• September 21, 2019

Who inspires us to be passionate about what we do? - Ocean City Sentinel: News

Who inspires us to be passionate about what we do?

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Posted: Wednesday, July 31, 2019 11:30 am

Editor’s note: People have stories about a family member, a friend or mentor who influenced their life. Mine isn’t special in the larger scheme of things, but the story is special to me. I hope it reminds others about what inspired them.


My father was an artist. Had been since he was a boy. He’s not famous, though he had a substantial following in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. His last public show was in 2002. His work is in numerous private collections.

I look at his paintings every day. They adorn walls in my house and in my office.

The paintings, and my father, gave me an unspoken lesson in life: follow your passion.

I’m not an artist. My passion is being a journalist and a photographer. I spend my time capturing scenes around me in words and photographs. 

I am jealous of what my father had always been able to do, which is to create art out of his own imagination. My mother and sister, who are artists and teachers, have that ability, and my brother has his musical ability to match.

My jealousy isn’t based in anger or a sense of unfairness that I didn’t get that talent gene. It is based in wonder. I look at his paintings every day – newer ones and some of the same paintings that I have looked at since I was a boy – and they fill me with joy. It is not just the work itself, but the passion I see what helped create it.

He led me, by example, to my own passion, to believe in my own path.

Growing up, my father was gone a lot. He was only 150 yards away from the house in his studio, but he was gone, lost in his painting – his passion. 

From early morning until evening he was at his studio. In the years he did double duty as a draftsman because art didn’t pay  the bills, he was at the studio every night when he came home from work and on the weekends. In the years he was working purely as an artist, I’d see him in the mornings before school and at dinner.

I have always thought of him as a good father, loving, not a stern disciplinarian, but there was a presence and absence about him. He was present with us when he was around us, but there was an absence when he was consumed by his art. 

When he was present, he was fully there.

He loved to make silly drawings to amuse his family. He did masterful ink drawings with “his beautiful line,” as another artist described it, but for us they turned into the absurd, often with bizarre poetry to match. The drawings and poems amused him as much as they amused us. He would laugh as he showed them to us.

He worked for decades with slow-drying oil paint, until the turpentine proved too painful for his fingers. For years he tried to protect them with cotton gloves, but when that failed he switched to quick-drying acrylics, which changed his palette and the time to work on paintings. 

My father suffered a devastating fire in the early 1970s that consumed his old wooden studio that was warmed by a woodstove and filled with paintings and other combustible materials used to make them. At the time we believed a spark from a dying ember got out of the stove and started the fire.

A woman on a farm a mile away in the valley below our hilltop home spotted the fire because she couldn’t sleep. She called our house and the volunteer fire department.

My brother and I, still boys, rushed down to the studio, me with a fire extinguisher and my brother beating the ground with a bench, trying to stop the smaller flames trying to spread to the nearby woods while we waited for the fire department.

We were relieved that our father was out of town that night with my mother so he wouldn’t have been tempted to try to save some of his work from the inferno.

A new studio was built out of a modified Bally Case and Cooler walk-in refrigerator. He worked as a draftsman at Bally Case, like he did at Knoll before that, to earn paychecks when he didn’t have consistent art shows. 

The new studio had sliding glass front doors and high windows up above to catch the natural light. He painted in that studio for decades. He loved to show us paintings there and ask our thoughts about them.

I went to most of his shows with the rest of my family. What I remember most about a 1960s show at Rutgers University was not the big campus, but that my brother and I wore little blue blazers for the opening, a radical change from our normal attire.

My father gave me my first painting when I graduated from high school. One of my other favorite paintings that he did in acrylics is a dark abstract work of five firefighters in their gear. It hangs in my living room. I have had it since I began my newspaper career three and a half decades ago. 

I saw him working on the painting in his (new) studio one afternoon and told him I liked it just as it was. He wasn’t sure it was finished – he was rarely sure he was finished with most of his paintings – but he agreed after adding one more transparent color wash.

He said I could have it if I traded him the high-top sneakers I was wearing. I agreed and spirited that painting away from the studio, the color wash not quite dry.

That was his style. He wore those sneakers for a long time. Years later, he asked if he could borrow the painting just to work on it some more. I politely refused. In recent years he changed palettes again and painted over much of his old work.

My father was far from perfect. I don’t believe in idyllic families anyway. There is always the good and the bad. If you know you were loved you came out on the better side of the equation.

Life with my father was more than art.

Food was big.

When he worked at Bally Case and Cooler, I worked three summers there, two in the parts department and the last in the metal shop. My older brother spent that summer working there too.

We hated the metal shop, but loved lunchtime. There was a small outdoor area with a few trees. The three of us would meet when the lunch buzzer sounded. Our father would make our lunches, often little pita-pocket sandwiches filled with a salad concoction. I would wolf them down and then close my eyes, listening to my father and brother talk and the breeze rustling the leaves in the trees above, drifting in and out of a quick nap and trying to forget the gray interior of the shop.

My father loved food so much that every meal he ate was the best meal he ate. Didn’t matter if it was at Ralph’s Italian Restaurant in South Philadelphia, the roast beef special at a cheap diner, or something he concocted in the kitchen.

I still think about the steak and scallions, a hearty political argument mixed with laughter happily raging between the kitchen and dining room table as smoke from the cast-iron skillet set off the smoke alarms. 

Best meal I ever had. 

Having an artist father had its advantages. Without a formal workplace to go to, twice we were able to take long family summer trips all the way across the country in a stationwagon, towing a little pop-up camper, sleeping in sleeping bags, mom cooking on a tiny portable gas stove – lots of macaroni and cheese – and camping in national parks.

As we got older, my father knew he had lost time with his children when we were younger.

He tried to make up for some of those absences after we had grown. 

There was the time when I was in college in Colorado and opened an envelope containing a funny letter and a photocopy of three $10 bills. He wrote that he couldn’t afford to part with the money, but wanted me to know he was thinking about me.

The time he hand-delivered a pound of loose tea from the old Spice Corner in Philadelphia to his editor son in Massachusetts, an excuse to make a six-hour drive for a quick visit.

The time he sat by my hospital bed after an operation, then later handed me a small notebook of ink sketches, including one of me, the pain written across my face.

The countless hours looking and talking about art: the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Met in New York City, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., and his favorite, the Barnes Foundation, where he went to learn about art after the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. 

He was educated at the Barnes when Dr. Albert C. Barnes was alive and sent on a tour of Europe by the Barnes’ director of education Violette de Mazia (known only as Miss de Mazia to us kids). He had a complicated relationship with de Mazia and years later with the foundation itself during its controversial changes and move from Merion, Pa., to Philadelphia. He was interviewed for the documentary, “The Art of the Steal.” He didn’t like the new Barnes Foundation, but he couldn’t stay away from the art. He was there earlier this year.

My father loved his extended family, his siblings, his nieces and nephews,  his lifelong friends. And he loved to take all of us to museums to talk about the paintings and the artists. He could sit on a bench in a gallery and talk about a single painting for hours. 

He was a Jewish kid, born in South Philadelphia to a father whose family fled Russia in the early 1900s. His father owned a few shoe stores and, for a while, a small four-apartment building in Wildwood where the family would spend part of their summers. He enjoyed the boardwalk and crabbing.

I drive by that little apartment building every now and again.

He had the encouragement of his adoring three older sisters and older brother who supported his passion and helped convince their father that a life working in a shoe store would not be any kind of life for him.

He wasn’t an observant Jew by any means. He married my Catholic mother in the 1950s; that wedding album is not filled with smiles. On the food angle, as my brother joked, he was the type of Jew who happily cooked the Christmas ham. 

My parents’ marriage, being raised in that mixed religion environment in which neither overwhelmed the other, simultaneously taught me acceptance and sometimes anger, at organized religion, but mostly tolerance about beliefs.

Let me pause this column a moment to make something clear: this wasn’t meant as a posthumous reflection.

I started writing this a few weeks ago when my father’s trip to the doctor turned into a trip to a physical rehabilitation center, then quickly went downhill into hospice care. The doctors gave him anywhere from a week to six months to live.

My father, Irvin Nahan, died in his sleep, early Monday morning, July 22, 2019.

He was 92.

We had celebrated his birthday a month earlier with family and friends.

Before he died, I got to see him a few more times and talk to him. He knew how I felt about him. He also got to visit with my siblings, all of his grandchildren, nieces and nephews and friends. Before he slipped away, he made clear his love for all of us, and us for him.

At the funeral home, my sister had him dressed in comfy attire, a red T-shirt covered by a dark blue flannel long-sleeved shirt, and red sweatpants, his usual attire in his later years. 

My sister tucked the arts section from The New York Times into his shirt pocket. I added an old paintbrush. Before I put the brush in his pocket, I used it to dab a little orange paint on his forearm before covering it with his sleeve. It didn’t seem right for him to be without it. 

For most of his life, it was impossible to remember him unadorned by paint.

I don’t know my father’s most deeply held religious beliefs or what he thought would happen after he died. He didn’t share them with me.

I hope there is a waiting room between death and what comes after. A waiting room filled with paintings. And maybe a snack.


David Nahan is editor and publisher of the Ocean City Sentinel, Cape May Star and Wave, Upper Township Sentinel and The Sentinel of Somers Point, Linwood and Northfield.

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