Over the years, I’ve been astounded at the number of people who have said they were students of the landscape painter A.E. “Bean’’ Backus. Some of them were indeed what you might call students, while others had only met him a few times or perhaps not at all.
I was reminded of this while reading Ellen Gillette’s profile on painter Jackie Schindehette. I had the privilege of knowing Bean from about 1969 to his death in 1990, and I can attest that Jackie, who spent a decade painting with Bean, was a bona fide student.
By way of background, Bean was the first native Floridian to popularize South Florida landscapes. Before him, there was only Winslow Homer, who occasionally visited Florida and who focused largely on scenes of Key West.
Born in 1906, Bean was largely self taught and much of what distinguished him came from his intensive study of nature. Today, he is best known as a mentor to many of the Highwaymen, a group of African American artists largely connected to Fort Pierce who painted Florida landscapes — some in assembly-line fashion — and sold them on the side of the road.
By the time Jackie came along in the 1980s, Bean long before had quit giving formal lessons. This was at a time before his commission list became years long and he taught — sometimes in group lessons — for extra money. One of those students was Ruth Graham, wife of the evangelist Billy Graham, who enjoyed extensive stays in Vero Beach.
By the late ’60s, early ’70s and ’80s, Bean took on students on an informal basis — kids who were identified as having some artistic talent and needed a mentor or direction beyond what the typical high school art teacher could provide. In the generation ahead of me, these students included Juan and Don Brown, the latter of whom would become Bean’s longtime manager, and in my generation they included Michael Sitaras, who would become a Greek Orthodox priest and still paints today, and my brother, Michael, who is 13 months older than me and also continues to paint. The last of Bean’s students was Danny Holt, now living in north central Florida and also continuing to paint.
My brother and I began going down to Bean’s studio on Second Street, which I’ve likened to a sort of open-door community center for untethered kids, when I was about 10 years old. I could claim to be one of his students during that first year we began visiting the studio, now the home of Main Street Fort Pierce.
That first Christmas during our days at the studio Bean had given each of us a box of oil paints and brushes and in the ensuing months let us paint inside his small studio at the west end of the house. It was the only room in the house with air-conditioning. While painting, Bean typically played a radio station delivering the “music of your life,’’ American standards all of which were orchestrated in a very bland sort of way that allowed Bean to whistle to them. Learning to paint with Bean was a matter of figuring out when to ask him a question, and that was mostly to do it when he put his brush or palette knife down.
Though I didn’t become a painter — Bean eschewed the word artist — I did learn several important lessons from him. He taught me about perspective and, most important for my profession in the world of newspapers and magazines, he taught me the concept of the center of interest. This can apply to photos or even to newspaper page layouts — to make sure the viewer’s eye immediately goes to a single area of interest instead of making it compete with other areas.
In that first year, I only produced a few paintings and perhaps one decent one, a scene of our dog, O.D., chasing seagulls on the Indian River. We lived just about a mile from Bean and O.D., along with our much older dog, White Spot, would often follow us to Bean’s studio.
They learned the way so well that after a few months they began going down to the studio on their own after we’d leave for school each morning. This desire to visit the studio daily was perhaps encouraged by Bean, who indulged them with beef jerky, which he purchased in copious amounts at the local A&P.
By contrast to my poor production that first year, Michael produced several dozen paintings. With shades of the “parable of the talents,’’ Michael used up all his paints that year producing dozens of works of art while my box remained full of paints and barely used brushes. Bean knew being a painter wasn’t in the cards for me. I like to tell the story that when the second Christmas rolled around, Bean gave Michael a bigger box of paints and he gave me a cast net. It was his subtle way of encouraging me in a different direction.
Despite abandoning my aspirations as a painter, I continued to hang out at the studio, mostly at the kitchen table where a wide array of people would hold forth on any number of controversial topics, which were encouraged by Bean, who often paraphrased Twain as saying he preferred hell for company and heaven for atmosphere. There was also drinking at the table, and Bean always seemed to have a bottle of rum at the ready under his sink, though Bean never allowed anyone under age to drink in front of him.
And while I am on this topic, I would like to dispel a popular myth. In my experience with Bean, he never drank while he painted. When he painted, he was focused on painting. When he drank, he was focused on drinking, conversation and having a good laugh. When I hear people say they used to go down to the studio and drink and paint with him I know they were not students at all.
When not a debate forum, the kitchen table was used for the quickie meals Bean prepared and to which all inside were invited. It was always simple fare, something that would take him 20 minutes or less to cook: chicken dogs and any number of frozen foods made by the likes of frozen food manufacturers such as Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Paul or anything that could be produced from a can from his pantry. His greatest talent was preparing beans from a package, and my favorite was his butter bean soup, a simple concoction of water, salt, lima beans, water and thyme, an ingredient I initially misunderstood from him as “time,’’ meaning it took time to prepare.
When I came back to Fort Pierce from graduate school in 1983 to work as a reporter at The News-Tribune, I lived briefly at the studio, and that’s where I got to know Jackie Schindehette, wife of Fort Pierce Utilities Authority director Harry Schindehette. At the time, another Jackie — Jackie Brice, wife of retired Miami fire chief Herman Brice — also would come up from Jupiter, where they retired, to Fort Pierce to frequently paint with Bean. We called them the two Jackies.
Also painting with Bean at that time was Haitian artist Roger Zetren, who was living at the studio with his wife, Bertha. Bean opened his door and shared his talents with anyone, whether you were a Little League mom or a refugee off the boat.
I moved to Sarasota in 1984 to work at the paper there. Bean died in 1990 — Jackie was with him the last day he was painting. She and Harry eventually left Fort Pierce for Utah and several other stops before returning to Fort Pierce.
A few months ago going through some old photos I came across one of her and Bean and have been meaning to give it to her. It was printed on the old paper stock we used at the newspaper to print photos, so I don’t know whether I took it or my brother Michael, a photographer at the Tribune for several years, or Juan, who spent four decades as a photographer at the paper, took it.
I like it because it shows how much Bean and Jackie loved each other, no matter where in life they were. Bean, showing a rare vulnerable countenance in opposition to the hundreds of grip-and-grin publicity photos taken over the years that had him smiling, knew he didn’t have much time left but was comforted by friends like Jackie. In the photo, Jackie is just happy to be with her mentor. Student and teacher. Teacher and student. Jackie, give me a call. I have a photo to give you.
Reach Gregory Enns or 772.940.9005.
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