My Father, the Outsider Artist by
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My Father,  the Outsider Artist 

My father Arthur was a wise and quite a wonderful guy,  but I don’t remember him doling out wisdom or advice very often.  Rather he taught by example – he was a man of integrity,  warmth,   and an overwhelming kindness,  although he also had some rather annoying idiosyncrasies!    (See  Saying Farewell to a Special Guy,    My Dad and the Word Processor,   Six Pack   and  My Blessings)

However there was one thing he did tell us repeatedly –  “Do what you love and do it passionately.”

In fact he himself loved doing a variety of things and he did them all passionately.  Medicine was his profession and he loved practicing it with no intention of retiring,  even after he turned 80,  a fact that was much to my mother’s regret –   she envied all their happily retired friends who were able to freely travel.  But of course she wouldn’t – and couldn’t – dissuade my dad from doing what he passionately loved to do.

And my dad also loved classical music,  and following his own advice,   pursued it with a passion.   He not only amassed a vast collection of classical LPs,  but was a self-taught pianist and played Beethoven and Chopin by ear.   In my mind’s eye I can still see him sitting at our Knabe baby grand,  his fingers moving over the keys and his beautiful music filling all the rooms of the house.

And my father was also passionate about making art,  although it was my mother who was the trained artist in the family.   Art had been her college major,  she then studied at New York’s renown Art Students League,  and later taught art in high school.   (See Still Life , Art Imitates Life)

But at some point my father,  who always loved to doodle and sketch,  decided to try his hand at oil painting and made several lovely street scenes and landscapes.


He also began making what he called his “constructions”.  He started collecting found and discarded objects that he used to make models of famous buildings and structures he built in a little workshop in our basement.  Although truth be told,  the objects he used weren’t always found or discarded – some he unapologetically confiscated!!  (See My Beloved Basement)

My dad was very proud of his constructions,  but they became a minor bone of contention between my parents.  He wanted to display them all over the house,   and although my mom found a spot for one or two of them – they were all rather large –  she insisted the others remain in the basement.   He relented,  but whenever friends or family visited my dad invariably invited them down to the basement to see his artworks.   They would shower him with praise for his talent and creativity,  while I must confess my mother,  my sister,  and I usually rolled our eyes.

Then one day the hospital administrator where my dad was on staff invited him to exhibit his constructions in the hospital library.  The exhibit was billed as  “outsider art”  which by definition is original art created by an untrained,  self-taught,  idiosyncratic artist –  my dad exactly!

During the two weeks the exhibit was mounted,  my dad walked around with a huge grin,  and prized the written comments left by visitors who admired his work.

We have one of my father’s pieces in our apartment – a 3-foot long model of an iconic cable-stayed suspension bridge,  and like all the constructions he had entered in that exhibit,  he had used a label maker to identify it.

Not only was my dad passionate about all he did – as he advised us to be –  he was also scrupulously honest.  And so not to mislead anyone who saw it,  he had labeled our piece   “BROOKLYN BRIDGE – REPLICA!


– Dana Susan Lehrman

Profile photo of Dana Susan Lehrman Dana Susan Lehrman
This retired librarian loves big city bustle and cozy country weekends, friends and family, good books and theatre, movies and jazz, travel, tennis, Yankee baseball, and writing about life as she sees it on her blog World Thru Brown Eyes!

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Tags: Outsider Art, Fathers
Characterizations: funny, moving, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    This is a lovely paean to your amazing dad, Dana. Thank you for sharing it and I hope it also gives you joy to share it.

    But, mainly, what an incredible artist he was! Those constructions are just amazing — and his label on the Brooklyn Bridge is priceless. Where are all his constructions now? (I’d be sorely tempted to acquire one myself, but I, too, have space issues.)

    Incidentally, at our recent reunion one of my classmates/pals gave yours of the “Outsider Art” collection that he had amassed and recently given to the Harvard Arts Museum. So I now consider myself at least a dilettante in the genre.

    • Thanx John, we have only my dad’s Brooklyn Bridge (Replica!), my sister had one – his best I think, a lighthouse that he wired to actually light up!
      And a few relatives may have some, but I must admit when it fell to me to handle their house after both my parents had died, I simply discarded many.

      But the two canvases you see I have on my walls. (Priceless were his doodles but I have none of those, alas!)

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for sharing your dad with us, Dana. He really did take his own advice seriously, following his passions to their limit, and quite well. I know many a man who, well along in life, never retires (those like lawyers or doctors who can work for themselves). If they have their health, why not?

    But to be self-taught in music and the fine arts is something else again. It seems you dad was really good at those too, based on the examples you’ve shared with us. I love the label he gave to his Brooklyn Bridge. He really had talent! So glad you saved some of his work.

  3. Marian says:

    Your dad did it all, Dana, and did it with skill and passion as you say. What a privilege to grow up in a house with music and art. And it’s cool that your dad practiced medicine because he loved it so much.

  4. What an amazing and interesting Dad!! To have so many diverse interests and to be so successful at them, especially in being self taught, takes my breath away. As a parent I always try to be a model for my children (not always successfully, according to them). It seems like you Dad was highly successful in that, as you so wonderfully shared.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    I am in awe of your dad’s passion and talents. What an inspiration. His advice reminds me of the old saying, “do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Your father was a man of many talents and interests. I love his outsider art. What a wonderful example he was to you.

  7. Suzy says:

    As you say, your father was a Renaissance man! I wonder how many doctors are also artists and musicians – I would bet that it’s very few! The examples of his art that you show us are amazing, and you are lucky to have some of them still. I love that Brooklyn Bridge, and of course the fact that he felt the need to label it a replica is adorable! Thanks for this great story!

  8. Your dad sounds a bit like mine, Dana. My dad was a surgeon who took four tries to get the retirement thing to stick. He was also a talented musician, although one who had a fair amount of training. But art? No way. The pictures you include of your dad’s work are fascinating. Especially the replica Brooklyn Bridge. Marvelously done, and it’s wonderful to have something tangible to remember him by. I’ve spoken to my sons ’til they’re bored to tears about the notion of “touching heritage”. Your dad’s constructions made that possible for you.

    • Thanx Tom, I’m not the sentimental type and after my parents were gone I discarded pieces of art by both of them.

      But some things I’ll never part with including a simple white handkerchief with red hearts that my mother sent when I was living afar and – she wisely sensed – in an unhappy relationship.

      And of course I can’t part with my father’s Brooklyn Bridge!

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    I am amazed that anyone can teach themselves the piano! And also was a sculptor and painter. I find it hard to imagine how such a brain is wired. Your dad proves my thesis that artists just don’t see the world like us normies do.

    • Thanx for your thoughts Dave.
      I realize in a way my dad lived a bit in his own world as perhaps artists do.

      He worked in our house, his medical office on the first floor, and I remember often he’d come upstairs after his last patient in the afternoon, sit down at the piano and play – lost in the music until my mother called us to the table for dinner.

  10. Kathy Porter says:

    Loved the illustrations. Your dad sounds like someone who was talented at many things. Many people regard themselves as musicians or artists, but it seems that your dad really was.

  11. Susan Bennet says:

    Over the years I’ve observed there’s a stunning correlation between scientists/physicians/mathematicians and musical interest and ability. Relatives of mine played piano by ear. But for your father to teach himself to play classical piano…extraordinary. Of course his greatest connection was that of his heart and his patients and family, surely. What a gift to have such positivity and enthusiasm in your household growing up. Every family needs a sunny presence!

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