In my time in Westport, I’ve met tons of interesting and unique people. Movie stars, authors, CEOs — they’re all here, and often taken for granted.
But I can’t imagine a greater thrill — or honor — than getting to know Eric von Schmidt.
Eric was one of those bubbling-under-the-surface folks — someone who, for whatever set of reasons, never attained star status, but was far more talented than many super-celebrities.
And Eric did it in 2 very different fields.
He first earned renown as an artist. That’s natural — his father, Harold von Schmidt, was a celebrated illustrator. (And a Staples football coach. And a host known for wild parties at his Evergreen Avenue home.)
Eric was selling his artwork while still a Staples student. After a brief stint at the Arts Students League in New York, and service in the Army during the Korean War, he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study art in Florence.
Back in the States, he ended up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He painted, and hung out in coffeehouses.
As a teenager — hearing Leadbelly sing “Goodnight Irene” on the Grand Ole Opry radio show — Eric had gotten into old blues and folk songs. His mother, Forest Gilmore, encouraged him to visit the Library of Congress, where he discovered archival blues music.
Eric’s timing was perfect. In the late ’50s Cambridge was filled with exciting young performers, like Joan Baez. Tom Rush called him a major influence.
Bob Dylan did more. In his 1962 debut album, Dylan — with whom he’d “traded harmonica licks, drank red wine and played croquet” — credited “Ric” with teaching him “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.”
Eric wrote songs like “Joshua Gone Barbados.” He recorded 8 albums, with the likes of Richard Fariña. His “Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt” sits atop of the records on the cover of Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home.” In 1965, when Dylan shocked his fans by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, Eric played there too.
Meanwhile, he was painting and drawing. Eric created record covers, children’s books, and more.
His works got bigger and grander. In 1976 — the centennial of Little Bighorn — he completed 6 years of work on”Here Fell Custer.” An enormous acrylic work, and the product of prodigious research, it was chosen by the National Park Service as the official depiction of General George Custer’s infamous “last stand.” Action-packed, but filled with intricate details, it is now displayed at Last Stand Hill, and in the NPS brochure. Why it is not nationally well known is beyond me.
Eric went on to research and paint 2 more large historical works: “Osceola and the Treaty of Seminole Removal” and “The Storming of the Alamo.” Both are as stunning as “Custer.”
Then there is “Giants of the Blues.” The 7 large canvases portray the evolution of American music, from delta music through jazz, bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, the Memphis influence and much more.
It is truly spectacular. There was talk of donating it to the Smithsonian.
Instead it hangs in the Staples High School auditorium lobby. Students pass by every day; theatergoers see it on their way to shows. Hardly anyone realizes its significance — or thinks about the artist.
I think about Eric von Schmidt often. I was fortunate enough to know him, late in his life. He’d moved back to Westport in the mid-1980s, after his parents (“Reb” and “Von”) died.
He spent most of his time in his Evergreen studio. It was a magical place. Canvases — completed, half-finished, mere sketches — hung in every nook and cranny. Brushes, palettes and every kind of art implement filled the rest of the space.
There was also a bed. Eric rented out “The Big House,” and lived in his studio.
He’d lost his vocal cords to throat cancer a few years earlier. No sadder fate could befall a musician.
Talking was very difficult. He communicated mostly by fax — Eric never liked computers — and he was in pain from a new nemesis: Lyme disease.
But he kept working. He was excited by a Lewis and Clark project. He was thrilled that “Custer” and “Alamo” were seen on the History Channel.
His daughter Caitlin moved into “The Big House,” and cared for Eric. He fell, broke a hip, had replacement surgery, then suffered a stroke in August 2006. He spent time in hospitals and rehab centers.
Word got out, in the art and music worlds, that Eric’s health was failing. When he died on February 2, 2007, the news was reported in the New York Times, by AP and on NPR.
Most of the stories focused on his music.
I never heard Eric von Schmidt sing live. I knew him best as an artist. Now, in Westport — at Staples — his art lives on. Even if hardly anyone recognizes it for the remarkable work it is.
Or recognizes the man who lovingly, painstakingly, painted this masterpiece.
Finally, though, some long-overdue recognition comes from the Westport Library. An exhibit of his paintings will be displayed in the Great Hall from tomorrow (Friday, March 29) through June 26. A reception is set for next Friday (April 5), at 6 p.m.
Eric’s art is reason enough to go. But I’d love to hear his music, too.