Tying the Knot
I am the woman who was brave enough to live with Gene. You know, Gene loved art, but he loved people more than he loved art. Just before we were married on Valentine’s Day, we were learning to do things together. So we were going to have this pot of 15 bean soup. As I headed out to work, I put the soup on and said, “Babe, all you have to do is stir it now and then, like when you come home from Kinkos. Now make sure it doesn’t burn.” And off I went.
That night when I came home, he said, “Baby, we have a secret recipe.”
Immediately suspicious, I asked, “What did you put in the soup?” Gene replied, “Well, it was a little bit hot, so I put in some wheat germ.”
What I said next wasn’t lady-like. At that point, he suggested that we could at least try it before I became so hostile. The soup had the consistency of watery cream of wheat, but then you’d get a bean, or maybe it was a lump of wheat germ…. And he had the nerve telling people that I tried to stifle his creativity! So I sent him to the studio and said, “Put it on canvas buddy, and keep out of my kitchen.” —Mary Alice Allcott, wife
Adventures with Gene
Life with Gene was always an adventure. The Christmas he was two, our folks decided it was time to start camping and traveling. We went south for the holidays: Florida, here we come. Mom and Dad slept serenely in the back of the station wagon, while we four kids had our private quarters in the tent. Gene liked to explore, so to prevent him from being lost or supposedly eaten by alligators on his nightly forays, a rope was tied to one of his legs and the other end to my wrist. In the morning, each of us would emerge from the tent with the same litany: “Gene slept on me all night. He lay on my head. He was over my feet.” And wherever he was, he tugged on me. He still does. Friendly, sharing and active,Gene was always on the move.” —Liz Allcott Sharp, sister
When we admitted Gene, we had severe doubts about his attending art school. His credentials were excellent, but… legally blind? He did it! He didn’t accept a handicap. He was amazing.”
—Guthrie Foster, Dean Emerita, The Atlanta College of Art
After Gene and I graduated we kept visiting the Atlanta College of Art and saying hello to Leroy, one of the custodians. One day we got the news that he had died. At the funeral home, we didn’t bother looking at the directory – we saw some folks that looked like they would be going to Leroy’s service and we just followed them. We sat there for a good 10 minutes until we realized we were in the WRONG funeral.
So we snuck out as quietly as we could and finally found Leroy’s funeral. We sat down and listened to the service. At one point we noticed a couple of women in front where the wife should be. They were on opposite ends of the pew.
After the service we asked who they were and were told that one was his wife and one was his mistress. We had a big laugh all the way home – we had no idea what a dog Leroy was! — Kevin Sartain, friend
What, Me Donate?
I used to talk to Gene about contributions to his alma mater. One day he flipped a $50 at me and said, “There! Now what do I get named after me?” I discussed this with Ofelia Garcia, president of the college at that time, and she suggested we name the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet for him — that important drawer on which the other drawers rested. When I reported this to Gene, he was delighted and wanted to see his eponymous drawer. That day happened to be the day of a college board of director’s meeting — Ofelia was busy and not to be disturbed — and I told Gene this. As he bounded toward her door, I admonished him repeatedly not to disturb her. Soon I heard laughter coming from her office; they seemed to be having a fine time. As he left, I commented that he must not be afraid of danger. He was still laughing, but he stopped and replied in a more somber tone, “You know, you can’t be afraid of danger if you can’t see danger coming.” —Libby Mohr, The Atlanta College of Art
More Fun Than a Parade!
Once while Gene and I waited for a parade to start, a military man and his devoted wife were in front of us. I always enjoyed watching Gene interact with people. Well, the woman got a little interested as Gene played with some of the kids; the man, though, was standoffish, not wanting anything to do with this free-spirit. Finally the parade came and Gene was cutting up and laughing — and the man even warmed up. When the parade ended, the woman pulled me aside. “You know,” she said, “he was more fun than the parade!” —Geddes Dowling, Dowling Architects
Ernest Norwood used to be cleaning the building nights when Gene was working late in the studio. Gene, he got Ernest some canvas and paints and got Ernest painting. Ernest got written up in Atlanta magazine about self-taught artists, and they had that show of his art up in the Woodruff Arts Center cafeteria. And Ernest, he would talk to the students when they got discouraged, encouraging them to keep working. Ernest was paining up to the time he died.
—Harold “Smitty” Smith, Foreman, Woodruff Arts Center Operations
A Real Man!
One night at Gene’s house on Curran Street, which he was renovating — plaster was removed from several walls and lath strips were in view — there was tongue-in-cheek talk of making this place into the headquarters for some type of important gathering. “What if we form a group of manists,” someone asked. “If there are feminists, there must be room for manists, and our representative in Washington could be Gene.”
Puffing up his chest and holding up one finger in mock self-importance, then hooking the thumb of his other hand onto his shirt to indicate an invisible pair of suspenders, Gene said loudly: “I would be proud to… ah, represent my contiguously in the great state of Washington….” That’s constituency, I thought, then remembered how Gene had a way of using words and expressions improperly as a sort of mockery of the world, as well as a way to make light of himself. “We could make it a gentleman’s club,” Gene continued with a laugh, “sort of like a country club or the Chamber of Commerce.” But Gene then had a better idea, at least to him: the Curran Street Men’s Club, and he became the president. And there we were: an artist, an attorney, an art director, an architect, a photographer, a landscaper and several others, leaving our lives as fathers, husbands, providers behind for a few precious hours. Long enough to let the president hold court in his multicolored, paint-splattered jeans. His crown was his baseball hat, and his manner was irrelevant, loving and joyful.
For some of the meetings, held at a construction site where I was working, the invitation read: “Gentlemen, once again it is time for the annual Curran Street Men’s Club meeting. The theme this year is “Be a Real Man.” Those of you with welding torches and backhoes know exactly what I mean. If anyone shows up in a Volvo, they won’t even make it to the front door. And please dress like a real man, even if you look sissy most of the time.”
Gene and I had some grandiose ideas about how to arrive. He actually made arrangements to land on the vacant lot next door in a Grasshopper, which is a small helicopter. But when the copter owner saw the site, he said, “No way, not with a $200,000 helicopter. It’s too risky.” Gene and I tried to convince him, but we had to let go of the idea. Instead, we ended up arriving in a Chris Craft boat, pulled by a semi-trailer. That was fairly impressive. Gene was waving the whole time, and he had on a white suit that said “Mr. President” on it. Anyway, that’s about as far as I can go without breaking the “code of silence” that is so important to all members of the Curran Street Men’s Club. —Doug Vachon, friend
An Artist’s Eye
Gene would often tell people they worked too much and didn’t take time to play. He also thought I was a little too buttoned up. So one day he came to me and said, “I painted your portrait.” I said, “Oh?” “Well, now, don’t take offense,” he replied, “but it’s the way I want to view you, the way I’d like to think of you ad what I’d like to see you do more of in life.” It was of me at play in a bikini. I’ve called two people recently to say how much I loved and cared about them — something Gene did on a regular basis. —Randy Jones, friend
Gene’s Homemade Sauna
I had a great time back in 1983 living in Gene’s Curran Street basement apartment. We had some really great times in his homemade sauna in the backyard: a hole we dug to sit around, filled with hot rocks we poured water over, all covered over by an old army tent. As the steam filled, it was too hot from so I crawled out, listening to Gene’s ever-present chuckle. —Jim McKibben, friend
The Preacher Next Door
I moved in across the street from Gene where I lived in a red brick church. I had some preconceived ideas about artists and Gene had some preconceived ideas about preachers, but in the middle of Candler Park Drive, we discovered common ground: neither of us could draw within the lines! He had such a concern for his neighbors, especially elderly ones. He’d put his life in some lady’s hands who shouldn’t have been driving, just to help her at the grocery store. We tried to get him to come to church. Finally, Bertha Summers got him there. But we had been kidding him endlessly about the Gene Allcott Honorary Pew — right in the back on the right. So he finally came in and sat in his own pew. The thing that impressed me the most about Gene was that he was not the epitome of, but he was the good Samaritan. —Fred Plate
360s in the Snow
Gene and I started our long friendship on a snowy night. I was still in classes but Gene had already graduated. We had been friends but not as close as we would become starting that night. I lived right behind the High Museum on Lombardy Way and was at home enjoying the snow from my warm apartment when I heard a knock on the door.
It was Gene. He was supposed to be having an exhibit opening but it got cancelled because of the snow. He was all gussied up for his show opening and was disappointed it didn’t happen. He was also disappointed that there would be no liquid refreshment provided now that the show was cancelled. I had a barely opened bottle of Tanqueray gin and some tonic water. We proceeded to put the hurt on the bottle of gin.
After many toasts to our health and future it was decided that we should get out and enjoy the snow. I had recently bought a used, school bus yellow Toyota Corolla for $800. We could think of no greater fun than to take it into the parking lot next door and see if we could do a 360° spinout. Thankfully this story doesn’t end in the emergency room or jail.
We never did get it to go a full 360° but we had a ball. We went back and finished the bottle – and began a fantastic friendship. —Kevin Sartain, friend
Bowling with a Blind Man
In the ‘70s, back when I had an apartment in the building at Pershing Point where Gene worked as a janitor so he’d have time to paint, I discovered Gene’s love of bowling. On special holidays, a bunch of us would go to Morrison’s in Ansley Mall for dinner and then go bowling. Gene would beat us every time. I don’t know how he did it. Gene was going to silk-screen some bowling shorts for the rest of us that said, “I was beat by the blind man.” He never did it, of course; it was more of a conceptual thing. And if you ever wondered about Gene’s mole tattoo and why he named his studio the Mole’s Studio, it was because moles are sort of blind. —Dennis Darling, friend, University of Texas, Austin
A Few Errands….
Ever since we became friends and since he couldn’t get a driver’s license, Gene would call me up and say “I gotta run to the bank” or something similar. I would go over thinking I would just run him to the bank and back and get on with my chores. But the minute Gene would get in the car he would run down a list: Just need to swing by Pearl Paint and get some canvas… Just need to hop out at the post office and mail a few letters and on and on. It would turn into a whole day of errands.
It was always fun and I treasure every memory of those days now. —Kevin Sartain, friend
The night of Gene’s memorial service I was unable to go. There was just no way I could leave the restaurant (Chow’s where Gene’s large painting Uptown Couple hung prominently on the wall). The restaurant was packed. First a couple came in who dined there often. Pointing to Uptown Couple, they said they had been house-hunting and had just bought a house that had an Allcott painting in the living room. Then a woman came in and, while she was waiting for a table, pointed to Uptown Couple and mentioned that she had an appointment with Gene the following week. I had to tell her the tragic news. Then another couple came in and, while they were waiting, told a funny story about Gene. I told them the memorial service for him was beginning at that very moment.
With that, there was a loud thud, and Uptown Couple fell off the wall. It was a large painting and got everyone’s attention. When Gene delivered Uptown Couple a few years back, he had insisted on hanging it himself, so Richard and I had not seen his inscription to us on the back until the painting fell that night. —Mary Lou Dorio, owner, Chow Restaurant
We had a great friend named Grog, a rotund world traveler who upon one of his return visits left us with something that looked like a big brown paper onion. But it was more the size and weight of a large grapefruit — and had a 12-inch fuse sprouting from the top. Grog told us to use a wide cardboard tube to launch the object. I took the initiative and scotch-taped a make-shift Canaveral with scraps of cardboard and a tube. That night at Gene’s recommendation we found a clearing in a grassy valley at Piedmont Park (forever after referred to as GROUND ZERO.) So there we were all crowded around the Big Bad Onion. I leaned forward and flicked my Bic. The moment the flame touched the huge fuse, we instant knew the score: this was a “flash fuse” meant to operate by remote control! As we dove away in all directions the tube fell over and the “onion” exploded! Comets of green fire shot past us as we sprinted into the night, Gene’s chuckling provided a contrasting counterpoint. The “onion” turned out to be a professional device of the chrysanthemum variety — those things you usually see in the sky on the Fourth of July! —Dan Henderson, friend
Checking on Friends
In winter it was harder for Gene to get out and about, so he’d call up a friend and say, “Well, do you have any errands to do?” Which I knew meant he needed to go to Kinkos or someplace. The first time we went out, I didn’t know how much he saw. Since I needed gas, we pulled up to the gas station and he jumped out and said, “I’ll pump the gas.” And I thought, Oh my God, what am I going to do? So he got out and pumped it, knowing that I wasn’t sure how much he could see. Finished, he came around and said, “Not bad for a blind man.”
Another time when we were watching fireworks and having such a great time, I said, “You know, I love this color.” And he just put his arm around me and smiled, “You think it’s great, but you should see it like I do!” Gene did see differently. I do know he saw life differently from the rest of us. And he was constantly checking up on his friends. He’d call me every morning about 8:15 and would say, “Margaret, this is your buddy just checking on you.” And at the end of our conversation, Gene would always say, “I love you.” —Margaret Clarkson
Bat Boy and Julian
One day I was in a restaurant when I saw a woman wearing a “Bat Boy” T-shirt. I went over and said, “You must be one of “Gene’s People.” It was Debra Morse. She told me that she’d recently met Alexander Julian, now a well-known designer who is also from Chapel Hill, at the opening of his store in Phipps Plaza, and that when Gene was a little boy growing up in Chapel Hill, Julian used to buy his drawings for a quarter or a dollar or whatever, and they became good friends. Alexander Julian was later having a showing at Neiman Marcus and asked Debra to bring Gene. Well, you know how Gene dressed. He had on shorts and a T-shirt and sneakers and a baseball cap — probably the one that said, “God, I’m good.” Apparently a haughty saleswoman didn’t want to let him in to see Julian.
Finally, Julian heard the commotion and went over and gave Gene a big bear hug and said he wanted to talk to him about doing some drawings to put on some of his clothes. —Glenn Carroll, friend
To some ACA alumni, the idea of calling former classmates and asking for contributions to an ACA scholarship fund was more than a little unappealing. Not to Gene Allcott. With ten minutes of coaching, a generic script and a list of phone numbers, Gene’s performance began. Everyone in the 14 suites of offices heard his opening “HEEEY THERE.” It was long and loud. Like an old-style politician, Gene worked the list. Cradling the phone, fidgeting in his chair and bellowing out those “HEEEY THEREs.” By evening’s end when all the $5, $10 and $50 contributions were counted, no one wondered why Gene brought in the most money.
The script said, “Be yourself.” Gene was.
—Ann Chamberlain, Milwaukee Institute of of Art and Design, Former Director of Development, Atlanta College of Art
Gene, a Math Whiz?
There's many memories of Gene. I think he was a wiz at math. He sat ahead of me and I copied off his paper. He had those extra thick glasses, legally blind but still seeing; I didn't feel so bad about my extra thick lenses after seeing his. He had to move his head around in a circle to get your picture, or at least that's what I thought. But there was his always big toothy grin that melted away any agony you were experiencing at the time, and made it all much better. There wasn't much that Gene wouldn't try doing, no matter how it may have affected him later. I bet him $20 that he couldn't swim the length of the Independent School's pond in February. Shivering wet in his underwear, I handed him my twenty. — Billy Arthur, Jr.
A Life Force
Years ago I shingling my roof in Vermont, way up in the wilds. John Allcott, Gene’s dad, was setting up his easel on our dirt road; sister Elinor in short, white shorts that almost made me fall off the roof, and Gene, ½ blind Gene, hefting a bale of shingles on his shoulder — total weight about 60 pounds — struggling up the ladder to deliver them to us, we shinglers, on the roof. All he did was laugh and refuse help. How that ladder swayed. How Gene laughed!
No question: a life force. But… true confessions, I probably recalled Elinor and her shorts more than Gene. I DID recall Gene, though, feeling he was going to crash any minute. — Jack Calhoun, President and CEO Hope Matters
Once I was visiting my mother and Gene came down to visit. On the way back from the airport, we went to this little country bar way in the boonies. When we walked in the door, of course there was complete silence. Then the band started playing George Jones, and after one set Gene started dancing. You could have just heard 50 cowboys’ jaws hitting the floor! After about 20 minutes, however, the whole bar was buying us beers. I guess that’s one of the things about Gene: no matter what walk of life, or who someone was, he could win them over. I feel lucky. For years I’ve gotten those phone calls with, “You’re one of my people. Come see my new show.” — a friend
At the Schenck School, for children with learning disabilities where I was teaching art, I came up with this great idea: Gene would work with the school kids. This would be a once-a-week or once-a-month thing, I thought. But, then again, we all know Gene. He came to school with me every day for six months! Of course, on the way he went by Dunkin’ Donuts. If anyone could touch every one of the lives of these kids, Gene could. I mean, no color was wrong. Here I am an art teacher, and it’s like “Oh, my God!” Everything they did turned out purple! That year we painted 40 pieces of children’s decorator furniture. We had headboards with heads on them, footstools with feet on them. It’s an endless list….”
—Cathy Day, Art Director, Schenck School
“Get Me the President!”
Over the years Gene bought stock and would ask me for the annual reports so he could get the presidents’ names. He had no problem picking up the phone and going straight to the top. Sometimes he couldn’t get through; it wasn’t company policy. But several times he did. Once one of his stocks in a solar panel company wasn’t doing well — it was in its infancy and not commonplace. So when Gene contacted the president, he said, “Gee, I just wanted you to know I’m a stockholder and am not planning to sell, even with your company’s downturn. I believe in what you’re doing and wanted to encourage you!”
Then he’d call me up to report what the president said. He was like his mother that way: she was never afraid to call anyone about anything, anytime. —John Irby, stockbroker
I knew Gene for only three or four months — yet it seems like we had been friends for life. I felt like I had this special relationship with Gene that nobody else had, then I found out that everybody had this “special” relationship. I was told Gene might be interested in helping teach a painting class to a group of kids in the Peoplestown community. Gene, of course, wanted to help and was bubbling over with ideas. As I left after our talk, he said, “Hold on Jim. I’ve got something for you.” He reached down, fumbled around and pulled out a long, green and black rubber snake and said, “Here, Jim, I want you to have this.” Well, I was surprised to say the least. I took the snake to my office and put him at the bottom of a large tree and had fun moments with it. —Jim Greenwood, friend
A Little Friendly Advice
You have to give the Atlanta College of Art credit for taking both me (48 and a widow) and Gene Allcott in the same class! One bit of advice he gave me was, “Maria, you have to send out signals.” Puzzled, I asked, “What do you mean?” His quick reply: “Your pants are too baggy.” He’d always say, “Hi, I love you.” Best of all, I cherished his story about an Allcott tradition of having second desserts in the evening. The family would gather in the kitchen, and they would talk history, politics and art as they ate another dessert, often pound cake with ice cream and chocolate sauce! In fact, Gene’s 1985 painting, “Informal Pie Talk,” harkens back to this tradition. —Maria Ladd, Atlanta College of Art, Class of 1977
“Is It Time Yet?”
"Not too long after we graduated Gene and I ended up living in the same apartment building on West Peachtree and 17th street called Le Pavillan Hotel. One day I walked into the building just in time to see Gene and one other person carrying a REFRIGERATOR down the steps BAREHANDED WITH NO DOLLY.
I told him what I thought of that idea but he just laughed. Gene was always doing something like this!
About this time Gene decided he was going to make beer. I remember going somewhere and buying the stuff to make the beer. Gene’s entire kitchen floor would be covered in long neck Budweiser bottles full of fermenting beer. I would check in weekly and ask, “Is it was time yet?” Finally Gene would give the thumbs up. We would sample the beer and see if was up to the expectations. It was always hit or miss but one thing is for sure, the stuff was potent. We would be blotto before we knew what hit us!
The super for the building lived in the basement. He was a big African American guy with a large wife. Every weekend without fail his wife would cook up an enormous vat of collards. The entire apartment building would smell like cooking greens all weekend. Sometimes it would be comforting but other times you just wished the smell would go away. On many occasions Gene and I would get a bowlful and they were delicious. —Kevin Sartain, friend
Viewing his surroundings as a colorful kaleidoscope, he approached art — and life — in sparkling ways that others wouldn’t have dared, as Gene’s People can testify. What would Gene say? With a laugh, as if the key lay in his poor vision, he might have shrugged and remarked, “If you can’t see it coming, you don’t know it’s trouble.” That’s vintage Gene. Full throttle ahead. Talking with pizzazz (a word, which he would have reminded you, that sounds like “pizza”). But whatever it was, a lot of people would maintain it’s really all due to a stroke of Gene-ius! —Elinor Allcott Griffith, sister
So Many Stories…
Gene’s overbrimming enthusiasm was contagious. People always smile when they remember an experience with him or start to tell a story. His friends suspect that art and life were one and the same for Gene.
— Ellen L. Meyer, President, The Atlanta College of Art