Robert Farber Exhibit, Society of Illustrators Panel and Johnny Mercer Foundation Songwriters Project

By Masha Leon

Published October 26, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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Photographer Robert Farber Zooms in on National Meningitis Association

The October 8 private party and exhibition of photographer Robert Farber’s iconic nudes was a boutique happening.

Karen Leon

The crush of guests spilling out of Farber’s East Side Manhattan atelier onto his charming brownstone garden included philanthropist Francine LeFrak, publicists Edward Callaghan and John Wegorzewski, events producer Errol Rappaport and the event’s beneficiary, actor Richard Thomas, who for the past five years has been chairman of the National Meningitis Association — Gary Springer, co-chairman of the National Meningitis Association, touted son Nick Springer’s latest athletic medal at the London Paralympics. Having contracted meningitis at 14 at a summer camp, following the partial amputation of both his hands and legs, young Springer — now in his mid-20s and a gold medal winner in Beijing — competes in Paralympics Games all over the world and travels worldwide to speak on the need for vaccination.

Offering a capsule overview of his journey to success, Farber told me: “I came to photography through painting. I started to shoot what looked like paintings…. My first show was in [New York City’s] Washington Square. A woman came up to me and asked, ‘Are these paintings or photographs?’ When I told her, ‘Photographs,’ she told me to leave!”

The highlight of his success was meeting with the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “I showed her pictures, a lot of Riviera work. ‘Let’s take pictures all over and do a book, ‘By the Sea,’ she told me. After its publication, she sent me a note: a handwritten ‘Dear Robert’ followed by a typed letter thanking me for the book. It was signed ‘Best, J’ and was dated February 29, 1984 — leap year and my birthday. That book was in her estate auction, and someone bought it for $48,000.”

Joel Iskowitz - Artist’s Journey to Washington’s Capitol Rotunda From the Bronx

I met Bronx-born Joel Iskowitz — one of the few living artists whose work is displayed in the Pentagon, the Capitol and the White House — at a Society of Illustrators panel discussion highlighting the U.S. Air Force Art Program that the society created 60 years ago. Iskowitz, whose works are in the USAF’s permanent collection, told me: “My father was from Lithuania and worked in the garment center. Most of my parents’ friends were blue collar…. I went to the High School of Music and Art, Hunter College, and was always a liberal in my philosophy and approach. I marched against the Vietnam War, and it’s ironic that much of my work as a professional has been documenting various histories, sorties and missions of the military. A lot of my left-leaning liberal friends would look askance and be dumfounded. But in my career, I learned about respecting and understanding a whole other kind of attitude about what the military is and does.

“I traveled with the Air Force… covered Burma, Normandy, China, India, but a personal moment of glory for me was after traveling and documenting the Space Shuttle lift-off at NASA at Kennedy Space Center, designing The New Frontier Congressional Gold Medal to honor Colonel Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. So in [Washington’s] Rotunda last year, the astronauts received their congressional gold medals… a commission I won from among 20 artists. Imagine, here I was, a guy from the Bronx, seated in the third row of the sanctor sanctorum [The Holy of Holies] of Democracy with Speaker of the House John Boehner, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid congressmen and senators… witnessing the [November 16, 2011] medal presentation to Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and [Mercury Flight] astronaut John Glenn.

“I was in the third row with Rosie Rios, treasurer of the United States, sitting under Trumbull murals. It was the highlight of my career.” Iskowitz was referring to John Trumbull, a British artist serving with George Washington. Trumbell painted the mural that graces the Rotunda today. Trumbull’s painting, “Declaration of Independence,” is etched on the back of America’s $2.00 bill.

Oldies, Gangsta Rap and New Gems at Johnny Mercer Foundation Songwriters Project

The October 11 “Celebrate! The Johnny Mercer Foundation Songwriting Project of Northwestern University ” showcase at Kaufman Center brought newly minted songwriters and their mentors onstage to perform songs old and new. Mentors were Craig Carnelia ,who wrote the lyrics for “Sweet Smell of Success”; Songwriter Lari White (seen in “Cast Away” with Tom Hanks) and Andrew Lippa, whose credits include lyrics for “The Addams Family” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Lippa performed a snippet of his song “Marshall Levin,” about a Jewish boy who went on to become a rabbi.

Among the young songwriters were Shaina Taub, who performed “The Memory Song,” and Christopher Dimond (lyrics) and Michael Kooman (music), whose performance of their Broadway homage, “Def Ass Musical Theater Gangsta Jam,” had the audience laughing at such edgy lyrics as, “ I rock Lerner and Lowe and Harnick and Bock” with the refrain, “musical theater bitch…. Straight out of the suburban ghetto… libretto like ‘Kiss Me Kate’ only so truish — like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ only not so Jewish.” Guest artist Marilyn Maye belted out classics by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Following her syncopated “Accentuate the Positive,” the audience joined in singing the finale, “Moon River.”

Many of the artists acknowledged their debt to Michael Kerker, director of musical theater at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), who was in the audience. Chatting with Kerker post-concert about nostalgic World War II songs, I mentioned that when, as a refugee child, I arrived in Canada in 1941 and heard on the radio, “Hut-sut Rawlson on the rillera and a brawla, brawla sooit,” I thought I had lost my mind. Kerker laughed: “When my mother came here from Vienna, she couldn’t make sense of “Mairzy Doats” [“Mares eat oats and does eat oats… and little lambs eat ivy”].”That one, “ I told Kerker “ “I got and still sing to this day.”

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