A Provincial Artist's Education

I grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, a mid-size industrial town in the Piedmont region of the state. Great art was hard to come by. The closest museum, or so I thought, was the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond, almost 3 hours away. I wasn't aware until much later that less than a half-mile from my house was the Maier Museum, a small gem of a collection representing virtually every major American painter from the 18th to the 20th century.  Like most kids growing up in small town America, art was pictures of old barns painted from photographs (Mabry's Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway), illustration, or commercial art.

On television in the 60s we had our forerunner of "Happy Trees" Bob Ross, a beatnik artist by the name of Jon Gnagy, who sported a goatee, a black beret, and a plaid flannel shirt. In a half hour program, Gnagy would whip out realistic landscapes with roads and buildings in perspective. Gnagy's show was a hook for a complete line of art materials embossed with his logo-like signature, a lesson that later operators like Bob Ross surely learned from Gnagy.

Encouraging relatives gave me Gnagy's drawing and painting sets which contained wondrous things like 6B pencils that made dark, velvety tones that bore no resemblance to the #2 graphite pencils we used in school. I still remember my first luscious whiff of a kneaded eraser. To this day I am math-challenged because, instead of paying attention to my 3rd grade teacher, I drew heads and faces in secret, inside my desk, with my 6B. That pencil was my version of Harold's Purple Crayon, a magic wand with which I could create worlds of my own to walk into and inhabit. Unlike his later imitators, Gnagy's methods were based on some solid fundamentals garnered from Cezanne - theories of geometric solids that underlie all form. With those principles I was pleased to be able to turn the heads of my friends, and one cute girl in particular that I fancied when, thanks to Gnagy's instruction, I was able to draw an impressive horse's head without looking at anything.

After Jon Gnagy, my earliest influences happened to be the mothers of two of my best friends, Angela Lloyd and Ann Van de Graaf. I still have a long-haired bristle brush that Mrs. Lloyd gave me. Angela Lloyd was from the Toledo, Ohio area, and Ann Van de Graaf was, I believe, from South Africa. Their work, mostly portraits and figures, distilled some of the qualities of the great painters that I now admire. Whenever I was in their homes I found myself transfixed by their marvelous paintings. Unlike the art in my own home, which was mostly reproductions, these were actual canvases with real paint and lively brushwork. My path was set, I believe, by the lure and enchantment I felt in the presence of these magical objects. A lot of fuss is made about Talent, but it's only one part of being an artist, and it's nothing compared to real desire, or necessity, which is what art was for me.

There was another painter I took note of as a youth, an enigmatic character named Ken Kinnear, who was part of my Mother's Edgar Cayce study group. In his studio near Bedford, VA, at the foot of the Peaks of Otter - the first real artist's studio I think I'd ever seen - he showed us paintings that he had done from his nighttime dreams. On one visit, while I drank in his strange forms and colors, he played a haunting piece of music, also from a dream, on an ocarina, a small accordian-like instrument. The cover of King Crimson's album, In the Wake of Poseidon, comes pretty close to what his paintings were like. Much later I would understand their relation to James Ensor and Emil Nolde.

I would be remiss not to mention the guidance of Linda Williams and Sally Williams, my two high-school art teachers. But it was in college at Virginia Tech, under my teachers Ray Kass, Derek Myers, and Bob Porter, that the mysteries of Modern Art and post-war abstraction finally undid my juvenile taste for commercial art. After that I found myself increasingly drawn to Richard Diebenkorn, and other artists like Vuillard, Bonnard, and Fairfield Porter, who straddled the line between subjective and objective readings of reality. My own work today owes much to the fusion of abstract means with representational ends that such work embodies. 

A lot has changed in education since I was a kid. Art and museums have become a thing. My students remember sophisticated art programs and being carted to art museums. My art teachers in grade school were itinerants who came once a month, usually with a stock of Kellogg cereals and glue instead of paint or pencils. It's amazing to me to think that the Maier Museum was right there all through my childhood, but no one thought to include it in our education. 

What I lacked in sophistication and knowledge I made up for in curiosity and desire. I was hooked at an early age by the magic spell of making pictures. Like Harold and his purple crayon, I discovered the power of art by creating my own worlds, even if I didn't have the best examples. In some ways maybe the absence of great art in those early years was more nurturing than a surfeit of it would have been. Great art can sometimes be more intimidating than motivating to a greenhorn lacking self-confidence. Someone said that all artists are self-taught and I believe that's true.  From beginning to end, wherever we happen to start, artists are alchemists who learn their own way to make gold out of dross.