Like many folks, I honor the memory of my mom online. Three times per year—the date of her birthday, the anniversary of her death, and on Mother’s Day—I will give her a tribute on social media, taking her headshot as my Facebook profile picture, and sharing this post on multiple platforms. I want people to know what a fabulous woman she was. And, man, could she paint!
Ruth Gershbein, nee Zelman (November 1, 1923 – January 13, 2004), or as I like to call her – Mom – was an owlish gal, a deep thinker, a gifted artist, a talented baseball player, and a woman of great wisdom. Like other mothers, she frequently took from the textbook of life and—whether good, bad, or indifferent—imparted those lessons in convincing fashion to her three children. (And when she started imparting, you couldn’t stop her; you could only hope to contain her.)
From Mom, I learned all about the Golden Rule. She was a stickler when it came to treating people with respect. She also encouraged me to dream big, insisting that I could do anything in life that I wanted, provided that I wanted it bad enough. But of all the lessons that percolated through my childhood, up through adolescence and into adulthood, there was one that really stuck: Protect your intellectual property.
The Writ of Conception
Mom often shared with me the story of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, co-creators of the Superman cartoon character and originators of the franchise. Back in the day, the pair sold the intellectual property rights to their work for a mere pittance and, after attempting several times to renegotiate their contract with the publisher, the bridge was burned and they never reclaimed those rights. As the years passed, the disputes over the copyright escalated (their descendants remain in the fight to this day!) and Siegel & Shuster were phased out of scores of millions in potential earnings. Ouch.
When I was in my late 20’s, I was starting to get a lot of my cartoons noticed and published. Mom, always in my corner, believed that my work had true revenue-generating potential. She told me about a document called the Writ of Conception. I’m not sure if this is studied at law schools, let alone mentioned in any of the IP Law textbooks. It’s not a searchable term on Google. Perhaps it was her own intellectual property. Regardless, here’s how it works:
You have an idea; you write it down the moment it comes to mind; you embellish with some ancillary points (goals, objectives, plan of attack, etc.); and then you get it notarized. Voila! What you now have is a time-stamped declaration of your intellectual property and an iron-clad piece of proof. Now. this might not have helped Siegel & Schuster when it came down to dividing the pie, but in our Digital Era, in which everyone “borrows” from everyone else, you must protect what is rightfully yours. There is a lot of idea theft out there.
Throughout the years, I have followed my mom’s directive. I have produced and marketed many original works that have been registered for copyright, and with a corresponding writ of conception in my archives.
The Art of Ruth Gershbein
A dedicated student of art, Ruth took copious notes on both history and technique. She studied under the late Peter Darro, a well-known wildlife artist, based in Glenview, Illinois. Seeing that I took to artistic expression (chronic doodling) at an early age, she enrolled me in art classes at Darro’s studio. I don’t recall much about those sessions other than all parties realized that I wasn’t cut out to sketch real-life faces, vases of flowers, or bowls overstuffed with fruit.
Always supportive, Ruth nurtured my talent, walking me through the stages of capturing an image with the proper perspective. What a great understanding of shadows and light she had. She always thought that cartooning was a more difficult form to master than her medium, oil on canvas. I think the opposite is true.
The basement of our house in Wilmette, Illinois was her personal gallery. Every inch of wall space in our home was covered—her art, mostly, but also the work of her children and a few Darro pieces—and her smaller paintings adorned bookshelves and ledges. Everywhere you turned, your eye would catch a Ruth original. She painted wildlife, landscapes, anatomical and medical images, and assorted still life scenes. She would pour through issues of National Geographic searching for inspiration; sometimes, inspiration just came naturally.
Visually, her paintings were very tight and beautifully composed. Ruth had a sharp eye for detail, a flair for mixing color, and excellent command of the brush. The finished paintings had a French impressionistic look and feel. Some had a stronger sense of realism than others, but with each, you knew what she was striving for in theme, mood, and impact. She was a true storyteller.
Interestingly, Ruth never sold any of her artwork during her life. When it came time for us to put our childhood home in Wilmette on the market, my sisters and I realized that not all the paintings would make it out. Mom had earmarked certain pieces for each of us and it was time to claim them. It was sad, indeed, to lay eyes on a cluster of finished canvases readied on our front curb for the haulers.
Of all the paintings that survived, two occupy a place of prominence in my home:
1. The Norwary Fjords
You know how some paintings just speak to you? Well, this one does to me. I remember her roughing it out in charcoal and systematically adding the layers of color. I look at this picture every day as I walk my upstairs hallway. It can still lull me into a reverie. In my humble opinion, this is the absolute best example of Mom’s art.
2. Babe Ruth
Baseball was huge in our family. It was my mother, not my father, who introduced me to the game. Whereas I would have loved an Ernie Banks portrait, I am totally fine with the distinctive visage of The Babe. (It’s got Ruth in the name, after all.) This one I took with me when I moved into my first apartment in Wrigleyville back in the mid-1980s. It now adorns the wall right outside the door to my home office.
A Parting Thought
Sure, Ruth taught me how to treat a lady, fueled my love of baseball (she was a diehard Cleveland Indians fan and could hang pop-ups as high as the sky), explained to me how the land meets the sky in an oil painting, and showed me how to make scrambled eggs. Overall, though, it is the writ that resonates with me. It is a marvelous life lesson, and the appreciation I have for the back-story grows every day.
Thank you, Mom.