There were two paintings I hung on the wall of Dad’s art studio a few months after he died, which stayed there until I had to move the last of his things to make way for a new tenant. One was a small self-portrait he had painted in the early ‘90’s. In it, Dad wears an imperious expression, almost a scowl, a man with a serious chip on his shoulder. His beard is tightly clipped, his glasses too big for his face. This was a man unwilling to take shit from anybody, and he would cock his eyebrow until you knew it.
The other image is a pastel sketch, the paper too fragile for permanence. Someday it will fall apart, but I cherished the contrast it provided the image Dad painted of himself. It’s also a portrait of Dad, but he’s gazing down, not at his hands but not at anything else, either. He’s wearing a puffy winter coat from L.L. Bean and his Greek fisherman’s cap, two iconic pieces in Dad’s wardrobe that he wore for as long as I can remember. He looks wistful, even sad. Sweet but lonely, perhaps a little nervous. He’s older than the man in the first portrait, a little bowed by time.
This sketch was drawn by a friend and former student Polly Chang, a wonderful artist who so easily captured a part of Dad that Dad was unable, or unwilling, to capture himself. But it’s this portrait that I love, because it’s of a tender man—it was the Charles I knew, far more complicated than the stern professor he often envisioned.
I hung it next to the self-portrait after Dad died—the yin to his yang—to remind me of all Dad’s funny quirks, including his inability to admit he was vulnerable.
Charles L. Moone II was, about many things, an unflinching realist, which made him a remarkable professor during the thirty-plus years of his career. It also made him a remarkable father. If my brother Chris or I asked him something morally complicated, clouded in shades of gray, the answer we received would be unvarnished and sometimes discomfiting, but without artifice or beating around the bush. He was incapable of masking the truth in spun tales and verbal dodges, which made him a charmingly crotchety curmudgeon, but one with the seed of pure generosity at his core.
“He’s an empath,” said Karen, as she was flipping through the hundred or so membership cards to charitable organizations and cultural trusts Dad had amassed in the last years of his life; I had unearthed them as I was packing up his desk. That she was speaking of Dad in the present tense revealed the disbelief we felt: he had died five days before she arrived in town.
Karen was a former student whom he held in the highest esteem to the end of his life, and who, despite philosophical differences, regarded my father with the same respect; she had come to deliver her farewells to the man she credited with her devotion to and understanding of the meaning of art in her life, but she arrived too late. Now we were sipping wine together, surrounded by the silence of Dad’s empty house.
It was the first time I considered him as such, but when she said the words “He’s an empath,” they crystallized what I felt about the strange dichotomies Dad evoked in his life. He was both a terrible and mischievous prankster and a schmaltzy romantic. He spent, within his limited retirement budget, lavishly on books and DVD’s for his personal collection, but spent more on causes of all stripes which, once they had him on the hook, had him for life. After he had income to spare as a grown man (and sometimes when he didn’t) he donated money to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Opera; in his home town, where ever he happened to be, he gave money to all the local arts organizations and museums there as well. Botanical gardens, zoological gardens, local ballet companies great and small, orchestras, nature conservancies. Things of beauty, the aspirations of culture and meaning beyond products generated for nothing but financial gain.
That Dad gave so generously to so many was a part of his very being. He felt, even in his last days, that he had been outrageously fortunate for no reason whatsoever, and that if he was rewarded with a good life, he owed it to those whose lives were not as fortunate to stand beside them in whatever manner he could.
And he believed in art. The very fiber of Dad was woven of ideas about history seen through the lens of art, of society through its creative spark over the millennia. He was democratic in his depth of knowledge about different periods and styles, though not about their contribution to the human experience. He believed art was what made humans special—no more, no less. What we created defined us from the baboons, but if they should pick up a brush, he would welcome them. Our ability to write, sing, paint, build; these were the only miracles that moved Dad because they reflect what it means to be human, whether in our grandest flights of heroism or our basest instincts of pettiness; it’s art that allows us to look ourselves in the face.
Dad began his teaching career in Terre Haute, Indiana when he was tapped for the genesis of a brand new art program with another professor, both of them recent recipients of graduate degrees and untested in the classroom. But he blossomed in from of the lecture halls and took great pride in shocking Hoosiers out of their provincial concerns by making them think outside their world.
After creating a program that could stand on its own, he left to take up teaching art and the humanities at the University of Colorado at Denver (UCD) in 1967, again dusting off a neglected program and helping to create a thriving art department with other pie-eyed idealistic professors. He taught at UCD until he retired in 1998.
Dad’s philosophy as a professor was the simple, noble imperative to teach, even if a student was resistant to learning. By his retirement Dad felt that too few professors, indeed too few institutions, believed in teaching people how to think, to evaluate, to compare. Instead, the nation’s schools had become enslaved by concerns of the “bottom line” and were churning out armies of financial criminals, sports stars, cogs, and modestly skilled laborers—but no philosophers, thinkers, or artists who could save us from ourselves.
For students who paid attention, Dad was inspirational. Pulling together events from history, drawing from literature and music and mythology, Dad threaded a narrative of meaning from disparate pieces which in the hands of others might be a pile of useless facts; in his hands these pieces created a holistic story of humanity. He showed people how to be critical without being cruel, how to make comparisons without maligning, how to question things that seemed obvious but which, if peeled back just a little, revealed a completely different tableau. It didn’t matter if it was High Art or Low; Dad happily consumed all of it. Dad was a fearless teacher.
I was too much a daughter to my father to know much about his career, other than a few days I went to work with him as a kid. But his job struck a natural chord in me which craves getting dirty, having my clothes covered in paint, my nails filthy. Dad’s world smelled of turpentine and sawdust, fixatives and adhesives, clay, oil paint, lacquers and charcoal dust. The cement floors were speckled with the splatters of an ebb and flow of students, natural light from the windows competing with fluorescents, a semi-circle of easels with charcoal drawings, featuring greater or lesser suggestions of the anatomy of those who posed. A sleepy nude model would lie or sit in front of fifteen or twenty students all working to capture the shadow of a calf muscle or the curve of an elbow.
Once, when I was wee, it was my mother Jane there, and I ran in to embrace the lady on the pedestal; my goddess of a mom, exposed but distant and compelling with nothing but a threadbare chair and a brightly colored cloth as her prop. I was mesmerized; it’s not every day you see your mother in the role of muse and demigod, nude as Venus rising from the foam. Dad navigated his way through the ring of students, commenting here, suggesting there, and then wandered back to his own easel for a quick scribble.
But Dad had a touch of the devil in him, if we’re going to be completely honest, a certain mercurial impishness that was piqued by ignoramuses. Students who chose willful ignorance over challenging their fast-held opinions got a big goose egg from him, both grade-wise and, I fear, in the flick of an arched eyebrow as he stared them down during fumbling arguments. And if push came to shove, Dad got their attention.
His favorite class, a seminar he taught with a colleague about Dadaism and Surrealism, was a full-contact sport: they read surrealist tomes, looked at art, debated it, tried to recreate it. There were all manner of bizarre projects rolling in as the students wrestled with what surrealism might be.
And one particular class had a woman who often asked questions that bore little relevance to the topic, positing half-reasoned arguments because she wasn’t comfortable with the material, passively sabotaging time that was valuable to the other students.
Dad didn’t mind fruitful debate; he minded stupidity, and this woman got on his nerves. One day she raised a question. “André Breton: what does he mean when he says, ‘Beauty will be convulsive or not at all?’”
Dad lurched forward in his seat and fell to the floor. His eyes rolled back in his head, limbs thrashed, his tongue hung from his mouth. He twitched with violent spasms, the students agog with surprise and disbelief.
He got in his seat and crossed his legs. “I think that’s what it means,” Dad replied.
The class went to lunch. The students came back, all save one. She didn’t return after the break, and she didn’t return for the next session. She just never came back, though I’m sure she never forgot that quote by Breton.
One Halloween in the late Seventies, Dad painted an absurdly happy face on a chunk of graying leather, which he then stitched together haphazardly to create a hood, two roughly cut, lopsided eyeholes to see from. He tacked on the scavenged tail of some hapless critter and tied on old bottles tinkling with goofy talismans inside, dangling from jute and string. He had found a dead root of a small tree that had an eerily humanoid face, and this he strung on a piece of rawhide which he then hung around his neck; a fringed leather vest, a little pouch, and his costume was complete. The mask grinned with a non-menacing silliness: a happy-go-lucky witch-doctor out for his rounds. Dad went to the legendary Halloween party a fellow artist threw every year and that was it:
The Shaman was born.
After Halloween, Dad packed the Shaman in a box and forgot him for a while. But a couple years later, UCD, the red-headed stepchild of Denver’s higher education system, was swallowed up in a bureaucratic deal to combine three campuses into one. Underfunded, UCD’s arranged marriage with the two other schools was a horrible blow to their autonomy. And because UCD was public, and the other schools private, the financial resources available for their new digs was 10 times greater for the other universities.
The student body of UCD, unlike the other two universities, was a diverse one. Many of UCD’s students were older, returning to higher education after they realized they were stuck in dead-end jobs and looking for a new path through life. It also had the greatest number of minorities of all stripes: because it was affordable, it was accessible to those who had the fewest resources. Dad was staunchly proud of being a professor educating people who he knew struggled to get there, and he was proud of the students who held multiple jobs, went to school at night, stretched four-year degrees over five or six years because they had neither the time nor the resources to carry full course loads. Dad demanded hard work, but he believed in his students’ ability to conquer all the hurdles life put in front of them.
The campus that was built to accommodate all three schools was a shoddy, cheap affair—one that won raspberries from architects and archivists alike. (The harsh Colorado sun which shone directly into the new library through huge windows was aging the book collection at an astonishing rate of 200 years a month; the legislature didn’t see the necessity of funding the sun breaks that had been drawn into the original plans.)
UCD’s art department staff and student body watched sadly as the ugly Bauhaus-derived buildings grew out of the wreckage the bulldozers made from of a once-thriving Mexican neighborhood. The final touches were added, the institutional paint was drying.
Dad knew he was helpless to come to the aid of his underfunded, disrespected, out-maneuvered and overlooked department. But maybe what was needed was a ritual, something to christen their new digs, to take symbolic possession of what was, on paper and through the eyes of the bureaucrats, hardly theirs at all.
An atheist and fiery non-conformist with a deep distrust of organized religion, Dad also recognized humanity’s deeply rooted need to acknowledge milestones with rituals. Dad embraced contradiction. He understood that mythology pointed to truths we as a species constantly wrestle with: life and death, birth, growth, union, seasons, conclusions; and they cropped up over and over in the myths and ceremonies around the world, threaded through tales and art over the breadth of human history. Dad would honor the changes in his school and his department with a ritual to mark (literally) the occasion.
Dad arrived early one morning, when the equipment was still being moved into the buildings, armed with his shamanic paraphernalia. He darted into the first floor bathroom, peed in an old ceramic mug, pulled the mask over his head, and The Shaman began a slow, methodical dance down the halls of what would be a shared institution with the more prestigious schools. As Dad passed each classroom, he dipped his hand in pee and smacked the doors as he danced his jig. He smacked the offices, the rest rooms, the storage closets, the faculty lounges. Any space, shared or not, was duly anointed with Shaman pee, sharing in the time-honored tradition of marking territory recognized throughout the animal world.
Maybe a little Shaman pee did the trick: once the UCD art department was settled and in full swing, it remained non-conformist and diligently independent despite all the hurdles thrown at them.
It was not intended to be his alter ego when the Shaman came into being for a Halloween party, but the Shaman was Dad’s special gift to the universe, embracing the sacred, the profane, the primitive, chaos and paganism. It underscored his belief in our animal nature and the nature from which we in our technologically advanced, non-communal age have become isolated. It represented our need for transformation and mystery, and his impish delight at poking a finger in the eye of the status quo. It was mischief.
The Shaman was the seed of Dad’s belief.