I always painted. It was something that I did since I was a child – but I never thought of myself as an artist. Or a painter. But I was lucky in high school – we had a teacher, Lois Rosenfeld, who introduced the 10th grade class to oil painting – it was a small school district so even though the school was public we had some pretty nifty art supplies and possibilities.
So, there I was getting excited about oils, learning how to stretch canvas, fool around with color, etc. But the next year Lois left. This was in the seventies and I guess she was a free spirit. Anyway, that year Katie came to teach and Katie was a lovely woman but didn’t know anything about oil painting. I was basically on my own. So I did individual art study for two years, checked books out of the library and tried to figure something out. Meanwhile my main school studies continued and when I got into college I declared myself a biology major and took pre-med courses. Did I really want to be a doctor? I had no idea – but I liked science and went at it. I also took studio art courses – drawing and painting – just for me. So there were my school studies – all the academic courses – and then there were my studio courses, which were basically simply what I did for my life. But I didn’t see myself as an artist – it was just what I did to stay sane. The problem was that at a certain point I fell in love – I fell in love with oil painting. It had been growing, but one course in particular put me over the top – it was Patrick Aherne’s Practice Painting course – I teach a version of it in the Abstraction as Discovery course. And it was there that I realized that painting wasn’t about making a picture. Painting is about how you live your life. Painting is about a life experienced, explored, felt, transformed, digested, tested, risked and known through oil and colored mud. That is why we paint.
The problem for me was that I didn’t know what kind of painter I was. I remember too clearly the experience of desiring to paint and not knowing what to paint or even how to go about it. Was I an abstract painter? Was I a representational painter? What was my way? What was my authentic style? Who was I as a painter? I didn’t know. And that not knowing was very painful. Would I ever know? And what did I need to do to figure it out? What did I need to learn? What experiences were essential? Did I need to go to art school? Get an MFA? Was I cut out for this? What did it mean to be a “real” painter? Did I have what it takes?
And for years, I mean many, many years I doubted that I had what was needed. Even after I received my MFA from Yale University School of Art I seriously doubted that I was a “real” painter. I kid you not. I certainly didn’t seem to be one of those obsessive painting-all-through-the-night people. My studio life was steadier. I just didn’t seem to be obsessive enough to call myself a “real” painter. And I remember reading one of the letters in Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” where he asks “dear Mr. Kappus” that if it was taken from him to write if he would die. And I remember asking myself that question and thinking, why, no, I wouldn’t die, so maybe I’m really not cut out for this! But still I kept on. I simply kept on painting because it’s what I did and what I needed to do – it’s what kept me sane.
Though the question of what kind of painter I was was still unresolved. I had been painting for over fifteen years at that point and had gathered all sorts of skills and tools and ways of working. But in my final critique at Yale I exhibited two entirely distinct bodies of work: one was of straight up, tonal, representational interiors and still lifes, the other one was of large gestural abstractions on paper. Crazy! The split drove me nuts! To be continued…