"It was one of the weirdest looking men he'd ever seen," remembers Rosenthal. "And he said, 'I'm'a put that down. I'm gonna store that one away.' And sure enough, three books later, there that guy was."
That anecdote captures the bond between a writer and a friend who is also a devoted reader. That friendship is the uniting force behind a new exhibit set to run through October 9 at FRANK Gallery. Rosenthal, a renowned photographer, shows a selection from his "Museum Series." Edgerton, the well loved North Carolina literary figure, shows paintings based on photographs by Rosenthal and others.
Rosenthal finds this exchange profound. "Proust talks about that fraternity that exists between a writer and his readers, and I agree, but it becomes very special when the writer is transforming the work of a friend into his own artwork. I see the mischief and the humor and something terribly relaxed in the painting that might not exist in the photograph because Clyde transformed it."
Hang on, though. Clyde Edgerton, professor of creative writing and author of ten novels, including several New York Times Notable Books, is also a painter? Apparently lightning sometimes strikes twice. Rosenthal attributes some of Edgerton's skill with paint to his close observation of life as a novelist. But he acknowledges that discovering such a gift in one's sixties is far from the norm.
"I'd say it's pretty weird," he says with appreciation. "It's really something to see him suddenly move off into paint. When you're a writer, there's one word that's going to work, but when you're painting, it's a thousand strokes that are going to work."
Edgerton's decades-long dance with the visual arts began as a teen, when he convinced his parents to pony up seventy bucks for a correspondence art course. But when he received a B rather than an A on his first assignment, he quit drawing. (He also kicked up a fuss until his deposit was returned.) Eventually he took up painting, quite casually, producing one or two in acrylic every few years.
Then he got obsessed with the grille of a 1950 Chrysler.
"It belonged to the bad guy in the novel I was working on, which was The Bible Salesman. And I just took a notion to paint it," Edgerton says. In retrospect, it was a "mediocre to bad painting." But at the time, in 2007, he thought it was wonderful.
"Artists are lucky when they believe in their early work," he says. "That happens in any art, I think. If you believe in it and it's fun to do, you keep doing it, regardless of what it looks like."
With practice, his work started to look good. In 2008, he met Chip Hemingway, a Wilmington painter. Hemingway suggested he switch to oils, which facilitated his progress. Edgerton took a painting class with Hemingway, who has remained a mentor figure, along with one in portraiture.
Initially Edgerton was torn about his inclination to paint from photographs. Hemingway is a plein-air painter, to whom painting from a photo is akin to cheating. Then Edgerton started reading, and he learned that it was a common practice among many of his beloved French and American Impressionists. He discovered possibilities, not limitations.
"Once I have the composition down, there's things I've learned I can do with color," he says. "I can make it into something I feel confident is my own."