Saturday, October 4, 2014

Joe Wehrer

I first laid eyes on George Manupelli when he walked into Bob and Mary Ashley’s living room on Granger St. in AA about 55 years ago. He was a lot younger then and so was I.  He exuded charm and got a lot of laughs back then and has only gotten better at that over time. He was intensely focused on his art aspirations but it took me many years to realize that he never swerved and only intensified his belief in his art destiny, often at the cost of
other responsibilities.

On almost any subject G could stakeout a unique and original point of view often ridiculous, frequently naïve and more often than not provocatively interesting. He allowed his mind to run unfettered and had the perversity to nevertheless exhaust the subject as well as to exhaust his audience. Yet he made it all very amusing and the payoff was in the laughs.

He was masterful in getting up before an audience and seemingly effortlessly spin out an engaging and truly intimately funny spiel. I can recall many such brilliant performances and most of them were the result of well thought out prior preparation.

George was a truly great teacher who broke most of the accepted rules while going all-out to convincing his students that they could, here and now, make art, and not just master some techniques for later use. He could convince them that they could be “players”, and that making art starts now, not only after you have taken all the required courses. His projects were geared to make a statement and had impacts beyond the class and addressed the University community at large. It was inevitable that his teaching style would infuriate many traditionalist faculty colleques, and it did. It was also inevitable that his approach to teaching would resonate with the most open-minded students and it did. A  good number of George’s students have gone on to distinctive prominence in art and remain my dear friends even now.

Few people have the tenacity to be as completely self-centered as George. He could be extremely exasperating to those of us who loved and admired him. Those who disliked the things he stood for were out of control in their opposition. On one public art school function with the auditorium full, a cohort of angry professors thought they could bring him down. As G was making a point while he had the floor, a disgruntled spokesman for the opposition stood up and shouted, you were heard in class saying “painting was dead”! With scant acknowledgement, he calmly said, “I lied then.” and continued with his address.

He loved to be the center of attention. We were at the Detroit Art Institute where abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell, hurting from the popularity of Pop Art, was speaking on stage with one of the notable NY art critics. As we entered the Auditorium we took seats in the right rear section. Just before the speakers began and armed with a camera that I later discovered had no film, George began shooting pictures from in front of the stage, then on the stage and shot from all possible vantage points then took a seat on the left side. Before he left me to take the pics he said, “Joe, in the question period I want you to ask a question , OK?” then he was gone. After a few initial questions, I asked a question and after an answer from the panel, George stood up and was recognized, He turned away from the panel and faced me across the room saying, ”I would like to address my question to the previous questioner” The moderater flustered and demurred and had to explain that questions could only be asked of the participants. But G had made his subtle putdown.

His ability to consume beer (two Lowenbraus at a time, to be sure he didn’t run out)) was phenomenal. He could drink and talk for hours and hours late into the night while remaining reasonably coherent. I recall many nights when I found myself myself the only one left awake before I too had to give up and get some sleep.

The last two years of his life were hard. His eyesight grew steadily worse in spite of continuing treatment for Macular Degeneration in both NY and Boston He underwent major arterial vein surgery to save his toe and possibly foot, When sufficiently recovered to move about he fell and broke his pelvis which caused severe pain that lasted to the very end. He was completely homebound for months and determined to stay alone in the church he loved and kept as a pristine monument to the George Manupelli he loved.

He was able to remain there through the efforts of his second cousin, Mike Buckley who managed his care though he lived a two hour drive from the church. Mike was steadfast in spite of working in Boston and undergoing difficulties of his own. He phoned at least twice a day at medication time and at any sign of trouble he drove up and took over. He helped arrange a group of George’s friends to provide the care that allowed him to live out his days where he wanted to be.

When he needed more constant care, his daughters came and spent weeks with him. This provided him a chance to finally see and relate to them as real people for the first time. They were both over fifty.

Betty and I kept in-touch by phone. In the final months he would be his old amusing self frequently and then just as frequently barely coherent (pain medication? Dementia?) Through it all he never stopped making art. A new work would arrive by mail from time to time, not always without shipping damage. He completed a piece with five versions of The Last Suppers in the days just before his final hospitalization.

Thank you George  for making my life more interesting in so many ways. It was great knowing you.

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