He was a small man, gray, elderly, hesitating at the studio door as if unsure, a flutter of paper in his right hand. When I was aware of him, I was pinning up pictures of Egon Schiele’s line drawings of nude women, Rembrandt mark-making etchings of bearded old men, and Tiepolo ink-and-wash sketches of goddesses and angels.
He was so different than the usual university students, wearing a citified but wrinkled suit, holding the paper waist high, his hand quivering. I presumed he was in the wrong place. I approached the door, my head at a questioning angle, asked if he needed help. He nodded, then handed me the paper. It was a registration slip. He was in the right place.
“Okay, hi! Welcome! You’re early, so relax, come up and look at the pictures I’m pinning up. They’re examples of work we will do. I run an informal class. You can call me “Joe.”
To explain further, I wrote my name on the blackboard and the class title: “BEGINNING FIGURE DRAWING”—JOE BLAUSTEIN—UCLA.
He attempted to smile, but there was a sadness to his eyes. He looked down. Then, in what sounded like the accent I remembered from my father’s relatives who had escaped the pogroms in Russia, a sudden rush of words…
“My name’s Joe Siegel…Joe Siegel…and my wife…she…she…was with me sixty years… and she…she died in April and…and we had no kids…I’m eighty-four and by myself. I repair watches…and, and I can’t do it anymore and I don’t want to live.”
His eyes moistened and for a minute I thought he was going to cry. Taking a deep breath: “My doctor told me I should take art… he…he signed me up. I never took art before.”
I did not mention anything about my own life. My wife, my love, Paula, in mid-life, our three kids still in school, had died of bone cancer five months earlier that year, 1984, in January. After her death, I took a semester’s leave of absence. I knew how he felt about not wanting to live anymore. By summer, trying to give my kids a sense of normalcy, I decided to get back and teach. I chose a beginning figure-drawing class with new students, after having taught advanced painting classes for several years.
Straining to hold back my own feelings, I told him I thought the doctor was right. Taking an art class would be a good thing to do but cautioned it’s a regular UCLA credit course and had a prior requirement. He needed to take a basic drawing class first.
“No, no, he…the doctor said I should only take this class… this class only with you.”
I asked him who the doctor was. I recognized the name, a former student. I accepted him.
After classes started, shy at first, as he gained confidence, Mr. Siegel would interrupt, at first asking innocent questions. “What pencils should I use?” “What’s charcoal?”
Since I told the class that questions were always welcome, it meant that perhaps I didn’t explain things well enough and it gave me a chance to explain in new ways. Other students smiled at his questions. However, enjoying the spotlight, Mr. Siegel started asking needless and even silly questions, Eventually, by the third week his “cuteness” was getting on my nerves.
Perhaps, also recognizing the name Blaustein was Jewish, he felt I was a M-O-T, “Member of the Tribe,” as if our names entitled us to a special relationship. He would tug at my sleeves and offer his charcoal pencil for me to demonstrate. He was becoming disruptive. And he never did assigned homework.
My original sympathy disappeared. Perhaps, I felt, he had sixty years with someone he loved, while Paula was snatched away so young, in her prime, with our children still in school. In any case, he didn’t seem to profit from the class and his constant tugging my sleeve, became annoying.
In the fourth or fifth week of classes, as I looked down at his drawing, his shirt sleeve was snagged halfway up his forearm and I saw them. Numbers. There were numbers on his forearm. Tattooed numbers.
In a split second, without a minute to think, I couldn’t talk, my throat constricted. It happened so suddenly and unexpectedly, I had to get the hell out of the studio. I bottled up a scream, a wail, a howl of grief, until I reached the bathroom, trying to hold myself together and once there, I let loose.
Whether it was my own recent loss, or what, I don’t know. I bawled like a two-year-old. Loud. I felt like an idiot but couldn’t stop. Tears ran. Whether it was thinking of the “camps,” the holocaust survivors or my half-orphaned kids or what, I don’t know. I don’t know if I wept for him, for me, bottled up grief for my beautiful Paula, or just life. I don’t remember how long I stood there, thankful no one came in. Finally, gaining control, I splashed cold water on my face and tried to regain composure.
Walking back into class I was conscious of my red eyes, stares. Good God! I had treated this old man as a pest. This old man, a survivor of the camps, a husband of sixty years. My feelings about Mr. Siegel changed.
I asked him to meet me privately outside in the hall. I emphasized to him that if there were genuine questions germane to the class, I’d be more than willing to answer, but he needed to take the class seriously and stop acting “cute,” stop needless interruptions, no more bullshit. Concentrate and learn, participate, whatever the results, and rather than constantly handing me the charcoal to demonstrate, try for himself, whatever the results. Relax about his tremor.
“Do the goddam homework.”
Perhaps the jolt of the tattooed numbers made me want to see him progress, try more and return to life. He realized I was dead serious, and maybe he was even aware of my red eyes.
He said with his trembling hand he couldn’t do the self-portraits I assigned. I then asked if he could recall his wife’s face. His face contorted,
“…Like it was in front of me”.
“Draw her. Draw what you see in your mind’s eye. Draw the memory. Use all the approaches we’ve discussed. Draw every nuance, and keep working, no matter how long. Erase, correct, re-draw, and keep doing it until she appears—even if it takes every day until next week’s class. Correct until you’re satisfied. Ignore the damn tremor and try. Bring it next week.”
At the next class, as usual, I began the session by “walking the wall,” looking at homework, and there it was—Mr. Siegel’s homework. His first. A small drawing, using only about a third of the 24-inch pad, done in quavering, wavy lines, but detailed, compelling, and done, with what I could only interpret as intense concentration…and love. Being small, the face was alone in a sea of space, as if she herself were alone, isolated, but many erasure marks broke into the white space, connecting, and correcting. In a way, it reminded me of the drawings Giacometti did of his mother. I can, in my mind’s eye, still see it. It must have taken hours, perhaps days, a serious drawing, labored over, erased and corrected many times, and the erasures showed. Both the mistakes and corrections were part of the “meaning” of the work. Remarkable.
And a lesson to me and the class. For an instant, again, my throat tightened. I had to look away, down, before I could analyze. I imagined how I would feel drawing my own wife, Paula, and had to mentally shake myself.
I used it as an example to the class that a drawing with such honesty, such intensity—and love—had value, perhaps more so than many “slick” drawings with facile draftsmanship. Art was more than that. I complimented him and the work, told him to sign and frame it.
Mr. Siegel beamed. And changed.
He stopped interrupting, listened more intently, nodded as he understood, and rather than calling attention to himself, seemed part of the group. Later, I discovered both Mr. Siegel and his wife survived the death camps…Auschwitz? Treblinka? I forget.
By the end of the semester, Mr. Siegal invited me to a “block party.” I told him I don’t usually go to student events outside of class. He explained.
He lived just east of Fairfax, south of Pico, a Jewish section. A black family, husband and wife and two small daughters, had moved to the street. The neighbors were panicked. Mr. Siegel told me it made him angry. How could they—among them some Holocaust survivors like him—victims of prejudice, be that way?
So, he went across the street, introduced himself, found out both the husband and wife were school teachers, had two little girls, and were, he said, “smart, nice people.”
Mr. Siegel, with a like-minded young neighbor, arranged for a “block party” to welcome them, to which I was invited. I came.
When he saw me there, he asked me to his house. In an entry hall smelling slightly of cooked onions, perhaps no more than ten paces from the front door, in a widened area, there was the picture of his wife. Framed and signed. His chest expanded as he showed it. He looked at me and I saw his eyes were wet. He hesitated for a second, then said, “The class saved my life.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and said that I doubted it was the class. I said that just the act of putting a block party together proved his life had meaning.
Frankly, it was a time when I was struggling with my own survival. My classes and the “Mr. Siegels” were saving me as well.
Author’s Note: I told this story when I was named Professor of the Year at a faculty luncheon.