Mister Rogers, Art Critic

Along with being a minister, author, composer, lyricist, organist, teacher, and child-whispering lion, for a moment Fred Rogers was also an art critic.

Fred Rogers and Leonard Streckfus during the filming of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” Episode 1712, “Sharing,” February 8, 1997

My son Adam used to be four years old. Now his son is. As a young teenager, Adam met one of his (and these days, through reruns, his son’s) early childhood heroes: Fred Rogers.

The soft-spoken star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was taping a segment for his program on a farm not far from where we live outside Baltimore. The episode featured the found-object sculptures of Leonard Streckfus, whose artwork is equally appealing to children and adults. Leonard and one of my closest friends, Stuart Abarbanel, both have studios on the property where the film crew was set up. Remembering the important role his guest played in Adam’s childhood, Stuart invited us to observe the taping.

Leonard Streckfus, “Family of Dolphins” (1990), detail of Dolphins I and III, William Donald Schaefer Promenade Fountain, National Aquarium, Baltimore, Maryland (image via

Our arrival marked a break in the taping because when he spotted us, Mr. Rogers, cameras rolling, walked off the newly built sound stage and crossed the length of the barn to say “Hello” (mainly to Adam). His kind greeting allayed a concern I had entertained: Would he be in person who he was on TV?

After all, Rogers invented a hand puppet, King Friday the 13th, a pompous cartoon ruler of a fictional kingdom. Friday was the type of boorish personality who wore his arrogance like a crown. He wanted to build a wall to keep “others” out of his neighborhood. Significantly, the irrational choices made by this hand puppet were literally held in check by a good, rational man. That rational man ultimately directed the king not to build the wall. Nonetheless, since this narcissistic character sprang from Fred Rogers‘ imagination and spoke through his voice, I worried there might be a tinge of Friday in Rogers himself. Of course, imagining is not being. Happily, he was the same person offscreen as on.

After the Streckfus taping was completed, we had lunch, and then Fred visited Stuart Abarbanel’s studio. Upon entering, he took in the sawdust scent. He took in the thin ochre powder that lightly coated the machines, hand tools, hardware, cans of solvent, glue jars, toy action figures, and abstract-looking artwork. He took in the splintered scraps and the chunks cut from one sculpture that were waiting perhaps to find their place in another. Kid-in-a-candy-store style, he took his time taking in all the “stuff” that went into his host’s creative process.

Stuart Abarbanel in his studio, working on “Miniature Gulf Wars ll“ (2018) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Fred focused on a small, irregularly shaped work. Other than pencil lines, colored chalk, chisel marks, scratches, and sandings, it was composed of a convex, breast-like form sloping into a concavity, crating an undulating surface across a warped wooden plane. Was it a markedly physical painting or drawing, or a flat(ish) sculpture? Take your pick.

And what would this cardigan-wearing fellow make of these rough-hewn semi-abstractions? Did he know anything about art? Did it matter? This man who cherished silence also cherished talking and listening. He was learned, empathetic, and good at make-believe — more than enough to make this impromptu, no-art-jargon studio visit meaningful.

“Would you like to tell me about this one?,” he asked in a slow, unsurprisingly modest, Mister-Rogers manner. The sculpture struck me as a good but surprising object of his curiosity. Stuart explained that, though he didn’t know until one of his closest friends, Paula, helped him see it, this carving was about life and death.

There’s an elegant crudeness to this deceptively simple, masterful piece, as if another famous television “Fred,” Fred Flintstone — in a period of serious depth, sophistication, inspiration, and grace — created it. Fred Rogers saw the carving as beautiful. So did I. And so did Paula, who told the artist that this was her favorite of his sculptures. “I really like it,” she said, “because there’s only one breast, but what’s here is still very sensual.” Paula had undergone a mastectomy. She was still very ill.

Stuart Abarbanel, “Still Whole” (1996) wood, colored chalk, and graphite, 43 x 26 inches (photo by the artist)

After Stuart shared Paula’s observation, Fred offered: “That’s because she knows she had a loss, but she is still whole.” As he said the word “whole,” he moved his hand over the sculpture like the puppeteer he was. I half expected to see the curves of this torso-like carving come alive. Along with being (besides much else) a minister, author, composer, lyricist, organist, teacher, and child-whispering lion, for the moment he was also an art critic. His hand said that this work was whole, like this studio interaction, nothing getting between art, artist, visitor, and life. (Stuart would later title the piece “Still Whole,” 1996.)

Years later, Stuart told me that Fred’s comment was especially apt and comforting because not long thereafter, Paula passed away. Her death roused the same thought in him: Stuart felt Paula’s loss deeply, he confided, but he still felt whole.

That’s how it went throughout Fred’s visit, which felt as natural as changing into sneakers and a sweater while singing a song. Insight after insight. One kind, creative person touching the heart and mind of another kind, creative person.

Stuart Abarbanel, Fred Rogers, Adam Nemett, Barry Nemett, 1996 (photo: Leonard Streckfus)

Until I had the privilege of spending the day with him, I didn’t appreciate Fred Rogers’ brilliance and depth. I even suspected that the half-hour screen time vibe he projected, as tenderhearted as it was, might be annoying in real time. My suspicion couldn’t have been more off-target. Fred Rogers didn’t need to show off his intelligence or edge, this enlightened individual whom I discovered was equally good with adults and children. I remember thinking this during lunch as he took a bite from a cheese sandwich. It wasn’t anything special he had just done or said. Well, perhaps it was a lot of things he did and said.

Speaking of lunch, I recently read that Fred claimed he became a vegetarian because he “didn’t want to eat anything that has a mother.” How profoundly different from our administration’s vile zero-tolerance policy of first separating children from their asylum-seeking, undocumented parents and then, because of spectacular organizational incompetence — or even worse, a sheer, inhumane lack of concern for the broken lives involved — failing miserably to reunite them. After finally giving in to public pressure to try to undo the evil of what had been done 2,000 times over, the horrors continue. I picture the epitome of patience, Fred Rogers, sitting at a congressional hearing impatiently addressing the outrageous inhumanity at both ends of this practice — impatient because of the magnitude of the wrong and the urgent need to right it.

Stuart Abarbanel, “Miniature Gulf Wars ll“ (2018, work in progress), wood and graphite, acrylic paint, 70 x 71 inches (photo: Ed Wortek)

Fred McFeely Rogers didn’t need to build walls. He dismantled them. He didn’t need to demean or divide in order to sound tough. His manliness was the gentle echo of his compassion. He treasured togetherness. He didn’t need to have a good voice to sing to millions. Yet his song resonated every day. He didn’t need to impress the adults whom he knew were often in the room with their children when he spoke through the television to his core two- to six-year-old ”neighbors” (the way he used to speak to my son and Paula’s son some 30 years ago).

Tomorrow, my son, grandson, and I will be seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary directed by Morgan Neville that recently opened in Baltimore. The film celebrates the life of a decent, honest man.

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