Honoring Our Teachers
by James Mauch of Lewisburg, PA
All of us are teachers. We can’t help but teach others through our words, actions, and by example. I work with undergraduate, graduate, and returning adult students seeking to become professionally licensed teachers, so I am intimately acquainted with the path one needs to take to become a practicing teacher licensed by the state of Pennsylvania. I spend the majority of my time teaching my students about content, pedagogy, educational technology, effective lesson planning, assessment, regulations, No Child Left Behind legislation, and an increasingly complex myriad of skills and abilities that new teachers are expected to demonstrate in the twenty-first century classroom. I also devote an important, but seemingly ever diminishing, amount of time to discussing with my students the (to me) more important aspects of the profession: a love of subject, a love of teaching, compassion for students, the importance of instilling within our students a love for pursuing knowledge, and the importance of a literate democratic society not afraid to question. Often, our discussions lead us to several related philosophical questions: What makes a great teacher? Do great teachers somehow possess some innate abilities, or can the characteristics of great teaching be learned?
I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. I do, however, believe that one attribute that makes someone a great teacher is his or her ability to help us along our paths to becoming self-reliant and independent. Elementary school teachers (and our parents) help us to learn our letters and numbers, helping us along the path to become independent readers, thinkers, and problem solvers. Middle school and high school teachers help us to learn about science, history, mathematics and other subjects, helping us along the path to become independent learners and just plain independent by giving us the skills we need to secure a job. I also believe that graduation from a four-year institution with a degree in education does not automatically make for a great, or even good, classroom teacher, nor is the converse true – that the only great teachers out there are the ones that never went to school to learn how to become one. I believe that there exist many great practicing teachers, some of who deliberately set out to become one and others who may have never graduated from college but are none-the-less excellent and capable teachers. I would hazard a guess that many readers of Small Farmer’s Journal know more than one teacher who falls within this latter category. My grandfather, and artist and author Eric Sloane, were two such teachers.
I was introduced to the work of Eric Sloane (Connecticut, 1905-1985) through my grandfather, Alfred Erwin. My grandfather owned several books by Sloane, and thought highly of Sloane’s ability to document the architecture and material culture of the early American. I readily recognized within Eric’s books his reverence for the early American landscape and the spirit, individualism, and “doing for oneself” exhibited by most Americans – the same attributes exhibited by my grandfather, though I would also add kindness, generosity, patience, and love.
Born to a wealthy New York family in 1905, Eric’s real name was Everard Jean Hinrichs. His adolescent years likely appeared carefree to outside observers – private tutors, a brief stint at a Bordentown (New Jersey) military school, and summers at the family place on Lake Hopatcong (New Jersey). Sloane credited two neighbors – illustrator Herman Roundtree and typeface designer Fred Goudy – with inspiring him to begin to consider art as a vocation. Sloane convinced his father to send him first to the Art Student’s League of New York City, then to the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, then to Yale to continue the formal study of art. Sloane experienced academic failure at all three institutions, though he did credit his time at the Art Student’s League with inspiring him to change his name to “Eric Sloane.” While a student with the Art Student’s League in the early 1920’s, Eric overheard a conversation between two teachers, George Luks and John Sloan, in which they extolled the virtues of painting under an assumed name until such time that a painter was satisfied with his work, then switching to his given name. The idea was that a successful artist would not be haunted by earlier, and presumably inferior, works of art. Eric later wrote that he intended only to borrow Sloan’s last name (adding an e “just to be different”), but he was known as “Eric Sloane” throughout his career.
Between 1922 and 1925, Eric’s world began to unravel. His mother died in November of 1922, and his father ordered his aunt to leave the house. Arguments between Eric and his father intensified. Older brother George moved out of the house to begin a landscaping business, and sister Dorothy later described the Hinrichs household as taking on an “unstable atmosphere” at the time. In an attempt to bring order to the household, the elder Hinrichs hired and fired a succession of household servants – the last one, however, he thought fit to marry after six months of employment. For Eric’s part, he began to leave the house for longer and longer periods of time, making his way across New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as making brief forays into the New England states. By 1925, however, Eric packed his bags and left the Hinrichs home for the last time.
An older Eric Sloane would credit his departure as the event that launched his career and provided him with a life long interest in lettering, illustration, writing, and painting. Essentially, he stole the family’s Model T Ford and started west with no particular destination in mind. He earned money by lettering signs and menus for businesses along the way, and filled page after page of his sketchbook with illustrations of barns, fields, old farm houses, covered bridges, the Amish, clouds – little escaped his attention. He ended up in Taos, New Mexico, sketching scenes of the American Southwest and conducting tours of Taos for tourists. He did eventually return to New York with his first of what would be six wives to assist his ailing father. He was able to reconcile with the elder Hinrichs, only to see him die of a heart attack in 1929. It took two years to settle the Hinrichs estate and, due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, Eric Sloane was left with nothing.
The personal and professional life that Eric Sloane built from a beginning that already would make for a fascinating biography is nothing short of remarkable. In his lifetime he would become a successful author, pen and ink illustrator, and professional oil painter. He wrote and illustrated World War II-era flight training manuals, flew with Wiley Post, became one of the first, if not the first, artists to paint clouds (Sloane called them “cloudscapes” – Amelia Earhart bought his first one), created a working model of the atmosphere for the American Museum of Natural History of New York, studied meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, executed a 75’ x 58.5’ mural on the west wall of the Independence Avenue entrance to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and later divided his time between Connecticut and New Mexico, painting the American Southwest in his Connecticut studio and New England in his studio at Taos. In 1969 he donated his extensive early American tool collection to the state of Connecticut, launching the Sloane-Stanley Museum of Kent, Connecticut.
It all sounds so unrelated – airplanes to tools. But Eric explained it all as seamless, meaningful, and above all, purposeful. His love of black and white illustration and fine lettering born from an admiration of Roundtree and Goudy led to an invitation from the Army Air Corps to illustrate flight manuals. His association with aviation led him to begin to draw and paint aircraft to sell to pilots – some illustrations I have seen are quick and rendered in an almost comic style, other paintings I have seen are extremely dramatic portrayals of a lone aircraft flying just above the cloud ceiling at twilight. His association with the early pilots who flew in and out of Roosevelt Field on Long Island led him to befriend Wiley Post, who encouraged him to begin to paint “cloudscapes” – large, dramatic paintings of clouds and storms. When he completed his first one, he feared it would not sell as it not only depicted a scene that so few had experienced, but it also depicted a violent thunderstorm from a pilot’s perspective. Amelia Earhart bought it shortly after it was hung for sale in the Roosevelt Inn.
Sloane’s early interest in aviation and clouds led him to begin to think about studying meteorology at MIT, but as Sloane tells it, the course work was too laden with mathematics and complex formulas. What he wanted, he told his professor, was what he felt was missing from the MIT classes – romance in the weather. His professor responded that if it was romance he was seeking, Sloane was much better off reading old farm diaries than taking courses. Not knowing if his professor was serious or not, Sloane dropped out of MIT and began collecting early New England farm diaries.
Reading these diaries as he was surrounded by the Connecticut countryside, Eric Sloane found the romance he was searching for. He recognized in those diaries the voices of 18th and 19th century New Englanders: resourceful, hard-working, self reliant, and independent. He recognized manifestations of these attributes still in existence in the landscape that surrounded him: barns and houses built for many generations, carefully laid stone walls, and of course the ubiquitous farm that seemed to be the symbol of all that was and is good about America. And so, for the remainder of his life, Eric Sloane endeavored to document, preserve, and revere in ink and paint all of what he believed represented the best of what America was – and, according to Sloane, could again become. Perhaps not ironically, Eric Sloane exhibited many of the same traits he so admired in the early American – he was nearly in constant motion, wrote and illustrated more than thirty books, painted thousands of cloudscapes, seascapes, and landscapes, wrote and illustrated hundreds of articles, and restored nearly a dozen early New England homes.
And so, on Christmas eve of 2007, I sit in front of the fire pondering and writing about two “teachers” who had a profound impact on my own life. Both Eric Sloane and Alfred Erwin helped me along my own path towards more self-reliance and independence. Almost twenty-five years after his death, Eric Sloane still teaches me something every time I re-read one of his books or study one of his paintings. Ten years after my grandfather’s death, I still think of the advice he gave and wisdom he shared. Wanting to profile a man my grandfather admired might seem like an odd reason to write a biography of a man I never met, yet both men were two of the best teachers I ever had, though neither one held a teaching certificate nor graduated from college. Perhaps next semester my first assignment for my students will be to have them identify who their best teachers were and see how many of them identify elders who were not actually classroom teachers in the traditional sense of the term. It might be a good way to start the new year.
About the Author: Dr. James W. Mauch is a professor of education at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He and his wife live in the historic district of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, though they recently purchased a farm in Lehigh County. He is the biographer of Eric Sloane, published as Aware: A Retrospective of the Life and Work of Eric Sloane (Garrigues House, 2000).
Books by Eric Sloane
- Clouds, Air, and Wind (1941)
- Camouflage Simplified (1942)
- Gremlin Americanus: A Scrapbook Collection of Gremlins (1942)
- Skies and the Artist: How to Draw Clouds and Sunsets (1950)
- Eric Sloane’s Weather Book (1949)
- American Barns and Covered Bridges (1954)
- Eric Sloane’s Almanac and Weather Forecaster (1955)
- Our Vanishing Landscape (1955)
- American Yesterday (1956)
- The Book of Storms (1956)
- The Seasons of America Past (1958)
- Return to Taos: A Sketchbook of Roadside America (1960)
- Look at the Sky (1961)
- Diary of An Early American Boy: Noah Blake 1805 (1962)
- ABC Book of Early Americana (1963)
- Folklore of American Weather (1963)
- A Museum of Early American Tools (1964)
- A Reverence for Wood (1965)
- An Age of Barns (1966)
- The Sound of Bells (1966)
- The Cracker Barrel (1967)
- Don’t – A Little Book of Early American Gentility (1968)
- Mr. Daniels and the Grange (1968)
- The Second Barrel (1969)
- Look at the Sky and Tell the Weather (1970)
- I Remember America (1971)
- Do: A Little Book of Early American Know-How (1972)
- The Little Red Schoolhouse (1972)
- The Spirits of ’76 (1973)
- Recollections in Black and White (1974)
- For Spacious Skies: A Meteorological Sketchbook of American Weather (1978)
- Legacy (1979)
- Once Upon A Time: The Way America Was (1982)
- Eighty: An American Souvenir (1985)
BOOK REVIEW by Susan Tank
“Aware: A Retrospective of the Life and Work of Eric Sloane” by James W. Mauch
A couple of months ago, Jim Mauch (author of “Hex Signs” in the fall issue of SFJ), sent along a copy of a book he had published in 2000 on the life of Eric Sloane. Sloane is certainly a favored author/artist/caretaker of antiquities at the Journal and I was quite interested in learning more about this very talented man. Mauch is an admirer of many of the objects of Sloane’s artistry: old barns (as evidenced in his SFJ article) and houses, antiques and hand-tools. It seems a natural “fit” that he turned his “obsession” with what he terms Sloane’s philosophy of awareness into this intelligent and telling retrospective. The book follows Sloane’s life and his development as an artist, starting with his early days as a sign painter back in the 20’s. From sign painting he began to sketch and paint landscapes. He had an early fascination with cloud formations and the arresting paintings in the book are a testament to that fascination. Whether painting cloud formations as part of a landscape scene or placing the viewer in the firmament, the result is both powerful and ethereal. Some of his early cloud paintings include early airplanes, war planes, also featured in the book. From his interest in painting clouds, Sloane developed an abiding interest in weather. When a meteorology professor suggested that Sloane look to old Farmer’s Almanacs and farmer’s diaries to find the “romance in the weather” he was looking for, this lead to Sloane’s interest in and fascination with early American farmers. He began to seek out old barns, which became a prominent feature in his artwork. The barn and farmstead paintings found in the book are feasts for the eyes. I found myself lingering over each one, drawn by the use of shadows and light in Sloane’s artwork.
Mauch details Sloane’s growth as an artist, while never neglecting his complicated personal life and the things that influenced his work and writings. Through his study and detailing of much of the minutiae of early American farm life and culture, as evidenced in his many books, Sloane became an what Mauch terms, an “anthropologist of Early America.” His approach was never saccharin or overly romanticized, but held a deep appreciation for the work done by hand, the tools built by hand, and the people who made them.
“Aware” is truly a loving tribute to a complicated man and deeply talented artist and writer. It was a wonderful book to savor, drinking in the paintings Mauch includes, seeing the progression of Sloane as an artist over time. Prior to reading this book, most of my exposure to Sloane’s artistry had been through his sketches of early Americana, not his stunning paintings. I came away with a greater appreciation of Sloane and a deep admiration for his artistry.