Article in Maine Times


Travels with Edgar: "And now, a few words with Pranas Lapé"

by Edgar Allen Beem

     "The other night," wrote multi-media malcontent Andy Rooney, syndicated columnist, star of 60 Minutes, and author of the current bestseller And More, "we had Pranas Lapé, an old friend, to dinner and I got thinking afterwards that he's one of the best conversationalists I know."

     Good conversationalists are hard to come by these days so we perked up when Rooney reported, "Pranas lives a monastic existence on the coast of Maine, painting huge canvases of abstract art and living off the fish he catches, the vegetables he grows and the mushrooms he finds in the woods."

     Checking through our newly-acquired library of Maine telephone directories, we found a listing for a Pranas Lapé in Chamberlain, a little hamlet on the Pemaquid peninsula between Round Pond and New Harbor. As soon as we placed the call, we knew we had our man. As Mr. Rooney had warned, "He uses the English language with great directness but with very little regard for traditional grammar." "The postmaster will be knowing where to find me," said Mr. Lapé, concluding his directions.

     A few days later when we arrived at the Chamberlain post office, we inquired after Mr. Lapé (pronouncing it to rhyme with "tape") and were told by the postmaster that Mr. Lapé (pronounced to rhyme with "today") lived in the redwood cottage just up the road between the two log cabins. The redwood cottage sat back from the road on a little wooded rise that affords the artist a nice view of the misnamed Long Cove, a short inlet that gives out on the open Atlantic.

     The Pranas Lapé who greeted us at the door gave the appearance of being something of an old roué, possibly the prototype for a Giacometti sculpture. The various parts of his body seemed charmingly out of proportion with one another. His head, topped with longish iron grey hair and graced with a trim silvery mustache, seemed to belong to a much smaller torso and his long legs to a much taller man. Possibly it was the silk scarf at the neck that spoke of the roué for otherwise he was dressed in the casual manner of a country gentleman, wool plaid shirt, beige cable-knit cardigan, inky blue corduroys, and leather boots. As it turned out, Mr. Lapé pronounces his name to rhyme (roughly) with "floppy." The accent mark, when used, is not French, but Lithuanian.

     Pranas Lapé was born 61 years ago [1921] on the flat farmland plains of Lithuania. Over huge mugs of hot coffee and thick tuna fish sandwiches, he began to trace the accidents of history that led him to wintry Chamberlain.

     Lapé was a high school student when the Russians annexed Lithuania in 1940. It was then that he first experienced "the brutal lie" of communism.

     "There was one incident," Lapé recalled, "so vivid that I had dreams about it many times. I was having a final exam in history, a verbal exam before a commission. I had been called, just standing there waiting for the first question. Suddenly the door blew open and in came a guy in a leather jacket followed by two Russian soldiers. He said he was looking for a certain young teacher. The director of the school objected, 'You must have written proof before you can arrest.' The guy in the leather jacket pulled out a gun and said, 'This is my proof.' When they took the teacher from school, they jerked him out the door and his hat fell off on the floor. It just rocked there for a minute and then stopped. It was unreal. Kafkaesque. All that was left of this man was his hat on the floor. He and 30,000 people were rounded up that day and shipped to Siberia never to be heard from again. I remember looking at that hat on the floor and vowing that I was never going to be caught like that.

     "The Russians tried to teach us that everything we thought was right was wrong," Lapé explained. "People were arrested and disappeared. It was very, very tough. The Russians said they were eliminating the bourgeoisie, but that was a big laugh. There was no bourgeoisie. At least the Germans didn't try to indoctrinate us."

     In 1944, when Lithuania was "liberated" by the Germans, Lapé was taken, along with 500 of his countrymen, as a "slave-worker" to help build an airstrip above the Polar Circle in Finland. After the Finns capitulated, the Germans departed and the Lithuanian workers were incorporated into the German air force.

     "We are given spare Luftwaffe uniforms," Lapé recalls. "They were all patched up. It was very macabre. You could see where the man who wore the uniform before had been killed. We used to joke about 'Where were you hit?' and that we were safe because lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place."

     Lapé and about 20 other Lithuanians became part of the German 66th Battalion, a unit made up predominantly of anti-Hitler German Catholics from Cologne, and they were sent to Norway. Between Finland and Norway, many Lithuanians managed to escape, but Lapé was suffering from water on the kneee and could not flee.

     By April, 1945, however, Lapé and a friend were ready to make a break for freedom. With help from the local underground, they obtained Norwegian military maps which indicated friendly farmhouses and those that belonged to pro-Nazi quislings and headed into the mountain passes between Norway and Sweden.

     "We decided it was better to die in the mountains," says Lapé.

     Lapé's flight to freedom took two weeks. After making his way through the melting snows of the mountains, he finally found himself, tired, cold and hungry, at the shores of a half-frozen lake that formed the border between Norway and Sweden. In order to dry their clothes and in horror of attracting the Swedish border patrol, Lapé and his companion built a big fire, but no one showed up. Then they discover a four-oared rowboat and set out across the lake.

     "I was completely gone and couldn't walk anymore," says Lapé, "but my arms were strong."

     It took Lapé 12 hours to row across the lake to safety. During this time he fortified himself by eating a can of lard.

     Between 1945 and 1950, Lapé lived in Stockholm, working first in a ceramics factory, but soon establishing himself as an artist, teacher, illustrator, and muralist. Upon first arriving in Sweden, he applied for a visa to go to the United States, but by the time his visa came through, he had no real reason to leave.

     "It was really just one remark that made me come to America," Lapé explains. "My friends gave me parties and tried to talk me out of going. Then this one guy, who had been to the United States, started saying what a stupid, backward country it was and that I was going to get lost over there. We got into a pretty heated argument and I said, 'How can you talk like that about a country that saved you twice, in World War I and World War II?' That's when I decided I had to go and see for myself."

     When he first came to this country, Lapé lived in New York City and worked for a commercial art studio. His introduction to Maine came about quite by accident — literally. While traveling with a visiting Swedish youth soccer team, Lapé cracked a vertebra in an auto accident. While recuperating in a full body cast, he met a man in New York who owned a cottage in Chamberlain, Maine just across the cove from where Lapé now lives.

     "Why don't you go up to Maine and rest?" his friend suggested.

     "What is Maine?" Lapé asked. But soon he and a friend were driving north through a blizzard.

     "When we arrived," says Lapé, "the little bridge to the other side of the cove had washed out so we had to walk around. It was dark so I couldn't see much, but when I woke up the next morning and looked outside, I said, 'This is the place I want to live."

     For the next five summers, Pranas Lapé returned to use his friend's cottage. Eventually he purchased a place of his own in New Harbor, but that cottage proved too small so he bought his present prefab redwood home about 10 years ago [1970] and added the north light painting studio which is rapidly becoming too small itself.

    Until four years ago, Lapé only came to Maine summers. He worked during the school year as an art teacher at Thomas School in Rowayton, Connecticut. There he met Marge Rooney, Andy's wife, who was also on the faculty. The dinner party and prandial conversation which Rooney reported in his column ("The lost art of conversation," Bangor Daily News, January 5, 1983) took place on a holiday visit to Rowayton between Christmas and New Year's. The Rooneys are old friends, but Lapé is sometimes dismayed at the negative tone of Andy Rooney's celebrated complaints. Like many people who have experienced repression first hand, Lapé has little tolerance with criticism of the U.S. (though he is not at all pleased with Ronald Reagan). In fact, he recently wrote a letter to his old friend asking whether Rooney could imagine doing 60 Minutes in Moscow.

     Lapé left the Thomas School a few years ago during a period of administrative turmoil and turnover. From Connecticut, Lapé went to teach at the Belmont Hills School outside Boston, but he soon became discontented.

     "While I was teaching," he explains, "I always kept my painting untouchable, something in the corner of my soul untouched. Then suddenly, I realized that if I waited any longer, it was going to be too late."

     Thus, four years ago, Lapé dropped everything to come to Maine and paint.

     "I have never liked Pranas' paintings," Andy Rooney confesses, "but I think that's more my shortcoming than his. I simply don't understand the ideas he's trying to express with his shapes and colors. I've never dismissed him as a painter, though, because I assume he has as many good ideas when he's painting as when he's talking."

     But Rooney hasn't seen Lapé's paintings since he moved permanently to Maine. The paintings the broadcaster didn't like were probably the pure abstractions Lapé was doing in the 1950s and 1960s, but Rooney was right not to dismiss them if they can be judged by the powerful painting hanging in Lapé's living room. The painting is a hard edge abstraction showing a large blue wing-like shape containing a red half-circle against a green background. It is a handsome, mental construction.

     These days, however, Lapé's painting has become more spontaneous and less calculated. Abstract painters don't last long on the coast of Maine. The unique quality of light in Maine, coupled with the overpowering reality of the coastal environment, tends to lead a painter back to nature. Pranas Lapé's newest paintings are, in his words, "not really abstract in any way." They are natural abstractions based on the study and observation of shore debris, particularly the sea-rounded stones of the Pemaquid beaches. And he has all but banished color in favor of turp-thinned blacks, greys, and whites.

     "Why should I use color?" Lapé muses. "Everything at the shore is bleached out to blacks and whites and greys."

     Lapé says that he is led by the changes in nature to paint his feelings about what he sees. On first view, his stark canvases appear to have much in common with the black and white gestural abstractions of Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, but upon closer scrutiny, rock and driftwood forms emerge, murky sea greens creep in, and the dramatic canvases coalesce, revealing their visual bonds to the real world.

     Currently, Lapé is kept busy preparing for a show at the Galerija in Chicago next fall and preparing illustrations for a volume of the deathly poetry of Lithuanian poet Algimantas Mackus.

     Lapé's views on art are strong. "Art is a secret," he says, and then paraphrases philosopher Benedetto Croce to the effect that "Art exists between what is said and what is understood." But if his views on art are strong, his views on art eduction are stronger.

     "Art teaching in college," he insists, "is a breeding ground for mediocrity. Art is unteachable. You can teach technical things and you can teach how to see, but art is a completely different thing. Art schools should disappear. Artists should be taught by other artists. You should do it on your own. Read, go to museums, and work. Yes, I am very skeptical about art schools. That is why I liked teaching high school. You can still form something at that point."

     From a stack of paintings and art supplies, Lapé produces a scratch board Nativity scene done years ago by a fifth grader.

     "Now that's a terrific thing!" he exclaims. And he is right. Chagall would have been pleased to create such an ingenuous image.

     As though to cement his views on art education, Lapé then asks, "Can you become a hero by going to school? If so, I will start a school for heroes. I will teach the history of heroes, heroism, and heroica. After four years the students will receive a piece of paper certifying them as heroes." His laughter is high-pitched, but wise, not malicious.

     Pranas Lapé seems to be a man who has found his place in this world, a beautiful place where his subject matter is just underfoot, the sea full of mackerel, flounder, and blue fish at his door, and the forest retreats into the backyard.

     "I have no savings, no pension, no nothing," Pranas Lapé says. "I don't know how I live, but these are the happiest days of my life. I am finally doing what I always wanted to do."

     Andy Rooney's criteria for the best conversationalists are "people whose stories or ideas have a definite beginning and a definite ending. The bores are the ones who talk on and on without ever making a point." So we asked Pranas Lapé why he thinks he is such a good conversationalist. Naturally, he came right to the point.

     "Probably," he says,"because I don't talk quite a lot."

[Note: The two photographs by Stephen Nichols accompanying the article, one of the artist in his studio and the other of him on the rocky seashore, do not appear as they are too fuzzy in the photocopies to reproduce.]