The painting is of the SS. United States, and is by Robert Beck, the subject of this month's soliloquy. More of his work can be found at his website.


Suburban Soliloquy #88





Robert Beck

I am one of those people who love "real" maple syrup. When Ms Keogh, my more significant other, and I go out for pancakes, I bring my own little jug rather than use the artificially formulated stuff IHOP puts on the table. (International House of Pancakes - a misnomer in that the "international" refers to the styles of pancakes and not locations of franchises.) After my last breakfast at IHOP, while we were departing, I had inadvertently left the little jug on the roof of my car. It was many miles later before I realized my misfortune. I have recently learned that my friend, Robert Beck, is also exceedingly fond of maple syrup.

The last time I paid him a visit it was a cold morning. I found him sitting with his neighbor, the goldsmith Valorie Johnson, in the wide hallway outside their second-story studios above Bridge Street. They were waiting for their studios to warm up. In the meantime, the sun came in the tall east-facing windows and filled the hall with bright light and heat. I sat with them and mentioned that I was thinking of writing about him, because I am very fond of his work. I also told him the tragic tale of how I lost my little jug of maple syrup.

The other day a rather large and heavy box arrived from Vermont. Inside was a "gallon" jug of maple syrup, a gift from Robert Beck. It is of a size that would be hard to overlook if I were to leave it on the roof of my car. It presently fills the top shelf of my refrigerator.

In the local artist community, Robert Beck is legendary for his productivity. He is found everywhere painting. The man is prolific. If his car breaks down, he gets out and does a painting of it while waiting for the tow truck.

I first found Robert Beck's work when Ms Keogh sent me to check out the Ruth Morpeth Gallery, when it was still in Pennington, New Jersey, before Ms Morpeth moved to the larger space in Hopewell. Ms Morpeth had seen Ms Keogh's painting of a pear at a show and invited Ms Keogh to submit work for her gallery.

It was a fine gallery, though the show there at the time was not to my taste, being abstract art. Still, there was no question as to the professionalism and seriousness of the gallery. The interior space itself was tasteful, if a bit small, and adjoined a coffee shop. I was sitting in that cafe drinking coffee when I saw a postcard announcing the gallery's next show. It was to be the artist Robert Beck. The postcard was illustrated with a painting of a Weimaraner stretched across a living room loveseat, so relaxed he looked liked he had been poured there. I loved it!

I came to the show and thought his work was fantastic. I came back a second time with Ms Keogh in tow. She knew the work and knew of the artist from when she had volunteered to help with a show at the Woodmere Art Museum. There was only one painting at the exhibit she truly admired. It was of a woman wearing a kimono. She happened to meet the artist when he came to fetch the painting. It was Robert Beck. She invited him to come and visit her studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she was in her last year as a student. He did come to visit on the day she happened to be hanging her works for the annual show of graduating students, the show being held in the Academy's Museum of American Art, the oldest art museum in America. A gentleman is Robert Beck and he assisted her, and Ms Keogh wangled a visit to his studio.

Robert Beck lived in a carriage house on an estate belonging to an ageing couple. The long driveway was merely a track, two gravel-filled furrows on either side of a grassy mound extending for half a mile from the road. As we cautiously drove along the driveway, we were graced by the sight of a herd of deer running ahead of us just to the right of the driveway. I felt the deer portentous, promising a good first meeting and a pleasant relationship thereafter. The deer turned, crossing our path and dashing into a field that appeared on our left.

We arrived and soon found ourselves sitting in his second floor living room. The hardwood floor was covered with multiple layers of Oriental rugs. We drank wine and admired the paintings hanging about the living room, of which half also served as his studio in those days. I immediately made friends with his dog, Binkie, an ageing Weimaraner with a beautiful slate-grey coat, the dog in the painting on the postcard. That was several years ago, Binkie is gone.

I can't remember who it was I was driving to the airport that day, but I think it was my sister. We were barreling along Interstate 95, southbound, passing along the east edge of Philadelphia when I saw her, the S.S. United States. I remembered it from my childhood and was startled by its appearance. I told my sister, or whoever it was, that I had just seen a ghost, a most famous ship. How could it be in Philadelphia unannounced?

After dropping off my passenger, I got off the Interstate on my return so I could drive along Delaware Avenue at the river's edge. It was her, the sweeping lines, the svelte stretch of her hull, the grace and grandeur of her form even when docked, a city block long, the S.S. United States, the greatest passenger liner in the world! It held the record for crossing the North Atlantic, three days, ten hours, and forty-two minutes. She still existed! I studied her through the chain-link fence that held me back. She was in sorry state, with patches of rust and peeling paint.

I brought Ms Keogh down to see her. I asked Ms Keogh to please paint her. Sadly, Ms Keogh was not sufficiently inspired, not even when I threatened to tell Bob about the ship, hoping to make her jealous. She doesn't like rusty things. She said she would think about it, but I didn't wait long and did tell Bob. He painted her and soon sold the painting out of Ruth Morpeth's new gallery in Hopewell, New Jersey.

In my study, I can look across my desk to the bookshelf on which leans a portrait of my Newfoundland dog, Boris. It is a gift from Robert Beck, a fellow dog-lover, in commiseration for the death of Boris.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"