Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ten Minutes with Renaissance Man Elliot Silberman

I can't recall how I first met Elliot Silberman. It seems like he's just always been there. Elliot's life is a bright multi-colored thread woven into the arts and music scenes here in Duluth. His love of jugband music led him to start Duluth's annual Battle of the Jugbands fourteen or so years ago, an event which always garners a crowd larger than the space that contains it. We also share a love of Dylan music.

Ennyman: How did you first come to live in Duluth?
Elliot Silberman: I was born and raised in Duluth, like my mother and my children.

Enny: When did you start doing caricatures?
Elliot: To be more correct, they were actual portraits, drawn in 5 minutes. I assumed no one wanted to sit in public more than that. I wouldn't.

Enny: How did that come about? How much did you charge at that time and what do you get for a portrait today?
Elliot: Well, 40 years ago, after getting married with one child, we moved from Minneapolis to the north woods, deciding that back to the land was what we wanted. Having a college degree and being on welfare was a motivation. At the time I worked 20 hours a week at a children’s home where I sketched kids, got my feet wet doing portraits, quick sketches. Until then, I regularly called real estate companies for work, painted signs, taught adult education classes at junior high schools at night, guitar picking, watercolor painting, portrait sketching; whatever I thought I knew enough to teach. I started sketching in public at Goldfines by the bridge on weekends, near their restaurant. Sometimes by the aerial bridge, sidewalk sales, charging a buck. There weren't any art and craft shows back then. I tried Perkins, K-Mart, Canal Park (was hassled by the police there.)

Today I charge $20. For a quick sketch. $15, if the economy was bad where I was, like Marquette Michigan.

Enny: What attracted you to jugband music and what led you to begin the annual Battle of the Jugbands?
Elliot: I started playing music close to 50 yrs ago. I came home from art school, told my father I learned 6 chords on Bob’s guitar. My next birthday, dad gave me a used Stella guitar. He went on a hunch. Little did he know where that would lead, as he died in 1965. Within a year I was learning Johnny Cash songs off the radio. I thought that was absolutely the coolest thing. I didn’t know I had a gift of playing by ear, and a strong desire to play other instruments. It was very cool. I loved it, especially jamming with others. I believe I saw the Jim Kweskin Jugband on TV, maybe the Ed Sullivan Show, or Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour. Then I found some albums at the Minneapolis public library, from the 20's and 30' and fell in love with old blues, rags, and jugband music, like the Memphis Jugband. That’s where I first heard that music. Poor man’s jazz. I fell in love. Here were some of my roots. Black music, imagine that, being Jewish from Duluth. This was an authentic re-birth of this type of music. Others were also discovering it too. Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, many others, mostly whites. I decided to put on an Annual Battle of the Jugbands here in Duluth, after being a part of the one in Minneapolis. I used to drive down, and sign up as de Elliot Bros. get on stage alone, play a tune, and invite others on stage w me. What a hoot. Got to meet Fritz Richmond, and his band, who used to be a part of the Kweskin jugband, back in the early 60's. Yes, I am and always was a major Dylan fan. Knew the family, similar up-bringing, Bar Mitzva, born again stage, and inspired to play the harmonica while playing the guitar, in 1962. That was cool.

Enny: You’re also a rather major Dylan fan. What are your favorite five Dylan albums? And why?
Elliot: Favorite album, you must be kidding. Knocked Out Loaded, Infidels. I think I learned at least one song off each album over the years. I used to do Dylan concerts, all Bob’s music. The only one I remember was at Tom’s Burned Down Cafe on Madeline Island. It was a 4 hour gig, way way too much Dylan in one night. Enough of that. But Bob’s music, writing, went to my heart and soothed my hungry soul. He seemed to say more between the lines than others said with their lines. What a poet. Keep in mind, we were both into hearing music of the 50's, as it changed into Folk music.

Enny: In addition to art and music, you also have a passion for fishing. How did that come about?
Elliot: My love of the outdoors, started when my father started taking me fishing at the age of three or so. Since then I have had a fascination with the mystery of the underwater world. I used to go swimming in Chester Creek and the Lester River with a facemask when I was small and seeing those beautiful trout, in their environment, was breath-taking.

Enny: What prompted you to get involved with the Renaissance Festivals?
Elliot: I got involved in the Renaissance Festival when I got rejected from applying to the Minnesota State Fair. Been doing the Ren-fest for 30 years. After 35 years, art and craft shows -- where artists display and sell their own works -- are petering out, not as interesting and fun as they used to be, thus, sales are dropping, too. Many of us are looking for greener pastures. I find people around metro areas have been overstimulated with arts ‘n crafts and music, the arts in general. My booth is an authentic looking artist’s shop, located in a 16th century European village, looking very authentic.

Enny: And finally, you have a property for sale at the Minneapolis Renaissance Festival. Can you describe that and what you’re selling it for?
Elliot: There are Glass Blowing demonstrations, street characters passing by doing their schtick, polishing their act, and many other artists hawking their wares. For a look at my shop, see my web site front page, click on the Renfest button on top. I’m selling it because I’m looking for greener pastures and the festival has too many caricaturists there, too much competition. I do caricatures sometimes, but my heart is in portraits. Wanna buy or rent a Renaissance booth?

Elliot's website not only contains examples of his art, there are also CDs for sale, fine art prints and some video footage related to jugband music. Visit
Click images to enlarge.

1 comment:

DuluthDailyPhoto said...

I have been walking in the neighborhood and notice Icehouse studios. I wondered what it was.
Now I know it is you.