A Dirge for My Mentor
When I was young, I was going to be an artist. A Painter and a Printmaker. The arc of my ultimately-failed career began at the age of eleven or so, and all through middle school and high school, art (specifically drawing and painting) was my focus. I entered regional shows (and even won a fair share: the ribbons are slowly crumbling to dust in a box in my closet).
When I was seventeen, I was given the honor of being selected for the Marie Walsh Sharpe “Summer Seminar”, which was (and still is, I suppose) a big deal. By my 18th birthday, my skills with a pencil were such that I could produce nigh-photorealistic works.
The chief painter-in-residence was a man by the name of Stan Sporny. Stan was politically conservative (which put him at odds with most faculty and students in the art department), had lived for several years in Sri Lanka, and possessed a humility that I found admirable.
I, being twenty or so, was not humble. I was a young, stupid kid who had been repeatedly told that he had a “gift” and a “genius”. Which meant that, when it came to the “lesser” classes, I was also “lazy.”
If the assignment was to paint a simple still life, I would find myself spending half the time and effort of the other students and still produce something that was far more technically competent than anyone in the class. I knew I was better than the Micky Mouse classes. I already knew this crap! Let’s move on, I would be thinking to myself.
He would give me “C” grades for my effort. Other students whose paintings I could have done when I was twelve would get As and Bs; I was put out. I found this frustrating, and called him on it, and he very bluntly told me that I was under-performing, and doing half-assed, C-grade work, and that he was grading everyone according to their own ability, and I wasn’t cutting the mustard.
And, truth be told, I was doing half-assed, C-grade work.
We always painted in oils. Acrylics were, according to Stan, like “painting with colored snot.” So we learned about proper mixings, about great brush care, about turpentine and linseed oils. “If you’re going to do a thing, you do it right.”
It was from Stan that I learned color theory – not just which colors look good next to each other, but how certain splashes of color can affect other color.
One day he brought to class a painting he had done. It was of a swimming pool. There was a small piece of paper taped over about 2 square inches of the painting inside the pool area. What was striking to me was this:
Both the sky and the water in the pool were painted green. Not a light, almost azure green, but a true green. It was very surreal. We asked what was under the paper but he only said, “all in due time.”
He talked about the colors; asked us why we thought the sky was green. We had a lively discussion about symbolism and so forth, and went off the rails for a while. Finally, he reached out to the painting and removed the bit of paper. It had been covering a bright yellow rubber duck floating in the water.
Magically, the sky ceased to be green and instead became a brilliant blue.
I was thinking about Stan the other day, actually. I was remarking to a few friends that the thing I loved most about being alive was, seriously, color. I love it. I love the sun perhaps not so much because it is warm but because it brightens the world and makes color more vivid, and brings joy to my eyes.
One summer I was taking a 300 level painting course. This was perhaps my favorite class I ever took during my entire educational career. We did not meet in a classroom; this was painting from real life. So every day we would go to Ritter Park in Huntington and sit in the grass and paint something that caught our eyes.
It was July in West Virginia, which meant that it was hot. We started at nine a.m., when it was relatively cool, but by noon the temperature in the sun had usually escalated to ninety-five or better. Heat waves were visible radiating from everywhere.
I produced a triptych of a specific tree. The first painting I did was straightforward, but by the time I started on the second, I had started painting the heat radiating from its leaves, and in the third painting I had stepped away from representation of its physical being and into representation of the idea of the tree. I loved these works. I spent time on them.
And he finally gave me an A.
Things move and time passes. I moved to California and promptly stopped painting at all: just a talent lain fallow for fifteen years. From time to time we would exchange emails: his son was becoming a bit of a technical wizard, and would contact me asking questions, and Stan would always include notes, or use his son’s email account to communicate with me.
Last week, after thinking about him and color, I thought to try to get in touch with him. The address I had was dead, and he doesn’t have a Facebook account. I decided that when I went home for Christmas I’d look him up and try to get him out for a beer.
I am frankly surprised that this news has hit me as hard as it has. I can only think to myself that given the sheer number of students he taught over the past twenty years came away with even 1/10th of the understanding I gleaned from him, that his legacy is far reaching indeed.
It makes me want to paint again.