kitchen and the dining room. also in fall 1954, farmer doyle jones quit. meals were no longer served. a steady stream of dairy, vegetables, and meat no longer existed. miraculously, for nearly two more years the college survived - partially, i think, from the kinds of skills BMC students may have learned from remy charlip.

last month, remy charlip died. for more on remy's remarkable life, see the obituaries in SFGate, the new york times, and publishers weekly (the last includes comments left by people who knew remy), as well as john held, jr.'s remy charlip: the art of being an artist in SFAQ online. remy was 83.

i marked remy's passing the only way i knew how: by taking siena to the downtown berkeley library and checking out some remy charlip books. when the elevator opened to the fourth floor, siena dashed to the rocket ship and i dashed to the C area. i found this:

siena and i borrowed some classics - mother mother i feel sick send for the doctor quick quick quick and, of course, big beard and little beard. we also checked out hooray for me!, a book remy co-authored with lilian moore that features the paintings of vera b. williams, who, among many other things, studied graphic arts from 1945 - 1949 at - where else? - black mountain college.

hooray for you, remy charlip, and thank you from me and we.