Monday, July 16, 2012

My Friend Seymour

Three years ago this summer I lost a friend.  I first encountered Seymour about sixteen years ago when I moved into his neighborhood.  I saw him often on the street during the late afternoons while I was out planting flowers, weeding, washing windows or polishing the old brass knocker on our front door.  He’d come trudging around the corner in all sorts of weather wearing what looked like old military pants and some type of well-worn shirt or untidy jacket – most often with a tattered rucksack on his back. 
Although his house was just three doors down from mine, I didn’t initially realize he was my neighbor with that three-day scruff of beard, his statement clothing and disinclination to make eye contact or smile.  I think having another house on the block fall to cheerful, industrious yuppies made him cranky.  Who were we to waltz in making our grand improvements and driving up the cost of houses and taxes in the neighborhood?  We hadn’t braved the prostitutes and drug dealers and robberies of decades past – we hadn’t earned our right to recognition…yet.

There is a tiny apartment building at the end of our street – next door to what was Seymour’s house – that has space on its first floor for a small business.  My husband and I finally began to earn our “cred” with Seymour when a series of unsuitable businesses tried to rent the space.  It wasn’t zoned for those businesses, but unless someone kicked up a fuss and organized the block, they probably would have come in.  Having the most on the line, Seymour went door to door gathering support to block the tenancy and we were happy to support him – and so finally move up a notch in his estimation.

A few more years passed and we continued to come together in support of, or opposition to, one neighborhood issue or another and I now had a vague idea that Seymour had done something in his career with art restoration or graphics or something.  I was aware that at one point he had worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, so whatever it was he did, or used to do, he must be, or have been, pretty good at it. 

Wandering around the city one weekend in June I came across the Rittenhouse Square Art show for the first time.  It’s quite an event.  The entire park is lined with talented artists from around the country - selling their work over the course of three days.  As I wandered from one slick, tented display to another, I was distracted by the most exquisite little paintings that were displayed clothespinned to a rope and strung between two trees.  The paintings were a combination of elegant still life works and gritty street scenes of disappearing neighborhoods.  They were rich and detailed with the sort of colors that bring to mind Modigliani or Vermeer.  Then a movement caught my eye and I noticed the artist.  It was Seymour.  I stood with my mouth open in complete and utter astonishment and then demanded to know whether this was, indeed, his work.  He ducked his head, jammed his hands into his pockets and kicked at the grass with one foot, looking exactly like a six year old accused of filching a piece of the cherry pie you were saving for dessert.  He blushed and muttered something to indicate a “yes” and the words “Seymour, who knew you were hiding the heart and soul of a true romantic behind that gruff exterior?” flew right out of my mouth.  He turned a deeper shade of blush-red and we bonded for life right there on the spot.

Each year found one or two more of Seymour’s lovely paintings added to our collection.  He made me promise I would never pay more to frame one of his pieces than I’d paid for the art.  Something of a challenge considering the cost of framing and the fact that he always insisted on charging a “friends and neighbors” price he seemed to make up on the spot depending on how well he knew you or whether or not you were a starving student.

Seymour stopped entering Art in the Park several years before his death.  Maybe the rigors of setting up for the show got to be too much, but I suspect the exacting hoops he was required to jump through to re-enter each year (though he’d been a participant for many, many years) demoralized him.  What had begun in 1932 with a small group of Philadelphia art students as “The Clothesline Show” had now morphed into the chic Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show, something alien to Seymour’s egalitarian soul I'd guess.

His son has been in touch recently…with a request that I photograph several of our Seymour Rotman paintings for a project he’s working on.  I’m happy to help -- it’s given me the opportunity to remember my friend and look closely at our paintings once again.  One of my very favorites is a small self portrait I nearly had to fight him to buy.  Seymour couldn’t understand what I might possibly want with such a thing – but it perfectly captures the qualities I saw in him – depth and intelligence, some unknown pain or sadness and a crankiness tempered by kindness and generosity.  

As I return home each day from these sometimes gritty Philadelphia streets, I am met by the steady gaze of Seymour’s self portrait.  I am grateful for its artistry as well as its reminder not to judge a book by its cover – but instead, to take some time to read more deeply into one another's story and find something within to treasure.

SEYMOUR ROTMAN 1929 - 2009
"Every year when I exhibited at the annual Rittenhouse Art exhibition, a lovely petite lady would arrive at my booth and painstakingly look through each and every one of my paintings. After a very long time during which not a word passed between us, she would look at me and smile broadly with approval. I later learned that she was Violette deMazia, the longtime curator of the Barnes Foundation."
Seymour Rotman, a North Philadelphia native, fought in the Korean War as a young man.  Upon his return home, he was awarded a full scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in recognition of his artistic talent.  As a student at PAFA, he won a series of traveling fellowships that allowed him to refine his artistic skills in Mexico and Europe.  His talent has been recognized and honored throughout his career by colleagues, mentors and teachers.

For an history of what I call Art in the Park, click here

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Chocolate Croissant

Several years ago a dear friend sent us the gift of three months of croissant.  Sounds a bit odd, I know – that’s what I thought too -- but I figured they were worth a try.  After all, since the charming French owner of Au Fin Palais disappeared without a trace some years ago, the only suitable place to get my favorite pastry has been Paris.  The “thing” we call a croissant here in the States is bland, boring, tough, nearly tasteless and with greasy dough that refuses to flake as it should – it is a travesty to compare them to the heavenly French version. 

The gift croissant turned out to be very special.  You order them (gasp!) frozen through Williams Sonoma and they cost nearly an arm and a leg with shipping.  I’ve had to work out how reasonable they are compared to a plane ticket to Paris in order to justify stocking my freezer with them.  A little advance planning is required to enjoy them.  They must be left out overnight to rise, loosely covered with a piece of parchment paper before baking them in a hot oven. 

Just the smell of them baking is worth the cost – bringing to mind romance, little corner patisseries, bowls of fresh, strong coffee and leisurely walks along tree-lined boulevards.  It gets even better.  When you bite into one of the crisply browned confections you literally have to shake your head to clear the illusion that you are, indeed, in Paris.  They are that perfect combination of light on the outside, but chewy inside and they flake all over your plate and your now buttery fingers and lips.  Oh, and the chocolate (you were wise enough to order the chocolate, certainly) is dark and smooth and decadent!

All of that is marvelous and I’m always happy to share my favorite foods, but I’m not sure this story would have qualified as blog worthy until this weekend.  I had a houseguest, so I took two croissant from the freezer on Sunday night, covered them with parchment paper and left them to rise in the cool oven overnight in preparation for our breakfast the following morning.  I then promptly proceeded to forgot all about them through the next day and the day after that too, because we’d gotten busy and talked a lot and eaten out.  I didn’t remember the poor sad deflated little things until Tuesday night when I started dinner.  Surely, they were ruined!   I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away however…it was just too sad to contemplate…such a waste.  Since the oven was on anyway, after dinner I thought, what the hell?  Pop them in and see what happens.

Don’t ask me how it’s possible, but fifteen minutes later they came out of the oven light, flaky, buttery and oozing with chocolate as always.  Maybe not quite as good as usual, but anything that can withstand that amount of neglect and still make an impressive showing deserves notice.  We polished off our unplanned dessert and dreamed of Paris that night.

It only seems fair to share the Williams Sonoma link for croissant