One summer I had a big solo show at a gallery in Denver, CO, right across from the Denver Museum of Fine Art. I flew out for the opening and to give an artist's talk.
People think art openings must be fun, all those people there just to see you, wine passing around, compliments, everybody all dressed up. Cute "gallarinas" who wouldn't speak to you in high school are now sliding up to you all gush and blush. Well, they aren't fun. They are dreadful. My face always hurts from perma-grin and I want to sneak off someplace dark afterwards. I am always grateful when a student shows up and asks me something I can sink my teeth into. I am the world's worst small talker.
One of the things people like to ask me at openings is a variant of the question, "How long have you been a painter?" Or "When did you know you wanted to be an artist?" Or "Have you been able to draw all your life?" In fact, I have actually been able to draw from birth and asked for my own umbilical cord because I figured I could probably use it in a sculpture someday. In my fourth grade class, there were three boys who could draw very well, and I was easily a distant third to the other two. In seventh grade, I won second place in a school-wide drawing contest. I knew perfectly well who would win first place and I hated her guts with a mad green jealousy. In eighth grade, I won first place because my competitor had moved up to high school. (She did not become an artist-HA!) I also sometimes had the first, sometimes the second highest average in my science class. I wanted to be a doctor, or maybe a vet. I did a research paper on Pablo Picasso that year in my Spanish class.
In ninth grade, I met Mr. Joseph Van West in Drawing I. Mr. Van West was: a) male, b) wore a suit and vest to class, and c) had a snow white goatee. He was like no other teacher I'd had before. Art was a deadly serious business to him. He had been a well known printmaker in Boston. Mr. Van West was not an "art teacher;" Mr. Van West was an Artist. Just like Picasso. Mr. Van West did not blow sunshine at you either. I remember working on a sculpture of a mythical beast and investing all I had in it. He stopped by for a second, picked it up and held it like it might dirty his hands and sneered, "You don't know a damn thing about wings! These are big floppy globs! Go look at a pair of wings for crying out loud." He quickly moved on while I tried to pick my jaw up off the table. Mr. Van West died before the year was over. I was able to study with him for only a few months. The next three years I had "art teachers" again, but I never listened to them, I listened to Mr. Van West. And I listened to the whispers from the drawings and prints his students had made decades earlier, that were still lying here and there in storage. They all said, "You can do better, see, we did it, why can't you? Get to work!"
I knew I wanted to be an artist after I met Mr. Van West, and then met the artist Scott Prior, who worked on a painting in our library for a few days that year. He had paintings at the MFA in Boston by then. I wanted to be an artist because I knew it would allow me to study all the things I loved together, science, history, writing, languages and cultures, philosophy and psychology. I needed to learn each of these to be the artist I wanted to be. Years later, this is why I would advocate using the arts as the hub of a wheel of curriculum for the Dublin School.
I was the first student to go to art school in years and years from my high school, and it would be many more years before I was followed by another. At MassArt, I knew what a privilege it was to be allowed to study what I loved, rather than have to scratch out a living some way that I knew would crush my soul. I spent the summer working in a saw blade factory, and woke up in a panic at night, feeling the suffocating walls of my future closing in around me. I was like a monk at art school. I was going to be the best I could be and I was going to learn all I could. Only five percent of students who graduate from art school were practicing artists ten years out of school. And I was going to be one of them. I was not going to let the factory take me. I wanted nothing to do with teaching at all. I was going to be an artist, not an "art teacher."
Little did I know that nearly all artists who "make it" today teach. Someone talked me into doing a winter session course in drawing at Smith College one year. So there I was, me at 25, teaching a room full of beautiful, brilliant young woman, who nodded eagerly and hung on my every word. And I was going to get paid for this? Sign me up! I taught my first year in a private school seven miles from where I grew up, half a mile from my own public high school. I learned an enormous amount that year, and I hated every minute of it. This was not like my Smith experience at all. Then I read a Want Ad that spring with the words, "located on 400 acres of NH woodlands" and I was sold. My wife and I visited Dublin School and knew we had found a home by the end of the day. I think I knew almost as soon as I drove on campus. We moved in August and my wife found out she was pregnant in September. And today, years after having sworn never to be a teacher, I would never consider giving it up.
People say teachers aren't in it for the money, I only half jokingly tell them that I most definitely am in it for the money. Very few artists are appreciated enough to be able to give only their work to society. The rest of us need the support an institution of learning provides and the stability and enough space to be able to create. I told the Head of School in our first interview that I wanted to be hired only if he would allow me to build the program I wanted, and only if he would support my own artistic practice. I love to teach, because I love to make art. You can't take away someone's space to create, and expect them to be passionate about helping others do what they are denied. Dublin School, in general, and many people in particular, have given me the room in my life at Dublin that I need to create. In return, I try to be the teacher I wish I had had for all four years of high school, Mr. Van West.
I am somewhat notorious for my, shall we say, "straightforward" assessment of student work. But my students know that when I give a compliment, they have earned something. The key word is always earned. I earned the ability to draw and paint and so will my students. They get plenty of encouragement and plenty of, um, "Truth," and they learn the "Courage" to deal with it. If they don't like it, they learn the best lesson of all, how to change the truth. That is to literally make something that is only a dream, come true. Fairy godmother's don't do that, you have to do it yourself.
While I suffered through my opening in Denver, amid the brightly polished shoes, expensive water and cheap white wine, in came Nichole Jarzembeck '07, a recent transplant from New Hampshire to Boulder. She was by far, the best part of my trip west -- open, honest, sweet, unpretentious and funny. The next day, Martha Carol '09, a current student, came to the artist talk at the gallery, and again, I was instantly more at ease, and grateful for her intelligent questions.
Somewhere along the way I grew up and realized I didn't want to be famous after all. (If you ask me to my face, I will swear up and down that my not yet being famous is, in fact, purely a conscious choice on my part.) Gallery success is just a means to an end. That end is the ability to do what I love. The more paintings I sell, the more I am free to make more. To many, paintings are objects, but to painters, they are a performance frozen in paint. I cannot sing and I cannot dance, but when I start moving the brush and mixing color, I am free of my body's limitations. I am there, in the paint, flying far above the doldrums of the everyday grind. Some people call it touching the divine. It is that moment the artist lives for, not the finished painting, which is only evidence of the flight. I stay at Dublin because it gives me a way to keep flying, and it allows me to teach others to find their own way to fly.
When an artist gets really, really lucky, events will work out so that something in the artist's work is recognized by another person. When this happens, the second best compliment an artist can hear is almost always, "Wow," Only one thing beats "Wow," and that is seeing someone cry in front of your painting. If asked how I'd like my life measured, my answer would be to measure it in tears. How many tears was my life worth? I manage to get "Wow" often enough to give me hope, but I have only seen one person cry in front of my paintings. That has only happened once. But I cannot count the tears that have fallen when a student came to say goodbye, either to me, or to one of the other wonderful teachers at Dublin School. You just will never get a better compliment than that. And that is why I stay.