"Unfortunately, the only recognized relics of yesterday's farmers are obsolete curiosities when the greatest relic, their philosophy of living, is seldom considered." - Eric Sloane, Our Vanishing Landscape
Eric Sloane's devoted the greater part of his life to the exploration of what he later coined his philosophy of awareness. The basic concept of awareness that Sloane articulated through his many books centered upon his belief that the man (and woman) of yesterday was more aware than his or her modern day counterpart. This heightened sense of awareness came principally from "doing for oneself". In order to even begin to understand what Sloane meant by awareness, you must understand the world of 18th century America in general, and perhaps 18th century New England in particular.
In 18th century America, everyone was by necessity a farmer. Even the local doctor or lawyer needed to keep a horse and likely had chickens, goats, pigs and perhaps a cow. The vast majority of New Englanders listed themselves as "farmers" on census forms. An 18th century farmer had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no telephone, no television, no automobile and no "modern conveniences". Before you get wrapped up in the romantic warm blanket of yesterday, remember that life for these Americans was hard. Infant mortality rates were high. Life spans for healthy adults were short compared to today. Sickness could devastate a community. If your family was to survive, each family member was required to perform strenuous physical labor most of us couldn't imagine today.
Yet because of this, not in spite of it, the early American was peculiarly aware of many things that today we take for granted. Start with his very existence. Disease or injury, mild by today's standards, could kill. How would you live your life differently if you knew that the odds of you surviving to live 48 years were slim? Time and labor were not wasted. Families counted on each other for love and support. Communities banded together to help members in need. The church and worship were the literal and figurative centers of the community.
From this was forged the early American. Hard working, God fearing, honest, and loyal. He and she worked a lifetime to build barns and homes to last generations. They cleared fields for planting, managed forests and in most cases practiced a form of animal husbandry and farm management that would ensure their farms would prosper for generations. Almost every single necessity was met on the farm: a tremendous variety of crops for food, medicine and clothing, trees for tools and building materials, herbs for cooking and healing, clay and rocks for building and sweet water for cooking and cleaning. Most everything was done with an eye towards permanence and most everything was made by hand. How would you feel towards (and care for) a sweater that your mother knitted for you and dyed your favorite color by hand? Or a toy your father made for you when you were a child? Or a harvest table your parents made for you as a wedding gift from a Chestnut tree you once played on as a child that was since felled by a storm? Little wonder that most of what we now consider real "folk art" from the 18th and 19th centuries are beautiful works of art and extremely expensive.
As the early American man, woman and child looked about them, their sense of awareness was reinforced. The farm before them of well-tended fields, bountiful gardens, healthy animals and rugged stone fences all were transformed by their hands. The home and massive barn were built by friends and relatives in a Herculean community effort of love and support. The blanket chests, chairs, rope beds, quilts, clothing, candles - and nearly everything else in the home were made by a member of the family.
How did Eric Sloane, born almost a century after the declining years of what most of us consider to be "early America", come to understand his philosophy of awareness?
Born Everard Jean Hinrichs on February 27, 1905, Eric Sloane spent the majority of his youth in New York City (until 1919) and Long Island, New York. His father, George Hinrichs, Sr., grew prosperous as a meat and dairy products distributor in the city. Eric’s younger sister Dorothy described Eric as mischievous and often careless with possessions, but in the end always lovable and eager to please. An early interest in art was sparked by neighbors Herman Roundtree and Fred Goudy. Roundtree’s illustrations for magazines like Field & Stream made Eric dream of becoming a nature artist and Goudy’s printing and typesetting made Eric consider becoming a printer.
As Eric grew into adolescence, he dabbled in commercial art by designing and selling signs and print advertising for local businesses. He enrolled in the Art Students League of New York City for Saturday classes. Although no formal record exists of his attendance, Eric did state on a subsequent application to the New York School of Fine and Applied Art that he studied art through the Art Students League for two months. It was during his tenure at the Art Students League that Eric overheard a conversation between John Sloan and George Luks in which the two teachers were discussing the merits of working under an assumed name. Sloan and Luks agreed that it would be better for a young artist to assume a name, then once he perfected his technique and talents revert to his given name, eliminating his association with earlier (and therefore inferior) works. Impressionable young Everard J. Hinrichs decided to borrow his teacher’s last name and add an “e” to the end so as not to claim a familial relationship. He did not assume his new moniker immediately and spent years actually using both names-Eric Sloane to new friends and acquaintances and Everard Hinrichs to family members and on legal documents. He later stated that he chose “Eric” because the name formed the middle portion of the word “America”, but his choice likely had more to do with escaping the anti-German sentiment of the day by corrupting the name “Everard”.
Eric’s fragile world began to crumble in November of 1922 when his mother, largely the most stable influence in the Hinrichs household, died from complications related to a long illness. Eric stayed in the Long Island home until the summer of 1925, but it is easy to believe that the home was less than peaceful. A number of events an older Eric Sloane would attribute significance to flashed by in rapid succession. The first was his enrollment in The New York School of Fine and Applied Art on January 22, 1923. He was officially enrolled for a semester, though he was often absent and seldom turned in any work. He ran away to Ohio and Pennsylvania during the summer of 1923 (In later years Eric wrote and spoke of running away from home to Taos, New Mexico and used the years 1923 and 1925 interchangeably as the year he made his journey westward), returning to enroll in the fall semester at The New York School of Fine and Applied Art. He officially left the school on May 24, 1924, receiving no letter grades as a result of his absences. In September of 1924, Eric enrolled in Yale University’s School of Art, yet he barely managed to complete the academic year.
By the summer of 1925, Eric had made up his mind to leave home for good. He packed what amounted to a combination easel and sleeping bag, stole the family’s model T Ford and headed west. His experiences during his travels made an indelible impression on his mind, creating a visual palette he would return to repeatedly throughout his career. He made it as far west as Taos, New Mexico, where he rented a room from Russian painter Leon Gaspard. It was in Taos that Eric fell in love with the sky and a new medium with which to try to depict the brilliant colors of the southwestern sky - oil paints.
Eric returned to Long Island with his first wife Fredginia LeRouge in the summer of 1927. The reason for his return is not clear, though it is known that his father was quite ill at the time. In fact, Eric and his new wife accompanied the elder Hinrichs to various spas in the Midwest in an attempt to help him recover his health. When his father died on July 3, 1929, Eric was once again took to the road. Although he inherited the Long Island home and a considerable amount of money, creditors were able to secure most every dollar. Penniless, Eric returned to Taos.
From 1929 until 1933, Eric worked in Taos, supplementing his meager income as a tour guide with proceeds from the sale of sketches and drawings rendered in colored chalk and pencils. As he developed artistically, Eric theorized that a return to New York City might launch his artistic career. When he did return, he found work through a friend at the Coney Island Amusement Park, painting murals and designing the visual components of rides and amusements. He also found work at the Half Moon Hotel, which had the distinction of being the hotel nearest to Roosevelt Field. Since pilots and mechanics frequented the Half Moon’s restaurant and lounge, Eric started painting aviation-related murals on the restaurant walls. Soon, pilots who admired the young artist’s works invited him to the airfield, eventually hiring Eric to paint fuselage art and aircraft registration lettering. Not satisfied with just lettering aircraft, Eric began painting them. He often sold them to the pilots who flew the airplanes depicted in the work. Sometimes, Eric would exchange his art for rides. Once Eric was in the clouds, his world changed. He began to paint larger and more detailed paintings of aircraft and clouds. The airplanes got smaller as the clouds grew larger. He reached a point where he was painting large “cloudscapes” devoid of any aircraft at all, to which a friend asked, “Who is going to buy a painting of just clouds?” Undaunted, Eric hung it for sale at the Roosevelt Field Inn for what he termed an “exorbitant amount”. Aviatrix Amelia Earhart purchased the painting.
By 1940, Eric gained a reputation as a skilled painter of the sky. He was asked to draw several illustrations for two flying-related books, Your Wings by Assen Jordanoff and Earnest Vetter’s Let’s Fly: An ABC of Flying. His engaging style of illustration prompted the Devin-Adair Company to contract him to write and illustrate his first book, Clouds, Air and Wind (1941). The success of the book prompted the Army Air Corps to hire Eric to write and illustrate several publications.
During the Second World War, Sloane took a brief hiatus from writing after an acquaintance’s son was killed in a weather-related aviation accident. The accident prompted Sloane to begin researching flying and weather. He began by constructing several working models of weather phenomenon, models that became permanent exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History of New York. A deepening interest in weather caused Eric to enroll in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s meteorology program, but he eventually left that program after becoming discouraged with the amount of mathematics needed to study meteorology. At one point Eric became so frustrated with trying to learn mathematics that he told his professor that the math was taking all of the romance out of the weather. Undaunted, his professor told him that if it was romance in the weather Sloane was seeking, he ought to do it elsewhere - perhaps in the old farming diaries and almanacs. Taking the likely tongue-in-cheek comment of his professor seriously, Sloane began placing advertisements seeking to purchase farm diaries, journals and almanacs in Yankee Magazine. It did not take long before his living room was overflowing with tattered books and musty smells. As he read each page, Eric Sloane did indeed find the romance in weather he was looking for - descriptions of "violent" showers and "sudden" storms that cleared with a "sweet smelling aire". But Eric Sloane found much more in those pages. He read of the early American's knowledge of wood, the seasons, the stars, as well as of weather predictions and lore. Immersed in the pages of wonderfully descriptive verse that spoke to him, Eric Sloane became fascinated by the life of the early American farmer. With thoughts of weather in his head and the picturesque New England countryside about him, Eric Sloane sought out the abandoned and nearly forgotten treasures of our early American landscape.
It was his paintings of rural New England, Pennsylvania, and of Taos, New Mexico that made Eric Sloane a well-known, well-respected, and well-paid American artist throughout the 1970's and early 1980's. He exhibited internationally, was and is still represented in major national and international museums, and was elected to full membership to the National Academy of Design. One of the aspects of Eric Sloane's life and career that is so compelling is that, within his lifetime, he was a highly successful painter, illustrator, author (he wrote over 40 books covering meteorology to bells), and designer. He also was a noted collector of American antiques (I own the delightful 18th century Connecticut arm chair which was a particular favorite of Eric's) and of early American tools and farm implements, which he regarding as aesthetically pleasing as utilitarian. Eric’s research interests and collection of early American tools was a catalyst for the creation of the Sloane-Stanley Museum of Kent, Connecticut. The museum opened on May 28, 1969 and was enlarged and expanded in 1986.
In his later years, Eric Sloane divided his time between his homes in Taos, New Mexico and Cornwall, Connecticut. He died on the streets of New York City on March 6, 1985 on the way to a luncheon engagement with his sixth wife Mimi, one week after his eightieth birthday and two days after the opening of his Hammer Gallery exhibit entitled “Eighty”.
As with many philosophies applied to life and work, it is relatively easy to dismiss Eric's Philosophy of Awareness by oversimplifying its basic principles. Yet his philosophy goes beyond simply the search for contentedness born from doing things for oneself and, I would suggest, beyond aiding us in our understanding of why our fore bearers made the cultural objects they did. The philosophy is much more profound in the sense that it hints at a deeper metaphysical connection possible through achieving our own sense of satisfaction and - to borrow a phrase from the Quakers - inner peace by subtly emphasizing the importance of seeking more control over our own thoughts and deeds and eschewing our oft-occuring and misguided attempts at controlling those things that are simply uncontrollable. The person of the 18th century, Sloane argued, was not a more intelligent, enlightened, or better person than his 21st century counterpart. He and she was more adept at being content in their pace, relative level of self and community reliance, and in their better understanding and acceptance of their locale within the stream - be it metaphysical or metaphorical - of time.
Biographical information from Aware: A Retrospective of the Life and Work of Eric Sloane
Images from top: Winter Winds 24" x 40" oil on Masonite courtesy of the estate of Eric Sloane ~ Eric Sloane executing a mural in the Luna Park Ballroom of Coney Island, courtesy of Dorothy Hinrichs and the Sloane-Stanley Museum ~ Eric Sloane, painter of clouds, courtesy of Dorothy Hinrichs ~ P-47 Thunderbolt 19" x 16" pastel on paper courtesy of Green River Gallery ~ Eric's original business card, c. 1945, private collection ~ Spring Sky 20.5" x 42" oil on Masonite courtesy of the estate of Eric Sloane ~ Round Barn, Hancock Mass 24" x 36" oil on Masonite courtesy of Green River Gallery~ Eric Sloane May 28, 1969, the Sloane-Stanley Museum dedication, courtesy of Dorothy Hinrichs and the Sloane-Stanley Museum. All images under copyright restrictions and used by permission as indicated. Duplication, downloading, sharing, emailing, printing or copying of images and/or text in any form is prohibited by international copyright laws. Text and web site©1999-2011. All images appear in Aware: A Retrospective of the Life and Work of Eric Sloane.