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John E. (Jack) Drummer (1935-2013), Untitled, 2004-06; stretched rubber with tar and rubber stitching, 4 panels, 96 x 84 inches; Courtesy of the artist

John E. (Jack) Drummer (1935-2013), Untitled, 2004-06; stretched rubber with tar and rubber stitching, 4 panels, 96 x 84 inches; Courtesy of the artist

Remembering Jack Drummer by Thomas J. Holt

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

John E. Drummer: the name of an amazing artist, as it likely appears on many museum labels. But let’s call him Jack, as everyone in Western New York did. Jack Drummer embodied the pains and triumphs of artists of his generation. He was also, quite simply, a man who lived in the West Side of Buffalo.

Jack’s life was surrounded by myth and legend. I cannot, at this time, confirm or deny the tales I have heard. As the story goes, Drummer had a major showing of his work in NYC during the 50s. He apparently did very well in that show, but it did not produce the euphoria for him that you might expect. He may have felt that seeing such a quick burst of success in NYC meant that fine art was too wrapped up in short lived trends and evolving fashions of what’s en vogue on a canvas (or collage which Drummer had done earlier in his career). He moved on to making sculpture in Hawaii, and then back to his native Buffalo in 1990.

In 2007 I had the chance of curating Drummer for Beyond/In at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. He never wanted to discuss his mythic past, so I can only share a few stories of how romantic it was to work with Jack.

Holly Hughes initially coerced Jack into applying for Beyond/In. After seeing images of his work, I selected him to exhibit at the BPAC without having met him. I had been informed that he was likely to not answer his phone but could probably be found at his home on Connecticut Street. It was winter in Buffalo, aka freezing, and I was shivering at the door to Jack’s studio. It was 7am; well before I would normally start my workday. He welcomed me in with a smile and a chuckle. (He smiled often and beamed in a way that perhaps seemed contradictory to his daily routine). Inside was dark with a unique scent of non-traditional art materials. Nearly one hundred paintings made of industrial rubber filled racks all throughout Jack’s first floor. It was also freezing as Jack had no modern heating equipment in his 4 floor building. We sat on wooden benches, cracked open a can of Schlitz and huddled around a tiny wood burning stove. Having a ‘preparator as curator’ ask him questions about his art seemed almost like an amusing novelty to him.

In the years since, I visited him, but somewhat irregularly. My visits with Jack usually took place in summer; I would be skateboarding past his studio and stop in to play with his cat and drink a beer on his porch. He remembered me most of the time. But the few times he didn’t remember, he would make a friend of me quickly and memory didn’t matter much.

For those of you who knew him, I hope you are remembering his smile fondly. And for those of you who only knew of him as the ‘old guy at essex’, let it be known that you were sharing a beer with a legend.


Tom Holt is a painter, muralist and installation artist based in Buffalo, New York. His work expresses real personal experiences like a journal. Recent exhibitions include Tom Holt: Test for Echo held at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University, and Hold Your Fire held Space 224 in Buffalo.

Tom studied visual arts at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In 2002, he moved to Buffalo to further his career. Now, along with being a well-known Western New York artist, he is an active participant in the museum community, not only creating but helping present other peoples work. Previously at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Tom is now Assistant Preparator at the State University of New York at Buffalo's Anderson Gallery.