“I’ve been drawing for 65 years. That’s not an exaggeration. I have a pile of stuff. In the end, I know they’re gonna pull a dumpster up, and there goes the stuff.“ Saul Kaplan, artist and poet, paused as he opened his self-published volume of drawings, ceramics, and paintings. “The way I explain it is, I could either produce a legacy in this book or have a fancy coffin,” he said.
At home with his wife at Lake Monticello, the 85-year-old Kaplan maintains the creative practice he kept during various turns as a student, mechanic, teacher, and high school assistant principal: drawing, painting, and writing poetry amid the flurry of life.
Kaplan recently decided to curate his work in a book, Life Drawing: A Legacy, for his three sons and grandchildren. He asked Michael Hoover, a friend and collector of his work, to look through his catalogue and choose the right pieces. “Mike and his wife looked through 1,000 drawings, and I just got out of their way,” Kaplan said, and the pair selected nearly 100 sketches, paintings, and pen-and-ink works.
“If you want to get into the artist’s heart, you go to their drawings,” Kaplan said. “Michelangelo threw away his drawings because he didn’t want anybody to see his suffering, his agony.”
Paging through the book, he lit on a small scribbled butterfly. “It shows in little sketches, little doodles,” said Kaplan. “This is my signature.”
That signature includes single or multi-planed faces, people in conversation or wrapped around one another, defined by strong lines and cross-hatching and rhythmic curves. He often hears viewers compare his neo-cubism to Picasso’s, but he rejects the idea of imitation.
“I draw in ovals because that’s how I draw,” Kaplan said. “The intellectual painter is not a painter. It’s not formulistic. It’s facing that blank canvas and spilling your guts.”
Kaplan’s introduction to professional art-making came in 1948 at the prestigious Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts.
“I got thrown into the art world,” Kaplan said. “I was in the middle of the abstract expressionist movement, De Kooning was down the street, and I didn’t know what was happening.”
On a scholarship, he studied drawing under Hofmann, who was a contemporary of Henri Matisse. Kaplan quickly learned the value of muscle memory, drawing the same figure over and over for 20 hours a week, and the discipline required to fail repeatedly on the path to success. “There was an artist who did my portrait in charcoal, and he could get the likeness of anybody. I asked him how he did it? His leg had been blown off in the war, and they put him in the hospital for six months, and he drew and he drew and one day he got it. So I learned how to do the head from him, and the head became my obsession.”
He paused. “You know how art is,” Kaplan said, pointing to a finished painting in his book. “This is a hole in one. I can’t do it again. I did this in just a few minutes. It’s luck, work, luck.”
Kaplan first reflected on the impermanence of art when flooding destroyed many of his paper works. He began creating plates and pots and three-dimensional sculptures because “unless they get smashed, nothing can happen to ceramics,” he said.
Now his studio is a blend of paper and clay, tools that preserve the memories of his artistry. “When the apocalypse comes, this will outlast everything,” he said, touching a dish with an image of two figures intertwined. “You know what most artists do? They fill up space. It’s how they say, ‘I was here.’”
Saul Kaplan’s work is on view at Vivian’s Art for Living on the Downtown Mall.