What a Book Can Do

1 Cent. That’s what the book sells for on Amazon. Artists Observed by Harvey Stein changed my life back in 1986 when it was published. I must have bought it at SECCA ( Southeaster Center for Contemporary Art) on one of my many solo visits while in medical school at Wake Forest University. I was unhappy in the program feeling the pull of the arts much stronger than the pull to be a rich and respected doctor. It was before the Internet and my art education had been limited to one book on Norman Rockwell, a few 8 mm films of Andrew Wyeth and a slide show on Picasso while attending Governor’s School in 1977. That was about it, until I found this little brown book with photos of living artists inside, along with brief interviews. 

Looking at it today I can still remember every photo and the feelings I had reading about the artist’s lives. Some were cantankerous, some sexy, others spiritual. I remember trying to find my own personality in them, rejecting many, embracing others. My emotions back then were a lot more pronounced, age has a way of calming you, but those old feelings of longing and excitement rose up inside me recently when I picked out this book among the hundred art books I brought with me to New York City.

That book, the art I saw at SECCA, and a lot of soul searching led me to walk away from medical school. I’ve never regretted taking the artist’s way. I’ve made a lot of art, taught others to release that same creative excitement, and grown a belly that gives away the fact that I did not become a starving artist.

Fast forward to 2016, and just like that I googled Harvey Steins’s name and found him, still alive, still making great photos, particularly on Coney Island. My guess is he lives there. I plan to reach out to him and ask for an interview. Maybe I can write a piece for publication or a part 2 of this post.

Stein’s photos and the narratives on the lives of the artist showed me another world like looking through a peep hole. Their unabashed creativity and city-bread toughness inspired me but I would be too chicken to move to New York City for several decades. My wife and I did honey moon there a year after we married - we couldn’t afford it right away. We danced on a roof top in the shadows of the Twin Towers and walking through Times Square was scary; XXX movie houses and pick-pockets. But that was the mid 1980s and Keith Haring was still alive, and Andy Warhol, and all the others in Stein’s book. 

In the 1990s we brought our kids back to the city, when they were old enough to travel. They stood atop the World Trade Tower and we all felt the gentle sway. That movement gave away the fact that the building did not have a central spine - a hidden tragedy on the horizon that we could not have imagined.

 We also came back around 2002 to see Ground Zero - the kids and us in shock over what had just happened and what we all had lost. Only our youngest son, oblivious as a toddler, smiled in that photo. 

I found that painful image when packing to finally move to New York City last year. I left it behind.

Harvey Stein’s photos and narratives helped me imagine another life, one that I have finally embraced. Time is a thief of many things. But 30 years has not lessoned my appreciation for this book. Thank you Mr. Stein. Artists Observed is worth much more than a penny to me. 

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