It was turning toward deadline at the Gazette, the time of the week when the tap of computer keys becomes the only conversation, save a bit of singing from one corner, the slurp of coffee from several other corners and the noisy clamoring of the press man downstairs wondering where his pages are loitering.
A procrastinator spoke up, breaking the silence. “I wish I could have met Imhoff. When did he die, anyway?”
Imhoff would be Roy Imhoff, the illustrator whose drawings frequently accompany Gazette editorials and other commentaries. Even his name, usually etched in the bottom right corner of the drawings seemed to call from a bygone time. But it was the pen and ink images that truly spoke the language of the past. It is easy to imagine the artist finding his way to work by horse or ox-cart, a feather quill at the ready in his back pocket.
“Imhoff? He’s not dead,” a long-timer said, pushing back his chair. The rest of the room perked up. “He’s a dentist or something, living in Jersey. Used to come here summers and drop off his drawings at the end of his vacation. I have his address and phone number somewhere around here.”
“Mine,” yelled his most ardent admirer. “My story.”
The dead had been raised and the chance not to be missed.
The address was found. 193 Rutgers Place, Nutley, New Jersey.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” the writer said. “My father grew up directly across the street.”
A phone call was made to Mr. Imhoff.
“I often go to your dad’s old house for breakfast,” Mr. Imhoff told the writer. “Last week we had dinner there.”
“This is getting weird. By the way, I heard you were a dentist.”
“No, a veterinarian. Companion pets, no large animals. Dogs, cats, reptiles, birds, that kind of thing. And I went to Ohio State. I’m a Buckeye. Always remember that.”
Mr. Imhoff had not been to the Vineyard for several years, he said, but he and his wife would be visiting in a week or so. He would do some drawing, naturally, and bring them by the office. A date was arranged during his visit for a proper interview. He arrived carrying a bulging satchel of drawings and wearing a large cowboy hat.
Mr. Imhoff is 81. He could not remember the exact year he began drawing for the Gazette, but thought it was just after Henry Beetle Hough had sold the paper in 1967. He began coming to the Island when he was still in college in the 1950s, having been introduced to Menemsha by a large animal veterinarian who died soon after of the bubonic plague. These are the sorts of stories you hear when talking to a veterinarian.
For several decades Mr. Imhoff and his family came to the Island every summer, renting in Chilmark for up to a month at time.
“We tried the Jersey Shore. It’s a different animal, and for me as an artist there wasn’t enough there. Just one house chock-a-block after another . . . The Vineyard was nirvana for me.”
Mr. Imhoff started drawing as a kid, but just fiddling around, as he put it. Once he got established in his veterinary practice he created a lifestyle that could allow for both. He bought a broken down practice in Nutley and built it back up.
“It was $60,000 to buy the practice,” Mr. Imhoff remembered. “I said I can’t come up with anything near that and he said how much have you got. I said about $3,000, and he said I’ll take it. And he carried me for the rest. Would you do that? Once in awhile you run into a mensch, someone like that, and I just happened to run into him.”
Caring for animals by day and night, and then finding the time to draw on the side became his life’s rhythm. Working with animals helped keep him present to life, Mr. Imhoff said.
“I would like to wing it and do abstraction but I just can’t seem to do it, to get that in my head. I’m not that inventive. So I really stick with what I see in my eye. Who was the artist who wrote the book My Eye is in Love?”
That would be Frederick Franck.
As his animal practice grew, Mr. Imhoff took on assistants so he could take some days off and find more time to draw and attend classes.
“I did figure drawing under this guy and he was a very good teacher but a very tough teacher. He was the type of teacher that the first year you were in his class he would just ream you out. He was relentless. He would come around and look at a drawing and say ’aw, you ought to have your hands cut off.’”
He kept coming back, though, hands intact.
“It took me, God knows, a couple of years before I was able to do a good figure drawing. I think the one thing that set me apart was to stay with it. To not get discouraged and to go back because I thought, I want to do this. It’s the German blood. You stay with it and I did.”
“I don’t believe a great deal in natural ability,” he added. “I believe in sweat. In my case, it was definitely sweat.”
He began doing drawings for the New Yorker and Gourmet.
“What they would do is call me and say we’re doing an article on Morocco. What do you have on Morocco? So I’d dig through my files to see if I had been there, because wherever I go, I draw. We just went up to Quebec city. That’s a good place in general and to draw, and the food. And then I would take the drawings in and they would either accept them or not. And then Si Newhouse took over Gourmet and it stopped. He wasn’t interested in that style. Gourmet stopped doing any drawings or sketches.”
Mr. Imhoff has shown his work in the New Jersey area, through the Bajo El Sol Gallery in St. Johns, and at times at various galleries on the Vineyard. But it is with the Gazette that most of his work has been presented, and thankfully continues. “I know I’m blowing my own horn but it gives the paper class, the photographs and the drawings,” he said. The artist is correct in his assessment. On the day of the interview, he brought in illustrations of the Flying Horses, Dutcher Dock in Menemsha, Great Rock Bight, the Bob George Beach on Quansoo, along with many others. He had been on the Island for only a few days but had been hard at work, traveling from one end to the other, stopping along the way to capture places and moments in crisp lines that evoked a timeless Vineyard.
“Every place I go I take a sketch book,” Mr. Imhoff said. “I have a supportive wife. She takes a book.”
But there is a line he won’t cross when it comes to drawing.
“Not during dinner or sex. There is a limit.”