Gloucester High School in the Fifties

Gloucester Gone By © Laszlo Kubinyi

The McCarthy Debate

Peter Anastas           

In the spring of 1953, our Gloucester High School history club held a debate about the anti-communist crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy. As a sophomore, I had little understanding of politics and I knew less about communism. Yet, I voluntarily argued on the side that favored the junior senator from Wisconsin’s red-baiting tactics.

At the time of the debate Dwight Eisenhower was president, the Cold War heating up. We had recently concluded Harry Truman’s unsatisfactory “police action” in Korea, a prelude to the war in Vietnam, both in terms of the way the war was fought and the manner in which it was sold to the American people. After Korea, the sense of relief and victory that swept through the nation following the Second World War had turned into a mood of defeat, if not outright paranoia, as our leaders pressed upon us the need to combat “the Communist menace,” at home and abroad.

My parents had once voted for FDR, whom my father idolized; but like many immigrant families, who began to prosper in their new country, they were inherently conservative. They favored Eisenhower for president over the urbane and sophisticated Adlai Stevenson, not only because they were enthralled by Eisenhower as the great general and father figure, who had played a major role in winning the war for us, but also because they didn’t want to seem out of the mainstream of this new American life they believed had been good to them.

Peter and parents

Eisenhower was the hero in our family, as he was in many middle-and working-class homes. But McCarthy was a different phenomenon. You couldn’t turn the TV on without seeing his scowling face and slicked back hair, his snarling insistence on “point of order” in any congressional debate or committee hearing.

Although the upstart senator soon proved to be a drunken bully, many Americans of goodwill fell for his anti-communist crusade, as McCarthy attempted to “rout out” putative communists and “communist sympathizers” in the government, feeding a national hysteria, during the course of which teachers, who were thought to have held “subversive” opinions, or to have been “card carrying” members of the Communist Party, or even “fellow travelers,” were driven from their jobs, while Hollywood instituted its infamous Black List, under which many actors, writers and film professionals, who were believed to have had a left-wing history, were prevented from working in the industry.

One of the ways this hysteria played out in small towns like Gloucester was that our parents would constantly be asking us if we had any teachers we thought might be communists. They demanded to know what we were being taught and, especially, if our teachers expressed any “extreme” or “radical” opinions, which they might be trying to impress on their students.

Anti-communism was in the air when I was fifteen years old and McCarthy had not yet taken on the Army and been silenced, if not humiliated, by their attorney Joseph Welch during a famous exchange in which Welch commented, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness…You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn

That hearing concluded on June 30, 1954, after which the country, having tolerated McCarthy’s scurrilous behavior on TV for several years, began decisively to turn against him. On December 2, 1954, the senate voted to censure McCarthy, effectively terminating his influence and his career.

All this happened after our history club debate, so that when the debate occurred McCarthy was still a powerful figure, at least in the popular mind. Among many other students, our classmate Bob Stephenson was known for his anti-communism. Bob’s father had been a member of the diplomatic corps. After his death, Bob’s mother, whose family had been lighthouse keepers along the New England coast, brought Bob and his brother home to Gloucester. The Stephenson’s lived in a small, yellow 19th century house on Mansfield Street, with a green picket fence and an ample backyard. Over their front door was a green-painted sign in the form of a metal circle around the inside of which were positioned three legs. Bob described it to us as being a “triskelion,” the official symbol of the Isle of Man, having its origins in Medieval Sicily.

His parents had obtained it while vacationing on the British island. It became one of many artifacts his mother showed Bob’s friends when they visited, including beautifully woven red and white striped Central American serapes and a gourd with a silver straw from which yerba mate tea was sipped in Paraguay, where Bob’s father had once been stationed. These artifacts, along with a number of landscape paintings and photographs of places where the family had traveled during Bob’s father’s postings, lent an exotic atmosphere to Bob’s house.

Bob’s mother Cora was a woman of strong opinions to whom my mother deferred because, as she’d say, “the Stephenson’s have traveled a great deal.” She disliked Democrats, even finding Eisenhower too liberal, and would be constantly on guard lest her two sons be indoctrinated by what she called “free-thinking teachers.”

Bob echoed his mother’s views, along with his own brand of subtle but extremely mordant humor, while his quiet brother chose the sea as his calling. It would be convenient to claim Bob’s influence in my choice of sides in the McCarthy debate; but in reality I came to my own decision about McCarthy, having discovered a book in pulp format among the magazines on my father’s newsstand. It was McCarthyism: The Fight for America, published in 1952 by Devin Adair and written by none other than the senator himself.

No McCarthyite, my father offered me the book to read, when he saw me flipping through the cheaply printed edition. I took it upstairs to my room and by the end of a summer afternoon I had read all of its 101 pages, interspersed with grainy newspaper photographs of the senator in his characteristic stance, before a microphone, a sheaf of papers in his left hand, presumably containing the names of the requisite number of communists he had lately discovered to be in the employ of some department of the United States government. The numbers seemed to change from week to week, if not daily.

However, it wasn’t the numbers that attracted me to McCarthy’s crusade; and it certainly wasn’t the man himself in his oily, rumpled-suited presence. It was the stories the book contained, stories of how the American Communist Party, under the alleged control of Soviet Russia, had “infiltrated” every level of national life. This was also the era of the televised Cold War anti-communist series “I Led Three Lives,” the presumed story of Herbert Philbrick, who by day was an advertising executive in Boston, while by night he doubled as an undercover agent and a counter-spy.

Philbrick had infiltrated the American Communist Party on behalf of the FBI in the 1940s and written a bestselling book on the topic— I Led Three Lives: Citizen, ‘Communist’, Counterspy (1952). The series premiered in 1952, a year before I read McCarthy’s book, which influenced the stand I took in our history club debate. So for me there was a certain amount of intrigue in the drama of those who operated secretly, both on behalf of democracy, as I then believed, and against what I also assumed to be the dangers of communism.

I didn’t know a great deal about McCarthy as I entered the debate, and I understood far less about Marxism (it wasn’t until a year later that I read The Communist Manifesto and found it compelling, as workers were exhorted to throw off their chains and transform the world). Before the debate, my head was filled with slogans and with arguments I’d heard from Bob and his mother. As for myself, I couldn’t even define “totalitarianism.”

None the less, Bob and I volunteered to present the case for McCarthy. Our opponents were Laszlo Kubinyi and Bruno Modica. Laszlo’s parents were ceramic artists, who owned a gallery at the opposite end of Rocky Neck from Dad’s luncheonette.  While the Kubinyis had lived for some years in Gloucester, Bruno and his family had recently arrived from Genoa. His father was an engineer in a fish processing plant on the waterfront, and his mother, once Bruno and his sister had gone off to college, began to teach Italian at the high school’s adult education center. Laszlo played drums, and Bruno, like most young Italians I would come to meet nearly a decade later, had a passion for current events, especially for politics.

 

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All four of us sat at a long table in front of the history classroom in which the club met monthly. The debate was monitored by the club’s president, Lincoln Higgins. Our faculty advisor, the department chair, Miss Hammond, stood by to see that we all observed the proper debating procedure.

I was wearing a gray tweed sport jacket, a starched white dress shirt and one of my father’s Haband neckties; Bob was dressed similarly, except that he favored a maroon corduroy jacket. Bruno, whose coal black hair was always beautifully cut, wore tailored Italian suits that we would die to have owned, while Laszlo, though he obeyed the dress code of jacket, tie and slacks for boys, wore his hair longer than most of the boys, even those who slicked theirs back into DAs.

The question up for debate was whether McCarthy’s tactics were acceptable and whether or not they served the purpose of exposing those who were thought to be a menace to American democracy. Bob and I argued in favor, while Bruno and Laszlo argued against us. They were far better prepared than we were, and they argued more soundly. As the debate progressed, I knew that Bob and I had lost because we really didn’t put forth cogent arguments based on carefully articulated critical distinctions. Instead, we relied on exactly the kinds of pat slogans, clichés and emotional outbursts that the McCarthyites employed—“Well, how do we defend ourselves against those for whom everything is a means to an end?” “Would you like to wake up one morning and find the country taken over by communists?”

In contrast, Bruno and Laszlo quoted from magazine and newspaper articles and editorials, and from the testimony of those who had suffered under McCarthy. They recounted the story of Owen Lattimore, a leading American scholar of Asia, who had been slandered as a “top Russian spy” by McCarthy; and they described Richard Nixon’s attack on congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, against whom Nixon ran for the senate in California, calling her “The Pink Lady” for her supposed communist friends and supporters. They spoke eloquently about First Amendment Rights, about free speech and freedom of association. They particularly stressed that, as of the moment of our debate, not a single one of McCarthy’s allegations had been found to have substance.

But when it came time for the club members to vote on which side had prevailed, the students overwhelmingly chose Bob and me. Once the debate was over, I knew I’d been mistaken in taking McCarthy’s side. My position in the debate and the club’s vote against Laszlo and Bruno created a chill in our friendships. Miss Hammond said nothing; but when I later studied American history with her, I could tell from her teaching and the texts she selected for us to read that she was no right-winger.

Graduating from high school, Bob studied art in Boston before initiating a career in military intelligence that took him over most of the world. He mastered several languages, including German and Arabic, returning to Gloucester after his retirement to resume work as an artist in a Zen-like studio just off Main Street, overlooking the harbor.  His magic-realist paintings of the city and the waterfront seemed to incorporate the imagery of the cultures he’d come to know intimately.

 

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He never lost his fine sense of humor, which, if anything, had become darker over the years. Nor had his politics changed—he once visited me in Florence, claiming to friends back home that he’d come to save me from Italian communism.

Peter and Bob in Florence.  1959

Bruno went to Brown University, after which he entered the world of international business, serving in executive capacities for multinational corporations in Italy, France and Belgium. Laszlo played drums in my brother Tom’s big band during their final years of high school, and later in New York. Tom and I were invited to some lively parties in the rambling family house near Cressey’s Beach, gatherings at which Laszlo’s parents danced Hungarian folk dances and served delicious food.   After high school Laszlo attended the Museum School in Boston, followed by a career as a prolific illustrator, artist and author of children’s books.

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As for me, I became an activist in the 1960s, while the war in Vietnam raged—going to teach-ins with my students and attending anti-war demonstrations. In a word, everything that McCarthy would have abjured.

In Memoriam

Bruno Modica passed away on Tuesday, December, 11, 2012, in Sun City Center, FL. from complications of Parkinson’s disease.  Bob Stephenson died on Sunday, August 9, 2015, in Seacoast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Gloucester, after a brief illness.

(This is a chapter from Peter Anastas’ recently completed memoir, From Gloucester Out.)

 

Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Boiling Hot

On Pavillion Beach. © 2014 Jeff Weaver (b. 1953)

On Pavilion Beach.                                                                                            © 2014 Jeff Weaver (b. 1953)

Its boiling hot, they’ve gone to catch the wind 
at high tide when you can sail the tidal river 
above the sandbars, when the scope is wide 
room to tack and reach, as we try to reach to the far 
points in our life where you are the self you wish to be 
away from the effigies others might prefer 
beyond the expectations of correct behavior and pieties 
free of the sand bars in our circumscribed environment 
the enclosing freeways that bind us into pockets 
webs of mercantile definition, malls of distance, 
the all-together loneliness of the social web. 
This is not the place for me. 

Where can one go to be free of this American entrapment 
where black and brown and white can live in harmony 
where all beliefs, intellect and toil are respected, 
was our Cape Ann like that, not entirely but enough 
the classes did mix, brawls were plenty enough 
but the morning light broke bright on sea calm water 
where rancor stills and the gulls cry instead. 
Perfection of a sort sadly doesn’t last 
the tentacles of wealthy desire slowly penetrate 
crawling over the bridge, tourists who end up staying 
and driving up the rents, buying the cheap houses; 
improving them twists the old mix out  working people 
can’t afford to be here any more, to smell the same sea 
air, feel the tidal sweep over the marshes 
swim in the warming creeks. 

Kent Bowker 
July 7, 2016 

Kent BowkerKent Bowker started with poetry at Berkeley in the Fifties, then became a physicist working mainly in optics.  His new book of poems is Katharsis: Sifting Through a Mormon Past.  He lives in Essex, next to the Great Marshes and is treasurer of the Charles Olson Society.

Ten Pound Island

© 2016 Louise Welch

© 2016 Louise Welch

rugged with
gulls
toughened by
raw weather by
unpeopled
growth stench
rust & wash
barrels & wire
gulls protest when
we land
on the beach
poke among
shells climb to the green
so high she thinks
of snakes
does not proceed
under the gull hover
to visit the light
the rust but feels textures
in the sand with wet feet
hauls a little on the painter
keeps her head to wind

Melissa de Haan Cummings

 

melissa2bcummingsMelissa de Haan Cummings majored in French and English Literature at Bryn Mawr. She has published poetry in a number of journals.  She describes her interests as including, “much small boating around Cape Ann, love of Charles Olson, Hatha yoga practice since 1969.”

Village Facing the Sea

Anne Babson Carter

Dunes at Annisquam. 1916 John French Sloan

Dunes at Annisquam. 1916
John French Sloan

Bing1 (2)bing2 (2)

September 14, 1991/For K.D. and T.B

 

Anne Babson Carter is the author of an award-winning collection of poems, Strike Root, published by Four Way Books.  Her poems have appeared in The Nation, The Paris Review, Theology Today, The Christian Century, Borderlands Review, among others.  A founding member of the Guilford Poets Guild in Guilford, CT, Carter has twice been a fellow of the Yaddo Corporation.  She lives and works on Cape Ann, Massaschusetts

 

Giving Thanks

A wish to all of you from all of us at Enduring Gloucester…   may you have a Happy and Safe Thanksgiving, filled with many blessings.

“For each new morning with its light, For rest and shelter of the night, For health and food, For love and friends, For everything Thy goodness sends.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Gloucester Landscape 1919 Stuart Davis (1892-19640

Gloucester Landscape 1919
Stuart Davis (1892-1964)

Gloucester Author Writes about an Endangered Bird

A Review by JoeAnn Hart

The Narrow Edge, by Deborah Cramer, Yale University Press, 2015. $28, 288 pages.  

The Narrow Edge

 “When an extinction occurs, there is no way to know which species will be the next to cling to the hands of time.”

The “narrow edge” in the title of this engaging book by Gloucester resident, Deborah Cramer, evokes the image of comedian Harold Lloyd, in the 1923 film Safety Last!, teetering on a skyscraper ledge, clinging for dear life to the hands of a clock. It is an apt metaphor for the uncertain future of the red knot (“a small sandpiper about the size of a robin and weighing about as much as a coffee cup”), which roams the sliver of sand between land and sea, a precarious place to be these days. This indefatigable bird lives for five months on desolate tidal flats at the tip of South America, then, as if possessed, travels 9,500 miles north, following the coasts of two continents, to breed in the Arctic.,

In The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey, Cramer explores this flyway by plane, kayak, helicopter, and foot, feeding on history and science as she goes, wrestling with the consequences of human interaction with the natural world. Her journey ends at a scientists’ field camp in the most northern of Canada’s territories, where the red knot lays its eggs. The birds arrive with just the feathers on their backs, while Cramer is weighted down with supplies, bulky clothes, a GPS, and the requisite twelve-gauge shotgun to ward off polar bears. It was the worst summer for shorebirds in the field camp’s history.

In her travels, Cramer often sustains herself on pilot biscuits, but the red knot needs high protein fuel and lots of it, preferably the eggs of the homely horseshoe crab. Yet this living fossil, which has survived on Earth for half a billion years, is running out of breeding grounds. The beaches on which it lays its eggs are being destroyed from over-development, rising waters, oil spills, and industrial run-off. As if the crab didn’t have enough to worry about, it is also of considerable value to humans: Aside from its historical use as fertilizer and bait, the crab’s blue blood is used to ensure the safety of intravenous medical procedures. In theory, the blood harvest should not kill the crab, or at least not many, but Cramer’s research suggests another story—and so the red knot’s fortunes rise and fall with the crab’s.

Cramer walks and talks with a wide band of scientists and naturalists who are working against the clock to save the red knot, because if this shorebird disappears, it won’t be the only one, and we cannot predict the consequences. “The foundation of food webs may not be apparent until they fray,” she writes, citing the disappearance of the passenger pigeon with the rise of Lyme disease. (Read the book to discover the connection.) When an extinction occurs, there is no way to know which species will be the next to cling to the hands of time.

—JoeAnn Hart

Orion Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2015

JoeAnn Hart

 JoeAnn Hart, a long time Gloucester resident, is the author of the novels Float and Addled.  Her review first appeared in Orion, September/October, 2015.   

Photo by Brendan Pike, Gloucester.

Nightcap Poem from Kent Bowker

barghazi

The Virgin Spring. © Gabrielle Barzaghi

 

Breakfast at Lobsta Land

 

On the sunlit side away from the marsh another scene

harsh in comparison as an endless stream of cars

impinge the ear and sight at the entrance to the bridge

gateway to Gloucester narrow to impede the hoard stream

but it doesn’t quite work the way it used to do

when everyone worked in the town, or went fishing.

 

The marsh view seems fixed, season and tidal modulation

from year to year comforting knowable and unchanging.

Not so on the highway, a little denser and faster every year.

fishing slowly dying, tourists coming, commuters, in and out.

On one side the beauty, on the other the sign of change

destruction of the unique you don’t see; it’s incremental,

one old building down, one condo built

iconic reminders of the old slower ways replaced.

 

The once upon a time of amiable ways, backyard conversations

the regularity of a walking postman who might be a great poet,

when we all knew each other, the artist could be your plumber.

Few now accompany St Peter on festival days.

Our memories short get used to the erosive growth

hardly notice what it does as the town, marsh and shore

irretrievably change, we don’t see the loss.

 

 

Kent Bowker 10/6/2015

Nightcap poem # 96

 

Kent Bowker

Kent Bowker  started with poetry at Berkeley in the Fifties, then became a physicist working mainly in optics.  His new book of poems is Katharsis: Sifting Through a Mormon Past.  He lives in Essex, next to the Great Marshes and is treasurer of the Charles Olson Society.

Heroic Voyagers to Niles Pond

john sullivan swans

Swan Family (detail) John Sullivan, Gloucester, 2015

The swans glide across the pond as a family all dressed in white. The two chaperone three fluff balls. The swan woman who wants to guard the young like their parents do tells me their incredible story.

Born not long ago in pond by Pebble Beach they traveled miles across the open Atlantic before coming to Brace Cove and Niles Pond. Just getting the cygnets across the sea of angry waves was puzzling till I learned they climb on the parents’ backs and ride safely there.  Nature has a way. The journey from Cove Beach dividing mass of salt and fresh water to pond must have been easy compared to ocean voyage. They appeared secure but I have heard the coyote calls in the brush, seen the snapping turtles as they laid eggs, and watched hawks soar round.

I too keep a weather eye on the cygnets as I walk by the pond seeing how vigilant the parents are as they stare at me. I could watch the stamping of feet on shallow bottom of pond to raise food but do not move close.  The large wings open aggressively. These wings powerful enough to raise a large swan into flight can also be a weapon to avoid.
My short vigils did not help this family. Whether by predator of nature or disease all three were lost outside my view. The parents, staid, in the pond,  more removed than when they had young.  Heroic voyagers across the ocean to a safe harbor that proved anything but a pond of growth and joy.
John Sullivan

john sullivan (2)John Sullivan “I was born and raised in Maine, got a degree in chemistry before setting anchor in Gloucester some twenty five odd years ago. Got to know town by running two plants on fish pier.”

New Poetry from Melissa deHaan Cummings

patti sullivan solstice

Solstice, 2013, Patti Sullivan, Gloucester (Courtesy Trident Gallery, Gloucester)








WHIPPED CREAM


A shadow could be
dark and flat 
could be a root
A light spot 
could be sand
or ledge
Watch for rocks
hidden in the grass

Two feet of smooth rock
upright
Put the bike in low
pedal as fast as
trust

You were trying 
to have no man
And you got two!
Full moon
Somebody spilled glue
on the rug
A guy?
Whaddya think!
They rushed for
a wet sponge
Nah!  Need solvent 

Didja have a dog before?
O yah
I got him off Margie Jewell
Thirteen pounds 
Thirteen years
He had heart failure
Quick?
I spent twenty five hundred
Cardiologist Woburn Everything
At some point you have to let go
Like people
Remember Dr Babson?
Six dollars
Yah I used to let the dogs out
Remember he had them cages
in the back
I lived there
Once Brutus was gone
I said to my wife
You gotta get another one
Jax don't let me out of his sight
You're lucky 

BANG!
Was that a gun?
Fish tote

How's the boy?
Is he changing?
He has learned
to scream louder
and if he's loud enough
I take him home 
where he wants to be

Grandma's first rule is
That's their problem 
I trust them
It doesn't matter
whether you trust them or not
It has occurred to me
that there's a whole world
out there with millions of people 
who don't need my help
I'm taking my whipped cream
and going home!
So long as you leave your ball!



Melissa de Haan Cummings
27 August 2015

74bdd-melissa2bcummingsMelissa de Haan Cummings majored in French and English Literature at 
Bryn Mawr. She has published poetry in a number of journals. 
 She describes her interests as including, “much small boating around Cape
 Ann, love of Charles Olson, Hatha yoga practice since 1969."

Remembering Bob Stephenson by Peter Anastas, Ernest Morin & Bing McGilvray

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PeterABobS Florence1959

Peter Anastas and Bob Stephenson – Florence, Italy 1959

In Memoriam: Robert Douglas “Bob” Stephenson (August 21,1935 – August 9, 2015)

With the death of painter Robert Stephenson on August 9, Gloucester lost one of its most distinctive contemporary artists.  We also lost a great character, a trait that is in short supply these days.

I knew Bob from the Hovey School, where we met in Miss Courant’s fifth grade class in 1947. Even then Bob was drawing and painting constantly.  He was also a wit, who kept us laughing when we should have been concentrating on our studies.   As befits someone as creative as Bob, he was  able to turn both his art and his wit into activities that gained him academic credit.

One of our first projects together was a play we co-wrote for our unit in American history about Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, for which Bob designed the costumes, or rather, adapted them from clothing we borrowed from our mothers—today you might call it “colonial drag.”  Bob’s mother, Cora Douglas, the daughter of New England lighthouse keepers, had a house full of the most interesting artifacts, many of which she and Bob’s late father, Charles Francis Stephenson, had collected during his tours of duty in the diplomatic corps.  In fact, much of Bob’s sophistication, which made him seem so much older and more mature than the rest of us, was the consequence of the family’s having lived abroad.  I suspect these experiences may have played a role in Bob’s becoming an incredibly accomplished linguist during his military career.  It is said that he was proficient in twelve languages, including several dialects.

Once we were in Central Grammar for 7th and 8th grades, our dramatic activities did not cease.  We wrote a play about Julius Caesar, which we performed with an Italian accent, followed by a Nativity play in Yiddish inflected English.  How we got away with what today would be considered politically incorrect behavior is still a mystery to me; but those plays, and others we did together, including a British murder mystery, in which we played Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson with the appropriate British accents, were performed in the school auditorium in front of the entire school body.

During 7th grade Bob and I also initiated an activity that we would pursue well into high school.  We spent every Saturday walking all over Cape Ann.  Beginning with Ravenswood Park, where we explored every trail in detail, we branched out to Dogtown, which we crossed to Rockport many times.   There was not a single Gloucester neighborhood we had not traversed on foot, or any place on the waterfront that we did not come to know intimately.   One of our signal achievements was to have walked entirely around Cape Ann, beginning in downtown Gloucester and walking to Rockport, Pigeon Cove, Lanesville, Bay View, Riverdale and back to Bob’s house on Mansfield Street.

We did it in a single day, carrying water in canteens and packing lunches that our mothers had prepared for us.  There were no cellphones or public phones from which we might report our progress.  Always during these walks we observed nature carefully, gathering specimens of plants and wildflowers or marine life that we examined by microscope in the laboratory I had set up in the basement of my house on Perkins Road.

Looking back on Bob’s artistic career,  it is my belief that his minute depiction of Gloucester places and objects, his grasp of buildings, wharves, rocks, beaches, tidal eddies, surf, trees, bushes, flora and fauna originated in part from the experiences of those walks during which nothing was lost on either of us.  Our early walks resulted in a lifelong habit of my own of walking all over the city of my birth and writing about it in my weekly column for the Gloucester Times, “This Side of the Cut.”

Bob’s artistry was nurtured at Central Grammar by our art teachers, Jean Nugent in 7th grade and Edna Hodgkin’s in 8th.  Both were practicing artists, as was the city’s art supervisor Hale Anthony Johnson, who had taught us all the rudiments of art since first grade, along with the history of the visual arts on Cape Ann.

But it was at Gloucester High School, that amazing WPA modernist building we had the privilege of attending classes in during the 1950s, where Bob came under the influence of Gloucester’s greatest art teacher, the native-born painter Howard Curtis, who was head of the art department.  Comprising an entire wing of the school, the art department had state of the art equipment and the benefit of northern light, because Howard and the preceding art teacher, Muriel Spofford, had insisted to the architects that the original siting of the school be rotated to take advantage of the light itself.

It would be an understatement to say that the influence of Howard Curtis on Bob’s art was profound.  Curtis, a distinguished artist who had exhibited widely, along with painting or restoring earlier murals in city buildings, was a remarkable teacher.  Learned, articulate and engaging, he held sway in his two-room classroom-studio from before school in the morning until late in the afternoon.   In those classrooms, whose walls were hung with the finest examples of world art, you could find students, some of whom did not even study art, in deep conversation with “Mr. Curtis,” as we all respectfully called him.   The subjects were wide and diverse, from the forms of Medieval and Renaissance  painting and questions of perspective to abstract philosophical issues about the origins and fate of man.  Curtis himself was a deeply meditative spiritualist, a mystic, in some ways, as I look back on him.   This part of his nature and his teaching must clearly have had an impact on Bob’s future art, which has a profoundly spiritual dimension, influenced as well by Bob’s immersion in Buddhism, prompted by his time spent in the Far East during his military service.

Taken together, Bob’s encyclopedic knowledge of Gloucester terrain and his spiritual vision, in part the influence of Howard Curtis and in part his Eastern knowledge and practice, provide a lens through which we can view and understand the astounding production of his paintings.  Many were completed in his first studio on the top floor of Brown’s former department store, later in the studio he occupied at the Fitz Henry Lane House, and finally at his remarkable studio on Parsons Street, just off Main, a former garage, which Bob, with the help of friends, converted into a living and working space that took advantage of a marvelous view of the waterfront and wonderful light throughout the day.  It was a studio, like those of the Florentine masters, that was open to all during Bob’s working hours.  It was not unusual to find friends visiting while Bob painted, or a conversation ongoing about the state of the world, about which Bob had many opinions, pungently expressed.

Everyone has a story about Bob, and I will conclude with one of my own.

It was late in 1959.  I was living in Florence, studying Medieval literature at the university and about to begin teaching English at the International Academy.  Bob was stationed in Germany with the US Army.  He wrote to tell me that he had some leave coming and wished to visit me in Florence.  I had not seen Bob since I was in college and he was attending art school in Boston, prior to his induction into the army, so I jumped at the opportunity.  Bob was due to arrive on the Brenner Express, so I went to meet his train at the railroad station.   As I stood on the platform, I observed a group of Germans getting off the train, all of them speaking excitedly in their own language.  Bob was among them, conversing in what I later learned was perfect German.  He was also dressed in German clothing, a gray Loden jacket and a dark green Alpine hat with a feather in it.

Bob stayed in the Pensione Cordova in Via Cavour, where I had been living since early fall.  His room had a marvelous view of the Duomo from its window.  Soon Bob set about drawing everything he saw as we walked (of course) over every inch of the fabulous city that was to become my home for three years.   From his study of art history Bob was familiar with the storied buildings and monuments, and his knowledge of the art was extensive.  As we walked through the galleries of the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace, Bob paused to explain what artists like Botticelli had in mind as they concentrated on the placement of figures or the overall structure of the work.   We explored the interiors of the great cathedrals and churches, from the Duomo to San Miniato, adjacent to which was a vast cemetery which fascinated Bob (my friend Paul Hamilton, who was studying art in Florence took some pictures of us in that cemetery, one of which is posted here).

Back in the pensione, I introduced Bob to another resident, Carlo Cirelli, a young artist from Ferrara, who worked designing shoes for a local company.  When Carlo saw Bob’s drawings and watercolors of Florence he asked Bob if he would ever consider designing shoes.

“I’ll take a crack at it,” Bob said, setting to work with his pencil and watercolors he borrowed from Carlo.   We left him alone for a while, and when he said the design was done, Carlo and I went to look at it.  Instead of an elegant Italian shoe, Bob had painted what looked like a worn out work boot, brown, scuffed and with turned over heels.  Along the edge of the boot he had painted a wooden match stick, inserted between the shoe and the sole.  The match was on fire and would naturally have resulted in a “hot foot” for the wearer of the shoe.  This was Bob at his best, using art to make a point about the vanity of fancy footwear.

I did not see Bob again until his retirement from the military when we were both again living in Gloucester.  From time to time I would visit his Parsons Street studio to see what he had been up to.   When I reminded him about his visit to Florence and the shoe, his eyes twinkled.   “I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d started a fad,” he said.  “You know how clever those Italians are!”

​Peter Anastas​

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The Most Original Native Artist of His Time​

by Ernest Morin​

Bob Ste​ph​enson, like F​itz Henry​ Lane​, ​ was a Gloucester boy.  He also shared with Lane a real sense of light and love of the harbor and city. I met him when he had his studio in Lane​’​s house.

Bob Stephenson Photo Courtesy of Greg Cook

Bob Stephenson
Photo Courtesy of Greg Cook

When it came to subject matter however Bob Stephenson was not a realist. His canvas would be a place to situate dream, myth, reality, symbols and spirituality. He would combine an eastern sensibility towards use of space and western techniques of painting with scenes that were both drawn from local reality and greatly fabricated to fit artistically into the Stephenson paradigm, a very original paradigm.

His skill and technique with paint was extreme, he was a master at use of glazing, applying hot near cold color of designing a series of spaces within spaces that had strong push pull, repetitive form, harmony culminating in complex compositions that were layered with meaning.

He also did this in a way that was simple and abstract at heart – in the way an Edward Hopper is real yet truly abstract.

Stephenson labored intensely over 6 or 8 canvases at a time. ​ ​They were works to be pondered, to be massaged, to be coaxed into life one nuance at a time once they were cohesive. His art wasn’t rushed; he didn’t produce product.

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