A Memoir       
Don Lehman

Chapter 9
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Foreword
1945-1950
1950-1957
1957-1961
1961-1962
1962-1966
1966-1973
1973-1977
1977-1983
1983-1988
1988-1991
1991-1996
1996-2002
2002-2012
2012-2014
2014-2016
2016

1983 - 1988

In 1983, while Robert Preszler was curator at the Washington County Museum, he offered me a one man show of my art photographs. I had a lot of work and clearly enough to put together a show. It may have been a bit premature but it was a validation and a great help to my confidence as an artist. Richard Lutzke wrote a statement about the work for the program and I also wrote a statement. Today, over thirty years later I am comfortable with the work I chose for that show and the statement that I wrote. It did nothing to help my commercial business and probably made me less interested in focusing on commercial work. It was my first experience showing a body of work and a one man show at the museum was a big step. I showed 29 black and white photographs. They represented what I now consider my “graduate” work. They were carefully printed and expressive. Some were cut or torn and assembled, some were hand colored and others were straight but surreal or somewhat abstract. The photograph that I made for the program cover was a self portrait. In the photograph, I held a life size photography my smiling face in front of my actual face and a life size, sad face photograph in my other hand. It was theatrical, physically concealing and psychological revealing. It was a perfect metaphor for that time in my life.

I was encouraged by the response to the one man show and I decided to take my work to Baltimore and Washington DC. I made an appointment at the Corcoran Gallery. It was a popular gallery and school, next door to the White House. I spent time with a curator discussing my work and ideas. She requested that I leave the work for her to share with colleagues. That was a good experience. When I picked the work up I was encouraged to continue working and to come back with more. I also took the work around to various commercial galleries and got the same message, “keep working and come back with new work.” Over the next several years I did produce more work but at a slow pace while focusing on commercial photography. I did not take work back to Corcoran or the galleries in DC

I enrolled in night classes at the Maryland Art Institute and twice entered work in the Artscape exhibits sponsored by the Institute. On both occasions my work was juried in and exhibited. Two years later I traveled on a six week photography project.

The studio was paying its own way but was not a financial success. I had a handful of regular clients and picked up other random jobs. My main clients were the Maryland Symphony, a company that made computer desks and modular kitchen cabinets, a boat manufacturer, Mercersburg Academy and a company that customized vans. I also worked with several advertising agencies. I had business, but I was not confident in my ability. I shot too much film and was never satisfied with the work. My lack of confidence and anxiety kept me from taking pleasure in the opportunity to be creative. I also designed brochures and had printing done for clients. I spent way too much un-billed time and never charged enough for my work. In the end I was self critical and underpaid!

I think if I had finished high school and gone on to college, those academic years could have helped me feel validated and therefore more confident in my work. Many schools today are equipped to help students with various learning challenges that I may have had. For example, I found it intolerable to sit through a day of classes and I had difficulty concentrating and focusing my mind for extended periods. On the other hand, on some projects I could work all day and late into the night. I know of people who did complete their education and collected the diplomas and still had difficulty settling on a career path.

I judged my work against the best New York studios. I approached each commercial job with anxiety. I focused my attention on what could go wrong, from equipment failure to my perceived lack of preparedness. My anxiety interfered with my creativity and after a job was finished I would berate myself for not having more fun and trying something more creative. I was successful in delivering acceptable photographs but I always knew the work would not be as good as I wanted it to be! Everything I did, including my personal life, was never as good as I wanted it to be. I was however, a bit more content with the fine art photographs that I was making. I spent many hours at the studio working on self directed art projects, experimenting with camera formats and lens. I was most interested in visual perception. I also made some 4’ x 4’ paintings on masonite. Those paintings no longer exist. Most of the tear sheets from my commercial work was lost in a fire.

In addition to photography, drawing and painting, I enjoyed dabbling in design work. I designed a unique folding box. Richard Lutzke and I decided it could be a disposable cat litter box. The veterinarian who treated Herman told me about the danger of pregnant women coming in contact with cat feces and toxoplasma. The tray I design folded to the size of a shoe box and could be filled with cat litter. It could then be unfolded to create a tray like cat box. With Richard involved with some financing, we shared the project. I made several trips to a patent attorney in DC and secured a clear patent. Then the project stalled. This was before the internet and there were limited marketing options. We disagreed on marketing ideas and dropped the product. We then started focusing on other less complicated marketing ideas that could be managed through mail order.

In 1986, I turned 40. I had planned, and Doris had agreed, that I would take a six week, cross country trip after my birthday. I don’t remember how it was financed. It may have come from the family savings. I did keep detailed records of expenses and stayed on a strict budget. Nicole was in the eighth grade, her last year at Fountaindale Middle school. Doris was a partner with Joe Tischer, a business partnership that was nearing its end. Herman, the cat, who lived at my studio, went to stay with my sister Janice. I informed my clients that I would be unavailable for six weeks, packed some clothes, camera gear and a lot of film and hit the road. I fixed window shades in the back of the Subaru, laid the seat down and could sleep back there if necessary. At that point I had not been west of Indiana.

I had a few places on my “need to see” list but only a loose and changeable route mapped out. I was going to the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand, Zion and Brice Canyons, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Death Valley and Yosemite. Taking a southern route I spent a day in Tijuana Mexico when I arrived at the west coast. I then met up with Doris and Nicole at LAX. We spent a week together, driving north on the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco. After they flew home, I started heading east. Those long vacant roads from Reno to Salt Lake City will teach you what it means to be alone. That was good for me since a part of me knew that soon, I would need to face separation and divorce.

Early in the trip, after driving through the Great Smoky Mountains, I spent a few days in Nashville, TN. Nashville was, for me, a mythical place that I had never visited. On my first day I had three Nikon bodies and four lenses in a large bag over my shoulder and I was completely absorbed in my work as a photographer. I decided to switch lenses and sat the bag on the sidewalk. I had the bag open exposing all my expensive equipment when I realized that I had wandered into a desolate part of town. That’s when I saw the large black man, headed my way with his eyes on my Nikons. I thought to myself, here I am, halfway through my first week and I’m about to lose all my equipment. I continued changing lenses and when he got within ten feet I glanced up and he was smiling. He asked, “are you a photographer?” I returned his smile and said, “yes.” We had a good conversation and he told me how much he liked taking pictures. He admired my equipment and told me how he would like to be a professional photographer. That was an important lesson about my prejudice and to be more careful of my camera gear.

Later that night I went down town to music row. I walked into a small bar with a tiny stage. It was early and the place was nearly empty. I ordered a beer and two young couples came in and sat near me. I could hear them talking and celebrating the one guy’s birthday. After a while the girls got up and put some money in the juke box and went through a door that lead backstage. When the first song they had selected started playing, one of the girls came out on the stage and started dancing and removing her top. At the end the guys applauded. She smiled, put her top back on and left the stage. When the the next song started the other girl came out and also danced without her top. Maybe it was the moment, but I thought, what a wonderful birthday gift! I was happy I could enjoy it with them! The way it transpired, was very open and friendly. It could have seemed lewd, but it was all natural, good fun. I checked out a few more clubs that night and was impressed by the musicianship of the bands trying to “make it big.” I was not a fan of the Nashville sound that was gaining popularity. Elvis had gone to Vegas and Hollywood. Country music was becoming mainstream. There were the traditionalists who played bluegrass but many young performers were aiming at pop music industry. Nashville was changing.

The next day I met a man on the street who had lost both legs. He told me he had survived combat in Viet Nam without a scratch. Two weeks after he got home he lost both legs in an automobile crash. I gave him money and he signed a model release. In the picture, he was sitting in his wheelchair in front of the “Longhorn Cafe.” I made a print of the picture but I never exhibited it.

I went to a show at the new Grand Ole Opry theatre. Earlier in the day I had wandered around the inside of the original Ryman Auditorium where the Saturday night program had been broadcast for years. It had once been The Union Gospel Tabernacle. I wandered through without a tour guide. It was 1986 and I’m pretty sure things aren’t that loose today. In a similar experience, I had a free of charge, personal guide through Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax headquarters and Wingspread in Racine, WI. After the tour I was permitted to photograph and explore. The neighborhood around the Ryman was neglected since the new theatre was built a few miles away. I walked around the outside and took a few pictures. There was an old garage behind the building. Across the doors of that garage, someone had painted, graffiti style, “Welcome Opry Boys.” It looked aged and maybe the message had been painted there in the 1950s or 60s I imagined myself being one of those “boys,” maybe part of the Hank Williams band. I made a self portrait of myself on the back steps smoking a cigarette.

I traveled across Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona, without a schedule. My only conversation was with waitresses when I would order a sandwich or registering at a motel. I mostly stayed in the Motel 6 chain. They advertised $19.95 per night and the rooms were basic but clean. Most of my food was from grocery stores. I spoke so little that the sound of my own voice startled me. I was another person, a person in another place, a silent person. I was in one long meditation that involved the past and the future, my own and the past and future of the country and the planet. I photographed Native American petroglyphs, natural rock formations, city streets, totem poles and those large satellite dishes outside homes for tv reception that were popular in the deserts at that time.

Toward the end of the trip, when I was ready to leave Racine, WI, in a regular call home, I learned that Doris was sick. She wanted me to come as soon as possible. I headed home and found that she had a bad case of flu and needed bed rest. Within a few days she was feeling better. It was fortunate that she and Nicole were healthy while I was traveling and it worked out that I was not far away when I was needed.

Over the next several weeks I worked at developing all the rolls of film and spent long hours in the darkroom making prints. I began accepting offers to do workshops and I taught adult classes at community centers and at the community college. I participated in several group shows at the Hagerstown Museum and a show with four other photographers in Martinsburg, WV. I had three more, one man shows.

After I returned from the cross country trip, my commercial photography business was dramatically reduced. I had informed most of my regular clients that I would no longer be available. Before leaving on the trip I had felt burned out with the demands of the business. A year before, I had hired an assistant photographer and it had not significantly help the business. I let the assistant go. I was looking for something new.

Richard Lutzke and I began planning a business we called Professional Promotions. The idea came from a photography project that I was working on. Nicole had braces on her teeth and her doctor was Dr. Toothman, (really, that was his name.) Toothman had been a client and I had made portraits of him and his staff of about eight or ten, office and medical staff. I had framed the portraits and hung them in his patient waiting room. In this process I became aware that there was an opportunity to sell promotional products to orthodontists since they need to continually find new patients and have a limited treatment time. Also those patients are young and need a bit of entertainment to help them feel good about the treatment and to have incentive to cooperate. We designed logos, printing t-shirts and other promotional products, At the beginning I did most of the work. My time was spent getting the business started. We made our first sale to an orthodontist in Chambersburg, PA in the fall of 1986. We had just mailed our first brochure to small test list, nation wide. We did not even include a toll free number, just an order form and a regular phone number with limited office hours. We started getting a few orders. It was the beginning of the orthodontic promotional business with Richard Lutzke.

Mother was calling me to help with Daddy when he would wander off as a result of his early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. People were telling me that they witnessed his driving through stop signs and he admitted that he sometimes had difficulty finding his way to familiar places. He was beginning to sit in his chair in their living room and complain that it was time to go home. On several occasions he wandered off in the night. Once Mother called in the night and told me he was gone again. When I got there he came out of the corn field next to their house in his underwear. He was muddy and scratched. He was hyperventilating. I called for an ambulance. His blood pressure was soaring. They took him to the hospital. I took Mother and we sat in the waiting room. I was later called in and asked a lot of questions. It felt like I was under suspicion of abusing him. The DMV would not revoke his license without a written recommendation from a doctor. I took him to several doctors to be examined and they were reluctant to write an opinion. I did eventually get the paperwork and had it done. Nate and Kathy had recently moved back to the area after living in Michigan. While their children were growing. Kathy had a good job with the Adrian College and was about to be employed in a similar position at Wilson College in Chambersburg. Nate was doing professional training and listening skill workshops. I was happy that Nate was available to help since Gerri and Janice were in Frederick and not immediately available in emergency situations. Daddy’s personality had already changed dramatically and Mother was concerned that he would continue to drive without his license. After some discussion, we decided to hide the keys. Daddy would sit in the car. He became very angry at Nate and me. He said, “I never thought you would treat me this way.” It was difficult. His gentle personality was changed. He was irrational and impossible to reason with. I put a buzzer on the door so Mother would know if he left the house. We soon realized that it was time for him to have constant care. Mother was ready to move to Menno Haven, a Mennonite run nursing home and retirement residence. Nate and I took them to an available apartment within the main building. He was very agitated and kept repeating that it was time to go home. Within a few days, he was moved from the apartment with Mother into the hospital and Mother moved to a more comfortable apartment. Her life became so much easier. She could walk to his room and she spent her days helping to care for him. When I went to see them, they were always sitting in a sun room. By that time, Daddy was sitting in a wheelchair and did not talk. Mother fed him his meals. He did not appear to recognize me when I came to visit.

 

 

 

Nicole approximately 1983
Nicole milking one of Daddy's goats. Approx.1985
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Chapter 10, 1988 to 1991

 
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