Sunday, May 6, 2007

The first assignment I gave the writing workshop I facilitate was this: I handed out a copy of the artist Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and asked the writers to tell us: What's going on here?

That was four years ago. Someone said to me a few weeks ago: That was the best assignment you ever gave us. One way to frame that ( So to speak ) is that it's all been downhill from there. Truth be told, I liked the assignment, too. One of the reasons for that is that it gave me some answers to an artisic question I've been asking myself for years.

Hopper's my favorite artist. The so called " Lonely Guy " of American painting hits responsive chord after responsive chord with me. Another one of my favorites is Early Sunday Morning. Much of Hopper's work shows one person, or a couple of people with looks on their faces that suggest maybe they just got the news their dogs died. Early Sunday Morning shows no people. It's a painting of a block of red brick buildings. It reminds me of Shop Row in my hometown of Easthampton, Massachusett.

Shop Row is located between 35 Main Street and 127 Main Street. The first address is where I lived with my parents until I was 7. The second address is where I lived until I bolted from Easthampton at the age of 18. Shop Row was where we did a lot of our shopping. There was Mathers Market, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Mathers. This makes me feel like I'm a thousand years old, but I recall walking into that market, hearing a bell ring as the door slammed shut. This was to alert Mr. and Mrs. Mather that someone was in the store. This was before self serve. You walked into the store with a list. You gave Mr. Mather or Mrs. Mather the list. They'd walk around and pick what you needed off the shelf. If what you needed was on the top shelf, they'd knock the box off with a long pole with a hook at the end of it. For some reason I can picture a box of Quaker Oats falling to the floor.

A few doors down from Mathers Market was Bale's. Mr. Bale was a cobbler. He had an accent, but I'm not sure what kind of accent it was. That detail I do not recall. He might have been Polish; there were a lot of Polish people in town. Maybe Bale was a shortened version of Baleski. Or maybe he was German, or Hungarian. Who knows?

There was a restaurant on the north end of Shop Row. An Italian restaurant called Greco's.

Jone's Newsroom was where we picked up the afternoon paper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette. Harry Jones, father of Henry " Rusty " Jones, owned the place. He was always there, behind the counter. I remember him as being a quiet man, and very nice. I played basketball for the high school team. Rusty was a starter. I warmed the bench. The day after I scored my first two points of the season, Harry Jones said to me, " So, ya broke the ice last night, huh? "

Someone knew I'd scored. Remembered and gave me a pat on the back. Harry Jones. He died young. Rusty and I were still in high school when he died suddenly. Jones Newsroom is still there. It was in the news recently. The proprietor got into trouble because of a sports betting pool he was operating out of the shop. This had been going on for years, decades. But for some reason the law came down on the latest guy to run the old newsroom.

Shop Row. You want to know what it looks like, look at Hopper's Early Sunday Morning. Dead ringer for that block. Dead ringer.

An exhibit of Hopper's major works, which, of course include those I mentioned, opens today at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. The exhibit features about 100 of his works, including prints, watercolors and paintings.

The show's a small one, compared to many exhibits of major American painters. And the title's simply: Edward Hopper. Which is appropriate. One name. One man. One lonely guy, who's made lots of friends over the years with his artwork.

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