Prodigal Father

KEN WALSH WAS A MONTAUK ARTIST AND WAR VETERAN WHOSE WORK WAS ALMOST LOST TO MEMORY — BUT THEN HIS SON CHRIS WROTE A LETTER TO THE EAST HAMPTON STAR. . . .
 

Rolled up and stored in a mailing tube, lying for decades in a New England attic, the canvas had collapsed onto itself at one end. There was water damage, too, effectively gluing together two sections of the roll. When it was finally stretched out, the paint had pulled off both sides, leaving foot-long white scars.

It is mid-February. A freakishly mild winter has turned frigid, and on this bleak afternoon I am standing with Nick DiBenedetto in his East Quogue restoration studio, which is packed with scores of paintings, many of them 300 years old or more. 

“I cleaned it,” Nick says, gesturing toward the canvas, Montauk (seen opposite). “Then you’ve got to varnish it, and then you’ve got to stabilize it, because the paint wanted to fall off. I’ve still got to put coatings on and touch it up here and there. But it’s getting there, right?”

It is. The scars have healed, as though they had never been. What’s more, Montauk — all 2,376 square inches of it — has been reborn, restored to its original brilliance, and it is beautiful. 

Nick keeps talking, explaining by what alchemy he has made the colors in this larger-than-life depiction of my hometown pop off the canvas again, but I’m not there anymore. Not in Nick’s basement, not in East Quogue, and not in the dystopia that is the winter of 2017. Now I’m in the living room in Hither Hills, and it is Christmas Day, 1974. I am 8, and the trumpet I’d longed for is pressed to my lips as I joyously accompany my father, who is singing a particularly spirited rendition of “Wild Blue Yonder.” We — my father, mother, brother, and I — are very happy. 


Ken Walsh, who died in 1980, posed for a portrait in front of a mid-1970s canvas.

 

My father, Kenneth B. Walsh, grew up during the Depression in Boston, hunting and fishing in the Fells, Medford’s 2,200-acre state park, to help his ailing father provide for a family with nine kids.

He was just 18 when my grandfather died, in 1940. Like millions of American young men, he understood that if he didn’t choose to enlist in one branch of the military, he was certain to be drafted into one he hadn’t chosen, probably the infantry. (“The Army will take you if you’re warm,” as the saying went.)

And so, like the novelist Joseph Heller, he enlisted in the Air Corps. He had the aptitude, and he had 20/10 vision, and after he graduated from flight training, he co-piloted a B-17 in the Eighth Air Force in 1944 and ‘45. He survived, but not unscathed.

After the war, he went to the School of Practical Art on the G.I. Bill, and then took a job in the art department of Lever Brothers in New York City. He had big dreams, though, and soon established a commercial art studio. After a couple of misfires in business, he relaunched his Bonart Studios and was a success. He and his crew designed packaging for Elvis Presley records, for the Schrafft’s candy and chocolate company, and the Ideal and Transogram toy companies. 

My earliest memories are of those Manhattan days. I spent hours lying on the floor of our Gramercy Park living room, my head next to a speaker as one of the records he had brought home revolved on the phonograph. Sometimes my father would come home with a new toy for which he had designed the packaging, and my brother and I would play until parts went missing or it fell apart. 

He loved Montauk, and he loved painting and fishing. He built a summer house that overlooked the ocean and, eventually, opened the Bonart Gallery at Gosman’s Dock. He became close to John and Rita Gosman, who were my godparents.

Although he experimented with an Abstact Impressionist style that was uniquely his own — and although he liked to carve flounders and whales from wood — his paintings at this time were mostly scenic, and mostly in watercolor. “He could have made plenty of money painting watercolors full-time,” says Steve Malinchoc, the number-two man at the Bonart Studio, who took over operations in Manhattan while we were away in Montauk for the summer. 

My dad loved to organize all-day picnics on the shores of Block Island Sound. He’d load a horde of bohemian friends, kids and adults, into his Nissan Patrol jeep, and we’d drive out to the sandy dunes near Montauk Point. While the kids cavorted on the beach and in the water, the adults would get settled in a hollow in the dunes and get the party started.

He was so happy then. On our long drives out from Manhattan, when we passed a field of corn — of which there were many in those days — he would invariably break into “That field of co-o-orn!” from Without a Song

In Hither Hills, as a full moon rose, he often sang, “Oh, the moonlight shines so bright upon the water,” his version of On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away. For my brother and me, he sang the Air Corps song to which I’d played along so happily on that Christmas Day, a scene immortalized in one of three family portraits he did before things went wrong.


An early watercolor shows Montauk’s commercial dock in the 1960s. It  was done in Walsh’s pre-breakdown style of realism.

 

He carried something with him. During the war, he had lost his best friend, a man he went to flight school with, blown out of the sky on a mission in 1944. 

Whatever it was, it began to reveal itself in the 1960s. They called it manic depression then and it caused him to lose control and scare those closest to him. Toward the end of 1970, when antiwar protests, returning veterans, and the “hard-hat riot” in Lower Manhattan were turning the city into a psychological pressure cooker, he was committed to Bellevue. He was heavily sedated. When the mania stopped, the depression began.

My mother decided that it was best to close the studio and move full time to Montauk. Although my brother and I thought it was a great idea, it was a decision she would regret, again and again, in the years to come. 

After Bellevue, my father’s artistic output was limited. For three or four years, he was unable to do much of anything.

But, for reasons I don’t quite understand, he re-emerged in 1974 and began to paint in a bold, new style, completely unlike anything he had done before. One after another, canvases were pinned to the living room wall and this new vision committed to them, all curving lines and intersecting, multi-perspective figures, blending and overlapping in an explosion of movement and color and emotion. 

I have to admit, it was all a bit weird to me until, years later, I saw a Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Then it made sense. 

He completed dozens of paintings like this, including the mural-size Montauk, which was reproduced as a poster that is familiar to those who know Montauk intimately: It still hangs in several houses and businesses.  

Alas. The long-dormant creativity that burst free and manifested itself on those many canvases was followed by the mania, again, in 1979. 

Then came the family breakup. 

My father took a solo trip across the country, sending letters to my brother at his boarding school in Massachusetts, from increasingly westward points. Until they stopped arriving. 

In August of 1980, my father turned up at a California hospital with advanced bone cancer. As a veteran, he got himself flown back to Boston, to be near the place of his birth. Soon after he arrived home in Boston, he died, off again into the wild blue yonder. . . . 

In February 2012, newly divorced and downsized from my magazine gig in the city, struggling to survive on freelance work, I wrote a letter to The East Hampton Star: “I am trying to locate paintings made by my father, Kenneth B. Walsh,” I wrote. “It is my hope to catalog, restore, document, and ultimately exhibit the most comprehensive collection possible. . . I would be most appreciative if any who knew him, and especially anyone in possession of his work, would kindly contact me.”

A number of people kindly did. 

What was initially a collection of 25 known works — the majority of them stored, mostly forgotten but always in the back of my mind, in that family attic in New England — now numbers 55. Some of these pieces exist only as slides or in photographs, and are probably lost forever, but the collection I’ve amassed spans his oeuvre, from the early watercolors and sculptures to the abstract finale. I’ve got enough for a retrospective (two exhibitions, in fact), and the Bonart Gallery has been relaunched once again. 

My father, like all but one of his eight siblings, is long gone. But his art is still here.

 

A show of the artist’s Modernist work is running at the Woodbine Collection in Montauk through June 25, 2017. An exhibition of his watercolor paintings, at the Amagansett Library, will close on May 28.

 

Christopher Walsh