No. 79 J. Seaverns Erickson
Much learned twaddle has been written about defects in vision being responsible fort he distortions frequent in “modern” art. The theory starts with El Greco, highest of the old gods in the pantheon of the “moderns,” whose elongated flaming saints have been explained as the product, not of genius, but of astigmatism. More abstruse optical nomenclature ahs been bandied about to account for Cezanne and his myriad of followers by opponents kind enough to discard “bunk” as an explain-all.
But Chicago has a painter just coming to the front in his 56th year whose vision has been so defective since a few hours after his birth as to make almost incredible his heroism in acquiring a university education in engineering and law, and in mastering the technique of painting through many years of fitful attendance at the Art Institute when his eyes would permit — maybe for a week at a time, maybe for a day or two after the lapse of months.
This painter paints ships.
“Please,” he said to me at the end of our interview, “Please be kinder hereafter to us ‘photographic’ painters!”
Once he painted a ship without ever having seen it or any picture of it, with such accurate realism that a friend who had sailed on that ship recognized it sail for sail, rope for rope.
But it isn’t hard to be kind to a “photographic” painter like J. Seaverns Erickson whose “Flying Cloud” I saw one day at the O’Brien galleries and was so struck with it spirit that I sought out the painter, whose name I had never heard.
Mr. Erickson, born Nov 9, 1880, in the village of Ravenswood (now within corporate Chicago) may believe he paints “photographically.”
Lovers of ship pictures are a peculiar brand of art lovers, he tells me, insisting on exactly accurate details, and that he supplies them is evidenced by his friend’s ready recognition of the ship he created on canvas.
But there is something other than the “photographic” in this painter’s work, else I, who am bored to tears with “marine pictures,” would not have given a second thought to “Flying Cloud.”
And in the course of an interview, I found out what it is.
Mr. Erickson’s vision has been so defective since he was a day old that, when he draws one line, he sees three.
“Eyestrain due to malformed eyeballs and leakage lenses, making overlapping images, made study very difficult and caused melancholy,” he told me. “My mother says that I had a freakishly long head when born, and the nurse took it upon herself to push it together.”
He often contemplated suicide because of the added melancholy to a none-too-cheerful Norwegian nature. But at 56, he has grown more philosophical.
Difficult as was study, he so mastered civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin that he can not only read a blueprint, but can visualize in his imagination the completed edifice in all its surface as well as structural beauty. Similarly there are rare musicians who can “hear” music when reading the printed sc ore.
Mr. Erickson has made the clipper ship a hobby in his ambitions as artist. There are no accurate contemporary pictures of Flying Cloud, fastest of all the clippers. Her “specifications,” however, are preserved with great exactness and it is from these and from the clippers he has seen that Mr. Erickson, a few months ago, painted “Flying Cloud” as she crossed the equator on her record-breaking maiden voyage around the Horn.
But just because he was born in Ravenswood and has spent the greater part of his life in Chicago, Mr. Erickson is not to be confused with “landlubbers” who get their knowledge of the sea from Conrad and Marryat. Nor is he a “fresh water” sailor on Lake Michigan.
The sea is in his blood. He is of a long line of ship captains and he himself, upon graduating from high school, went to New York and shipped with his Uncle Erik, captain of the Hercules, with whom he made two trips; one to Norway and the other to France.
At sea, his melancholy led him to deep and long contemplation of the beauties he saw, and it is “the feel of the sea” thus acquired that he strives to get into his pictures.
“The art of marine painting,” he said, “bothered itself little, until recently, with the depicting of ships skimming along on the ocean. The artists who painted or drew the old ships and the clippers usually sat on the docks an caught them at anchor. I like better to think of ships far out at sea, and I put them in oceans of my own imagining from my memories.”
The drawings that exist of the early clippers, he went on, are of little value. They were usually careless or inaccurate.
“Down on the coast of Florida,” he aid, “there are talented Negroes who will watch yachts come in, sketch them quickly, show them to the owners on landing, in the hope of selling them for a dollar or two. They have a semblance to the yacht sufficient to interest the owner, particularly at that price. Well, the old clipper drawings are of about that consequence.”
In painting “Flying Cloud,” Me. Erickson went through all the literature he could find about her, the dimensions and specification, and also the rhapsodies inspired by her fleetness. In his mind, compounded of the engineer and the poet, “Flying Cloud” took shape in body and character until finally she was ready to be set on an ocean of his memory.
“I seldom look at the marine paintings of other artists,” he said. “I want to keep fresh my own visions of the sea, and I don’t want them diluted by the conventions of even the masters.”
It is in the labor of painting that the defects of his vision must be overcome. He can’t work under the open sky because of the brightness of the light. It is in the dimness of his studio that he pictures take shape. Seurat painted “Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte,” the gem of the Art Institute’s collection, at night by candle or oil lamp, and Mr. Erickson’s processes are somewhat similar. Seurat, too, had an engineer’s mind, carefully thought out his color schemes, and could construct his pictures almost by label of the various tubes. Mr. Erickson isn’t quite that proficient but thought, even so, plays a greater part with him than optical vision.
More difficult to overcome is the triple line he sees when he draws a single one. But here, too, reason comes to his rescue, and long experience has taught him what to do. In the finished picture, the observer could scarcely suspect any defects in drawing, so accurately does his “censor” work. Indeed, he is more precise than is necessary in his anxiety to make no slips.
Mr. Erickson’s father was Daniel Erickson, and his mother (still living) was Mathilde Sorensen, both born in Norway and both of seafaring families.
“It’s no very great distinction in Norway,” said Mr. Erickson with a smile, “to have a long line of ship captains in your ancestry. ‘Skips Capitanes’ are inevitable. Everybody lives on the side of the mountains overlooking the sea, and sooner or later everybody rolls down into the ocean and either drowns or becomes a ship captain.”
Anyhow, his father went to sea at11 as a cabin boy, and sailed until he was about 26 when he put in port at Ravenswood. Erik, father of Daniel, was drowned off the coast of Norway while sailing his own cargo sloop. Two of Mathilde Sorensen’s brothers, too, were drowned at sea, one in the Pacific and the other in the English Channel. Numerous other sailors, among them Captain Edward and two Captains Erik, appear in the immediate ancestral tree.
Despite the defect in his vision, J. Seaverns Erickson has led a more active life than most men. Besides sailor and student of engineering and law, he played left halfback on the University of Wisconsin freshman football team, after breaking a collar bone in high school football. He tried to enlist in the navy but was rejected in an eye test. The army, however, accepted him, and he was in the regiment sent to San Francisco from Fort Clark, Tex., at the time of the earthquake. At Fort Clark, he painted military murals on all the walls of the mess hall.
At the outbreak of the World War, he tried to enlist for aviation but was turned down, and the navy then again rejected him. But his old friend, the army, again took him. He didn’t get to France, however, until just before the armistice.
Between times (that is to say, in “time out” from college, art school, and the army), he worked for the American Book Company as a bill clerk, and for three years in the law offices of the Rock Island Railroad, during which he tortured his eyes so persistently that he got a diploma in night school and was admitted to the bar.
In more recent years, he worked with his brother, lately dead, Dan E. Erickson, inventor and builder of naval machinery, with his place of business on the Navy pier, Chicago. Fresh water doesn’t take the place of salt, but it’s water.