After some 50+ years of not thinking very much about the U.S. Senate Youth Program, run by the Hearst Foundation, except for feeling lingering gratitude, I reconnected, sending a letter and getting a response. More communication, and a call, followed, and I was asked to submit something for their blog. Realizing my tendency to drift during conversations, I opted to put my reflections in writing. If there is perhaps undue attention to my coming out experiences, that is because I was told many of the teenagers attending (virtually during Covid) the ongoing annual program struggle with their sexual identity, sometimes in difficult environments, and my experience might help to make a difference in their lives to come.
I was lucky to be selected as a delegate from Wisconsin to attend the U.S. Senate Youth Program in 1967. This was in many ways the high water mark of my youthful “extracurricular” activities. My experience with the program helped to instill self-confidence and devotion to public service that have served me well in community political efforts, volunteering on many political campaigns and efforts. Afterwards, my life changed in many ways—I moved to California, living in Oakland for the last 50 years, became an artist.
Brevity has never been my long suit, but here goes:
My selection as a delegate was the direct result of efforts by my Pewaukee High School history teacher and student council advisor, Robert Thomas. Pewaukee was then a small town 20 miles outside Milwaukee, not yet a “suburb,” and before Waukesha County (where Pewaukee is located) became one of the Wisconsin “WOW” counties, known for lakes, large lots with big new houses, and as a Republican stronghold. Back then, I had classmates who came by bus from farms; while the Pewaukee “bourgeoisie” with larger, ranch style houses were simply professionals like doctors and lawyers. But since it is truly a small world, within walking distance from Pewaukee Lake where I took lifeguard classes, was the office of the local realtor, Jack Koepp, the father of famous filmmakers/writers, the Koepp brothers, David (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible) and Stephen.
Another “celebrity” connection was the summer home for the Montgomery Ward family in nearby Oconomowoc—the French provincial-style mansion, Knollward, which seemed impossibly grand and romantic, in contrast to my house—a three-bedroom, one-bath, new tract house that providentially backed upon a creek, good for ice skating and fishing. And since it’s really only two or so degrees of separation, hardly six, my husband’s father summer-tutored the Ward children, ca. 1920s.
My parents were blue-collar working class, now referred to as “middle class,” which sounds less class-conscious and Marxian. My father mixed concrete for the large pre-cast panels with embedded gravel which graced building facades of that era. He also cleaned the town library, formerly a church, now the town hall. My mother had a sweatshop job (literally) on the second floor of a warehouse building, sewing power puffs for Avon. She later had nurses’ training, ended up caring for elderly nuns, for whom she felt great sympathy.
Although my origins were pretty humble—a farm in Park Falls in Northern Wisconsin without running water or plumbing where my father tried to scrape out a living with subsistence farming, hunting, trapping, and logging—and I had been mercilessly teased and humiliated for being effeminate by classmates once we relocated to Southern Wisconsin, I learned to prosper and succeed, finding allies and disarming with humor. I was elected student council president, senior and junior class president, joined the honor society, participated in forensics, performed in Oklahoma!, the senior class play, even pursued track for a “well-rounded resume.”
My parents weren’t intellectuals, but they wanted their three children to prosper, and education was seen as the vehicle. Unlike some skeptical parents, they appreciated the young teachers coming to this little hamlet, that I likened to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, complete with cemetery with the town forebears. But my parents voted and paid attention to politics, and my mother had a resentment of authority and male patriarchal figures like her father. This translated into sympathy for the civil rights movement, manifested in Milwaukee with Father Groppi’s famous marches. When George Wallace appeared at a rally in 1968, I went to protest. My younger 115-pound, 5-foot, 8 inch-self was standing on a chair, yelling and chanting, when I turned around and saw my parents, more demurely sitting behind me, smiling in approval.
The arts played a major role, not just as after-school electives. Margaret Hawkins was the choral director, and Peter Schellin was the art teacher. Together they taught the fine arts classes, combining study of music and art. We took field trips to Chicago to see the opera and Chicago Art Institute. This was their first job out of college. While it was “just” a small town they took their calling very seriously: Hawkins made sure their concerts were recorded on LPs, she scolded me fiercely for a snarky Beethoven remark in the cafeteria. Looking back, I realize their protector and patron was the underwhelming, apparently stuffy (to a child) School Superintendent L.E. Houle, a Columbia University graduate. He had their backs, but it must have been difficult, with pushback. Schellin later taught at CSU-LA, came out, rather. Hawkins went on to teach art history at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee and Director of Performance Activities at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Her career pinnacle was as choral director for the Milwaukee Symphony. I reconnected with both of them later.
Thomas, my high school advisor, wasn’t as approachable as Schellin and Hawkins, he had a mature Gregory Peck look with trousers hiked up high over his waist, and he was somewhat contrarian and flinty in his teaching of American history—he taught the good and bad, that some of our wars were imperialistic, not idealistic in intent. He shattered myths—a segue to the Vietnam War and civil rights movement boiling over and the context for the Senate Youth Program event in 1967 that I attended.
The Senate Youth Program 1967 Washington Trip
It was quite a memorable experience, beginning with the airplane trip (my first) and the Mayflower Hotel (lots of gilt, as I recall). The Hearst Foundation recently emailed me the yearbook photos and schedule from that trip to jog my memory, but I don’t remember the trips to Mt. Vernon or the Smithsonian—we were kept so busy the whole time some is a blur and it’s not just the passage of time.
I do still remember vividly hearing a talk by Attorney General Ramsey Clark, even being led though FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s office, with him at a chilly distance. It was a livelier meeting with LBJ. If my memory is correct, LBJ patted me on the head and called me “carrot top.” (I once had hair, which was red.) He was so tall. I was just a rather innocent teenager, but I was dazzled by his charisma/sexual energy/life force—exuding power and ease. He glowed! Wis. Senator Gaylord (Earth Day) Nelson graciously batted away my political fulminating when we met in his photo-lined office—I was a fervent, outspoken young Republican then.
My achievements were partly a cover-up and compensation for the fact that I knew I was gay, a realization that did not make me happy. I enrolled at UW-Madison, but by my sophomore year was immersed in anti-Vietnam War politics, as my father feared. My first act ended with my “separation” from college, the result of a demonstration gone awry. The R.D. Laing description of The Divided Self helps explain my personal transformation that ensued: I needed to break free of my straightjacket, as it were, become a more authentic version of myself, coming out. It was a painful, messy rupture, one hopefully others can skip. Tammy Baldwin, Harvey Milk, and now Pete Buttigieg have opened up the possibility for other lesbian, gay, and transgender people to participate openly in public life, not hiding or faking, without self-loathing. Interestingly, two gay forerunners, Gary Studds and Barney Frank, came out when their private lives spilled into public view, but they may have been surprised that the upshot was not ostracism or tragedy but acceptance by their constituents and colleagues, and survival. Living to tell the tale.
By 1971 at a gay liberation meeting in Berkeley I met my lifelong partner, Alfred Crofts, and we moved into the house in which we still Iive, initially as renters. We married twice, once in 2004 (a “San Francisco marriage,” was the way my sister dismissed it), and then in a rush in 2008, just before the passage of Proposition 8, the ban on same-sex marriage in California which would have made that marriage impossible. (What will the Supreme Court “fix” next?)
We worked against the Briggs Initiative (Proposition 6) that would have forbidden openly gay teachers in California, which resulted in our being recruited by civil rights attorney Matt Coles to help pass the Berkeley gay rights ordinance in the 1970s (that effort was a tryout for the move to enact the legislation in SF, depicted in the movie Milk). I later became involved in grass roots pro-preservation politics. We protected from demolition the nearby community college, Old Merritt College, originally University High School, designed by notable architect Charles Dickey, where the Black Panther Party originated, and later participated in the successful efforts to save the Oakland Fox Theater and the Art Deco Floral Depot.
The Old Merritt College battle was long and difficult, over a six-year span from 1985 until restoration efforts began in 1991. The City of Oakland owned the site and determinedly pushed a demolition course, hiring notorious, well connected developers for their planned strip mall. The moldering, pre-renovation school was used as the set for the movie, The Principal. We formed a neighborhood group, North Oakland Voters Alliance (NOVA), held monthly meetings in neighborhood schools and churches, distributed monthly newsletters door to door (peaking at 3000). We fund-raised and held garage sales to raise money for landmarking and a successful lawsuit in federal court over “demolition by neglect.” I often chaired the monthly meetings, with crowds as big as 100 people, by learning the acting trick of pretending to be calm and in charge.
The speaker who attracted the largest crowd, and to a meeting I chaired, was then mayoral candidate, Jerry Brown, probably the most nationally known Oakland politician. We had crossed paths when he was at his political nadir, a self-described “recovering politician,” living at his We the People (dubbed “Me the People” by the more cynical) warehouse building in Downtown Oakland, and hosting a radio show at the venerable leftie KPFA in Berkeley. We helped form a group of citywide activists to keep the mega-HMO, Kaiser Permanente, from pulling up stakes in Oakland and moving to nearby Emeryville. Brown wanted in. He also started going to City Council meetings, and realized, with his self-described “hundred-million-dollar name,” that he had a path to elected office reentry.
We later butted heads over the demolition of a landmark Montgomery Warehouse building (that family and company again!), but were on the same side over the restoration of the empty Fox Theatre Building. He added a performing arts component. Brown followed, in my opinion, the best Oakland mayor in recent years, Elihu Harris, who encouraged community participation. For better or worse, Brown with his pro-development line and encouragement of “10K” new residents (read: whites) in Downtown Oakland, created the gentrified Oakland of today, with the extremes of wealth and poverty. Brown is a superbly skilled, natural politician—a chameleon as far as political beliefs, with an awareness of the zeitgeist of the moment, like a cork bobbing on water, never to sink. Once he shed his black-clad guru/aide-de-camp/bodyguard Jacques Barzaghi, and made chief of staff and married former GAP lawyer Anne Gust, he was headed back to Sacramento, as attorney general and then governor again, after 28 years, not looking back.
Luckily for my mental health, resisting the City’s “spring and fall offensives” as we referred to them, I had a printmaking teaching job at UC-Davis in 1991. I felt the load lift from my shoulders as I drove out of town, the burden returned as I reentered. I was so excited when renovation finally began on Old Merritt College, with immense steel beams being lowered through the roof, that I distractedly plowed into the car ahead, totaling my truck—a symbolic sacrifice.
But we learned a lot about community organizing, promoting and precinct organizing for city council reform candidates across the city to replace the incumbents, our adversaries. I hated more than anything to place “cold calls” to voters but desperation allowed me even to do those. The old high school now is repurposed as the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, the former auditorium serves as a senior center, and a large public park and housing fill the nine-acre site.
Emboldened by this unlikely success (preservation is often a losing battle), I joined the board of Oakland Heritage Alliance and participated in successful efforts to save important buildings like the Fox Theatre and the Art Deco Floral Depot.
My primary identity, however, is as an artist. I graduated with an M.F.A. from UC-Berkeley in 1982, and have worked as an artist ever since. My enrollment at Berkeley was fortuitous—the school was just up the street. The art department included faculty like Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown, peers and students of David Park, respectively, and the late Park’s pioneering independence and innovation, resisting the commercial pressures of the art world, permeated the place, but rebels like sculptor Peter Voulkos were nationally famous, critically and financially. Park didn’t live long enough see his reputation soar, not did visitor Jay De Feo, whose Rose painting is now enshrined at the Whitney. Marian Parmenter and Sally Lilienthal, founders of the SFMOMA Artists Gallery, visited my studio at UC-Berkeley, and, under Parmenter’s helm, the gallery remained my most significant gallery connection for the next 40 years.
(See my tribute to Marian Parmenter elsewhere on this website.)
My work serves me as a visual diary of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen—what matters to me. Travel, nearby or far-away; landscapes and gardens; pets and other animals; art and architecture (high and low); bodies of water—lakes, rivers, oceans; Ukiyo-e woodblock prints; friends and significant others; occasionally inspirational figures like Virginia Woolf, artists, or villains like Whitey Bulger. All grist for the mill. My paintings are on panel now, earlier they were on canvas. I also produce works on paper including pastel and acrylic, and prints—woodblocks, etchings, plexicuts. I often combine painting, printmaking, and drawing.
I would never encourage anyone to consider becoming an artist unless they are convinced they have no other choice, like “outsider artists.” Living outside the major art capitals like New York City or Los Angeles, in the Bay Area, I’m familiar with the survival strategies of artists like lucking into teaching positions or holding day jobs to pay the bills. I’m also aware that artists have “runs,” periods of attention and financial returns, that can end quickly. Art is akin to Fashion. As cultural workers, we need proponents like Harold Ickes of the Franklin Roosevelt administration who created the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other programs to assist artists. It was perhaps not wise to have other interests and passions. I remember an artist friend passed along the comments of a curator she knew from the local museum -- "I see Bob's name in the papers all the time, but it's all about his political activities." I took that as a warning, a criticism, and the curator never took an interest in my work.
But another curator at the Oakland Museum of California, Therese Heyman, with unflappable imperturbability gained from a childhood in New York City, graduation from Smith College, and long-time seniority, did promote me—buying a print for the museum’s collection, lobbying for my inclusion in an Oakland artists survey exhibit. Her lasting legacy will be as the person responsible for securing the Dorothea Lange archive for the museum. Her independence and self-possession came in handy with the blazing career of her law professor husband, I. Michael (Mike) Heyman, who was chancellor of UC-Berkeley and then Secretary of the Smithsonian. She invited us to stay at their Washington, D.C. house when they were away, so we got to visit museums and see Mr. Vernon (again, for me), Monticello, and the incredibly moving Vietnam War Memorial.
I have strained against the limits of how artists are supposed to behave, waiting patiently for opportunities, curating shows whenever I’ve had the opportunity. As an Oakland Pro Arts board member, I co-curated two shows (with M. Louise Stanley) for their Oakland gallery: Some Portraits (1987) and Multiples (1988). I also curated Three Generations: Caldwell Brewer, Robert Brokl, Sean Sprague, Space 743, San Francisco, 1999. I was president of the California Society of Printmakers in 1980, helping to organize the Contemporary California Prints exhibit at UC-Davis and San Jose Museum of Art. Now in my third act, I’ve also become involved in legacy issues, promoting late artists like my friend and mentor, my gay artist father, Richard Caldwell Brewer, and other underappreciated artists.
(See my article on Richard Caldwell Brewer, on this website.)
Visual artists play such a curious role in today’s world, hardly movers and shakers like Velazquez and Rubens in their day, acting as diplomats and courtiers. (Entertainers are another matter, looming large in the Twitter/Facebook/Instagram culture.) Members of Congress are increasingly not just lawyers, but it’s hard to imagine an artist there, either. Writers, more so—Gore Vidal even ran for Congress and made a respectable showing. Also, I note with Czech/Bohemian pride, playwright Vaclav Havel, who served as prime minister of Czechoslovakia, inaugurating the post-Soviet era. Our marginality is perhaps why artists gain recognition and manage a livelihood though notoriety (Warhol) or provocation (Mapplethorpe). But the risk of controversy in these polarized times is that the arts themselves become targets. “Culture Wars” with real casualties—the National Endowment for the Arts ceased individual artist grants.
But other than my work reflecting and mirroring my identity—including my existence as a gay man, traveler, and gardener—my activities and political engagement outside the studio may contribute to my need to be introspective in the studio. My themes are not overtly political, except in rare instances, but of course reflect a time and place, and Nature and Landscape are unavoidably “political” in this era of climate crisis.
To present and future Senate Youth Program attendees, I say: Lucky you—your life is about to begin!
The Young Mr. Brokl Goes To Washington
1967 Pewaukee High School Senior Prom, my date: Patricia Pattow Downing
Sylvester Brokl, Newman Lake, Park Falls, Wisconsin, ca. 1960s
Downtown Park Falls I, acrylic paper, 30”X22,” 1987 The river ran gold, discharge from the paper mill (pictured). The tradeoff: the only decent jobs around, if you were lucky enough to get on, the locals proud of their connection to the Kansas City Star
Ruth Ware Brokl, Park Falls Wisconsin (?), ca. 1940s (?)
Margaret Hawkins and Russell Berger, her friend and protege, visit to Bay Area, July,1980
Untitled (Youth and Age), acrylic/paper, ca. 1990, 40”X30”
Untitled (Local politics), oil canvas, ca. 1992, 84”X64
Man Losing Hat, oil/canvas, 1988, 84”X64”
My Japanophile version of my relationship with my parents
Alfred Crofts, Michael Honer, and I visit/interview Augusta Rathbone in 1984, when she was 87. Rathbone was imperturbable, sharing her small apartment with an antique press, in the San Francisco Tenderloin, gritty than and now Photo credit: Michael Honer
My Parents, Newman Lake, oil pastel/paper, 30"X22," 1980
My mother ruefully said “I’d caught them.” I gave the piece, framed, to my parents, who kept it in a closet before it finally disappeared.
No on 6, mixed media (newspaper clipping, pencil, masking tape),1978,
Harvey Milk letter, Jan. 17, 1978. He was assassinated 9 months later, Jan. 27, 1978
Plein Air Sketching Excursion, October, 1976 Photo: credit: David (Asa) Pritchet
Return visit to Washington, D.C, enabled by Therese/I. Michael Heyman, ca. 1996
Robert Thomas letter, Jan. 12, 1976