Corcoran Fine Arts Presents Richard Sedlon (1900-1992): Painter of Dreams and Pookas
In his later years, with his white beard and twinkling eyes, and picturesque wine-colored velvet jacket, the painter Richard Sedlon became a much-loved local character in Bedford, Ohio, where he lived with his wife Anne in the historic Hezeikiah Dunham House, dating from 1832, which is now the property of the Bedford Historical Society. In the back of his house he had a small studio, looking out on the back garden. But when weather permitted, he did much of his work in the garden itself, which became an eccentric Garden of Eden under his tenure.
Over the years it filled up with Richard’s stone carvings, sculptures, woodcarvings, and painted messages, as well as nearly 100 fancifully designed birdhouses. It was there that Richard held court. Each day his wife Anne would arrange a bouquet or still-life on the picnic table, and often models would come to pose. There he held informal art classes, and staged parties and musical concerts.
And it was largely there, right in the garden, that he created his paintings of large-nosed gnome-like creatures, six to eight inches tall that he called Pookas–and who were clearly an expression of Sedlon’s inner self. Pookas never worked for money: they loved to plant gardens, paint, play music, read and sing. Once when a Pooka found a dollar bill, he planted it, thinking it might grow into something useful. But it never did.
Sedlon was the last of a breed: and the last of a remarkably talented crew of gifted artists—including William Sommer, William Zorach, Hugo Robus, Henry Keller– who worked for a living at Morgan Lithography in Cleveland, and in their spare time produced free-spirited adventurous work.
Born in Philadelphia in August 26, 1900, Sedlon moved shortly after his second birthday to Cleveland, where his parents settled on Mead Avenue, on the city’s east side, with their 10 children. Both his parents had immigrated to America from Bohemia. His father was a tailor; his mother operated a candy store and gave music lessons on the side. The whole family was musical, including Richard himself who played the piano as a young man. Brother Joseph became a concert pianist and composer. Brother Edwin travelled in the vaudeville circuit, performing in a band with guitar and banjo.
Not much of a scholar, Richard Sedlon showed more talent for making drawings in his schoolbooks than for memorizing the lessons they contained. When he was still in elementary school the principal dropped by to advise his parents that they should send him to classes at the Cleveland School of Art. He started of drawing plaster casts, a process that usually went on for a year, but after two months the teacher, Professor Cooper, came and said, “You’re ready for life class, Sedlon. Go on, get up there!”
In his early teens, just two years after grammar school, Richard landed his first full-time job working as an apprentice wood-carver for a company called MacAllisters, which carved stairwells, woodwork, portals and doors for Cleveland churches and civic buildings. After working there about a year, however, he accidentally dropped a door on the head of another workman, which led to his dismissal. Fortunately, his father had a friend who lived nearby, Frank Novotny, who worked as an engraver at Morgan Lithography Company. At the time, Morgan produced movie posters which were distributed around the United States and the world. One day, without authorization, Richard made a portrait drawing on the stone of the movie starlet Loretta Young. The quality of the work was so good that it was run off as a poster and he was asked to do more. In half the usual time, just two years, he moved from apprentice to journeyman, and within three years, still not old enough to vote, he was placed in charge of reviewing the work of the other draftsmen.
Sedlon’s first marriage, to a gold-digger known only as Edith, lasted less than two years. In March of 1950, well into mid-life, he married Anne Nyerges, whose family owned the Dunham House, where he took up residence. When Morgan lithography closed in 1960, the Dunham house became his principal workplace and studio for the paintings of fantastic scenes–half story-book illustration, half New-Age movie-poster fantasy art–that he produced prolifically, until his death in February of 1992. Along with Pookas, a subject he painted over and over again was “The Tree of Life”—with a fluid line of human bodies spreading from trunk to branches. “Take the dream out of life and you have nothing. It’s all a dream,” he once said.
This essay was also published in the May 9, 2014 issue of The Gallery, a fine art publication of Antiques and The Arts Weekly.
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