Artist harbors many talents Winner: Poet-painter- musician, who won an award for a comic poem, practices his crafts according to the old disciplines. But his subjects such as Lehigh Cement Co. are contemporary.

November 16, 1997|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Atop a hill in Union Bridge lives a painter, a musician and an award-winning poet.

These artists are one and the same: P. Richard Eichman, a slender, scholarly Union Bridge native who pursues his arts in Carroll County's smallest incorporated town rather than in the big city, where he might find fame and larger commissions.

Eichman's comic poem, "To the Lehigh Cement Company of Union Bridge, Maryland," recently won the $1,000 first prize in Watermark Press' annual poetry contest. His poem appears in ** "Best Poems of 1997," published by the Owings Mills-based press.

Lehigh Portland Cement Co., which marks its 100th anniversary in cement manufacturing this year, is Union Bridge's lone industry. The poet chides Lehigh, tongue in cheek, for grinding up marble that might have become a statue as famous as the Venus de Milo. The poem reads, in part:

Fanatics (every tribe and era has 'em)

Are drawn to marble works and known to handle

Them roughly, on a lark or on crusade

But you alone demolish them ere made.

The poem came to Eichman as he washed dishes in the house he shares with his mother, Lenore Eichman, 95. The work addresses a modern topic in the old form of ottava rima, eight-line stanzas in a rhyme scheme of a-b, a-b, a-b followed by a couplet.

Eichman writes in forms that specify line and meter because he believes that art must have discipline. When he composes music, he likes fugues and sonatas.

"I always liked the old-fashioned technical discipline," he said.

He paints portraits in the style of the old masters. It's impossible to imagine him laying his canvas on the floor and pouring paint onto it directly from the can, like American modernist Jackson Pollock.

And he wasn't interested in having his poems mounted on plaques or paying $140 to have his winning poem read on a radio station, services offered by Watermark Press.

"They said they'll put your name in lights and introduce you from the stage. I don't want to be introduced from the stage. That would make me so nervous I wouldn't know what to do," he said.

Eichman looks after his mother, gives art lessons, paints and writes in the house where he and his sister, Margaret "Peggy" Ellis, grew up. Built by his great-uncle in the early 1900s, the house is filled with Eichman's paintings and with books, including one of his favorite references, the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary.

He plays the organ at St. James Lutheran Church in Union Bridge, but hasn't composed music for about 10 years. It's more difficult to put today's subjects into yesterday's forms in music than it is in poetry and painting, he said.

Eichman's poetry includes a poem of consolation to the fifth grade at Hampstead's Spring Garden Elementary School, whose rendition of the national anthem before an Orioles baseball game was not televised; a sonnet to New Windsor historian Julia

Cairns -- "Julia, for you who sit at History's feet, Listening attent to lessons from the past" -- and a poem that compares Union Bridge's search for a second water well to the Roman myth of Psyche's trip to Hades in search of Venus' beauty box.

Eichman is reticent when it comes to talking about himself. But he brings the English poets Pope and Milton into conversation as easily as if they had just shared coffee with him at the lunch counter at the Union Bridge Pharmacy. He disagrees with

English writer Samuel Johnson about puns -- Eichman likes them.

Eichman is fascinated by the literature of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and could have lived happily in that time, "although I do like running water," he said.

As a child, Eichman loved language and literature. He grew up fascinated by the sounds of words, and when he discovered the stresses and pauses of iambic pentameter (a verse form developed by the Ionian Greeks), "It was a great revelation to me," he said.

Eichman graduated from Elmer Wolfe High School in 1957, one year before the school was consolidated to form Francis Scott Key High. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in music at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, then taught music at Battle Grove Elementary School in Baltimore County for 18 years.

He quit because he disagreed with changing teaching philosophies, he said, declining to elaborate.

He enrolled at the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore, where director Francesca Schuler Guerin remembers him as "a very serious student, very good at portraits, very particular, good attention to detail in his work."

The Schuler school has 17 to 25 students per class in a setting Guerin described as "sort of like a family. Everyone eats around the dining room table." The school offers a four-year program of drawing, anatomy, still life and portrait painting. The students are taught realism, not abstractionism.

Eichman makes his portraits from photographs. An admirer of the Scottish artist Sir Henry Raeburn, Eichman tries for similar use of light and shadow to give paintings dimension.

He could command higher fees for his work if he lived in a more populous area where his reputation could spread more easily.

"But I don't think being famous is important enough that you should leave a place you like," he said.

Eichman said he will be content "if they remember me as someone interested in the English language, who could write a decent poem, a decent sentence in the old manner."

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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