I met Robert Weaver in September 1984 on day one of the MFA Illustration program at the School of Visual Arts. First thing I noticed about him was he was white. With his thick glasses, clear diction, and gentlemanly manner he looked like Jimmy Stewart playing James Thurber. I’d expected he’d be black.
During that summer I’d looked up all my future teachers’ names in the card catalog at the Hoboken Public Library. I found the children’s picture book he illustrated called Me Day. Drawn in pencil, Me Day tells the story of a black boy and his desperate desire to spend a day with his estranged father.
It’s a beautiful book set in Harlem. Everyone in the boy’s world from the postman to the hot dog vendor is black. The drawings were so right. Every individual face, hand and gesture rang so true that l presumed the artist had to be black.
He stood there in his gray sports coat and told the class to call him Bob. He didn’t like to be called Mr. Weaver. Some of us took to calling him Professor Bob which seemed to amuse him. Behind his back we called him “The Weave.”
The Weave grew up in Pittsburgh. During World War II he was a conscientious objector and spent the war years toiling in a mental hospital. In Italy after the war he worked on his sketchbooks. He believed an illustrator was obliged to truthfully document our world.
He began our 1984 grad school year with assignments that were a bit vague, telling us to “go find a construction site, or excavation, or somewhere else” where we could draw a record of some visible change over a two-week period. We all failed the assignment.
When the day came that we pinned our paltry drawings to the crit wall, he paced back and forth. He examined each drawing for a long time. He’d get so close it looked like he was going to walk through the wall into the next room. His eyesight obviously was impaired. He informed us he had a very limited field of vision, but he could see fine at very close distances. That first crit was devastating. He told us the drawings were lazy. He told us he expected more, much more. His undergrad students did more, and weren’t we graduate students? The students exchanged glances and raised eyebrows. What’s with the Weave? ‘How exciting can a hole in the ground get?’ someone protested. He listened to excuses about the hassles of moving to the city or finding affordable art supplies, or the right site to draw, the weather. He told us he found our excuses much more fascinating than our drawings, and said he hoped we could someday get that sort of narrative power in our artwork. Brutal.
Not long after that he changed his approach to our class. It got quite interesting. He brought in remarkable models – the overdressed character actress, the jazz drummer, the window washer – and we drew in class.
The window washer was a big soft-spoken black man with a club foot. He climbed out the classroom window nine stories over Second Avenue. He hooked his harness onto tiny buttons built into the window casement and inched his way across the front of the building. When l complimented Professor Bob on his choice of a model, he confided with some pride that he had invoiced the school for a “visiting lecturer” rather than “life model” so that he could pay the man a bit more. Besides, the windows were sparkling at the end of class..
One night my wife had to work late and I couldn’t find a sitter, so I brought my daughter Zoe to class. She was a toddler then, and it was the night he’d hired the jazz drummer. The drummer did the longest drum solo I ever hope to hear. Zoe loved it. She picked up some paper scraps, waved them in the air, and danced around the drummer. I tried to get her to calm down. “Let her go,· said Weaver. “She’s giving us more to draw.”
The Weave was a great talker. He quoted the classics the way another man might cough. He would quote: Shakespeare, Shaw, Dostoevsky, his opthalmologist. He loved William Carlos Williams’ poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and he recited it to the class more than once. It is a poem about seeing, about how much depends on unremarkable objects that we sometimes take for granted.
He insisted that we draw from life rather than photos whenever possible. He was very keen on what historians call primary material. He told a story about an art student he met at a bus stop. The student was headed up to the picture file at the New York Public Library.
“What sort of photo reference are you looking for?”‘ Weaver asked.
“A bus.” said the student.
“What sort of bus?” he asked.
“A regular bus. A New York City bus.”
“Why don’t you stay on this corner and draw a bus stopped in traffic?”
“Photos are better,” said the student as he hopped on the bus.
One day he showed us his famous series of drawings of Ebbets Field after it had been forsaken by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He talked about growing up in Pittsburgh during the Depression, how he and his brother didn’t have enough money for bleacher seats, but they would still go out to Forbes Field. They would stand outside the stadium. They couldn’t see the playing field, but they could see part of the crowd, and they could hear the crack of the bat and the cheers when the Pirates scored a run.
The Weave told us about the time he was a spear carrier in a production of Julius Caesar at Lincoln Center. His brother Fritz Weaver, the actor, got him the job. He had no lines. He said he was a ‘supernumerary.’ I had never heard that word before. He just stood there in a toga and sandals with his hair combed forward. It was a long run and after a while he began to find his stage career tedious. Then one night he looked out into the audience and everything seemed transformed. He found himself observing the clothes and even the facial expressions of the theater goers and wondered why he hadn’t done it before. Suddenly he realized it was because he couldn’t see that far. He was wearing his glasses on stage.
His stories might have seemed like digressions, but they always related to the central theme of his teaching, – the power and poignancy of observation.
I’ll always remember this. It was very late in the school year. After the others left class, I told him I didn’t think I’d come back for the second year of the two-year program. He asked why. I couldn’t really explain clearly, but I felt in my bones that I did not belong there. I really liked my classmates, and I drew as well as some, but I felt very different from them. The best seemed to me to be catching on to something, developing a certain polish to their work and in their personalities. I could see they were becoming artists. I couldn’t see myself ever reaching that point. I was quick to add that I’d learned a lot from him and it was not a problem with the school. It was me, All my life I loved art and books and learning, but never felt I quite belonged in any school or group. The Weave’s head went back, he seemed startled. “Is that how you feel?” he asked. “Well, that’s … great! That’s fantastic!” he said. “You’ve got to nurture that. You’ve got to cultivate that. That sense that you don’t belong. That’s what makes an artist. Artists don’t belong.”
He was dead serious. “It’s the person who crashes the party who really observes everything, isn’t it? The artist is the uninvited guest. The kid without a penny and his nose pressed to the glass of the bakery window. Isn’t he the only one that really knows the significance of what’s inside? Don’t you see? You’ve got to put yourself where you don’t belong to have any hope of making art. You’ve got to decide about school for yourself, but that’s a precious gift you’ve got, that feeling that you don’t belong.”
I told him I’d think about what he’d said, and I did. I did the second year and got my MFA. There have been times since when I have felt alone and out-of-place and I have taken some solace from his words. Other times, when I feel more comfortable. I start to feel like I belong, then I recall the haunting words of the Weave. It is a precious gift, the feeling that you don’t belong!
Robert Weaver art from Dowd MGHL, D.B.Dowd Modern Graphic History Library at Washington University in St. Louis. The Dowd MGHL site has a number of visual essays on the Weave. A version of this essay appeared in the SVA publication, Drawing, 1997.