Monday, April 19, 2010

Thurman Hedgepeth, Artist, Fashionista, Dealer, Traveler, Networker

The first time I laid eyes on Thurman he was working behind the books and prints concession at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, hired specifically to work at the groundbreaking 1968 photo exhibition Harlem on My Mind. Thurman definitely stood out. Tall, maybe 6' 3”, and rail thin, with an elegant aristocratic manner. He had the brightest smile and biggest brown eyes that when they zeroed in on you made you feel like you were his entire focus. His fashionably baggy outfit of carefully edited secondhand finds emphasized his willowy figure.

I approached the counter to look over the offerings. We quickly fell into easy conversation. We talked about the exhibition, the museum and the fact that he was a visual artist recently arrived in the city. A few days later, I ran into him on the street in the East Village and discovered we were neighbors. I lived on East Second Street; he on East Third.

The first time I dropped by to visit Thurman unannounced almost got me mugged. Coming from a nearby supermarket with groceries and passing his building, I thought I would stop in and see if he was home. When I opened the street door, a hulking Hispanic man lingered in the vestibule. He eyed me and moved aside. I took about three steps through the doorway but something told me to turn around and leave.

Following my instincts, I did exactly that: my abrupt about-face caught the would-be mugger off guard. He recovered quickly and came toward me. I managed to clear the door and walk quickly away. I wasn't a hundred percent sure of what had happened until I was well up the street.

At any rate, Thurman and I eventually got into contact. After the Met exhibition closed, Thurman worked as assistant to several established artists, and as such had keys to some spectacular lofts in the neighborhood. He was always moving around, going from one incredible space to another. Once he took me to a building on Lafayette Street where he was staying owned by wealthy artist Robert Rauschenberg.

I followed Thurman up to the third floor where the living quarters were. There was no one else home. He showed me a deck of homemade playing cards that Rauschenberg had quickly created for them to use. They were out at his beach place in the Hamptons the previous weekend and it rained. Behind the building was a small private chapel. Somehow, Thurman had swiftly ingratiated himself with the New York art scene. He was always going to gallery openings or loft parties.

Eventually Thurman got his own loft on East 12th Street off Fourth Avenue. It was the top floor of a four-story walkup and from the rear windows an impressive view of the top of the Empire State Building. At the time, Thurman both painted and made custom clothing. He briefly strutted down catwalks for top designers’ runway shows in Paris.

At his new loft, he had taken a lover. I vaguely remember a striking black hunk who didn’t say much. Thurman showed me a series of oversized abstracts canvases he was getting ready to show to gallery owners and art collectors like Henry Van Zeldgelder, who at the time was a MOMA curator and later city cultural commissioner. Henry was famous for finding his way to obscure lofts and apartments to ferret out promising artists.

Thurman originally came from North Carolina, a small farming town where his extended family was prominent. Their local history went back several generations. His father or grandfather was in the clergy I believe. He was the family black sheep being both an artist and gay. I once shot some 8mm film of Thurman trekking around the East Village but never did have it developed.

My mother gave me some lambskin fabric. I asked Thurman to make me a jacket. He cut, styled, fitted and sewed a high concept jacket I still have in the closet though it no longer fits, I hold on to for sentimental reasons.

One day I learned Thurman was falling behind on his rent and soon evicted for non-payment. That didn't stop Thurman. A few weeks later, he invited me over to new digs: a white shingled cottage sitting atop a commercial building in midtown. Literally, a small two-bedroom unit built on the roof. There was a generous terrace but not great views: surrounding buildings were taller.

Around this time, Thurman began dealing vintage photographs. He was going to Europe to find buyers. I moved uptown and from time to time let Thurman stay with my partner and me when he was between apartments, which seemed to be happening more and more. I noticed after one visit my piggy bank was considerably lighter and realized Thurman was pilfering the small change. I put the bank in a more secure location for his next stay.

Clearly, Thurman had a gift as an artist and art world hustler. He was always creating new work, or discovering work that he could exploit for financial gain. We both moved in the gay scene in the East and West Villages, and knew many of the same people. We both gradually gravitated uptown.

When I moved to a flat in Harlem Thurman became a frequent visitor. I stored some of his belongings, including a huge partners’ desk that I used for a while. He had new lovers all the time, one in particular that he brought by was a medical doctor from Munich, who in later years I met up with briefly in Germany.

Thurman started spending more time in Europe, and his international lifestyle inspired me to go abroad for extended stays, something I had been plotting to do for years. The first time I went to Europe, I let Thurman stay in the apt. When I came back, I discovered irregularities, which educated me about letting people use the apt while I was traveling especially when it pertained to personal bedding, etc. A good set of sheets disappeared after one of Thurman's visits, as well as cutlery and other small items. I finally had to accept the fact that Thurman was in the habit of adopting people's belongings, so I needed to be more vigilant if I were going to let him use the apartment while I traveled.

Thurman stayed in contact as he moved around the city. At one point, he was living nearby in Harlem. He eventually moved all of his belongings from my apt into a place he shared with a cousin.

One day as we chatted, I noticed how foul his breath smelled. It seemed to be more than just rotting teeth but I never suspected for a moment he was infected. He was fairly promiscuous--but weren't we all in the 1970s--though he and I were never intimate.

I found some vintage fashion photos left behind in a Harlem apt my super let me have. I gave them to Thurman on consignment. I started going off to Europe myself with more frequency. Thurman gave me a nice list of people to look up in London, Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin--all of whom were gracious and hospitable.

Thurman began going back down to North Carolina to see his family. We lost track of each other for a few months. One spring day the phone rang--for some reason I was sitting at the dining room table. It was a woman who introduced herself as Thurman's sister.

She told me that in the previous weeks he passed away, the cause, unspoken, but clearly HIV related. She said that she was calling all the people listed in his phone book. I thanked her for the acknowledgement. The unexpected news floored me. It seemed like everything happened much too quickly.

What became of Thurman’s art or belongings remains a mystery. We had no real mutual friends, and I forget to get his sister’s number. I imagine that wherever he last left his possessions was inheritor by default.

Thurman would be in his early 60’s today.


Unknown said...

I knew Thurman in the 60's on third

What year did the die?

Owen Levy Gives A Damn said...

I believed it was the early 1990s. Don't have the dates handy at the moment but will never forget the call from his sister in NC. She was methodically contacting the numbers his phone book.

Island Mantra said...

I knew Thurman in New York, & Charlottesville, Va....I often wondered what he was up to...... now I know.

rritz said...

Great article, you really capture Thurman who was a dear friend. I too got a call from his sister, just as you described. Thanks for posting this. xoxoR

nhbjoy said...

I met Thurman when he and his friend Gerry Webber were living in C'ville. To-nite I had a flash about him seeing an actor that resembled him in a film...It was a pleasure reading your article and remembering him.. gone too soon. nhb