Sculptor Gerson Frank On Love And Art

The 89-year-old sculptor recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to view two of his pieces in a collection for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. But the trip gave him the chance to fulfill another dream: marrying his partner of more than 30 years. Frank speaks with host Michel Martin about his art and his marriage.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work.

Recently, we caught up with sculptor Gerson Frank. He's now 89 years old. He's particularly well known for his works in bronze depicting historic Native American figures. He was in Washington, D.C. at the invitation of the Smithsonian Institution, where two of his sculptures are part of the collection at the National Museum of the American Indian. He came to town for a special viewing of some of the collection, but Gerson Frank also had a more personal and romantic item on his agenda.

While in Washington, D.C., he married his partner of more than 30 years and he was nice enough to interrupt their honeymoon to speak with us.

GERSON FRANK: Thirty-two years.

MARTIN: Thirty-two years.

FRANK: Please.

MARTIN: I stand corrected. What about that? I mean, what made you decide to jump the broom?

FRANK: We thought about it for many years, but living in Florida - ain't gonna happen. So, when we had the opportunity to come to here, we said, this will be a good opportunity to get married and so we did.

MARTIN: What was the ceremony like? Did you have it at the courthouse or what did you do?

FRANK: No. We had it across the way from the courthouse. The weather was lovely. The reverend was very nice, very lovely lady. She told me that she sculptors also, and I gave her a couple of hints.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, some tips. Well, are you wearing a ring? Do you have a new ring or are you wearing a ring you already wore?

FRANK: This is the ring I...

MARTIN: Oh, lovely.

FRANK: ...wore before.

MARTIN: OK.

FRANK: This is a ring Bill gave me, which is the head of an Indian.

MARTIN: Oh, Bill, your partner, now your husband.

FRANK: That's right. Yeah. Uh-huh. Yeah. Uh-huh.

MARTIN: Yeah, your husband now. Well, do you feel different?

FRANK: No. It's like we took a walk and we met some friends and we chatted and we went on.

MARTIN: I might have to talk to Bill about that and see whether he feels the same way. You might have some discussion about that, sort of, later on.

So I just wanted to ask if, you know, sort of - a couple of the strings of your life coming together. You know, you're coming together as an artist and your work being on display in this prominent place and also your personal life. I wanted to ask. When did you know that you were an artist?

FRANK: High school, I believe. I excelled in the drawings that were being required of us. In fact, they asked me to go around room to room and paste up certain things that the teachers needed on the bulletin board or something and then I painted and I went to school after the Army. I went to an art school in Mexico and painted from live models, portraits.

Then it was something interesting. I did a lot of paintings and my dad, who was very, very proud of me, he would take my paintings and show to people and family and give them away. And I was left with nothing.

MARTIN: Oh.

FRANK: So I thought a little bit and I said, well, you know, sculptors do sculpting, then they're cast and you can make more than one. So I decided I'm going to do that.

MARTIN: You're kind of one of the signature people known for your work in bronze, depicting these Native American figures. How did that work come about? You're not, yourself, Native American?

FRANK: No, I'm not. People sought to know me because of my work; selling, buying and so forth. And this one particular gallery on Madison Avenue, New York came to my studio after an appointment and asked me if I would do a portrait of his father. And I said, fine. And, while chatting, he said, you know, the American Indian is becoming very prominent now. This was 40 years ago. And would I be willing to try my hand at an American Indian? And I said, great.

So we did some research and I found a few pictures. I made this first one and it sold like hotcakes. He put an edition of 30 and they went. Then he asked me to do another one and, to say the least, I was rather enthusiastic about it and so I did. But what I did, which was interesting, is that when I chose an Indian from a head that was photographed, I couldn't see what was going on behind him or on the side of him. So I went to the museum in New York on 155th Street and Broadway and they have an amazing collection of pictures and negatives of all Indians in all poses and they allowed me to go through them and pick it.

So I found out the name, the tribe of this particular Indian and I got all the pictures I could so I could do a front view, side view, profile.

MARTIN: So authenticity is very important to you.

FRANK: Yes. I love detail.

MARTIN: What is it that you think people respond to in your work?

FRANK: Mostly detail. For instance, I've done the ballet dancers. The last one I did was Iliana Lopez. She was the prima ballerina for the Miami City Ballet and she gave me four sittings, which I took with photography and the detail that I did in her costume, her fingers, the whole thing, set me sail and people bought.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and we're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with sculptor Gerson Frank. He is particularly well-known for his bronze, depictions of historic Native American figures. We caught up with him after a very special day in his life in Washington, D.C.

Getting back to your life as a gay man, you've seen a lot of change over the time that you've been in the world. Do you feel that you have had to struggle for acceptance...

FRANK: No. No.

MARTIN: ...or do you think that in part as an artist, do you think that was not?

FRANK: No. No. I'm happy to say that I never pushed myself. I was never flamboyant and people accept me as I was and who I am. I had no problem at all. I mean if people didn't want me - I don't even recall - but if people didn't accept me I had no problem, I would just go my way. That's all. I didn't try to convert them or tell them or anything. I was me and they were they, and we got along that way. They didn't, no problem.

MARTIN: Your relationship though, stands out though, for its longevity, at a time when a lot of, you know, heterosexuals have trouble keeping their relationships together...

FRANK: That's true.

MARTIN: ...despite the fact that they have, you know, all the social support, legal support, cultural support.

FRANK: And we didn't.

MARTIN: And you did not. And I...

FRANK: Now we're getting it, though.

MARTIN: Now you're getting it. Why do you think that is? If you don't mind my asking, what do you think has kept you in Bill together all these years, at a time when other people find that they can't sustain their relationships?

FRANK: All right, we'll start at the beginning.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

FRANK: I had this woman friend of mine - her name was Marcie - and Marcie kept telling me that she knows this man who was a principal of this school in New York, which is Bill, that he likes the opera, and ballet, and the symphony and museums. And she said we have so much in common that she wanted me to meet him. It just clicked as though I'd known him for many years, it was very comfortable. We could talk, we're respected and from then on it was just flowing.

MARTIN: You make it sound very easy.

FRANK: For us it was. There was no - for the 32 years I don't think we ever had a fight. There's no math here. We're comfortable. We live together. We love together and I lean on him and he leans on me, which is beautiful. I believe in compromise, which is an important thing, where most people don't, and life went on very beautifully that way. We've traveled halfway around the world. We have many good friends and it's beautiful. I mean my neighbors know about us and they accept us and we accept them and there's no problem.

MARTIN: What about your family? Was your family accepting and supportive of your relationship?

FRANK: Well, it was very interesting. My dad died before I met Bill. And then when I met Bill and mother met him, and at first mother was very annoyed because he was taking me away from mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh.

FRANK: So it was a little tacky there. But after a very short time, mother accepted him to the degree where when Bill and I and mother went any, somewhere - we went every week, we went somewhere - the movies, the theater, to dinner, played cards, so forth and we'd meet one of mother's friends, she would say this is my son Gerson and this is my adopted son Bill.

MARTIN: Aw.

FRANK: And that was it.

MARTIN: You've been giving us a lot of wisdom. And as we mentioned, we call this segment the Wisdom Watch. So before we let you go, is there any more wisdom you'd like to share with us about art, about life, about love now that we have the chance to talk with you?

FRANK: Oh, as far as the art is concerned, I teach now, too, in New York. I've had doctors and lawyers and business people that I've taught and helped. I help people because I tell them immediately, when they want that's all that's required. I won't give you talent. I won't make you famous. I will give you pleasure. You'll come and you'll work. Also, you'll not use fancy words with me because they don't mean anything. You tell me what you want and I will help you. So my art, I believe very strongly, let's people know how I feel about what I'm doing.

You could look - people have said to me, sometimes, of my Indian heads - I've done nine so far, nine - each one is from a different tribe. They've actually said to me that there's a certain amount of me in those portraits, which is very flattering. I put myself in them.

When I teach I do the very same thing. I make my students take the pose of the model to feel where the emphasis go. And the work becomes very personal and very good. All my work, I'm happy to say, has been very successful - everyone I've ever done sold, I'm happy to say. But my students don't do that. I mean they do their work, they take it home and they're thrilled with it.

Many years ago, I had a lawyer that worked with in my studio with other people. And he came into the studio and he said he's always loved sculpture and he'd love to do it, but he had a stroke and he lost the vision in one eye and so he didn't have the perception of seeing. Don't use those words. I'm not interested in that. Anyway, after about five weeks, his wife - 'cause they lived in New Jersey, and I was in New York - his wife came into town just to tell me how happy her husband was and how happy she was because he was so happy doing this. His work was not great. You would never buy it. I would - but he had such pleasure doing it and I helped him get that pleasure.

MARTIN: So what's the wisdom there? What's your nugget of wisdom to leave us with about that story, do you think?

FRANK: It's important to be a good teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. Gerson Frank is a sculptor. He is a World War II veteran and a newlywed. And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Congratulations. And thank you so much for joining us today.

FRANK: Thank you. Thank you.

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