By Mike DeBord
As part of the Artist Almanac project, my son Jason and I recently drove 8 hours to Los Angeles to interview two outstanding artists, Bob Simon and Max Turner. I have really been looking forward to meeting these two artists in person, so anticipation and excitement were my primary emotions on the road trip. I scheduled interviews for each artist in their home, Bob on Monday and Max on Tuesday, using a “Fireside Chat” format, but without the fire. After all, they both live in sunny Southern California and the mid-November temperatures were expected to be in the warm 70’s on both days. Jason had agreed to do the driving and would be videoing the interviews using all new Fuji equipment he had just purchased a few days prior. Jason is a professional photographer with a boatload of equipment that he had jammed into his Jeep Renegade for the trip.
When we got to Bob Simon’s house around 10 a.m., I think we may have initially freaked him out a little when we kept bringing in yet another suitcase full of photo gear. But he quickly acclimated and was very accommodating. Bob had been a very close friend of artist, Joseph Nordmann, who was the genesis for my effort to help preserve the legacies of a small group of artists who all studied under the Russian/American Master, Nicolai Fechin in the 1950’s. Bob had become friends with Joseph in 1954 and remained one of his closest friends until Joseph died in 2015 at age 93. I had acquired a significant portion of the paintings and artifacts that had been in Joseph’s home when he died. Since then, I have conducted extensive research on Joseph’s remarkable life, and Bob has been a tremendous help in this effort. So, to finally meet him in person was a real treat.
Bob gave me a quick tour of his home while Jason set up the recording equipment and then we did the interview. On the phone, Bob had told me stories about Joseph’s life that were genuine and with a style that made me feel as though I was there, re-living the day or the experience that he was describing. The interview in Bob’s home was comfortable and casual, and chocked full of new information that helped put pieces of my research puzzle together. This greatly assisted my effort to accurately portray the life of these special artists who were forever linked by their experiences as the last students of Nicolai Fechin.
The interview produced a “two-fer” since we talked both about Joseph’s life and artist friends, and we were able to get the background of a fascinating story about one of Hollywood’s most famous movie props, the Maltese Falcon. One of the artifacts I received as part of my Joseph Nordmann collection was a replica of the Maltese Falcon. Through my research, I found that 6 or 7 of these replica statues were made by Bob Simon of which I had one. I personally know 5 of the individuals who have Bob Simon Maltese Falcon replicas, and going into Bob’s house that day, I had heard four different stories about their origin. But since this is Bob’s story, hearing it directly from him on camera, the real version was documented (not that I didn’t enjoy hearing everyone else’s version). So, there it was, the step by step actual story behind this statue– perfect! As was said in the famous movie, “This is the stuff dreams are made of”.
The interview lasted about 40 minutes and I while I could have gone on much longer because the content was so rich, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. At the end of the interview, the most unexpected thing happened. Bob was probably ready for a break and he purposely walked over to the piano and said, “I feel like playing a few songs now”. And he sat down on the piano bench and began playing the most beautiful music, and these were songs that he had composed himself. Jason, right on cue, stopped packing up his camera equipment and moved over and began to video record the first song Bob played. I was simply blown away, and I watched Bob’s energy level notch up a few bars. He was truly in his element. When he was done with the first song, the mood in the room had been transformed into this tranquil, wonderful, private concert-like setting. I just sat there on the couch completely in the moment, not wanting him to stop playing. So, when Bob asked me if I wanted to hear more, the answer was “Yes, a lot more”. He then played two more songs that he had composed, the second one being my favorite, and I knew that I was in the presence of a very gifted person. He was not only an outstanding painter and sculptor, but a very accomplished musician and composer. I was grateful Jason kept the camera rolling for that first song, as our video-taped interview closes with it.
As the music came to an end, Bob gave us the full tour of his home and grounds where we saw some of Bob’s very impressive works of art, including paintings, in-door and out-door sculptures and two very impressive large paintings of historical nature, with faces of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln cleverly positioned in the background. Jason and I both commented that these two pieces belonged in a museum, so they could be enjoyed by everyone.
The next morning, we promptly arrived at Max Turner’s home and met Max and his niece Denise. I currently have three Max Turner paintings and three of his charcoal drawings. Max had given those to Joseph Nordmann many years ago and they were part of the collection I acquired from Joseph’s home after he died. And while I was able to research and, in many cases, talk to artist friends of Joseph, I had yet to locate and meet Max. But fortunately, Max had recently run across one of my websites that had been developed to preserve the legacy of one of his artist friends, and he called me. I was thrilled to hear from Max and I immediately asked him if I could meet with him. He said, “Sure”. So, then I pressed my luck, and since he had just told me how impressed he was with what I was doing to preserve the legacy for his long-term artist friends, I asked him the key question, “Can I include you in my project?” Max said he would be honored. I said “Great!” and immediately called my son to schedule a three-day trip down to L.A. to meet and interview Max, and, also Bob Simon. The days we chose were abut two weeks out and it worked for both Max and Bob.
As you will see by watching the video, Max at 92 is an absolute treasure, an incredible artist, yet a very humble man. I could immediately see why the three artists that were included in my project and Max had become friends and why they stayed friends for decades. Max had become friends with not only one of the last students of Nicolai Fechin, but he knew all three. Max’s first contact with these students of Fechin was through Hal Reed and Max described how they met and quickly became friends. Max then makes the connections to the other artists in this story. Through this interview, Max filled in several blanks for me and he provided insight to their individual artistic talents and personalities. As the interview continued in Max’s studio, my eyes moved from Max to his beautiful sculptures and paintings, and then back to Max. My wife Kathie always asks the question “Why is that some people have so much artistic talent while the rest of us don’t?” I kept thinking about that when I listened to Max and saw his incredible drawings, paintings and sculptures. His art is mesmerizing, and I truly believe, museum quality. It needs to be seen and his story needs to be told!
This interview lasted about 30 minutes and I was very appreciative to have this time with him. I then took a tour of the art in his home, studying each statue and painting, trying to take it all in. I was already a big Max Turner fan and I love the portrait paintings that I acquired from the Nordmann collection. But as I talked to Max about his paintings, he told me that he isn’t so much a painter as a sculptor. To me, that is like saying Michael Angelo is not so much a painter as he is a sculptor. I think that Max is a great painter and sculptor.
After the tour, Jason and I needed to get on the road to begin our 8-hour return drive back home, but I didn’t want to leave. I hadn’t seen “everything” and I wanted to spend more time with Max. Bottom line, it was a great visit, and I can’t wait to return, which hopefully will be soon.