A hand-written note taped to the front door on an ordinary day last fall left a simple message: "Felix, come on in ..."
While meant to be a practical communication -- I was at the home of my good friend Ed Reep to help him locate an elusive UCLA football game on TV -- in many ways, that note summed up our relationship, which endured for years, up until Thursday, the day he died.
I first met Ed, a gifted artist with a national reputation, when photographing him for a story in The Californian shortly after he moved here to be closer to his family. Then, in 1999, just after Bakersfield's famous snowstorm, I received a letter from Ed.
As part of The Californian's coverage of the unusual weather, I had taken a photo of a woman walking through a parking lot while holding a bright blue umbrella. The photo captured her trail of footprints in the snow, as well as those of a few other pedestrians who braved the winter conditions that day, as taken from above the scene. The composition of the shot caught Ed's artistic eye -- which humbles me to this day -- and he wanted me to know that. He also wanted to purchase a copy.
I gladly printed the photograph, signed it and sent it to Ed with a note of my own, thanking him for noticing my work. A few days later, a letter arrived from Ed. This one was shorter. Along with a thank you for the print was my first piece of artistic advice from the master: "Never sign your prints in ink, always use a pencil!"
From that day on, I knew this was a special guy. He had lived the kind of life usually reserved for the stuff of great novels or award-winning screenplays: son of Russian immigrants, grows up in Brooklyn, goes to art school, joins the Army, paints battle scenes and more. Much more.
Over the years, I would see Ed occasionally, usually at art events around town. But over these past few years, I was able to spend time with Ed on a more regular basis. Sometimes I'd stop by to have lunch with Ed and his wife, Pat. We would talk about art, the people who create it and the many adventures in Ed's life made possible because of art. I would always make sure to have my cameras with me and snap a few photos of our gatherings.
After Pat died in 2011, I wanted to make sure I visited Ed more often. Sometimes I would bring some of my photographs for an official Ed Reep critique session. Believe me, friendship or not, Ed didn't hold back. If he liked something, he'd tell you. If he didn't, he'd tell you that as well. For me, that made a Reep kudo all the more valuable.
During these meetings, it always amazed me what Ed noticed and what interested him in an image. Often he would zero in on a particular graphic element in one of my photographs -- the perfect confirmation for myself as an artist, since that's the kind of detail I look for in the subjects I photograph.
Ed would tell me he liked that I shot a wide variety of subjects. I figured that was another common thread we had because he painted anything from cityscapes to graphic abstracts, even the occasional portrait or flower. Unlike many artists, Ed varied his medium as well, whether it was watercolors, acrylics, oil or pencil sketches -- whatever he believed could communicate his feeling onto a canvas.
Some of my favorite visits with Ed involved hearing stories of his service as a combat artist in World War II, during which he served in Italy and Northern Africa. Again, it was the stuff of a grandiose Hollywood production, only this was all real -- and all Ed.
Like the memory seared into Ed's mind -- despite his 90-plus years -- of standing over Benito Mussolini's bullet-ridden body.
Or his wild friendship with fellow combat artist Baron Rudolph von Ripper, a German Catholic who fled Hitler's Germany. Ed knew about my love of motorcycles -- a rare difference of opinion for us. After all, as he told me, his first and last ride (and crash) was on a motorcycle owned by von Ripper. He saw no need to tempt anything two-wheeled ever again.
As part of his military-issued equipment, Ed selected a Leica camera, which he used to capture scenes that he sometimes painted later. Not surprisingly, Ed was a very good photographer -- he already had an eye for it.
Susan Reep, Ed's daughter and a close friend of mine, still has her father's negatives from the photos he took during the war. They've been digitized and I am in the process of editing them. Going through the images is like taking a tour with Ed's eyes as my guide. Frozen in time are scenes of bombed-out buildings and young Italian girls greeting GIs as they pressed on to battle. There are even photos of a Nazi sympathizer facing his accusers in a makeshift court setting, just before being executed. In sharp contrast are the photos of an elegant Italian courtyard ("elegant" being relative, considering the war-torn surroundings).
It's a testament to Ed's artistic brilliance that he was able to capture these images in addition to his duties as a combat artist, no matter the circumstances, whether beautiful or horrible. He knew how important the documentation would be.
These last years with Ed were a gift from him to me. He showed me that, even in the little moments -- like the time he stopped in the middle of our lunch at Valentien to notice the unusual shape of the glassware -- art is all around us. I'm proud to say that my wife and I are fortunate enough to have some of Ed's art around us as well. We own three pieces of Ed's amazing work: one we purchased, one was a trade for one of my photographs and another was a gift. They will be treasured in our family for years to come, as will our memories of Ed.
The note on Ed's front door that fall day told me to "come on in," and for me, the invitation really symbolizes the friendship he extended to me years ago. I am honored to have been let into the life of a man who left behind so much history, beauty and inspiration. I ended up staying at his house that afternoon. We watched the remainder of the UCLA-Arizona State game together.
Ed's Bruins won, 45-43.
Reep's funeral is scheduled for 1:15 p.m. Thursday at Bakersfield National Cemetery; a reception follows from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Metro Galleries, 1604 19th St.