Part 1: The Letter
La Paz, B.C. October 25
Dear Pearl and Bill-
A terrible thing has happened and I am in such a state of mind suppose I won't tell it very well. Please bear with me. Martin and I were sailing up the west coast of Baja California in very high seas and wind, about seven hours out of Santa Maria Bay where we had spent the night at anchor. He had just raised the mainsail and Genoa and while coming back into the cockpit where I was at the wheel he collapsed and died immediately. I attempted to give him artificial respiration but there was no heartbeat, no pulse or breathing. I was frantic with grief and horror and terror. I had to keep returning to the helm to keep the boat from broaching. Finally managed to turn it about and was running before the wind with huge seas behind me under both power and sail, yawing tremendously. I have never sailed in higher seas. I knew if it took seven hours to return part of it would be in darkness and there were reefs to go around to enter the bay. There had been a Mexican fishing boat, large one there when we left and I tried to raise it with the radio but the radio didn't work or no one heard me. There is no habitation in the bay, which is quite large. I prayed and cried and fought the wheel for five hours and just got inside the reef before dark. It took me quite a while to get the sails down and the anchor set and the dinghy off the boat into the water, then I rowed half a mile to the fishing boat. I couldn't anchor closer to it because the water was very deep there and it was still windy. I hoped the boat had a radio and it did. First I asked two of the men to come with me to make sure that nothing could be done for Martin. I knew he was dead but couldn't accept it They could see he had been gone for a long time so they radioed to the small naval base the other side of Magdalena Bay south of us Naval authorities said I had to bring him there. I was so exhausted I had to sleep for a while first, then the fishing boat sent a crewman to go with me and I sailed to the naval base. I neglected to say that Martin died on Oct.22, we got to the base the afternoon of Oct. 23. The rear admiral was very kind and helpful but he said they would have to bury him very soon. I spent the afternoon making statements and signing papers, etc. The doctor examined him and said he had probably died immediately of Infarto Miocardico which is a similar term in English. He was buried the next morning early, in the little Mexican cemetary, which, I think would have been his choice next to burial at sea. There was not even a telephone on the base but they had a radio and called for a charter plane to come for me. I flew here to La Paz and have been with the govt authorities and immigration, etc for hours and so sick and so dazed and miserable I don't know what I am doing. Today I tried for hours, as I did yesterday, to phone San Diego for a crew to come to sail the boat up there. No one can come. Don't know what I will do. The hotel where I am stay doesn't even have a phone. I may be able to get two or three men here, I have friends working on it. It seems all the professional crews are out on jobs delivering boats or are committed. Fortunately my friends here, Americans who own the boatyard works, are wonderful people and are doing everything they can. If the crew comes from San Diego I will meet them at the airport and have to charter the small plane again to take them to the boat, go with them to explain where things are, etc, then fly back here, then to the U. S. to Houston to get my car then drive it to San Diego. Wait for the boat there. Martin died doing what he loved most, if that is any consolation. Under sail with high seas and wind, which would be the way he would choose to go. I will write later when I know the Plans.
(This is a carbon copy letter with the salutation and signature in blue ink; on the other side of the paper is a handwritten note in blue ink.)
Please phone Buck Bailey and tell him. He liked Martin and will be proud that Martin had taught me well enough so I could single hand the boat through those seas. Forgive carbon copies but I couldnt bear to write this more than once. If you care to write - use address on this envelope.
I may get to Corpus after Houston - would see you then.
(And so ended the life of Martin Gambee who had been one of the WPA artists along with painter Thomas Hart Benton and musicians Burl Ives and Pete Seeger during the 1930s or the time known as the Great Depression)
Part II: The Widow
I have copied the letter exactly as I received it, with the same misspelling of words and with no paragraph separation. Those are Polly's thoughts as best she was able to organize them in that time of trauma. The letter came to me at a time when my life was in a state of great chaos as well. Martin was a good friend although I had only known him for three or four years. He met and married Polly at some time after he left the Instituto de Allende in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico. Polly had been one of his students there in the design class that he taught. He was also manager of the gift shop at the Instituto.
Polly was to the best of my memory in her late fifties or very early sixties when this happened; she was a very attractive slender woman. Polly had buried two husbands (the latest of whom had been a very successful architect) before she married Martin and was comfortably wealthy if not outright rich, hence her ability to buy the Mahi-mahi which was approximately a twenty five foot long sailboat with a solid fiberglass hull. That fiberglass hull had already weathered one hurricane and was salvaged from between two pilings with only a broken mast and wood trim along the deck being damaged. Polly like the Mahi-mahi was a very durable product. She had smooth well tanned skin that was just beginning to show the irregular effects of too much time in the sun; there was a slightly worn look in the corners that soon would be converted into wrinkles. If sixty, she was a very young sixty.
I met Polly for the last time at her motel in Corpus Christi; we had dinner at the motel coffee shop overlooking Corpus Christi Bay, talked and drank coffee until after two in the morning. Polly was on her way from Houston, where she had picked up her car and was driving to San Diego. Polly gave me some instructions on the handling of Martins personal property in Corpus Christi. I was to go to the freight office and pick up a wooden box that was in storage there, pay the storage fee and then bring the box back to my house and open it. The tools in the box were to be sold and the proceeds sent to Polly in San Diego; the remainder of the contents were mine to keep. I was also to pick up about twelve of Martin's watercolors at a location where they were on exhibit (the Corpus Christi Museum if my memory is correct) and hold them in a safe place until Polly decided what to do with them. Polly told me to pick one of the watercolors and keep it as a handling fee. With Polly's approval I placed all of Martins watercolors with the Dos Patos Gallery in Corpus Christi. This was the gallery from which I sold my watercolors. Polly had no desire to keep any of Martins work. For myself I selected a large watercolor depicting in design realism a castle beside the sea. The picture is done wet on wet with stylus imposed lines done while the surface was still wet; the color of the painting is mostly blue-violet.
That night we talked about many things. We talked about her trauma. We talked about my chaos. She expressed surprise at the chaos in my life and said she had always considered me one of the most stable of Martins friends. Polly was lonely, tired and vulnerable that evening and if I had said I needed a place to stay, I think she would have invited me to stay with her. I felt she was receptive to that kind of proposal but I could also tell there were deep reservations swimming around in her mind. There were several reasons why I didn't make the move to become closer to Polly. The instability in my life at that time did not indicate initiating relationships which could only bring in more stress and Polly did what for me was a turn-off by expressing a deep resentment of Martin that night. I know she felt abandoned by his death, but there were other things she spoke of that I also know were true of Martin. She said that Martin had a certain pettiness about him that was inappropriate for the amount of support she had provided him. While they were still in San Miguel De Allende, many times she had to pull him out of bed, sober him up and get him to important meetings or appointments. She had supported him financially for the entire time since they had left San Miguel. After they were married she began to sign her pictures Polly Gambee. Martin objected, saying it was capitalizing on his better known name and he was also afraid people would see her paintings and believe they were his. Martin like all of us, had his pluses and minuses and I believed that what Polly was saying was true; I knew Martin was capable of that degree of pettiness, but it just seemed a little too soon after his death to be expressing it. The expressing it was, I realize, for Polly a bit of grief therapy. I worked for a man once who whenever he mentioned his wife s death referred to that time as when my wife ran out on me. I always thought, yeah, kinda tough on her too. I received several letters from Polly over the next few weeks and months but none that had the impact of the Martin letter. Response to chaos took me away from Corpus Christi and I never heard from Polly again.
Part III: The Box
Later in the week I went to the freight office and paid somewhere around eight dollars to get Martin's box out of storage. I had a letter from Polly authorizing me to pick it up and the freight agent also had a letter from Polly authorizing him to release it to me. Polly was a very thorough lady.
The box was one of the most perfectly constructed pieces of cabinet work I have ever seen. It seemed to be almost a solid block of wood. The top was attached to the rest of the box by brass screws every two inches all around the edges. This box was made to take the banging around of heavy seas and the possible soaking in salt water. The contents were wrapped in oil skins. I kept the box for a long time and have no idea what happened to it. Somewhere between Corpus Christi to Atlanta back to Corpus Christi to Dallas to Bristow, Oklahoma back to Dallas then to Staples from there to Austin and finally to Johnson City the box disappeared. The only flaw in the design was the time it took to remove all those screws to get into the contents.
After removing the lid I found a set of wood working tools, knives, chisels, planes and many other items I was not familiar with which were sold at a garage sale and the money sent to Polly in San Diego. At the garage sale I noticed that men who knew woodworking always calmed and settled down to a close inspection as soon as they saw Martins tools and when they bought them they never questioned the price. Polly had said if you can just get a dollar for each item it would be alright; we priced some of the items as high as eight dollars and this was 1969 remember. We were able to sell every tool in the box, some of which I have no idea what were and I'm sure some of them were grossly under priced.
Below the tools lay the real treasures. There were stacks of drawings, sketches, several unsigned paintings, numerous photographs, documents, correspondence, class demonstrations, notes for a book on design and Martin's American Watercolor Society certificate. All of these things I still have; all of these things have journeyed with me across that route described in the second paragraph of this part of the story of Martin Gambee.
Two things I knew. One that Martin had died without realizing his full potential and two that I had in my hands some of the only things left that would be a connection between Martin and the world. Remember in 1969 we had no idea what the internet was. I went through these items numerous times and was always appalled at the responsibility that I held concerning this sparrow of a man among eagles who still had a greatness about him that asked to be preserved. I considered using the outline and writing the book on design, but design had never been my passion. Martin had always been pulled to the art and I had always been pulled to the subject matter. I also have two glorious watercolors that Martin painted. One I bought from him in Brownsville and the other Polly gave me for handling his belongings. At one point I contacted the head of the art department at Southwest Texas State University, explained who Martin was, told him what I had and offered to donate everything including the two watercolors to the university. I though this would be a great project in research for someone working on a masters degree in art. I never heard back from them. So now I write this for my website, knowing it will be picked up by google, referenced and maybe someone will come forward with additional information or begin with this and develop more information on Martin. I have only recently opened one other package that was as exciting as the box, but that's another story.
Part IV: Martin
If you begin with appearance, the most memorable thing about Martin was his navel; maybe that's why he was so nautical. Old people are allowed one pun per chapter. Martin had the ugliest navel I have ever seen. It began as an ordinary navel and then the outie began to bulge to the size of a large grape and what looked like a scar ran in much the same way as LBJs surgical scar he was so fond of. Unfortunately I had known Martin for a couple of years before I discovered this deformity and that caused me to make a faux paux at the hanging of one of his exhibits. We were hanging a watercolor that I thought was an abstract and I commented it looked like an infected navel; neither he nor Polly cracked a smile and I thought well, Good Try, Anyway and went on with life. The first time I sailed with Martin he was wearing blue jean cutoffs and no shirt and because of his slightly pot belly, which extended from the lower reaches of his pectorals to a spot about five inches below that flawed attachment. Then I understood; Martin had actually painted a watercolor of his navel.
Martin seemed short but wasn't all that short. He was nondescript. If he had been in a bar when it was being robbed and all the other customers were relieved of their jewelry and wallets, Martin would have been overlooked. He was bald, neither fat nor thin, neither tall nor short and could have been a wonderful spy or private investigator. He was simply the man you didn't see. Inside that man was a brain to die for. Martin dressed in such a way as to enhance that insignificance; I cannot remember how Martin dressed. My guess is that he wore khaki trousers or blue jeans and very simple shirts and jackets. I seldom saw him in a suit and when I did it was a very dark suit, but not dark enough to be identified as black or navy blue.
You would hope that someone so insignificant in appearance would have a thundering outgoing personality, but in Martins case that was not to be. Martin was shy, never imposing; if you disagreed after he had stated his case, he didn't argue; he just said no more about it. I don't know if he had a speech impediment or not, but it seemed that every word he uttered had to be forcefully pushed from his mouth. Like a low horsepower meat grinder that has hung up on a large piece of gristle, Martin often seemed to be struggling to force words from his mouth. This hurt him in his classes and many of his students came to one or two classes only and then dropped out. The others soon began to see that they were with a teacher who knew more and had more to offer than anyone they had studied with before. These characteristics may have been the cause of Martins alcoholism and his failure after going to San Miguel de Allende.
At the time I met Martin I was managing a Sherwin Williams Paint Store on Elizabeth Street about three blocks from the International Bridge that separates Brownsville, Texas from Matamoros, Mexico. Because I had an interest in art the store had a very complete stock of artists supplies and because I painted in watercolor the store stocked a very complete selection of watercolor paints, papers and brushes. I was very proud of myself. I had just advanced to a store double the size of my last one; I was teaching watercolor classes at the Brownsville Art League and I was even exhibiting and selling a few watercolors out of the store. I noticed several times that a little old man came in buying watercolor supplies, but by chance the credit manager had always waited on him. After he left one day, the credit manager said, You need to get to know him. Hes spending a lot of money on watercolor supplies. I was curious anyway and assumed the guy was buying them for his wife. Don't laugh, this was about 1966 and this was Brownsville, Texas AND I was probably one of only three men who ever entered the Brownsville Art League. I waited on Martin the next time he came in, sold him several sheets of the Strathmore watercolor board that I used and a large sack of odds and ends. I later stocked the Strathmore paper that Martin liked. I was surprised when he answered that he was the watercolor painter, not his wife. He invited me to see some of his watercolors and I suggested that I deliver these purchases since the watercolor board would be hard to handle in the wind. About two hours later I got the surprise of my life.
Martin had rented a storefront about fifty feet wide (my storefront was twenty-five feet wide) and had built in a living area with eight foot walls (the walls of the building he was occupying were twelve feet high) and had built a bath with shower from scratch. Sherwin Williams deals with painters and construction people and I was familiar with construction work. I was stunned by the quality of the carpentry work, taping and floating and painting done on the living area in that large chunk of floor space. The old building he was in was built around the time of the Civil War and had ornamental iron work all around the outside reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans; in fact that same ornamental iron had been shipped at an earlier time to Brownsville from New Orleans. Martin had two sawhorses with a piece of plywood stretched across them for a table and there were his watercolors and drawing board. My memory is that he soaked his paper and stretched it when not using a watercolor board. I delivered the purchases, we talked a while and he got out his portfolio. The first watercolor I saw made violins begin to play. I realized I was in the presence of a really great painter. Sadly, I knew I would never be a watercolorist of this stature. There was one painting I just had to have; it was entitled Dancing Corn and Martin offered it to me for $50. Now understand, in 1966 or 67 you didn't just walk around with $50. in you pocket, unless you were some kind of salvage buyer. I paid Martin the $25. I had on me and then we struck a deal. I would pay the other $25. in artists supplies but it would include my 25% discount that Sherwin Williams allowed me and afterward Martin would continue to get the discount. Dancing Corn is still my favorite watercolor painting on earth and it hangs today in my living room. And so it happened that Martin and I began a journey of friendship.
I think Polly was not with him when he first came to Brownsville and I can't even remember why he chose Brownsville to set up shop. He had at that time about twelve watercolors including the one I purchased and the Purple Palace, which Polly later gave me. I remember the Infected Navel was there and there were some with Mexican dwellings and unusual landscapes. One I remember was a rendering in dark browns and bright yellows of a steel forge. It seems that Martin had an exhibit to hang somewhere, that must not have worked out because he still had the same paintings when he moved to Corpus Christi, a year or more later. Polly joined him afterward and they may have rented an apartment. Martin joined the Brownsville Art League and very soon was teaching a design class there. Brownsville was good for Polly and Martin but it was not producing any money to speak of.
During this period I learned from both Polly and Martin, talking together and separately that Martin was a graduate of Pratt Institute in New York, was a member of the American Watercolor Society (to hummingbirds like me that was the domain of eagles) and had been turned down for membership in the National Academy. Martin said one of the jurors asked him afterward, Why did you let that particular person sponsor you for membership? It seems the National Academy is very political. Around 1936 Martin became an artist for the, I believe WPA, and was asked to study and record the culture of the Navajo Indians. I knew there were Navajo Reservations in New Mexico and presumed that was where he painted his Navajo series of watercolors. I later learned from the box that he worked on the part of the reservation that is in Arizona. If I said New Mexico, Martin didn't correct me. Martin did not write a lot of material but from what I have read of his writing he was outstanding. I believe that inside that container of mediocre substance there was a brain of genius. A book by Martin on design could have been a classic in bringing the so-called modern art movement to the general public.
With the advent of World War II the focus of culture preservation swung to pure preservation and the WPA art projects were ended. Some of those artists went on to document the war. I think I've seen Thomas Hart Ben ton paintings and drawings of training camps and GIs as they were called. Maybe that would have been a good transition for Martin, but I think it was at this point that he began the descent from glory. As a painter of the Navajo Reservation he was written up in Art Digest, had several pages of his paintings and even wrote a short article for Arizona Highways; he became known to galleries and was given several one man shows and several of his paintings went into permanent collections.
Two periods in his life seemed to be the disintegration of his career focus. Martin said that a Hollywood head hunter met him at an art show and offered him some very big money to come and work for one of the large studios, possibly MGM. This was a time when Hollywood ruled buying everything good that came to its attention. He thought that the degree of the payment was an indication of the level of skill they were seeking. He found himself doing copy work on sets and other tasks that could have been done by someone of lesser skill. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor Martin went to work for the government as a camouflage specialists. He laughed and said that one airbase they camouflaged was so perfectly done you really had to look for it from the air but about a month later he saw that the water tower had been repainted with red and white squares. The base commander didn't want any students flying into his water tower. I mean, where would the bar at the officers club get its water?
In the Arizona Highways article it mentions a wife and two children who traveled with him, but Martin did not talk about his family. Polly told me about the drinking days after Martin went to Mexico to teach design and painting at the Instituto De San Miguel De Allende, but I can't remember the details and won't speculate. I'll just leave it that Martin was married when he went to Mexico but was divorced and married Polly when he left. Polly believed in Martin and was willing to finance his comeback to the career he was meant to follow.
Meanwhile back at the paint store, my hormones were beginning to rumble and I made a career decision to return to the Corpus Christi area and work for an organization I had been associated with earlier. I told Martin and Polly I would scout the territory and let them know how Corpus and the arts were doing. I was surprised when Martin seemed enthused with the idea. By now I think both he and Polly had decided that the population of Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley was not adequate to support a full time artist.
Corpus Christi was in the middle of a Renaissance of the Arts. The Admiral who commanded the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi collected original art, consequently every second lieutenant in the Navy at that location became an art collector and their wives fell in love with the activities and excitement involved in the exhibits, shows and sales. During the period of time that I lived in Corpus Christi until about the time of Martin's death, I joined a group called the Art Mart, created by a very businesslike lady named Evelyn Binion and began to sell more watercolors than I had ever sold before. I joined the South Texas Art League; had pictures in all the shows; won a few prizes; sold some more watercolors at shows and had one man shows in several locations. It was indeed good. There were even one man shows at which I sold so many paintings that I had to bring in additional works to hang for the rest of the show.
All of this I communicated to Polly and Martin and they were ready to make the move. They came to Corpus Christi and bought a house and Martin joined all the art groups I was in. I had rented a small studio in a downtown gallery where I painted and the gallery hung my work. Martin joined that business and leased classroom space for his classes. He also hung work in the gallery. At the first show we entered together several unusual things happened. Martin entered a large oil; I can't remember the title but it was a design realism piece with mountains in the background, desert like flatland in the middle ground and a shack in the foreground. It won best of show. I entered a watercolor titled Mansion in the Fog, which won first place watercolor. Martin and I were like conquering heroes as we went forward to collect our checks; the ribbons had already been placed on the paintings. The ladies who ran the show were livid. It seems that the original judge was unable to perform the task and at the last minute they let a younger member bring in an architect friend to do the judging. The architect just did not understand the importance of the political structure of the art world in Corpus Christi in 1968. Trust me on this one; that never happened again.
One of the first one-man shows Martin did in Corpus Christi was at Memorial Hospital. The long halls were well lighted with lots of blank walls for pictures and the doctors loved to have the selection brought to them so they could purchase without shopping the galleries. It was in helping Polly and Martin hang this show that I made my infected navel remark proving once again my propensity for foot in mouth disease. I believe Martin sold several pieces at this show but a very unusual thing happened.
Joseph Cain was an artist of more than regional renown in Corpus Christi; he had been chosen as the artist to represent Grumbacher Paints nationwide. He headed the art department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi and wrote the art articles for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Joe had written up a half dozen or so shows in which I was the sole exhibitor or one of a group of exhibitors and had always had nothing but praise for my work. I thought he would be excited that an artist of Martin's stature was now living in Corpus Christi and was amazed when his article appeared and he panned Martins work terribly. Martin was upset. Polly was upset and of course I was upset. To this day I have no idea what the dynamics of that transaction were. Was Joe jealous of Martin's stature? Did Joe want to be the only artist in Corpus Christi to address the modern art world? After Martins death his pictures were requested for another one-man show and Joe was more generous to the late Martin Gambee. Maybe that was a bad omen.
In October of 1967 I turned forty years old and of course we all know that Life Begins at Forty; in fact, it just seemed I could do no wrong. I was doing more in the art world than I had ever expected to do and I had just been promoted to a managerial position by my employer. But if life begins at forty you can be assured that death begins shortly after that. I cant remember any one bad thing happening to Polly and Martin. I think they still were not producing what Martin needed to produce to feel that he was making a living at art. And so it was that they became disenchanted with life in Corpus Christi. So-called modern art had not been sold to the people and so painters like Martin found sales few and far between in a small city. South Texas is not the guiding light for the arts.
One of the last memories of Martin I have is at dinner with them at their home. I had brought some paintings that I had just framed and was going to show them to Martin. One of the paintings was a flash of memory from a highway in Mexico. As I had been driving from Reynosa to Matamoros on the Mexican river highway, I saw a little Mexican girl standing alone in front of a very rural school building. I wondered if the school was adequate to improve the little girls life and knew the answer to that question was dismal to consider. So as Martin and I were about to enter into our own periods of despair I painted the little girl in her despair. Martin and I had both studied watercolor with watercolorist Eliot OHara; Martin looked at my painting and said, Well, you're not Eliot OHara; you're not Don Kingmann (A watercolorist he knew I admired), so maybe you're a folk singer. That was our last big laugh together. A little later in the evening I asked Martin how he would paint while sailing. A salt-water environment is not the best place to paint and preserve watercolors. His answer saddened me. He said, There are enough watercolors in the world. I wondered if I would ever feel like that.
They told me at that time they were selling their house and buying a sailboat and would spend the rest of their lives sailing. They bought a beautiful, as I remember, twenty-five foot yacht with oak woodworks and fiberglass hull and mast. She was a beautiful seagoing vessel named the Mahi-mahi which I believe is Hawaiian for porpoise. Later plans developed to sail the boat to Tampico, Mexico from where it would be railroaded across Mexico to Acapulco and from there they would sail the Gulf of Baja California for the rest of their lives. And that is exactly what Martin did. Martin wanted me to help sail the boat to Tampico but I couldn't get that much time off from work. The organization I was with was in the middle of a multimillion dollar fund drive and it was all I could do to get time off to help him sail her to Port Aransas.
One day I left work around five in the afternoon and joined Martin at the T-Head where the Mahi-mahi was tied up. She had just had her two cylinder engine rebuilt and Martin was not about to test it on this trip so we had to get underway without benefit of power and sail out of the dock area around the circular breakwater and on into the bay to the ship channel. There was only the slightest breeze but it was directly behind us. We sailed with the mainsail perpendicular to the hull and even then could only make about six knots and we were working against a three-knot current. Our running lights were in place and we had the right of way over all motorized vessels but that was slight comfort when those huge freighters and tankers came up to pass us looking for all the world like mobile Hoover Dams. I was thinking, Dammit! Martin! Turn on the engine; if its going to burn up, better it happen before you leave the states. But Martin had other plans. What they were I have no idea. Perhaps once he was at sea he would crank up the engine and run it for a few minutes and the shut it down before he got too hot, then repeat the process in an effort to break the new valves and rings in very slowly. Who knows? That was Martin. It was after daylight the next day when we arrived in Port Aransas and Polly was there to meet us. We tied the boat up and had breakfast at the local greasy spoon. Food never tasted better. And as Polly drove me back to Corpus Christi I knew that was the last time I would ever see Martin Gambee. He was good friend. He is the only friend I have ever had with whom I have never argued about anything. Vaya con Dios, Martin.
Part V: The Work
Part VI: Conclusion
Part VII: The Gallery
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