Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Forrest Bess: Artist/Friend

by Michael Senna

(About a year ago, I set up a Forrest Bess Facebook page. It has attracted a small number of followers and has had a generally sleepy existence. Recently, Michael Senna posted to it--he had been Bess's assistant in the late 60s. He wrote an essay about his time working with Bess, and has graciously given me permission to reproduce it here. Coincidentally, there is a Forrest Bess exhibit happening now in Dallas at Kirk Hopper. A superb catalog for the show can be downloaded here. Bess, 1911-1977, lived on the Texas coast near Bay City. You can read more about him here and here, and see images of his artwork here.--Robert Boyd)

I met Forrest when I was 16. I had heard of him, and I had seen one of his paintings in a Matagorda home.
Some time later, one of my buddies was going to drop by his house as we were hanging around town in Bay City. He introduced me to Forrest.

Over the next couple of years I returned again and again to hear his stories about history, the war (WWII) psychology, mythology and philosophy. He always had a small project to challenge me. A charcoal study of a mastodon bone, a figure drawing of a local kid around my age and a floral still life which I botched badly. He had to remedy that one (I think that scared me away from art by commission, at least to any significant degree).

Forrest Bess
Forrest Bess, Drawings, oil on canvas, 1959

He did teach me to stretch canvases, using a tack hammer and stretch pliers. It was a tedious process, but I eventually mastered it. He agreed to pay my way to visit Paris for the summer of my junior year if I would help him get a show ready for Betty Parsons' Gallery in New York. But my parents would not permit me to go alone, so instead he gave me his old rusted out Ford. Some neighborhood buddies helped me to brush paint it green with house paint Forrest had around.

And on that subject, Forrest taught me to paint first by having me paint trim around windows in his old house. It was his mother's house that he'd moved into after she was gone. Then we moved on to putting paint to canvas. I tried some oil painting on my own, but had too much trouble with it back then, although I'm a decent oil painter now. I wanted to paint like Frank Frazetta. Forrest didn't have much interest in that kind of painting. Action heroes in science fiction settings did nothing for him. He did love Star Trek, though. I don't know why. :)

I even helped with a few of the paintings he produced during that time. The only one I remember for sure now after 43 years is the one with 3 mountain peaks in it. I think it's in the Burkhart collection now. He touched it up a little to give it his style.

Forrest Bess
Forrest Bess, #7, 1959

It was Forrest who introduced me to acrylic painting, the Hyplar brand. I don't think he had used it much himself, and he had me experiment with it on paper. The results seemed to fascinate him, and I was sold on acrylic painting from that time. My best paintings have been in oils or in acrylics applied to appear like oils. I have taught others and still teach acrylic painting now.

Forrest took the neighborhood teens under his wing, letting us all hang out at his house, eat his food, play chess, watch t.v. or box out in the front yard.

I left Bay City in 1968, with my parents for North Texas. I left the old green Ford in front of Forrest's house. The axle had broken that morning as we were about to leave town. They were insistent that we had to leave and had no time to waste on the old car. Forrest was not happy with it. I was to understand later when I returned to the area in 1969, that he still bore me a grudge for that.

I only saw him one other time after that. I believe it was in 1972 or '73. I stopped by the house to give him the wonderful news that I had become a Christian. Anyone who knew Forrest can only imagine the response a naive young Christian got. He was a bit gruff and sarcastic. I think I said something awkward like "Jesus loves you" as he disappeared like an old bear into his house.

I know he is remembered as an eccentric with a controversial personal life.  I was well aware of that personal side of his life; I was just too immature to be a useful friend at the time.

I knew some of his friends, and I knew that he was passionate, at times fanatic about his ideas concerning longevity of life. He often preached his belief that he could find a connection to immortality through his dreams and paintings. And he used stories from Greek and Egyptian mythology which always got my attention.
But some of that will have to remain a mystery to historians. It was his business, and if it didn't go into his memoirs, he wanted it that way. I agree. There are some who remember, but I'm sure they will be respectful of his memory as well.

As I can recall the good times I will share them.

Forrest Bess
Forrest Bess, untitled, oil on canvas, 1970


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