Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 751:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 751.

Today, a hard lesson in human creativity. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A New York paper once tried to hire Enrico Caruso as a regular cartoonist. The greatest opera singer in history had a genius for caricature. I used to think he was an isolated case.

Now I've found a book on Actors as Artists. It shows the work of 78 famous actors -- 78! I thought it would hold the stuff of street fairs. It did not.

A few, like Ralph Bellamy and Henry Fonda, do standard still lifes -- gentle calming pieces. But more typical is the work of Katherine Hepburn and Gene Hackman. Their still lifes become complex and impressionistic.

Piper Laurie and Anthony Quinn are modern sculptors. Each has a fine sense of free-floating shape. My favorite among the artists is Peter Falk. Detective Columbo, it seems, can catch the soul of people in charcoal as well as in crime.

Actors like Zero Mostel and Johnathan Winters have mounted serious exhibits. The artistic impulse is far stronger -- far more purposeful -- among actors than I realized.

Years ago I did a lot of theatre. The actors I knew were quiet and internal people -- easily hurt. They constantly risked hurt because they so craved to be heard.

We underrate acting. Conceiving an imaginary situation and bringing it to life is a rare and complex ability. It's also just what a painter or sculptor does. It's pure creative invention.

So Slim Pickens and Noah Beery cast Remington-like bronzes of horse and rider. David Bowie does abstract human faces. Each shows us a new dimension of his film persona. Then I see. Oil and bronze are means for dissecting what they do on screen.

Mary Woronov makes the point. She's lived her life on the blue fringes of movie-making. She's made B-movies. She's done supporting roles in big box-office releases. She starred in the famous cult movie, Eating Raoul.

Woronov studied art at Cornell. Then she met Andy Warhol. Warhol steered her toward movies. But she kept right on painting. Her powerful abstract pictures of human intensity are shown all over the country. She credits Warhol. She says,

Painting is a major form of expression for me. I cannot stop doing it. ... when I started acting for Warhol ... He had a tendency to destroy set ideas. [And out] of destruction comes life.
Woronov speaks with tongue in cheek on the screen. But she turns upon us, full face, in her paintings. There she etches the age-old message of human creativity. She tells us what these actors know: Before we can build anything, we have to tear down, rebuild, and finally come to know -- ourselves.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

McMullan, J. and Gautier, D., Actors as Artists. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1992.

Mary Woronov's website includes a large and fascinating art gallery: http://www.wgn.net/~mmw/meet/maryworonov.html

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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