It’s been around almost thirty years since I saw Mr. Belfor. He is probably passed on by now as he was an almost elderly man who was probably near seventy years old if not there already. He was a teacher in the High School of Art & Design in New York City’s posh east side. A strange place for a teenager to go to high school indeed….strange but at the same time exciting.
You see, unlike all of the other kids who went to high school back in Queens, we didn’t see houses and well manicured lawns when we stepped out of school. We didn’t have a short walk home or a trip to the neighborhood hang out spot which was either the park or (the infamous) Jamaica avenue with the local crew……noooo!
We stepped out into the artsy high class world of Manhattan. Right there on Fifty-Seventh Street and Second Avenue . It was upper class in your face. A totally different world from where most kids from the outer boroughs were accustomed to. We didn’t forge friendships with the average teen, but tolerated strange alliances with those who were either just eccentric enough to move on to bigger and better things, or just too weird to be anything more than a passing fancy. It definitely was a fertile breeding ground for future millionaires, “page six” (As in the New York Post) society types and the place to be for developing celebrities and the “larger than life” egos that are an essential ingredient for them to fascinate us.
I can remember seeing big time designer to be Marc Jacobs walking the halls to get to his next class. I can see why it would be so easy to get caught up in what was “chic” at that time. In that world of smoke and mirrors, illusion was the reality and that was dictated by those who had the power to ordain it. The media, the magazines, the fashion critics and faded glory “never will-bees” who hold the novices to a standard that they know deep in their heart that they could never think of achieving. A vicious cycle that has scarred many a great creative mind who may have depended on an encouraging word instead of the cruel grilling that was the usual order of the day. I’ve witnessed this through the pain, frustration and embarrassment of others and I have also experienced it firsthand repeatedly. That type of treatment on a young man or woman’s psyche could have decided the difference between success and failure….oh well.
That is how the story goes…..chew you up and spit you out. The “machine” called fifth avenue cares not about the individual but its only concern is the next willing victim who can endure its wrath on your soul. Glamor, fame and fortune are not guaranteed but we somehow all have rolled the dice and have to some degree put up our peace of mind for collateral on a high percentage loan in a deal with the devil that most can never EVER seem to pay back. But we all wisely or foolishly believe that we have what it takes….and that is the intoxicant that is so hard to come down off of. Imagine in a so called normal high school setting….the guy who has the biggest muscles gets admired, the dude with the nicest car gets to take the prettiest and sexiest (And last but not least promiscuous) young ladies home (Not after a slight two hour detour to give her a tour of the back seat amenities!) and where the most developed and amply endowed girls display their winter growth spurt proudly in the late spring heat.
So much had to be attributed to the normal trappings of adolescence where a short one hour train ride into Manhattan the rules changed greatly. It wasn’t about muscles or cars in art school; it was about how good your skills were. You didn’t have to flash a well polished ride or highly peaked biceps in a three sizes too small shirt to get attention……you would show off with those new hard to get acrylic paints that no one else seemed to get their hands on….or those imported pens that dropped ink on paper smoother than melted butter a hot skillet at breakfast time. So the more “artsy” and in touch you were with your creative side, that is what got you the attention from the opposite sex (And as most heterosexual young men there found out, they got unwanted attention from the same sex too! Shocking, I mean, as this was the late seventies and you could still get punched out for merely calling someone a fag!)
That being said, one could understand the very unique pressures we as artists would be under when faced with something as simple as a weekend homework project. Back in junior high, my creative abilities hands down stood out head and shoulders above all who were my peers without any extra effort. But in a high school where everyone was the cream of the New York City crop, any assignment that was to be turned in HAD to be awesome just to merely get a favorable notice!
So now in Mr. Belfor’s art class, we were given a weekend assignment which was to be a thumbnail sketch of a bigger project that we would be doing in a few short weeks. He wanted to see what type of visual we would be doing as well as being able to approve the content before we moved on to starting it. Mr. Belfor was a tough cookie to say the least. He never smiled. He had this unforgiving demeanor as well as having mastered the art of sarcasm in a very cutting way. He was the reason many a young girl unexpectedly dashed to the restroom with tears in their eyes to avoid the embarrassment that his cruel and very slicing comments brought in front of the entire audience of the classroom. No one wanted to be on the end of his attacks.
He seemed to be favored by the “higher ups” in administration for some reason as many parents rushed to the school grounds to confront him directly after his insensitive verbal assaults to bring some type of discipline to this madman. He always made sure to have the last word. This aging grey haired character seemed to be extremely agitated about something in his past and made sure to take it out on the younger, enthusiastic students who didn’t know that they would soon be the focus of his frustrations. It was only a matter of time before we would cross paths in a very intense way.
Monday morning….the work was done.
It seemed as though the weekend just flew by. This was the case for many an artist and most will agree that the passage of time is altered in a very delicious way when one is so focused on the joys of creating. Many times my mind would be so deep into my work that I wouldn’t even realize the overwhelming urge to urinate unless some other outside distraction pulled me out of my trance. Drawing to me was that powerful an intoxicant. To dwell in that zone was definitely comparable to the exact moment one realizes that they were feeling the first floodings of that sweet place called orgasm. To play music while drawing only intensified the sensation. Reality around me was blurred and most times an insignificant annoyance. I didn’t want to come out of this sweet trance where mind, hand, pen, ink & paper became one. I willed my illustration onto the smooth surface of the paper. It was a form of lovemaking at its textbook best. Releasing my ink as I gently caressed the paper that eagerly awaited its anointing from the phallic nature of my pen & pencil. Once impregnated with my creation, it would go on with a life of its own into the cosmos…..very much now beyond me and to be appreciated by the world around me.
Even after I pass from this level, the curious onlookers will see the beautiful by product that was conceived from the intensity of that very intimate and private moment between artist and the raw materials that he once held so preciously in his/her hands.
But even after all of this deep cerebral romanticizing, it was still Monday morning and a very grouchy Mr. Belfor just called my name to come to his desk with my assignment. You know, I seemed to know beforehand that this would be a moment for the ages…..and looking back, I was right. With Mr. Belfor, you did NOT come into his classroom without everything completed to his specifications.
That was a no no.
If he instructed us that a piece of artwork had to measure exactly 12 inches, then giving him something that was drawn excellently but measured eleven and seven eights was a recipe for failure. Consider it the ultimate artistic boot camp. I walked slowly to his desk while he gave me his most menacing judgement day stare. I think he had it in for me. I couldn’t prove it but it seemed to piss him off everytime I WAS prepared in every way. I wasn’t about to change my style now. There was no need to ask him what he wanted so I placed my work on his desk.
Deep down I knew he was impressed. He picked up this illustration of mine and studied it. He studied it like a crime scene investigator looking for a lead or a clue to answer the riddle of a crime that had defeated even the most cunning of detectives. I thought I saw a hint of approval from this man who should have been a chief auditor for the Internal Revenue Service. He was that good. He slowly raised his aged brow to me while at the same time looking over those silver rimmed spectacles that had gone out of style two decades before and inhaled to speak.
Mr. Scurvin! ……he said as if he didn’t know my name, but just hearing him say my name in that tone made my heart race with a combination of anticipation and raw fear..
Yes? I said.
Mr. Scurvin, you have completed an absolute MASTERPIECE!
I began to release a sigh of relief and quickly thought to myself how glad I was to be called first and let off of the hook….I also thought how funny it would be to sit quietly and safely in the rear corner of the classroom to watch everyone else catch a classic Mr. Belfor thrashing! Ha ha!
As I attempted to retrieve my work he held onto it. Why? Was he being funny? Mr. Scurvin! He said again. Mr. Scurvin you have created a masterpiece, it’s a shame that it was on the wrong type of mounting board! You will have to do it over as this is trash!!!!
My whole entire weekend thrown away just to give this cruel man the sadistic thrill in finally ripping my soul apart in front of my classmates. He knew just moments before that I felt victorious and off the hook! He carefully orchestrated this twisted scenario to keep me on the edge. I felt like a boxer who didn’t know if he did enough to win the fight or not and couldn’t wait for an announcement that eventually wasn’t in his favor.
A moment that I will never forget. A moment that had me double checking and triple checking everything that I did as to not give anyone a chance to have the edge on me. Artist’s have this ability that others just don’t possess. When a mere mortal dies, they see their lives flash clearly in front of them. Their ENTIRE lives in just mere moments. Every happening, every turning point good and bad. Every secret. Every defeat. Everything that makes you to be the individual who you are.
With an artist of the visual or written word dies, he goes through the same process….the difference is, we also go through it as we live. We have a tremendous recall of every detail because we tend to be more impressionable and more sensitive as we are going through it. We do not have to wait for the moment to be over to see the beauty of it. We are enjoying the photo album as it is being made….in a way it is though we are in it before it is made in book form. That is why we can reflect the obvious in a more convincing fashion the the common man. Comedians have it also…..they can amplify the common tasks of the day into a hilarious skit. That is why I knew this moment crossing paths with Mr. Belfor would be one that would leave an indelible mark on my psyche forever more.
To be honest, that moment partially crushed my young spirit toward illustrating and artwork but as I look back it truly help me to become the expressionist that I am today!
It was after that day that I truly walked away from anything artistic and found myself drifting into other worlds in order to find that “space” that would appreciate and embrace me.
And it was my exploration into those other unseen very much cosmopolitan nocturnal worlds that gave me hands on a tremendous insight into the human psyche that as I now look back, leaves me to not ever be envious of the attributes of another. Add that to the fact that I actually stop drawing yet never stop having that type of artistic mind so I had full TWO DECADES of very diverse life experiences that would swell over that period of time and present itself to me unexpectedly like and old forgotten financial investment that once rediscovered, made a wealthy man out of a blue collar working Joe!
So I don’t regret one bit of being a little discouraged by that haunted man known as Mr.Belfor, because I have returned to the craft that had me so well know by my peers as a young teen back in the seventies and have become so creatively vicious in a righteous manner, so intensely focused from the appreciation of the passage of time and so dedicated to creating and leaving a legacy from this point in my life and beyond that the man you’ve come to know as “America’s Most Outspoken Artist” couldn’t be what he is today without that unforgettable experience in my formative years……
Thank you Mr. Belfor………
You’ve created a monster……..