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From soldier to artist, a painter's odyssey

Stan Brodsky, professor emeritus of art at the

Stan Brodsky, professor emeritus of art at the C.W. Post Campus, Long Island University, with his oil on linen painting, "Descending Light Number 2." (March 19, 2010) Credit: John Dunn

When it comes to spoils of war, the box of watercolors and paintbrush wasn't much.

While soldiers from his platoon grabbed silverware, china, clocks and clothing, Stan Brodsky opened a drawer in the living room of an abandoned house in eastern France and found a treasure -- eight little discs of color - - that may have proved more valuable than his comrades' plunder.

"It gave me something to believe in, in a terrible time," says Brodsky, of Huntington, who returned from World War II, studied art and became a painter of abstract landscapes whose career has endured for more than a half-century.

Brodsky, 85, tells the story of the watercolor set -- and his odyssey as an artist -- in a slim, illustrated memoir, "The Uncertainty of Experience: An Artist's Journey," recently published by the not-for-profit Midmarch Arts Press ($24).

Cynthia Navaretta, Midmarch executive director, said the book -- which Brodsky will discuss June 3 at Book Revue in Huntington -- was a "sweet and innocent" account of a young soldier who finds "the world opens up to him." 

Uncertainty was the theme
Contemplating a title for his 50-page memoir, Brodsky thought of those military days. He was drafted in 1943 at age 18. Along with canteen and helmet, uncertainty was standard issue.

"I didn't know what would happen when we got overseas and in combat," said Brodsky. "That is part of it, but also I always feel that unexpected things are going to happen. Maybe they'll be good, maybe they won't."

High on Brodsky's list of lucky breaks is discovery of the paint set.

"That little box opened my eyes to the ways of confronting the mystery of existence and for determining my direction in my life," he wrote in his book.

Growing up in Brooklyn, first in Williamsburg, then Bensonhurst, Brodsky copied drawings -- sports heroes, and, in one case, President James Garfield, whose image appeared in a book given him by his father called "Little People Who Became Great."

"I liked doing it but was not certain I wanted to become a professional artist," Brodsky said in his book. No wonder. When he drew Garfield, Brodsky was 10.

Without benefit of art classes, texts on technique or visits to museums, Brodsky devoted himself to drawing. His work brought praise from the family -- Jack, his father, a truck driver, his mother, Pauline, a housewife who later worked at Ohrbach's department store on 34th Street, a sister, Miriam, three years younger  -- and Brodsky enjoyed the attention. But his motivation went beyond the pleasures of the household's hallelujah chorus.

"I was totally preoccupied with what I was doing -- it was something I had to do," Brodsky wrote in "The Uncertainty of Experience." 

Wowed by art
In the Army, Brodsky was initially assigned to a military police unit and sent to Tennessee. One day, he saw a soldier from the Bronx named Aldo Rubano working on a letter.

Rubano, an artist in the comic book industry before the war, printed his correspondence and -- wow, thought Brodsky! -- left space on the page for a superb sketch of Army boots. From then on, Brodsky's letters to Brooklyn were executed Rubano-style -- printed and, often, with art.

In October 1944, Brodsky, now with the infantry, landed in France. He was assigned to a mortar unit and lugged 60-mm shells in a shoulder carrier as the allies pressed their assault against German forces in the Vosges Mountains.

While on the move one day, his unit stopped in front of an abandoned home. A lieutenant checked for danger, and then the soldiers followed.

"Forty guys rush into the house, including me," recalled Brodsky. "And they plunder. They always want things to send home. I watched in amazement. What the hell I was going to pick up, I didn't know."

Then Brodsky spotted a round table, a drawer, the box. "I never owned a watercolor set," Brodsky said. "I said, 'Jeez, I'm going to put this in my gas mask,' and I did."

So into the pouch holding his gas mask went the set -- eight colors from yellow to blue, black, white, and a little brush -- nestled now among an extra pair of socks, toothbrush and toilet paper. "Very important," said Brodsky.

Letters home with watercolors
He started incorporating little works of watercolor art in his letters -- a country road on a Mother's Day greeting, a landscape for Father's Day, a cathedral in Germany, where Brodsky's unit eventually was sent to fight, a farmer plowing his field on a greeting to sister Miriam. Never did he paint combat scenes. "I didn't have the urge," Brodsky said.

After the war, Brodsky thought maybe he'd write and be a photographer. He enrolled at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, but by the time he graduated, Brodsky knew he was not headed for newspapers. He studied art in addition to journalism at Missouri and that clinched it. He would paint.

Brodsky headed next to the University of Iowa, where, as a graduate student in fine arts, he was exposed to masters like postimpressionist Paul Cézanne and expressionist Chaim Soutine.

From Iowa, it was back to New York, where Brodsky worked as a substitute art teacher in city schools for a couple of years, pursued a doctorate in art education from Columbia University, married. He and his wife -- the couple divorced in the 1970s -- had a son, Adam, now 43, and daughter, Alexandra, 40, a filmmaker.

In 1960, he took a full-time teaching job at C.W. Post campus of Long Island University. After retiring in 1991, Brodsky was named a professor emeritus of art.

In a field where even the famous can easily slip out of fashion, Brodsky's career would be the envy of many. Brodsky -- who calls himself a post-abstract expressionist -- has had more than 20 solo exhibitions, been in dozens of group shows, won numerous awards and fellowships.

Reviewers pay attention to his work. His landscapes hang in museums. Since the 1980s, his paintings -- oils on linen -- have been sold by the June Kelly Gallery on Mercer Street in SoHo. "I saw him as a major artist who was underrecognized," said Kelly. "The work has a magical quality to it." His full-size paintings range from $25,000 to $30,000.

At 85, Brodsky gets respect
Amei Wallach, a critic, author and moviemaker who has followed Brodsky's career, said his "work is just drenched in this profound appreciation of painting and life and how the two intersect." She added: "He is a painter who shows us a way of seeing the world that is different than anyone else . . . that no one else can show us." 

At the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, chief curator Kenneth Wayne recalled a 2009 show that included a piece by Brodsky. "What really stands out about his work is that it gets better and better," said Wayne. "All the qualities I like seem to jell as he gets older."

Looking back, how crucial was discovery of the paint set Brodsky describes so appreciatively in "The Uncertainty of Experience"?

Brodsky is not much for sentimentality in art, conversation -- or newspaper interviews. Pals know that candor is his trump card.

"He's open, friendly, and says what's on his mind," said Sherman Tatz, also 85 and of Huntington, who met Brodsky when they both taught at C.W. Post. Tatz was among a few friends who contributed a total of nearly $3,000 to the book project so Midmarch could afford to publish color reproductions in the memoir. "He's not an effete type."

So, the paint set? Did fate step in? 
Finding the kit was not some cosmic signal that he was "meant to be an artist," Brodsky said. His interest began back in Brooklyn with those boyhood sketches of sports stars copied from the daily papers -- likenesses, which appear in his memoir, of college football standouts like Hal McCullough of Cornell and the great Princeton passer Dave Allerdice and Frank Reagan of Penn.

But working in color for the first time and crafting those illustrated letters for folks on the home front "gave me some identity," Brodsky said, and suggested promise and potential - a "link" to the future. "It showed me what I might be capable of doing." 

Paints lost in Europe
Brodsky lost the watercolor set before coming home from Europe but the wooden box and all it represents holds a prominent place in his memory.

So does the war. "I dream about it," said Brodsky, who was awarded a Bronze Star for rescuing a comrade from a snow bank during the harsh winter of 1945. "It was the most poignant and unbelievable experience I ever went through."

He and Jeanne, 62, his wife of 19 years, have visited France, and the Vosges region. Brodsky saw battlefields but not the house raided by American soldiers one day in November 1944. Before long, Brodsky says, he wants to go abroad again. He wants to sit in the French countryside and paint nature "close up" -- foliage, rocks, wetlands.

Fred Bruning, a retired Newsday feature writer, first met Stan Brodsky when he purchased Brodsky's home in June 1992.

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