Tom Buechner and the Last “Friday Night Portrait Group”

Posted by Jeff Perrault


In October of 2009 I was offered the chance to be a member of Tom Buechner’s Portrait Group. The class met Friday nights, October through May in Tom’s studio. Each month there was a new model and Tom offered instruction on portrait painting. Typically Tom would himself paint, taking frequent breaks to walk around and offer instruction to the class as they worked on their own versions. Some members had been with him for over twenty years.

May was to be the last month before a summer break when Tom moved outside for plein-aire landscapes. He hired a model named Katya, an attractive young woman from Russia. That first Friday in May we walked into his studio to find he’d posed her in a gold and blue French chair wearing a long black dress with a large silver and ruby pendant around her neck. She looked like a Russian princess.

Tom’s routine during class was for the model to pose twenty-five minutes with short breaks of five minutes, then about halfway through there was a long break of fifteen minutes. Class size could be five or fifteen depending on, among other things, the weather. Opera was played and its theme sometimes had to do with the model’s cultural background or costume. For Katya he played a Russian opera. When he asked if anyone knew the famous opera being played I hazarded a guess at “Peter and the Wolf”, a guess which earned me a stern look.

During the long break we would all gather in Tom’s study just off the studio and there would be a discussion, gently directed by Tom, about art related topics. The talk might be about an opening at West End Gallery, or about various artists he had known, or about painting techniques. During one long break we heard about his recent trip to France, and about the years he had lived there after WWII.

During THIS break Katya was leaning against the wall and someone asked her about her background. She was nineteen, having moved to the US three years earlier from Siberia. This prompted Tom to tell a story about his first trip to Russia…

As I remember it he said it was during the early 70s at the height of the Cold War. There was a cultural exchange to Moscow? that he was a part of, and he found himself on a train traveling through the vast expanse of northern Russia. It was a very long train with many passenger cars – all of them empty. Then at a stop some Finn businessmen got on. They had a large amount of luggage with them that they brought into the cars, and their luggage was absolutely packed with nothing but liquor. So Tom in the spirit of cultural exchange accepted their many toasts to his health, and toasted them back.

In a short period of time Tom was, as he put it, properly anesthetized.

The train pulled into a station, still in the middle of nowhere, and he was surprised to see hundreds of people celebrating outside. Apparently it was Victory Day (May 9th), the day the Soviets celebrated the surrender of Nazi Germany. The crowds outside his window were laughing and dancing and drinking. In order to get a better view he went, rather unsteadily, to the door of the car and stood looking over the crowds enjoying the scene. But then the train abruptly lurched forward. As Tom held the car’s railing to steady himself, the train puffed down the track a hundred yards then stopped again.

Here Tom found himself in the middle of a Soviet Army camp. Now instead of hundreds of villagers celebrating in front of him he saw thousands of Soviet soldiers, all drinking and singing and dancing just like the previous crowd. For a moment Tom looked on bemused at the “enemy” carousing in front of him, then one of the soldiers looked up. “An American!”, one shouted in surprise, then the roar went up “An American!”. “Look! They’ve brought us an American for May Day!”  Before he knew it Tom said they’d snatched him from the train’s door and were passing him overhead on their shoulders.

We asked him if he was scared or if he struggled to get back to the train. He said “no” he was way beyond being scared or struggling. Thanks to the “cultural exchange” earlier, Tom said he was pretty relaxed as they passed him forward into the Army camp, just vaguely wondering where they were taking him.

They took him to a great army hall at the end of which was a huge dais where all the officers were seated. Tom said he entered the hall, still on Soviet shoulders, to cries of “An American! An American!” He was passed up to the dais where a Russian general stood to meet him. They set him down on the dais in front of the general and the hall grew quiet. The general was wearing the high Russian army dress hat, he had large gold epaulets on each shoulder and his chest was covered with medals from the Great War. Then there, in front of everyone he bowed to Tom, addressing him in perfect (if antique) French, welcoming him to the camp. Tom, a bit unsteadily, bowed back and a roar went up in the hall. Tom now found himself the guest of honor at a Russian Victory Day celebration. He said he would have stayed but his Russian ‘handlers’ who had been frantically trying to win him back, made excuses for him and he was ushered back to the train.

Story over we went back to work.

Tradition has it that at the end of May there is a dinner of students and teacher. This year because of his illness Tom wasn’t able to attend, and by this time the members of the group knew it was the end of the Friday Night Portrait Group. Around the table each artist related stories of how they had entered the group. As I said before, some of them had been with Tom for over twenty years.  Each artist has many stories to remember of Tom, many happy moments, many moments when together they had discovered some way to make better art. Tom touched innumerable lives in a very positive manner.

My own last memory is something I’ll cherish. I’d made an appointment with him to critique my paintings for the Arnot Art Museum ‘Framed’ show. It was an early morning appointment. I knew he was working on a commission and that he didn’t feel well so I tried to keep it short, but Tom told me was happy to take a break and sit down. The critique was about thirty minutes. I was in a hurry to get back and correct the paintings, so I didn’t stay long . As I was leaving his studio I thanked Tom for helping me, but he then thanked ME for letting him critique them.

He was a gentleman and a teacher to the end. Thanks Tom.

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5 Responses to Tom Buechner and the Last “Friday Night Portrait Group”

  1. judy birch says:

    Marty: I enjoyed reading this entry. In my living room in Louisville, Kentucky are six of your paintings, two of Tom Gardners and one Buechner – – significant work to stay with me from my 20+ years in Corning. The largest is your oil (a farm w/little boy) on the vaulted wall over the fireplace, the room was planned to compliment the painting. Your work is my preference, but I’m always aware of Buechner’s influence. I met him when I was 27 and new in Corning at an intimidating dinner party (Amo’s) – – he asked to sit next to me after I said something rather brazen about Steuben and had no idea he was President at the time. Always, he left one with an impression as bold as his paintings. I know this must be a life altering experience for you, this loss. Thinking of you today. jbirch

  2. westendtalk says:

    My portrait of Katya can be found on my blog at http://jperrault.blogspot.com/

  3. Bridget says:

    Thank you for this Jeff.
    So many great memories . . .

  4. Elisa says:

    What a wonderful tribute. I am forwarding your article to my daughter who was fortunate to be one of the “subjects” for the Friday Night Portrait Group. We have photographs of each painter standing with his or her interpretation of her.

    What sorrow you must all have.

  5. Kathryn Cummings says:

    dear jeff,
    Your artical articulated so much information about the structure and doings of the Friday Night Portrait Class, it made me think that one can re-imagine the past with delight and gratitude. In the photo I reacted to Tom’s sober expression as he inquired as to why I had 5 fingers and a thumb on one of Katya’s hands! I am working on a portrait and now I am going to return to it. I am lucky to have Tom’s comments in my head.

    Kathy

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