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Frank Poliat

Oregon, USA

Where did you live as a child?

I grew up on three different continents.  I was born in New York and lived in Long Island until I was 3.  For the next two years we lived in Montevideo, Uruguay.  We moved from South America to Europe when I was 6 and lived in Florence, Italy for several months before we returned to New York where we lived for the next seven years.  When I was in high school, we moved to Madrid, Spain.  I attended the American School of Madrid from 10th through 12th grades and then moved to Portland, Oregon to attend college where I have lived ever since.

When you were a little boy, what were your favorite activities?

Drawing was my favorite activity from the time I was 5.  My father and I played a game where one of us would make a "squiggle" (a random abstract line on paper) and the other person had to turn it into something recognizable.  I also loved to listen and dance to music, which I can remember doing as early as 4 years old.  I don't remember a time before dancing and drawing.  I also loved to sing and whistle.

Once I learned to read, I did so voraciously.  I had a subscription to a book-of-the-month for kids, and also my own child's encyclopedia, and I would just pick up one of the volumes at random and read.  When I was 9, I discovered the public library near my grade school, and that became my personal haven AND heaven (do you think those words are related?).  My spirits would lift as soon as I entered the library, just from the smell of so many books.  That reminds me that another one of my favorite activities was just plain smelling things.  I think that, to some degree I even enjoyed "bad" smells because, after all they were still smells, so that even those were, at the very least, interesting.

Visiting museums of every kind was a big passion with me, and we did a lot of museum and art gallery hopping, as a family...  We also traveled quite a lot, all over Europe and the USA, and that was wonderful, seeing new things and how people lived and where and what they ate and how they talked and of course, new smells.  I must have been a dog in a former life :)

I enjoyed eating so much that I would hum when I ate, I'm not kidding, until maybe around age 7.  It was kind of embarrassing, but I couldn't stop it.

I guess, looking back on it, I certainly did not think of myself as a little boy, and I think, a lot of the time, my parents forgot it too.  Looking back, I wish I had been less focused on being "well-behaved" and more concerned about being rowdy and loud.  I wish that some wise adults had intervened and given me permission to be a kid, and act like a kid, doing kid things.  The fact that I could not do that created problems for me later, acting a lot like a 12 year old a lot of the time when I was 22!

Well, that's just some of the things I love.  The more I think of it, the more I remember...  So I better stop here!

What were your favorite subjects in school?

Grade school years for me at the French Lycée in New York were uniformly horrid.  The only part I enjoyed was hearing the last school bell.  I had one elective Italian class that I enjoyed, because I loved the language and WANTED to learn it.  Also, the teacher was NOT French, he was Italian.  In art, I would get straight A's (or as they put it at the French Lycée: "vingte sur vingte" (20 out of 20 point).  But the French manage to make even art class boring, which is no mean feat considering that it was absolutely my greatest passion.  Most of the teachers at the French Lycée were French and trained in the French educational system... maybe it works better for them...

High School was different.  We had moved to Madrid, Spain by then, after spending several months traveling through the USA and Mexico, after selling our our home in New York.  We arrived in the fall of 63 and I entered the American School of Madrid as a sophomore, effectively skipping 9th grade (as one of the younger of my age-group).

This was a notable improvement for me over my Lycée experience.  I made friends with my classmates, enjoyed a lot of my classes and teachers and generally enjoyed studying, plus many electives, special classes... and being the class clown... some of the time.  We had several class clowns, so the work got spread out.

There was also a fabulous electric tramway system which, although incredibly old, worked fine and covered virtually all of Madrid, a very large and wonderfully interesting city, with architecture dating back 500 years and more.  You could get from one side of town to the other for about 25 cents.  My guess is that most of the tram-cars were from the 1920s and 30's.  (Spain was a very poor country at the time.)

We had a great English class, probably the most popular one of all the classes, and I also enjoyed Plane Geometry, Spanish, and History.  There were also special classes for kids who wanted to get more out of school.  We were fortunate to have a roster of very well educated teachers.  A lot of them doubled as school administrators and as teachers, which was great, because those people would know their students at more levels than if they had been solely teachers.  So there were special classes in Calculus, Trigonometry, and perhaps the most influential class that I ever took in college OR high school: Cultural Anthropology, taught by my most memorable teacher, Joanne Haer.

I also was in several school clubs: drama, year-book, literary magazine, chess (we played against some Spanish kids in other schools, and strangely, no one observed the "en passant" rule, as I recall) and some other clubs that I cannot recall.  I also took guitar lessons outside of school and had a great adult friend who tutored me (out of kindness) in algebra.  Oh, and I also took learned to throw clay pots at a commercial ceramics studio.  I had a great time.

When was it discovered that you had a natural talent for drawing?  What was done to nurture that talent?

Other than extremely incompetent and boring "art" classes at my grade school, nothing was done to nurture my talent, even though both my parents were accomplished artists who also socialized with several other artists, who mostly would tell my parents that I was a prodigy.  In fact, even my grade school art teacher told my parents that I was very talented.  Beyond taking me along to galleries and museums, the total extent of my parents "nurturing" of my talent was to give me paper and pencil and admire my drawings.  They never framed anything or put anything up on the wall.  They did not even try to teach me the basics of drawing, life-drawing, perspective and so on, although they were both highly accomplished in these areas.  My parents praised my work, and left it at that.  Not very helpful.

At my high school (the American School of Madrid), I finally made some friends among both teachers and my fellow students and had an art history teacher whom I really enjoyed.  Peter Collis was very tall and soft spoken, and British, I think.  He also had a hand missing, which I initially found quite alarming.  But alarm changed to curiosity, but I never had the courage to ask him how he lost the hand.  I wish that he also had taught drawing, but he only taught it to the younger grades.  I remember being jealous of the joy that teaching these younger kids gave him.

My high school teachers would get me to participate in many arts related projects, and I really appreciated that.  But still, no drawing classes.  Since we were living in Madrid at the time, there were many galleries to visit.  But best of all was the Prado Museum, one of the western world's great museums.  They had the complete etchings of Goya, plus most of his best early paintings.  (Writing this now, I'm amazed at all the ways that I have NOT changed.  I enjoy all the things now that I enjoyed even as a little boy).  Also many paintings by the northern European masters, including Hieronymus Bosche's most important work: "The Garden of Earthly Delights" triptych, plus some other works of his...  And, of course, lots of Velasquez.

As I mentioned earlier, my family and I visited a lot of museums and galleries, and there were many art books at home and at the library.  I got to take one "real" art class at the Art Students League when I was 12 or so, which my mother and I attended together.  But the teacher was hardly helpful.  However, we would draw for 2-3 hours at a time, from live models, several times a week.  Even though we used charcoal and pencil, the smell of oil paint is still one of my most favorite smells.

Did you have any favorite teachers?  How did they make a difference in your life?

My last three years of high school at the American School of Madrid were hugely valuable to me and many teachers acted as loving and concerned support to me.  I don't know how I would have been complete without Joanne Haer's class in cultural anthropology.  That class taught me part of what is the essence of my life-philosophy: cultural relativism.  Also John Schereschewsky's English class, not just for his teaching, but because he modeled class, humor, leadership and diplomacy...  I think just about everyone adored him and valued the time they spent with him.  Between John and Joanne, I had two good models of what it meant to be a good adult human.  Given that my home life was insane, I think these folks may have made the difference between life and death for me...  I truly believe that.

What is your favorite artistic style for yourself and who were your favorite artists?

Pen and ink, because of the spontaneity and emphasis on line and passion.  I have always liked engraving and dry point, but never done it.

I enjoy work by Lautrec, Breughel, Bosch, Memling, Cranach, Rembrandt, Holbein, Vermeer, Klimt, Goya, Picasso, Modigliani, Osborne, Matisse, Bonnard, Arp, Klee, Van der Weyden, Monet, Van Gogh, Degas, Miro, Weston, a whole bunch of other photographers and filmographers whom I appreciate and whose names I don't even know... tons more...

What were your most difficult subjects?

Calculus: this was a special class that some fellow high school students and I requested.  I think that we were juniors at the time.  The teacher was very nice, but I think that he may have been used to teaching at a college/university level.  It was as much a disparity in teaching styles that created problems.  I think that we were a little too intimidated to ask him if we could help him to help us...  And the funny thing is that we were intimidated by the fact that he was a university professor AND the word "calculus" brrrrrr :).  I think if he'd gone over the basics much more slowly, we could have done OK.

Chemistry: this called for a lot of sheer memorization.  Many of us had a problem with the demands of so much memorization, but I had a secondary problem with memorization.  At the Lycee, we were obliged to memorize a poem or a chunk from a play by Moliere, Racine or whatever EVERY WEEK AND IN FRENCH.  My father would "help" me memorize these lovely pieces by shouting and gesticulating and calling me an idiot.  This did not do great things for my confidence in memorizing anything.  It takes a pretty rare mind to enjoy chemistry.  For most of us, the teacher needs to work pretty darned hard to show us the "joy" of chemistry.  Mr. Devine was not that kind of teacher, he knew his stuff, but was obviously bored to tears with teaching it.

Trigonometry was also a special class that we requested, taught by the highly competent Mr. Gustafson, who was also the vice-principal.  His ability to intimidate with the turn of a phrase or a facial expression was legendary.  I doubt that he was anyone's favorite teacher.  To be fair, it was also an area where my ADD kicked in... in a big way.

I also had my first taste of empowerment and responsibility at ASM, while also learning that my actions could make a difference in the world.  We had a physics class, a subject that interested me a lot.  I can't remember the name of the teacher.  I do recall that he bore some resemblance to a poorly dressed walrus.  He also had a predilection for telling us more about how to make beer than explaining the laws of thermodynamics.  He also provided all the answers to tests BEFORE giving the tests.  I complained to the administration and he was fired.

Most of my other classes were enjoyable and I did well.

What advice do you have for teachers everywhere, who may have students in their classes who learn differently or have learning disabilities?

At this point I think that there are many learning styles AND there are also learning "disabilities".  I also think that there may be an ever widening "grey zone" between what we call disabilities and "learning differences".

An extreme example might be deafness and severe hearing impairment.  Most people with these challenges use sign language.  This in turn generates a "deaf culture".  However, you can say and imply things with ASL (American Sign Language) that you would have a darned hard time conveying verbally, just as "tone of voice" can be harder to convey with sign language (and there are some good arguments that even "tone of voice" information can be better related by ASL, as it uses LOTS of body and "facial" language).  So often "different" simply means "different" from the majority, not better or worse.  I have so much to say about this, to kids and adults, that, at this time, I'm going to limit this to just a few more remarks.

Humans are part of the animal kingdom.  In most of the animal kingdom, behaving, looking, smelling or acting different IN ANY WAY is "perceived" as dangerous.  So most animals will reject any of their members that do not CONFORM in every way.  I think that this is, in part, the root of all prejudice, racial and otherwise.  As a society, Americans are rapidly becoming more self-aware of this process of prejudice.  The choice that we are making more and more, is to embrace "diversity".

As a person who was perceived as "different" in so many ways, I am grateful for this progress.  One of my differences was my "ADD" way of taking in information, learning and behaving.  I think that teachers, parents and concerned adults can pass on what they learn about this to kids with and without ADD. [Editor's note: Imagiverse recommends reading works by Dr. Daniel Amen, Thom Hartmann and Richard Lavoie].

What is color-blindness and how does it affect your art work?

All color blindness is caused by the lack of certain color-receptors in the back wall of the eyeball.  "Normal" people don't have receptors for vast parts of the color spectrum.  "Color-blind" people have an even shorter spectrum.  Just like our hearing range may vary from person to person, with age and from other conditions.

I have the most common kind: red/green.  It's hereditary, through the mother, I think.  My mother is not color blind...  In my case, I can see red AND green, but:
· I can't see small dabs of color from a distance (like cherries on a cherry tree).
· Some light browns look green or gray.
· Some light reds look green or gray.

Color blindness is VERY common in males, and lots of people don't even know that they are color blind.  For me, it does not affect things like driving.  I can see light red, yellow and green.  A good friend of mine is has the same form of color-blindness and he was a commercial airline pilot for over 10 years, he and all his customers still live. :)

When I was 12, I learned that I was color-blind.  The worst part about being color-blind was my parents' insistence that I was NOT color-blind.  The message they gave me was that it was not OK to have a physical defect.  What I would have liked would have been an acknowledgement of my pain and hurt, and then help to move on... and some art lessons.  Even saying this now brings me close to tears.  Unfortunately, because I got so little support from my parents, I pretty much abandoned drawing around that time.  If you are a young artist and you have learned that you are color-blind, or if you have questions, you are welcome to contact me through Imagiverse.  Please do!

What was the best thing about being raised in different countries?

Well, cultural relativism for one thing...  I always feel like a stranger in the United States, and then like a stranger when I'm in Europe.  I only lived abroad for 6 or 7 years, but my parents and all their siblings are European.  All my cousins are first generation Americans.  In a way it's like having depth perception: you need your left eye AND your right eye to see depth, you need your European eye AND your American eye to see the world more deeply.  But if I had my choice, I would have preferred a European eye and an Asian eye.... maybe.

The best part of the USA is the mixture of people and ethnicities.

The best part of being raised in other countries was getting away from the USA...  So why am I here?  Because Portland is a little bit like San Francisco... it doesn't quite know that it is part of the Union.

What foreign languages do you know?  How important has knowledge of more than one language been to you?

I love language and its relationship to how we think.  A background in Latin, Italian, Spanish and French ties me more to the network of people around the world past and present.  Plus I get to laugh at the crummy subtitles at foreign movies.

Is dancing just a pastime or do you work at perfecting it like other skills or talents?

I dance for many reasons.  I love to dance, that's the main thing.  It's also a great way to "play with others" as an adult.  It's a great way to experience and have community.  It's fun to bring others "into the fold", so to speak.  It's wonderful exercise and does great things to release those little endorphins that we all need so badly.  It requires balance, coordination, cooperation, patience.  The music is great.

Do you take lessons?

I take group lessons and dance workshops.  I just finished my fourth dance workshop with one of the world's GREAT dance teachers, Richard Powers.  This past summer I went to one of the most recognized workshops in the world: Richard Powers' Waltz Week at Stanford University.

Do you give lessons?

Yes, I do, informally to friends and at dance camps.

What type of dance do you prefer?

Argentine Tango
Eclectic waltz
Lindy Hop
Irish Caeli dancing
Pretty much in that order

Why don't you like "ballroom dancing"?

Ballroom is extremely formulaic and non-improvisational.  Every step is rehearsed.  Ballroom dancing is the Olympics of dancing and is to real dancing what institutional food is to a four star restaurant.  It is very institutional and rule-bound.  I call ballroom dancing "dancing for people who don't like to dance", sort of like Reader's Digest is reading for people who don't like to read :)

Do you have any words of wisdom to share with the students reading this interview?

Finish college, go to college AT ANY COST.  Unless you have an extraordinary talent in business, sports or music, your chances at a good life are almost nil without a college education.  It does not matter if you have the equivalent of 10 degrees between your ears, a degree will tell people that you have some modicum of ability to hang in there.

Beyond that, my favorite dictum is my own, excuse the bad syntax:

"Nothing is what you think it's about."

Understand politics, even if you are an American, or... especially if you are an American.  Propaganda aside, your purpose in life is not to have children and leave it to them to "make a better world".  It is up to you to make a better world yourself.  Oh, and a better world is NOT one that maximizes the number of humans per square foot on the planet.

Let's see, what else:

Question authority.

Read 1984 a hundred times.  Well, ok, a few times.

Dance and play music.

Learn to cook, no matter what your sex, and learn about nutrition.

Drink LOTS of pure water.

Do not let yourself be ruled by shame.

Eschew fundamentalism in its million guises.

There is no such thing as "race" it is merely an outmoded, self-serving and empirically offensive and false construct, used by colonialists and empires throughout the ages.

Living with someone you love is much better than living alone, but anything is better than living with someone that you don't love.

READ BOOKS ALL YOUR LIFE: history, politics, the sciences... NOT just fiction.  When you do read fiction, read the real good stuff.  Reading periodicals and magazines does NOT make you an educated person.

If you have kids, remember that you are their parent, not their pal.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?

The immortal words of Robert Zimmerman: "... don't put down what you can't understand."

Also: "You can never get enough of what you don't really want."

And: "Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering."  Carl Jung

Ok, and one last one: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."  Steven Covey

Poliat Art Gallery

- 24 January 2004


Last Updated:
17 November 2014

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