Thursday, December 18, 2008


He was born and raised in the slums of Boston, the son of Russian immigrants. When he was still a boy, his father died, leaving Apatoff the sole support for his family. He rode a battered bicycle around town after school seeking odd jobs, and he worked nights as a janitor. His childhood was grim and filled with challenges, but through it all he dreamed of becoming an artist.

He put himself through the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, working nights. Here is his portrait of a cleaning woman he admired.

After graduation, he went to Chicago where he set up an easel in his apartment and taught painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. He married an Iowa farm girl and had children, who he adored. This is his portrait of me when I was three:

Before long, Apatoff found himself with six children to support and a lot of bills to pay. He put aside his fine art aspirations and became an art director in an advertising agency. Politically radical, he ruefully recounted that now his job was to sell "candy to rot teeth, tobacco to rot lungs, televisions to rot minds, and liquor to rot livers."

Every once in a while his fine art yearnings managed to find an outlet in his commercial work, as in this sketch of a bicentennial bottle for the Miller Brewing Company.

When I was young, I loved to accompany him on Sunday trips to the art museum. He would stride into a huge room filled with grand baroque paintings, size up the room in ten seconds and growl, "they should bring a garbage truck around back and throw out every painting in this room except this one and that one." Then he would stride briskly on to the next room as I raced on my little legs to keep up. But driving home, he might stop the car for 10 minutes to revel in the color of paint on an industrial water tower illuminated in the afternoon sun. I never met a man with more anarchistic taste.

Now my father is gone forever. Today would have been his birthday and I miss him terribly. He sacrificed his own potential as an artist so that his kids could have a better life than he did.
He never expected anyone to see these paintings. I post them here to honor what he gave up for me, and to honor all those caught in the tug of war between art and life.


Anonymous denis said...

which is the technique for the first couple of portraits?
maybe oil colours thined with turpentine?
and god bless william.
merry christmas... if you want...

12/21/2008 7:59 AM  
Blogger exocubic said...

Thank you so much, David - for sharing your father's work, his story, and your love for him. A sad and beautiful telling, for which I am grateful.
(Tears to start a Sunday morning? Fantastic way to be shown I'm still human.)

12/21/2008 8:42 AM  
Blogger andreas said...

a "thank you" also from me.
thank you for sharing and thanks for making this blog work.

all the best and a great Christmas from germany

12/21/2008 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy the blog.

I like the nude painting by your Father.It has character which is often absent in figurative paintings.

Keep up the good work.

12/21/2008 7:12 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Denis. The picture of the cleaning woman was in oils-- the only example we have. His other oil paintings were lost or thrown away over the years, as our family moved or my father cleaned house, and his ambitions for art dwindled.

Merry Christmas to you, too, and happy holidays to all!

12/21/2008 8:59 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Exocubic, thank you for your kindness. I appreciate it.

Andreas, good to hear from you. Season's greetings to all in Germany!

Anonymous, thanks for your supportive comments

12/21/2008 9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, David. That was wonderful. And, it was great to see the work...that advertising stuff (from the 50's and early 60's, looks like) makes me yearn for earlier times. And, the fine art stuff is expressive and also of it's time (which, when you consider it includes the likes of Dorne and the like, is saying a lot).

Another great post.

ken meyer jr, who can never seem to remember his google password

12/21/2008 9:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gosh, David. What a poignant post. Choices such as his are one's that many parents have to face, but how sad so much of his work was lost. I too love the last portrait.

You seem much alike, the two of you.

What a wonderful thing to share with your readers. Thank you.


12/21/2008 10:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And what is "anarchistic taste" but thought, unencumbered by preconception, snobbishness, and political correctness?

Moving. In the words of the cliche, "thank you for sharing." It's obvious there's a lot of your father living still.

--Bob Cosgrove

12/21/2008 10:54 PM  
Blogger leemoyer said...

What a lovely post. "Head Shop" gave me an unexpected laugh. Was it an intentional joke or simply a client-pleasing accident?

Condolences on your father's physical absence, but I think it's wonderful that he left you such great work and memory.

Thanks for sharing his (and your) personal story.

12/22/2008 2:17 AM  
Blogger dfernetti said...

I also have lost my father, who taught me to draw even when he worked as a technical drafstman at the railway offices. Parents are very important in developing artistical tastes in their children!
My hat is off for Mr. Apatoff Sr.!

12/22/2008 8:43 AM  
Blogger Jack Ruttan said...

Cool reminisce. My mom was a painter, pretty formal and unhappy, but took me to galleries a lot, and other places. Never instructed or commented, just took me with her.

Once had to stop me from using the Claes Oldenberg giant soft hamburger as a trampoline.

12/22/2008 11:23 AM  
Blogger Kurt Ankeny-Beauchamp said...

David: your blog is one of the true gems for artists on the internet.

I understand now that the fine taste in art that drives the eclectic but always excellent posts here is largely informed by your father's.

Thank you, and thank him in a little prayer, will you?

12/22/2008 2:22 PM  
Anonymous Randy Pollak said...

Great, touching post, as others have said before me. Your father's struggles with being and artist versus being a family/working man echo in so many of us, certainly within me. As does the love between a father and son. Your post reminds me of the love I have for my parents and what they taught me about art and the love I have for my kids and what I may yet share with them. Thank you for your tribute to your dad.

12/22/2008 2:55 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Ken, you are close-- the advertising stuff is from the 70s. I understand that magic marker technology wasn't sufficiently advanced in the late 50s to do this kind of work. But it sure does evoke an earlier era, doesn't it? Thanks for your comment, and thanks, as ever, for reading.

Catherine, Bob and Kurt; yes, this post is a mighty personal one for me. Someday I hope to have even half of my father's understanding of art.

Leemoyer, that "head shop" sign caught my eye too. I am not sure what to make of it. I think there were a lot of mischievous and subversive artists trapped in those jobs, and they took pleasure from tiny acts of rebellion.

12/22/2008 6:55 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

dfernetti, I understand exactly where you are coming from. When I was ten, my father discovered me with a crow quill pen and a bottle of Higgins ink making scratchy, fine line pictures of barbarians with big muscles. He could have laughed and kept on walking, but instead he sat down with me and helped me step back and get the big picture.

12/22/2008 7:01 PM  
Blogger dfernetti said...

That's true, David, that's what a good parent must do: encourage!

12/23/2008 3:58 PM  
Blogger John Jacobsen said...

The paintings are lovely, especially the bottle and the right-hand-leaning nude. Thanks for sharing.

12/23/2008 7:27 PM  
Blogger Benjaminoo said...

Oh, the paintings are really great, so is the story.

12/24/2008 1:13 AM  
Anonymous larry said...

Thank you David for that beautiful tribute, and thank you William for sewing the seeds of art and intellect so that we who love Illustrationart get to savor the bounty of your legacy.

12/24/2008 8:36 AM  
Blogger Annamaria Nieves said...

I really enjoy reading your blog but haven't ever left a comment before but want to thank you for sharing and for your very moving tribute to your dad.

12/24/2008 6:23 PM  
Anonymous John C. said...

Your pops sounds like my kind of guy, David. He's obviously made a big impact on you, as well as through you, as you too have a keen eye, aren't afraid to be opinionated, have eclectic taste and are a great story-teller. Your blog is really a gem and I pass it on to everybody I meet who is interested in great pictures. Happy holidays! Update more often in '09 (please).

12/25/2008 2:48 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Randy, Larry and Annamaria, thanks so much for your reactions. I've written so many posts about wonderful talents who have come and gone, but this is the only post where I am the sole witness.

12/25/2008 11:03 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

John Jacobsen and Bejaminoo, thank you for your reactions to this art. I particularly like the bottle because he took it so far beyond the assignment. I guess he just couldn't stand to do another felt tip marker rough.

12/25/2008 11:19 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

John C, nothing would give me more pleasure than to update more often in 2009. I have a long list of subjects I'd love to get to. Unfortunately, my other responsibilities keep me from turning my attention to this more than once a week. Someday...

12/25/2008 11:28 AM  
Blogger Moai said...

I haven't commented here before, but I read and look forward to every post. Thank you for keeping such an inspiring and thought-provoking blog, and merry Christmas!

12/25/2008 6:52 PM  
Blogger Ricardo Betancourt said...

I've never left a comment on your blog before, but I check it regularly for the great post. This one was just to hart warming for me to no comment on. Thank you for sharing this post about your father, he was great artist but an even greater man. I would have loved to have a father like yours David. Thanks again for sharing.

12/26/2008 10:42 AM  
Anonymous John said...

Thank You for this heart warming story. Parents are the true heroes in the world.

12/27/2008 1:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that you are a fine testament to your father's love.

12/27/2008 9:46 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks to all for your kind remarks. I am surprised and genuinely touched by your reactions.

12/28/2008 4:04 AM  
Anonymous Nkolika Anyabolu (MD) said...

Just came across this post and was drawn to it immediately. Never knew you were talking about your dad until the end...........

Like dfernetti said earlier; parents play a very pivotal role in the development of the artist in children. And they get to sacrifice a lot for them too.

I am very glad you got to understand and appreciate what your dad did for you and the rest of your family. In that way, his sacrifice was not in vain.

Thank you for sharing a piece of you and may the dreams of your dad continue to live through you.

12/29/2008 3:05 AM  
Blogger Josh Sheppard said...

What a great elegy:
" I post them here to honor what he gave up for me, and to honor all those caught in the tug of war between art and life. "
The World would be a better place if more parents (artists or not) would have the guts to see how much more important their children's young lives are than anyone's personal ambition.
Your dad sounds like he knew what was important, no matter how difficult. Thanks for posting this. Happy New Year.

12/31/2008 3:20 AM  
Blogger SREERAM said...

i am an artist and my dad was one.. I live in Madras, south India and you managed to touch me across time and distance.

4/14/2011 1:55 PM  

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