– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Act One, SCENE ONE – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – (age 21)
[August 1886, Paul’s studio in Cincinnati. Five young men and women loll about in the portrait studio run by Paul and Avery Sharp: Avery (working at an easel), Polk Laffoon, Martin Rettig, Mary Sheerer and Jeannie McKee.]
Martin Jeannie, why are you not out somewhere with your cousin this afternoon?
Jeannie My esteemed cousin has business of his own this afternoon, Martin.
[Polk is rummaging a large wadded paper from wastebasket, opening it]
Avery Perhaps that is why your esteemed cousin is not here in the studio painting the several portraits for which he has commissions this very moment. Said commissions would help pay his half of our rent, which is now due. Do you know where he went?
Jeannie I have no doubt Paul will pay his half of the rent on time! Constantly painting portraits is not the only ting in life.
Polk [staring at the paper] What’s this?
Avery [glances at it] Another one of Paul’s dead ends. If he doesn’t like how the paint is going on he trashes it.
Polk [Unfolding another] The trash can’s full of these. Does he always dislike his own work so much?
Jeannie The reason his framed work is such high quality is because he demands so much of himself! He says his paintings represent him.
Martin They do. What an artist produces always represents his innermost self.
Mary Or hers. Paul does set his standards very high. I’ve seen him wad up and throw away paintings I’d be pleased to hang in my room.
Polk Well, that’s his business I suppose. Seems a little costly to me. By the way Jeannie, you never said where he went. Is it a secret?
Jeannie It certainly is not! He and Dixie went down by the river to watch how the light changes on the water and hillsides as the afternoon draws on. They want to compare the light now in August to how the light will look when autumn gets here. They said they might sketch some landscapes too.
Polk Ho ho! She’ll have him sketching her landscape before they get back.
Jeannie Keep a civil tongue, Polk Laffoon! Don’t imagine Paul’s manners can be measured by your own barbaric yardstick!
Mary Indeed. Dixie was planning to go sketching alone, and she did want to watch the light changing over the river and the trees. We talked about it. Paul overheard and politely asked if he might join her. He took his camera so he could capture some of the light changes. He wanted to explore first hand the luminism Professor Noble lectured about — do you remember that lecture, Polk? [raises her eyebrow at him] Paul said an artist must understand every kind of light before he can hope to paint a rainy-day scene – much less a human portrait.
Avery Well, he’s sure right about that. If we don’t soon get some portraits finished and collect some cash, we’ll both be painting a rainy day outside on the street.
Martin Doth the sun not shine fully in paradise? The general impression is that you fellows have been making a pretty good living in this studio.
Avery Oh, we get by all right most months. The trouble is getting a constant supply of new customers coming in the door. Once you’ve painted a person’s portrait, that person is not likely to come back for a second one. And of course not everyone is vain enough to pay for a portrait in the first place, even if it’s just charcoal. Getting a constant flow of new clients is a challenge. But that’s nothing to our landlord. The rent is always payable when due. We get a little tired of beans three times a day.
Jeannie Paul eats better than beans when he eats at our house. You too can come eat with us anytime you like, Avery!
Polk Stated like a true kissing cousin! Paul has to act like a man, Jeannie. He and Avery have taken on the responsibility of running this studio as a business. Now they have to stick to it. We all must do the same if we’re going to earn a living with our art! An artist’s income is not as secure as if we built train coaches or ran livery stables.
[Paul and Dixie Selden enter carrying sketchbooks etc]
Paul What’s that about running livery stables? There’s a future in it! The biggest livery in Frankfort burned to the ground last winter. They’re building it back, big enough for more horses than ever. They’ll need to hire help, if you need work, Polk.
Polk Ah, the hunter comes home. And how did Miss Dixie Selden find the August afternoon light on the river? Was it hot? Did Mister Sawyier embarrass you by taking a swim? Did he perhaps photograph you swimming, to paint later?
[She looks at Polk with wry face, pointedly ignores him. Jeannie turns away from him.]
Paul We chose not to swim this time. But only because I was so enchanted with learning Dixie’s version of en plein air. Does anyone remember when the noble Professor Noble introduced us to that noble French idea? Painting outside, in the open air. I love it!
Mary En plein air is it now? Paul, our dear Jeannie was just telling us how good her mother feeds you. Now I discover what an outdoor man you are. There is inconsistency here. Why would a man leave such delights to spend whole days here in the muddy wilds of downtown Cincinnati?
Paul There be portraits here, everywhere, waiting to be painted! I am sadly unknown around my Covington residence with Auntie McKee and her winsome daughter, whereas my fame and renown grow daily among the throngs of Cincinnati.
Polk [raise imaginary glass] Here’s to your fame and renown. But muddy wilds or not, I am at pains to understand how you fellows can afford this downtown location. I couldn’t afford it!
Paul You have to invest in your future if you expect to have a future. And we are getting by. Right, Avery?
Avery Right. Getting by. Your mail came. It’s on the shelf.
[Paul goes to shelf, picks up envelope, ponders it, frowns, opens it, reads intently]
Dixie Paul is absolutely right. A successful artist will be able to live comfortably on the money earned from her painting. Or his. I intend to do so.
Jeannie And you will too, Dixie. So will all of you, if you keep high standards and use every opportunity to learn more about painting.
Avery And actually paint at every opportunity.
Jeannie Yes. Like Paul does when he goes home to Frankfort. He’s been painting portraits there too, haven’t you Paul. Last winter he painted his friend Emma Morris. She loved it.
Avery [ironic] Really!? How’s business in Frankfort, Paul? As good as it is here?
Paul [He faces everyone] I have some bad news.
Polk The rent’s due early?
Paul I have to leave.
Jeannie Leave? Where to?
Paul Frankfort. The midwest.
Jeannie Midwest? The Mid? West? Why? When? When will you be back?
Paul [He gazes distantly] I’m afraid I won’t be coming back…
Avery [concerned] What are you talking about?
Martin What’s in that letter, Paul? Who’s it from?
Paul My father.
Jeannie [virtually wailing] Paul, what is going on?
[He hands her the letter]
Paul You read it Jeannie. I don’t think I can. [turns away tightlipped, arms folded]
[She reads silently; her hand goes to her cheek in dismay]
Dixie Out loud, please.
Jeannie Oh dear. [reading aloud] “Dear Paul, I write to tell you of some changed circumstances and to advise that you are needed back here at home. Please wind up your affairs there and catch a train home as soon as possible.
Martin and Polk What?!!
Jeannie “You should regard this as a great opportunity to get your life in order, especially the financial part. We’ve had to dismiss our mill’s mid-western representative for poor sales performance. As a result, we are just barely getting by in those states, having our salesmen from other regions make short trips of two or three days. We must have a fulltime man in these mid-western states by middle of next month at the latest.
“The route you’ll take over covers Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, with side trips a little farther out. I have to tell you this great farming region is one of our most lucrative areas for sales of string, twine and rope. Any sales rep for Kentucky River Mills can make good money by staying on the road, with a couple of weekends off in most months, but you’ll have to work at it.
“In any case, your income will improve over what it has been this past year. It will be steady. And I will be only too happy to stop sending subsidies when you don’t sell enough art to pay your bills. My father – your grandfather Sawyier – warned me well against the folly of trying to live on my artistic talent, and his advice was well worth it. The best I can do is pass the same advice on to my own son. You are, after all, now 21 years of age – the age of manhood, when one puts aside childish things.
“In personal finances, you would do well to emulate both sides of the family. Your grandfather Wingate left your grandmother so well off that she is now donating the full cost to build a parsonage in the alley behind the Baptist church here in Frankfort.
“I’ve already told your cousin Russell to list you on the mill payroll as of September 15th. That’s gives you about a month to close your Cincinnati affairs and get home before your start date. I know you won’t let us down. Your mother, brother and sisters hope you can get home a little early, and they ask me to send you their cheery hellos. Hurry home, Son.
“Sincerely, Your Father, Nathaniel J. Sawyier”
[all share a moment of stunned silence]
Dixie Cheery hellos? Hurry home!? What about your life here? Does that not exist?
Jeannie Oh Paul, will you go? You don’t really have to go… do you?
Avery How do you answer Jeannie, Paul? I have to know!
Paul [hangs his head] I am so sorry, my dear friends… I must go…
Mary Childish things? What does your father have against artists?
Paul He’s not against artists.
Paul No. Really. He’s always supported my art – until now. He paid my way to the Academy. And he’s a pretty good artist himself. To this day he sometimes does sculptures and watercolors in our back yard. It’s just… [pause]
Jeannie Just what?
Paul Oh, I don’t know. I’m told that when Father was young he passionately wanted to study art in Paris. Grandfather Sawyier was a rich lawyer – he could easily have afforded to send him, but he refused. He apparently was dead set against depending on the arts for a living. He pushed my father into becoming a physician. Like it or not.
Jeannie And now you’re to become a traveling salesman? – Like it or not?
Polk Some opportunity! Replacing a guy who got fired! Is that true about him sending you money because you don’t sell enough portraits?
Mary Polk, mind your own business.
Paul Yes, it’s true. Some months are just very lean on people wanting their portraits painted. I’m so sorry, my darling friends. I must go, to become a damned salesman.
Jeannie [aghast] Paul! You never swear…
Paul Well I’ll swear this: I am not going to spend a lifetime forsaking my true love, like my father did. I know my brush can feed me! I’ll do as he wants for now, I owe it to him. But not for long. As soon as possible, I will make my living with my art!
[Lights fade, come up again on Sawyier family grouped as in 1886 photo behind Broadway house: [Back row, L to R: Henry Wingate Sawyier; grandmother Wingate; aunt Martha Campbell, Nathaniel Sawyier; Ellen Wingate Sawyier and Paul Sawyier;
Front row, L to R: Lillian Sawyier; Mary Campbell Sawyier; and Natalie Sawyier) All face audience; all stand except Mrs Wingate, Mrs Campbell and Mary Campbell. [Photographer H.G. Mattern, facing audience, stands beside tripod camera pointed toward family]
Mattern H.G. Mattern, photographer. 232 Main Street, Frankfort, Kentucky. I call this photograph the “Sawyier Family Portrait.” August, 1886.
[He turns his head toward the family]
Nathaniel Doctor Nathaniel J. Sawyier, M.D. Physician. Also, President of the Kentucky River Mills, Incorporated. Manufacturers of fine strings, twines, ropes and other products made from hemp, sisal and so forth. I am the head of this household.
Ellen Ellen Wingate Sawyier. I am the proud mother of three fine sons and three beautiful daughters. Five of my children are here with me today. My third son, Nathaniel Junior, did not survive infancy.
Penelope Penelope Hart Anderson Wingate. Ellen is my daughter, the youngest of eight children I bore to my late husband. My dear sister, Parmelia Anderson Sawyier, was Nathaniel’s mother. Thus my nephew, Nathaniel, and my daughter, Ellen, are first cousins who found each other, you might say.
My parents, Reuben and Sarah Anderson, came here from New Jersey in 1792 – when President Washington was still new in office – and settled on Elkhorn Creek. That lovely old creek is very dear to our family. My father Reuben later built this fine house, [she gestures around her] here near the east end of Broadway, which has become so well known in Frankfort as the Wingate-Sawyier family home… may it stand forever. Ellen and Nathaniel were betrothed, right here. In this very house. In 1861. He was 28 and Ellen was just 21. [pause] That was the year that terrible War Between The States began. [pause]
My dear late husband, Henry Wingate, was one of Frankfort’s leading bankers. My husband’s grandparents came here from Delaware. Also in the 1700s. The Wingates always were community leaders. Henry was a prominent Mason. He was first Grand Master of the Frankfort Lodge as well as Grand Commander of the Grand Commandery of Kentucky. Besides banking, he sold insurance and was a prominent member of our Baptist Church. Our whole family are Baptists. Nathaniel’s father, Nathaniel Senior, was also very successful. He began his law practice here in Frankfort in 1819, and later moved it to Cincinnati where he became one of that city’s most prominent attorneys.
Both of these children’s grandfathers – Henry and Nathaniel Senior – moved easily and naturally among upper class society in Kentucky and Ohio. So as you can see, these Sawyier children [she gestures] have quite a distinguished family heritage to live up to.
Maria Maria Louise Wingate Campbell. I am Ellen’s older sister.
Lillian Lillian Sawyier. I am the firstborn among this new generation of Sawyiers. The eldest…or, the elder, if you will. [Paul, Henry, Mary Campbell and Natalie turn their heads, unsmiling, to look at Lillian] I think I shall probably live in New York. The better part of Brooklyn, perhaps. A brownstone, I think. [They face audience again]
Henry Henry Wingate Sawyier. Life has been good, growing up here in Frankfort. But I think I shall soon have to investigate the business opportunities that I see beckoning in Greenville, Mississippi. One must earn his living wherever one best can.
Paul Paul Sawyier. I’m about to become a traveling salesman. Selling string.
Natalie Natalie Sawyier. I am an artist. I intend to be artistically successful and financially independent. [She conveys certainty, casually crossing arms and lifting chin]
Mary Campbell Mary Campbell Sawyier. I am sixteen now. I am named for the Scottish side of our family, which came about because Mama’s elder sister, Aunt Martha there [she gestures] – she’s really Maria Louise, but we call her Aunt Martha – married her second husband, The Reverend Mister Duncan Campbell, who was the president of Georgetown College – at the time – and his mother was also named Mary Campbell. Aunt Martha’s first husband was Mister Russell McCrery, who died. But not before they had my cousin Russell Junior. I adore both of my big brothers. When I grow up I shall have a big memorable splash of a wedding. Papa says Frankfort shall never forget his daughters’ weddings.
[Mattern proceeds as if to take photograph; Lights fade, all exit except Paul;
spotlight follows Paul as he walks to far side of stage and sits at a small table;
He opens a letter and appears to read as Russel’s voice is heard…]
Russell’s Voice Paul Sawyier, Esq., Valparaiso, Indiana. Dear Sir: Your letter of last Friday at hand and is satisfactory. We received a letter from the Pipestone, Minnesota party saying they need about 2,400 pounds of twine, and have made them a price of 11 cents cash with order. Pipestone being taken care of by us here at the mill, you may scratch that stop from this trip. We have lately learned that agents of Deering Twine and Rope are retailing sisal at 12 cents and manila at 14, so everything indicates we had better sell at the best price we can get. Destroy this letter. Don’t forget to write daily to inform us how you’re doing. Yours truly, Kentucky River Mills, aka Cousin Russell.
Paul [he takes pencil, writes, speaks:] Miss Jeannie McKee, Covington, Kentucky.
My Dearest Jeannie, Maybe this constant traveling won’t be so bad after all. The autumn colors are still glorious here in northern Indiana. I saw a customer today in a whistle stop called Brookville, sold him a dab of rope and twine. Just past the railway station I found this enchanting little valley, complete with wandering brook, rocky cliffs, cottonwoods, and late blooming wildflowers just everywhere. By great good fortune I happened to have brought along my box easel and dabs of paint. So, just like Mister Claude Monet, I sat on a big rock – en plein air! – and did a few moments on that sweet scene before dashing to catch the late train. Thinking of you with much love, Paul
Russell’s Voice Paul Sawyier, Esq., Elwood, Indiana. Dear Sir: Your letter from Brookville at hand and noted. Disappointed you made only one town Monday. Try to get over the ground. You will remember we did not consider Brookville of sufficient importance to take up so much time. Did you call on anyone else there besides our old regular customer? Please write us fully in regard to status of farmers harvesting crops that use binder twine, and all other matters. Yours truly, Kentucky River Mills.