Sometimes the most memorable gift a father can leave is living by example. Mary Novaria’s dad and his appreciation for art is one such legacy.
My dad was a first generation Irish-American, who grew up playing stickball on the streets of New York. His father, a laborer from County Tyrone, had an 8th-grade education, never took his family to a museum, and didn’t play classical music in the home. The radio, which then was considered a luxury, was for listening to “Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy” and the New York Giants baseball games.
My father was in his 30s before going to the top of the Empire State building—he took out-of-town guests—and was well into adulthood before he became exposed to the treasures that lay behind the doors of MoMA or The Met.
By the time he became a full-fledged art lover, our family was living on the North Shore of Chicago. My dad left a longtime career in educational publishing and went into real estate. He enjoyed being his own boss, but worked long hours and often weeks at a time without a day off. Sometimes, when he decided he’d had enough, he’d pull my brothers and me out of school for the day and take us downtown to the Art Institute of Chicago. There’s a reason Ferris Bueller went there on his day off!
I felt grown up and sophisticated as my dad ushered us through the galleries. We usually gravitated toward the French and American impressionists, and each time he charged us with choosing three paintings we’d take home with us if we could. He wasn’t nurturing young art thieves, but trying to get us to fall in love with the likes of Renoir and Monet, Childe Hassam and Mary Cassatt.
On the way home from the city, he’d quiz us in the car. Why did you like that one best? What is similar about the three you chose? How do you think his or her work evolved over the years? My brothers and I would roll our eyes, but we played along and some of what we learned stuck—at least the appreciation of art, if not all the history and nuances of particular artists or styles.
When my dad was a young man, a couple of years out of high school, he joined a religious order and spent some time in France. I suspect his passion for painters was sparked there as he discovered the religious art of some of Europe’s great churches and cathedrals. More than 60 years later, after his death, I found a stack of vintage postcards he’d collected from some of those places including Sacré-Coeur and Notre Dame in Paris, and London’s St. Paul’s.
As my dad’s interest in art grew over the years, he’d check volumes out of the library to study various artists like Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, James McNeill Whistler. Originals of those artists were unattainable, but he’d buy high-quality prints and have them framed. The high ceilings of my parents’ empty-nest townhome allowed my dad to create a gallery, an homage to his favorite artists. I have a few of them—Whistler and Monet prints—in my own home now.
Our family attended the big local art show each Labor Day weekend in the Chicago suburb where we lived. One year my father discovered a gifted watercolor artist named Phil Austin and began collecting his work. They became friends, and we once visited his studio in Door County, Wisconsin. Those landscapes have now outlived the artist and both my parents; my brothers have a couple of them as tangible reminders of our dad’s legacy of art appreciation.
I can almost sense my dad’s pleasure whenever I spend time in a museum. A few years ago, I was at the Tate Modern in London on Father’s Day. After strolling through the galleries until my feet hurt, I had a glass of wine in the café and silently thanked my father for having instilled in me a delight in and curiosity about art and artists. Just the other day, my husband and I visited the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, where there is an exceptional collection of Western and Native American art. My dad’s attentiveness to Native American history and spirituality is another tale in and of itself, but suffice to say, he wept when he read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
While drinking in the Autry’s exquisite woven baskets and blankets, the lustrous oil paintings of Western landscapes and bronze Remington sculptures, I turned to my husband, John, and smiled.
“You know who’d love this, right?” “Your dad,” he said. “Yep, he really would.”
So, Dad, thank you for taking me to museums, for having a house filled with pictures and a coffee table stacked with art books. John and I have surrounded ourselves with an eclectic collection of our own, and I’m pretty sure you’d like it, especially the oils I picked up in Haiti.
As for that trip to the Autry the other day? The three things I’d like to take home? Jean Mannheim’s oil “Passing Ships,” a basket woven by an Alaskan native, and any one of those Navajo rugs. Thanks for asking, Dad, and Happy Father’s Day.