Gerald McDermott in Paris

 Gerald McDermott in Paris

Friends Gerald McDermott and Doug Cushman. Photo credit: Angela Schellenberg

During one of the last times Gerald was here in Paris, we went off hunting for an oyster restaurant. We finally found one in the Quartier Montorgueil on Rue des Petits Carreaux. The owner shipped oysters from his own farm on the Brittany coast so they were guaranteed to be fresh. We ordered a plate of thirty-six and a bottle of Muscadet and savored each sweet shelled beauty. After staring at the empty platter for a few minutes we looked at each other and ordered another twenty-four. Coffee was taken and I asked for the check. I handed the owner the money and told him to keep the rest as a pourboire (a tip, but literally, “for a drink”). The owner brought over a bottle of Armagnac and poured us both — and himself — a drink. In our bumbling French Gerald and I learned about our host’s oyster beds and hometown. We stumbled out of the restaurant and into the Metro station, said our good-byes, and promised that we’d return soon for another grand plat des huitres.

Sadly, the restaurant has gone forever.

Sadly, so has Gerald.

Gerald McDermott died on December 26, 2012, in Los Angeles. He had been battling a long illness, deciding to convalesce in New Mexico at the edge of a Navajo reservation after his last trip to Paris, settle his affairs in L.A., and return to France in six months time. His body just gave out.

He was determined to live in Paris for good. In May 2012 he arrived here completely convinced he’d be here full time. When I went to see him at his temporary digs after the first couple days he’d arrived, the door was opened by Gerald. In a wheelchair.

I was flabbergasted. He’d been hobbling around on a cane the previous year during our oyster feast but I’d assumed he’d continue his physical therapy so he’d be a bit more mobile.

“Things didn’t turn out quite as I had hoped,” he said. “But I’m here.”

Paris isn’t the most wheelchair-friendly city on earth. For the next month I helped wheel him around Paris, grocery shopping, cashing travelers checks, buying art supplies, going out for meals and art shows. And looking for oyster restaurants.

We established a routine when I’d arrive in the early afternoon to help him run some errands. First we’d have a small glass of wine and plan what he needed to do for the day. Then I’d roll him out into the hallway in front of the elevator (a typical Parisian lift, barely big enough for one person and a baguette). He’d stand up, take two steps inside, take the folded wheelchair and close the door. I’d race three floors down the stairs and meet him just as the doors were opening. Upon returning, we’d reverse the routine and I’d wheel him back into his apartment.

All through the routine and the entire time out, Gerald always talked of what he’d do here in France.

“I’d like to go back to the south for a while,” he said. “I lived there a long time ago, after I got the Caldecott. I always thought I’d be back.”

He never complained about his handicap. He assumed he’d be back on his feet, more or less, and wander the streets of Paris, looking at her buildings, soaking up her museums, eating her cheeses, drinking her wine. He had a Frenchman’s love for wine, cheese, and saucisson.

Paris was going to be his inspiration for getting back to work. He began drawing on the cheap sketch pads I’d leave around the apartment before I left. Wild animals running hither and thither, images from his imagination. One he showed me was some sort of rodent in medieval clothing pulling a wheeled cart with another rodent riding in the back.

“Do you recognize it?” he asked. “That’s you…pulling me around in a wheelchair.”

One evening I took him to a gallery opening. We bundled him into a taxi and drove to a small gallery in Beaubourg, near Les Halles. Greeted as an honored guest, he held court with a small crowd of well-wishers, outshining the artist on exhibition. Gerald was surrounded by his Parisian friends.

We shared a lot of meals then. We’d gossip about all kinds of things: life, art, books, people we knew. He talked of his long mentorship with Joseph Campbell. During that time Gerald would bring his latest ideas and sketches to Campbell and they’d talk about what the focus should be on a particular passage in the myth. Afterwards, as Gerald would explain, “Joe would ask me if I wanted a drink, ‘straight up or ruined,’ he’d say.”

There was a history between us. I’d met him back in 1976 when I was apprenticing with Mercer Mayer. We saw each other during various stages of our lives, tumultuous relationships and careers, moving from Connecticut to California (me to Redding, him to Los Angeles), and our latest writing and illustrating projects. We’d meet at trade shows and conferences and swap stories, sharing a coffee in L.A., a glass of wine in Redding, or a margarita on Cinco de Mayo in San Diego.

He was a fighter, always in the midst of reinventing himself. In the shifting landscape of children’s literature, he shifted as well. Each myth he illustrated encapsulated the essence of each culture, but always with atypical mediums: pen and ink, pastel, colored pencil, watercolor, collage, fabric paint. He began as a filmmaker, then moved to picture books, and, in the last few years, theater.

It was when I moved to Paris that I saw another, deeper creative side to Gerald. He was researching a book, poking around the old rooms of the Musée de Cluny. He discovered, or rediscovered, Odilon Redon on a visit to the Musée d’Orsay. He experimented with some printmaking as well.

But most of all he was a storyteller. He was one of the few artists living that continued the venerable tradition of passing on the old stories from generation to generation. He captured the heart and soul of each myth he illustrated. His writing process was jotting down a few lines of the myth and then walking around the room reciting them over and over again, changing the words slightly here and there and listening to them until they was distilled down to only a few, grasping the heart of the myth in its simplest form. Then he’d create the art, borrowing symbols and images from the myth’s culture. But there would always be some part of Gerald in there, some wink or nod that said, “This is serious stuff, but not too serious. Let’s have some fun.”

My last e-mail from him was in October where he was convalescing with a view of the Sandia Mountains in his beloved New Mexico (“although I still can’t figure out why the Spaniards called them ‘watermelons,’” he wrote). He still looked forward to his “bonne vie Française.” He loved Paris, even with its lopsided sidewalks and inability to tolerate the handicapped. He felt at home there.

I’ll miss him.

And not only during the months with an “r.”

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About Doug Cushman

Author/illustrator Doug Cushman’s most recent book is Pigmares: Porcine Poems of the Silver Screen (Charlesbridge).

Comments

  1. I’m sorry I never knew Gerald, but thank you for this wonderful portrait through your artist’s eyes, Doug.

  2. A very beautiful and touching tribute to an artist whose work I admire and has inspired me immensely. I hope there is a Paris in heaven for Gerald and for the rest of us who are so lovingly addicted to this artful city.

  3. Thank you for this, Doug. Long ago, when I was a shadow puppeteer doing arts residencies in New Mexico, I’d use Gerald’s books to inspire children’s art and performances. It was an honor to spend time with him, years later, and it’s good to read your account of his enduring spirit and artistry.

  4. Sarah Lamstein says:

    So lovely to read this and be filled in on some of Gerald’s life. I last saw him several years ago in L.A. after many years of little contact. We were high school pals – I went with him to his senior prom. I loved his goofiness and later admired his talent and example in the world of children’s books.

  5. Dear Doug: What a tremendous loss. Gerald was so damn strong. It’s hard to believe how quickly the disease took over. Hope all is going well with you,
    Lee

  6. Doug, a very moving remembrance. Thank you. I was so sad to hear of Gerald’s death. I knew him only a little bit. One memorable day during a conference in Orlando Gerald came along with my wife and our then-only daughter to visit Disney World. I have a nice memory (and a nice, unexpected photograph) of all of us plummeting down Splash Mountain, each holding on in our own way.

  7. Ellen Mager says:

    Doug, what a wonderful remembrance of Gerald! I was so so to hear of his passing. Aside from being lucky enough to know him and his magnificent work, I was so happy to have him visit at Booktenders twice and share his talent and stories with children of all ages.. He will be missed.

  8. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Thank you so much for these memories, Doug. Like Paul, I didn’t know him well but after a couple of meals and and a short coastal walk during an exhibition opening weekend in Monterey, he felt like a friend. I suspect he had the gift of finding common ground with whomever he spoke. I remember talking about myth and storytelling, Paris vs. the south of France, creative process, and print reproduction. But also about the sacred and profane aspects of Facebook, some juicy industry gossip, and not being afraid to reinvent oneself.

  9. dammit G, too soon
    and too late for me to let you know!
    as always
    V

  10. I’m so sad…..didn’t realize GM died….I was a kindergarten teacher in Zuni when he visited my classroom to introduce “coyote”…I thought he was the most awesome artists and author in the world….now, 20 years later, teaching 1st grade in NY, I still have read all of his books every year since…and still teach my children about him, and tell them how he visited my classroom…he probably never knew how he touched me and my kids”……rip.

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