This is file #47. This is jean McMillen interviewing Allen Blagden at his home on 28 Race Track Road. The date is April 16, 2013.
JM:May I have your full name?
AB:Fredrick Allen Blagden
AB:Feb. 21, 1938
JM:Your birth place
AB:New York City
JM:Your parents’ names
AB:Martha Allen Blagden and Thomas Peabody Blagden
JM:Do you have siblings?
AB:I am the oldest then comes Anne, then comes Irene, and then comes Tom Jr.
JM:What is your educational background?
AB:I did the works: Town Hill, Indian Mountain, Hotchkiss, and Cornell. I did have a Fellowship at Yale Summer Art School which happens to be in Norfolk, Ct. It was wonderful. I never knew it existed. Well, what happened is Yale sent out notices to different colleges, and the faculty decides who to recommend. They recommended me and I said, “What?” I lived half an hour from them. I never knew that Yale had anything to do with Norfolk.
JM:I am going to go back to Indian Mountain. Who was the Headmaster when you were there?
AB:I think it was Bill Doolittle the whole time.
JM:Probably. You said that the math teacher was?
AB:Connie Bancroft who became Connie Doolittle.
JM:Any outstanding memories of Indian Mountain School?
AB:Yes, Mr. Osgood. There was a little museum above the garage which was an out building. He knew a lot about nature; that is what I loved. We would always go down below in the back. I can’t remember what he taught. I probably fail it. Then there was Mr. Cabot.
JM:What did Mr. Cabot teach?
AB:I had him. You know what I remember? I don’t remember what he taught, but he smoked in class in those days. He took a white linen handkerchief, inhaled, and then he took the handkerchief up and held it to his mouth and blew the smoke through it. It made a giant brown ring, and I said,” I will never smoke.” That was a great lesson.
JM:That was a superb lesson. Now when you were at Hotchkiss, who was Headmaster at that time?
AB:George Van Santvoord. I was lucky to have known him, but I don’t think he could be a headmaster today. There is too much fund raising. He was the old school. You would be walking down the corridor and this big hand would come up behind you, put it around your waist and this voice would say, “Do you think Mickey Mouse should have a driver’s license?” He could tell a lot by your answer.
JM:Did you do any of the sports at Hotchkiss or were you on the outdoor squad that he …
AB:Wood squad, yes but I played soccer, not varsity. But then I was on the wood squad and in skiing in the winter, no, wood squad in the winter.
JM:What was wood squad like?
AB:That was working outside clearing the trails in the woods; but I knew George Van Santvoord being a faculty child I knew him even before I even went there. He left half way through. I think Tom Chapel came next. I’ll tell you one story about George Van Santvoord which I look back on; it is really profound. I loved nature. We traveled, my father had all summer off so we went to my mother’s mother for July in New Hampshire and then we’d go to my father’s parents on Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. Idyllic, I had cousins a slew of cousins in both places, but I had two baby ducks that I had gotten. I told my parents that I had found them in the pond, Beeslick Pond which is on the way to Sharon. Well, the duck grew up, they were not wild ducks; they were Muscovy ducks. Finally we came back and my father said, “There is more to these ducks, where did they come from?” I had stolen them from George Van Santvoord. They had imprinted on me completely. I can’t excuse it. My parents called George Van Santvoord, and I had to get on my bicycle and pedal over to school knowing that man was waiting for me. He came to the steps out on the front porch, and I am way down below him, this towering figure. I apologized and probably in tears. Do you know what he said? He said, “Well, if you hadn’t done it, I think the rats might have killed them.” Now how about that?
JM:That is pretty impressive.
AB:I know, and then I went from there when I was a student, he and I had wild ducks on the old hockey rink which doesn’t exist. He had swans; so we did a lot together, but I never forgot that lesson.
JM:I can believe that. Your father was head of the Art Department.
AB:He was the second art teacher in the whole history of the school. The first was Bob Osborn. (See tape #62)
JM:Do you know anything about Bob Osborn? Can you give me some information about him?
AB: I knew him quite well. He was basically a cartoonist. I think he left teaching just to be… he did a lot of political cartoons. The school had a lot of originals; Dilbert? He drew Dilbert’s experiences with the war and being in the infantry. There used to be a whole row of like somebody had… some student. Well, this was a cartoon. Where were we?
JM:You were telling me about the cartoons that he had up around the corridors.
AB:Some guy in agony obviously, an unknown student had a nail through his leg and throbbing; all the different ailments he had done cartoons for. Then he did a book. I knew he did a book called, War is no Damn Good. It is about the military and how horrible war was.
JM:he had a point.
AB:He did have a point. Then he married Elody who was just absolutely wonderful. She had been working at the Museum of Modern Art. They were great friends of Alexander Calder. He lived at the north end of Salisbury. They had 2 sons and they still have the house.
JM:Do you know when your father (Tom Blagden) took over as art teacher?
AB:Oh dear, well obviously before I went there; it wasn’t hard. He would say it wasn’t hard for him to have me as a student.
JM:Was it hard for you to have your father as a teacher?
AB:It wasn’t hard for me as it was a continuation. He would always bring supplies home, and we had a big bench where my sisters and I could just scribble and draw and paint.
JM:What years were you at Hotchkiss?
AB:I got out of Indian Mountain in 1952; Hotchkiss loved me so much I spent 5 years there.
JM:So 1953 to 1958?
AB:1957, I had to repeat that year. That was difficult. I once asked my father, “You were on the faculty what was it like when they discussed my terrible marks and they suggested that I repeat a year?” He was wonderful. This was late in life when I asked him this. He said, “That was OK.”
JM:What an understanding father. What kind of art did you father teach?4.
AB:He had gone to the Pennsylvania Academy so he did a lot of figure drawing. It was all boys at that time. I taught one year and it was still all boys. He was there about 21 or 22 years. I can’t tell you when he left. I had two more art teachers after he left. I can remember their names: Ernest Norcia and Bob Spier. Oh I had already graduated and I became really good friends with Bob Burrer.
JM:Your training was at Yale?
AB:No I’m really Cornell. I went there to be an ornithologist, that’s birds. I had the interview; I had not had chemistry, I had not had physics, my math was absolutely shocking. For ornithology you get a BSA, Bachelor of Science. So gain my poor father drove me all the way to New York and I could tell that the interview person was getting very frustrated. Well obviously you are not going to get anywhere near liberal arts, sonny. He said, “What else are you interested in?” I told him that I like to paint. “Oh, have you seen our fine arts department?” “No, I didn’t know you had one.” It is in the college of Architecture, so we went straight over there. The Head of that Department said, “We don’t give a damn about them over there. Switch you application over here. You get a FA and you are in.” I had to take one science for the Liberal Arts. Of course I took biology so then I could take anything else at the University. I took all the art courses; it was great.
JM:What medium were you using then? Were you trained in all of them or…
AB:I’ll tell you what they tried to make me go abstract, and I couldn’t. The only thing I could do was slightly impressionistic paintings. But my teacher, this is my major subject, gave me a 65. I know that he handed in the marks and by the time we got them, he was on a plane to Florida. I said to myself. “I am going to get even with him. Someday I am going to get even. “ I had this vision that I would be invited back as Artist in Residence and there would be a dinner given in my honor. I would be giving a lecture he would be in the front row. I would point my finger at him and tell this story. Well, there was a dinner given because I was with, at that point I had met Tom Armstrong who had gone to Cornell ahead of me. He was Head of the Whitney Museum in New York. So I went up to Cornell on his coattails. We did have a dinner for the whole faculty; I ended sitting next to my teacher and guess what he does? He turns to me at the dinner and said, “You know, Allen, I have to tell you, I have come around to your way of thinking.” Well, that blew it. The next day he sat in front at my lecture, and I said nothing. By coming around meaning figurative and realistic painter, so I still am. I’m stuck with it.
JM:But it is the type of thing, I am beginning to appreciate abstract but I still like to know what I am looking at. I like a definitive image.
AB:I do too, but it comes down to me as composition, the design underneath it, for instance there is so much art today that is pure C R A P; it really is. Yet, let me pick Helen Frankenthaler; I like her work every time I see it because maybe I can see a shimmering sunset. It is very abstract but she knew color and she knew design. That is the basic. I don’t care how abstract it is, you’ve got to have the structure underneath it.
JM:There has to be bones to it somehow.5.
AB:Yep. I remember also the time I was teaching at Hotchkiss. One of the boys said-I don’t know what he did but it was very abstract and he said, “If I call it art, it is art.” We had gotten into an argument or discussion. “If the artist says this is a masterpiece this is a piece of work and I call it art.” I said, “OK are you going to be standing next to this for the rest of your life to tell people it is art? It has to stand on its own.” Then you get into the whole thing about a critic; who’s a critic? I look at a magazine “American Artist” art in America; I get so depressed basically with what is in it. I got one today and I just ripped it up and threw it in the waste in the post office. It is not my style. Do you know Jack Kuhns just sold a painting for I don’t know what it was- a huge, millions? Ok he’s made the public knows who he is because he probably has a PR person and was married to the porno queen of Italy. He would make statues of that. He had a Snoopy; he copied Snoopy and Snoopy was tiered geraniums that you planted. It’s getting a gimmick.
JM:What media do you use primarily?
AB:Primarily it’s water color for now.
College I worked for the Smithsonian and was the illustrator for their ornithology department. That led to scientific illustrations which is too exact. I have to be realistic but that is too exact. As if somebody would have been telling me what they wanted me to look at through the microscope and relate to. Then I left that to make films with N.C. Wyeth, Andy Wyeth’s grandson. We made films together based on N.C. Wyeth’s paintings. I loved doing that, but that takes too many people to make a film. I went back and I thought I’m going back to painting. The best way to get there is watercolor. Now I still do oils; I am waiting for the weather to be really warm so I cannot sniff the turpentine, and get a little foggy. I think one of my heroes would be Winslow Homer who did etchings, watercolor and oil. I just worked with an etching last week. I do do etchings which I love to do, but somebody’s got to do the printing. I cannot be consistent so I have to pay somebody to do that. #1 it has to be exactly like #30. What else?
AB:For painting? I could have been a portrait painter; I still love to do people but I pick up people in New York. I came back from Morocco and I will show you the painting, I had stayed at a place and the manager running it, I had just said, “Would you pose for me; you just look terrific?” He said, “Yes, of course.” So he is holding a big bowl of tangerines that was on the table; he’s in a big white robe. I came back and I did a big painting and I said I’ve got to have another figure. There is a certain, I had seen it in Africa when the shape of a black man’s head and I don’t see it very often in America. I was at the Javet’s Convention Center in New York; there was a man at the ticket booth and he was exactly what I wanted. So I waited until there was a lull in the crowd and I went up and there was a line and you can’t say you’ve got a great head; would you pose for me blah, blah, blah? I convinced him and he gave me his phone number. I kept calling and I know whoever answered didn’t like my voice I don’t know if it was
his grandmother or what. But she wouldn’t; I kept calling and finally I got him and he said sure. I would go back to the Javet’s on his lunch hour. So I sketched him. I did take a few black and white photographs and used it. It just worked.
JM:But you knew what was going to work for your composition.
AB:I knew what would work, and it was the shape of the head. He wasn’t American; he was Jamaican. I just hadn’t seen it here, but it did exist.
JM:When you do a study, do you do sketches, do you use photography?
JM:All the time? Some of the time? Most of the time?
AB:If it is going to be a human, yes if it’s for a portrait.
JM:When you are doing a nature study of whatever a bird, again Audubon used to shoot them and stuff them and pose them, but what do you do in order to do a naturalistic style of your animal or bird?
AB:I have a love-hate with zoos. Usually the animals are too fat, but still I would do sketches and again photograph the beast. It depends on how long I have. If I am traveling, it really comes down to photographs, but I can’t get used to this digital stuff. I am a computer illiterate. You have to make it work.
JM:You do what you need to do.
AB:Yeah. I am on the board of the Society of Animal Artists so we have more fun. We had our 50th reunion out in Danbury. You would think two busloads of I won’t even say adults,
AB:We went off to the zoo and then the next day was off to the wild animal park. The bus would leave us off and we would just disappear, absolutely disappear. He would meet us at 5:00 and then everybody related how they discovered the dung beetle or… I had ended up doing a painting which I’ve got submitted now for a juried show, but it is the Indian Rhinoceros wallowing in a green pool.
JM:Did you ever do meerkats?
AB:No, everybody else does. There are certain ones I don’t do; meerkats, snow leopard, panda, and penguin I probably will not paint. It’s just too common; everybody does it.
JM:I am going to go back a bit. How long has your family been in this area?
AB:I can tell you. Yes, I am 75, my father got out of Yale in 1933, and George Van Santvoord asked him if he wanted to teach art at Hotchkiss. My father thought that would be a great idea for 2 or 3 years.
Nobody left. There was no Sharon Hospital at that time. So my mother went to New York to have her children. My parents were here from then. They were married, and I was born in 1938. They built their house here.
JM:Where was their house that they built?
AB:Right up here off 112, next to the Belcher property. If you go out this road (Race Track) to 112, you would turn left for about 2 seconds and take the next driveway to the right, opposite that big red barn.
JM:Red Mountain Road?
AB:No, you have gone much too far. Turn left and then right immediately.
JM:Town Hill Road?
AB:What, yeah 26 Town Hill Road. Ward Belcher built a new house up that road too. I can even remember the old 3 digit phone number.
JM:Your sisters, are they photographers, artists?
AB:They both paint. As far as I know they just do it now and then. It is very frustrating.
JM:But the talent of art has run through the whole family?
AB:My brother is a well-known landscape photographer. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina. I can show you books; he’s got 2 or 3 books on that area, but my favorite book is Acadia National Park. He is doing a second one and it will come out next year for the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Arcadia National Park.
JM:Now I know that you live on Race Track Road, did you know Dr. Noble? Did you know about the harness racing?
AB:Dr. Noble was my father-in-law. I did once or twice go on the harness racing and believe me I hate the name Race Track Road because it is too much like Lime Rock. Well they changed the name; it was always Wells Hill when I was growing up. I grew up with Charlotte Miner; she taught riding. She had horses right up here in the barn so we would always ride down the road. She always called it Wells Hill. So I don’t know what the real Wells Hill was called.
JM:Well, it was Norton Hill up going from Lime Rock up to the top, and then it was Wells Hill going toward Lakeville because of the Norton Farm, the dairy farm that was on the top of the Wells Hill. I only know this through doing oral history. Can you tell me anything about Dr. Noble as a person? I am assuming he was a doctor, a medical doctor.
AB:He was one of the founders of the Sharon Clinic. Do you want the others?
JM:That I have from Dr. Richard Collins. What was Dr. Noble like as a person?8.
AB:I liked him. He went seriously into the harness racing.
JM:It was not a hobby, it was a real avocation?
AB:Well, yes, once he retired from the hospital. He stopped to do research on blood; he had space at the hospital. He lived on Main Street in Lakeville, the fence everybody drives into.
JM:Yes, I know that house. (299 Main Street, Lakeville) Describe harness racing.
AB:Oh it is sulky racing. It is one person and one horse, two wheels and it is attached to a harness on the horse. It’s go only 2 wheels so obviously it’s a long, there is a name for all this, but there are 2 bars that are attached to the horse to keep you horizontal. There was a Cleaveland; they had the track together. I don’t know his first name; he married Debbie who still lives up there.
JM:Is there anything left of the actual race track, or is it all grown over?
AB:It is all grown over. I think if you really looked you could see, well, hardly.
JM:The Pony Club used to be in that vicinity didn’t it?
AB:I don’t know.
JM:The first pony club before it went out to Undermountain Road.
AB:That I don’t know. There used to be riding trails all around here.
JM:Are you involved in any civic activities, boards or…
AB:I am not ashamed to say no.
JM:That is perfectly fine.
AB:I did Audubon, and then I was on the Land Trust. They finally came to me and said. “We looked at our bylaws and you have to get off the board even something years and you’ve been on 9 years. You have to leave.”
JM:Is there anything you’d like to add to this interview that I haven’t covered?
AB:There was a group called Concern.
JM:Oh tell me about Concern, please.
AB:I was on Concern for a long time. I made some really good friends.
JM:What was the purpose?9.
AB:Concern was for racial trouble here; I don’t know why it ended. Concern was really blacks and whites getting together. Really we would listen as for instance they couldn’t get a haircut. They had to go to Poughkeepsie. Then there was somebody a nameless woman and when she heard that here she said, ”Well, that’s easy I have to go to New York to get my hair done.” a little different.
AB:No, I can’t think of anything. But if I think of anything can I call you?
AB:What angle, just art or?
JM:Anything that tickles your fancy, but this has been wonderful. I thank you for your time.
AB:It’s been a pleasure.