The Education of a Young Artist

I wrote this biographical self-portrait for my friend, David Biespiel, having so enjoyed his book, The Education of a Young Poet

As a child, I was exposed to aesthetics via three vehicles, my father’s love of music, my father’s love of cars, and my father’s love of clothing. My dad was an exceptional pediatrician. He’d been part of the small team of scientists that developed chemotherapy. Their goal had been to find a cure for childhood leukemia. He later became an overqualified, small town doctor who saved many lives, participated in his community in many ways, and broke the stranglehold of alcoholism on his life when I was in fifth grade. I start with my father because he was of two worlds. There was his world of service, but there was another world within which he would occasionally relax, the world where he truly felt in his own skin. He was an extremely nervous person, but his nervousness would evaporate whenever he got to indulge in one of his three aesthetic interests. He was a superb tenor saxophone player. He filled the house with the recorded music of great jazz artists. He loved going to antique car shows and sports car shows. Probably his favorite activity was going to trunk shows from the top East Coast tailors, J. Press, Brooks Brothers, and Arthur M. Rosenberg. He told me that if he hadn’t become a doctor he would like to have been a tailor.

As I said, he was a very agitated man, nervous, chased by time and responsibility. He was also very uncomfortable expressing emotion. But the moment he became absorbed in one of his aesthetic interests, he became at ease in the world and at ease with himself. He often spoke to me about the responsibility of service to community, but I saw again and again that he was at his happiest when absorbed in music or design. I was told that one path was important, while my experience was that the other path gave my father his only moments of peace and inspiration. Those two competing lessons were a constant in my childhood. Years later, when I became an artist, my father was, at first, quite disappointed. He felt that I was choosing a path of self-indulgence, not realizing that his own life had shown me my first example of the profound value of art.

I was born the fourth child of four. Only three were intended, one every two years, then four years later an unexpected surprise. A central experience of my childhood was that everyone else in my family was good at everything, except me. I didn’t have any aptitude for dressing well. At least it seemed that way because my father was such an inventive and all knowing clothes horse. I wasn’t good at music. My whole family sang a repertoire of songs in four part harmony that I didn’t quite get. But perhaps my area of greatest deficit was visual art. I had poor eye hand coordination and did badly in penmanship classes. My hand writing was nearly illegible. Also, I noticed that my teachers showed no enthusiasm whatsoever for whatever I would make when we had art projects in school. I remember concluding definitively in seventh grade that the visual arts could be checked off of my list of potential future career options, since I was so clearly without visual talent.

While I was in the process of learning that I couldn’t do visual art, the Beatles performed for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was eleven. Half of my friends and I decided immediately to learn an instrument and start a band. I began playing guitar badly in a band called The Warts, with my two best friends, Chris and Howie Bitner. It turned out that the three of us actually had some musical aptitude, not that that was a requirement. Over the next few years we played more and more and became obsessed with music. Without even thinking of it as such, I was turning into an artist, not a visual artist, but an artist all the same.

In the meantime, my older sister, Jane, was becoming interested in visual art. She became an art major in college. Because her college was in our home town, I got to witness her growing interest in art. During  her senior year of college, she did a semester apprenticeship in New York City with an up and coming figurative painter. The following year, she enrolled at SVA, the School of Visual Arts, also in New York City.

That year, my friend Thad and I decided to take a bus from our tiny town in central Ohio to New York City. We could stay at my sister’s and just take in the big city. One of the things we chose to do was visit New York’s great art museums. It was a perfect introduction because neither of us had any background in visual art. We hadn’t taken art history classes. We came from a town so tiny that it had only one miniature museum that focused on the pioneer life of the town’s early days. My point is simply that we went into these museums cold, with no sense of what we should or shouldn’t like. We just wandered around wide eyed and noticed whatever spoke to us. I noticed a couple of things right away. I noticed that I really liked visual art. I also noticed that I particularly liked the abstract paintings by Kandinsky. I didn’t know what they were about or what people thought of them. I just knew that I liked them.

From then on, my enthusiasm for visual art just kept growing. I fell in love with visual art, not as a maker, because I knew that wasn’t a possibility for me, but rather as a person who appreciates the work of visual artists. I went to museums whenever I could. I followed my sister’s interests in contemporary art. I became more and more aware of what kind of work I liked and disliked and thought about why, not in an art historical sense, simply in terms of my own experience of the work. I had a lot of confidence in my opinions because my response to the work was so strong. My friends and I started having discussions and arguments about what work we liked. Visual art was becoming a core enthusiasm in my life.

One of the things that still baffles me to this day is that I developed a strong interest in Jasper Johns and Willem DeKooning right off the bat, at least right after Kandinsky. How a kid from a town in Ohio with two thousand people immediately starts connecting with those three experimental abstract painters is beyond me. It must be like the experience of a gay kid from a small town in Wyoming, setting foot for the first time in New York or San Francisco, and just knowing that he’s found a place where there are other people like him.

Now mind you, at least twelve years of being in love with visual art passed before I took my first stab at making visual art. The path to those first moments of making was circuitous.

I was a smart kid. I did well in school and assumed for many years that I would end up getting a Ph.D. in something. On the way to that future, I was admitted, as a tenth grader, to Phillips Academy Andover. Andover was where I first began to realize that I liked music more than academics. I did well in my classes, but I did the work out of a sense of obligation and responsibility. I did genuinely love some things about academics, but I was also doing the work partly to fulfill the expectations of others. Music, on the other hand, was purely for me. It was my escape. I loved it. I was beginning to realize that I was an artist.

While at Andover, I learned about Berklee College of Music in Boston, the jazz school, the place you went if you really wanted to get serious about contemporary music, improvisational music. After dropping out of Andover, I set my sights on Berklee and within a couple of years became a Berklee student.

Up until Berklee, my growth as a musician had been driven purely by my interests and growing experience from being in bands. At Berklee, everything accelerated. Theory was being crammed down my throat. I was required to practice three hours a day, often practicing music I didn’t care about and didn’t understand. I was being tested on my performance level. Basically, Berklee ruined music for me. It took a very personal enthusiasm and turned it into something defined by others that was being thrown at me faster than I could absorb it.

After two years at Berklee, I took a leave of absence. In the middle of that year I experienced my first catastrophic artist’s block. Berklee had taught me these stratospheric standards of music that I couldn’t meet. Everything I created sounded sophomoric to me. I became more and more depressed about music and ultimately stopped playing altogether. As the block was setting in, I visited my musical hero at that time, Chick Corea. His only advice was to become a Scientologist. That wasn’t going to happen. Not knowing what to do, I thought back to some of what I missed in academics. I decided to enroll in a liberal arts college, and became, of all things, a math major. I really loved a lot of my coursework in math, but it never felt like the kind of fit music had been. As I was finishing my degree, I had no idea what to do next. Junior year, I had seen a poster for a graduate program in architecture that allowed applicants with a BA in any field. Architecture seemed a way that I could creep back toward the arts, so it seemed worth a try.

This is where things get interesting. The program I ended up in was very visual and avant garde. The teachers were great drawers and ridiculed me for my poor drawing skills. I was afraid to draw. I approached drawing in a very hesitant, yet perfectionistic way. I was making no progress on my own as a drawer, so in my third and final year of grad school in architecture, I signed up for an introduction to drawing class in the fine arts department. It wasn’t that I was interested in becoming a visual artist. It was just that I had to find a way to come to terms with drawing if I were to become an architect.

This is where my life takes a hard left turn. My drawing teacher, a New York painter named Jerry Buchanan, turned out to be the best teacher I had ever studied under in any discipline. He created a safe environment where I could explore drawing with no possibility of failure. His approach to drawing assumed that anyone who had any interest could find a way to express their unique ways of seeing through drawing. He didn’t see talent as even a relevant concern. Within this nurturing environment I began to explore not just drawing, but seeing, and found that I loved it. I had finally found a place where I felt as at home as I had in music. The most interesting thing about Jerry’s teaching was that it was really about self instruction. One of his most telling directions from the first day of class was that he would rather see a pile of motivated failures by our tables than a few conservative successes. We ran our own shows, so there was no danger of being overwhelmed through force feeding as I had been at Berklee.

Jerry was a miraculous teacher. He really motivated us in a way that created momentum and high aspirations without constraining how we were to work, all the while emphasizing constant risk with no possible way to fail. Also, he took great care to point out strengths in our work so that we began to build momentum from our successes rather than sweating what we weren’t good at yet. The fact is, Jerry was the first actual artist that I had ever taken a visual arts class from. In that class, I didn’t exactly learn that I was a good drawer. What I learned was that I could grow as a drawer. That alone, wouldn’t have changed the direction of my life. What changed the direction of my life was realizing how much I loved the process of growing as a drawer, of growing as a seer.

After returning to Portland to work as an architect, I found I what most excited me was the time I got to work on painting and drawing after I got home from my job. I lasted nine months in architecture before I bailed to do drawing and painting full-time. Luckily, a new architecture school was opening in Portland at that exact moment. The school hired me to teach architectural history part-time, and that gave me just enough income to cover my basic needs, while allowing me the time to really begin to paint and draw in ernest.

As a musician, I had made forward progress by copying, to the extent I could, music that I loved. That is the way musicians in the genres I cared about have always learned. So naturally I did the same thing with drawing and painting. The thing is, that’s not how most people learn visual art these days, especially artists who have gone to art school. I have never understood why this way of progressing as a visual artist has fallen out of favor. For most of visual art’s history, artists have understood that one of the fastest ways to learn and to solve problems is through attempting to copy the work of one’s heroes.

I had been following the New York visual art scene closely during the three years I was in architecture school. My school was only about an hour from New York by train, so I could visit New York galleries and museums easily. I found the New York painting scene shallow, too strongly obsessed with novelty and fashion. Because I didn’t find what was happening in New York compelling, I had no reason to move there after school, though most of my colleagues did just that. I moved back to the city I loved and to which I had always intended to return, Portland.

As I was practicing my own drawing and painting, I would frequently run into issues that I cared about but had no mastery of. I also came to know artists that really appealed to me without my really understanding why. The first was Michelangelo. There was a sense in which he was in love with his subjects. He used making to savor all that he was experiencing. To better understand his seeing and process, I began doing studies of his drawings and paintings.

There are two very different approaches one can take to studying another artist’s work. One is to study how the work was made in the most literal sense. That kind of study is about copying the artist’s stokes, their technique. The other type of study is about understanding how the artist sees. How the artist sees can be expressed through any number of different techniques. My interest in Michelangelo was in how he saw, not how he made. That allowed me to study his work through my own ways of making, my own voice. I actually had an early show that was mostly studies from renaissance artists. An older artist remarked to me how interesting he found that I would do versions of these renaissance masterworks using an expressionist attitude toward making. He was also baffled that I would show studies of other artists’ work. I was just showing what I was doing at that time. Pretty much all artists doing figurative art had to teach themselves during that period because there was so little emphasis on observation based work in the art schools then. I was simply exhibiting the path of my learning. Jerry Buchanan saw slides of my work at that time and asked me, “What makes this art?” I had never even asked myself the question. Whatever propelled me forward on my journey as an artist was art to me. Anyway, my pieces weren’t copies. They were studies and interpretations and always told at least as much about me as they did about the work I was studying.

During that time, I did studies from Michelangelo, Raphael, Del Sarto, Ingres, and Picasso (his gargantuan, heroic figures). What all that work had in common was a strong volumetric quality and a quality of distortion or subjective emphasis of chosen characteristics of the subject observed. I studied Michelangelo more than the others. I’ve done studies of at least 75% of the figures on the Sistine ceiling, as well as studies of many of Michelangelo’s drawings and sculptures. Those studies not only changed how I see and what I can represent, they also taught me the ways in which compelling drawings and paintings differ from literal copies of the subject observed. Without having done those studies, I don’t think I would have had any idea how much exaggeration, selection, and fudging was necessary to create such powerful work. I also wouldn’t fully have understood how much literal information any great artist leaves out. During my younger period as a nonmaker art enthusiast, I learned that I much preferred work with a strong point of view over more neutral, though obviously skillful work. My early studies began to reveal what it actually means for a maker to have a point of view. The words point of view are apt, the idea being that the viewer/maker brings a framework of values and interest through which the ostensible viewed subject must be filtered. Jerry Buchanan suggested simply that the work of art always reveals as much about the maker as the subject.

I want to talk a little about Jasper Johns, because in a way he is a bridge between my first set of masters and my second. I found his work really rich, very interesting to study, but I couldn’t figure out why, not that that was ever much of a concern on my part. A few years after my Michelangelo period, I began studying Cezanne and Turner. My first set of heroes had been over my head, but these new heroes were functioning in a territory that I could barely grasp. They were working at a level of risk and self trust that was lightyears beyond the more materialistic qualities of the Michelangelo crew. Maybe the level of risk wasn’t any greater for their time, but so much art had been made since the renaissance and so many boundaries had been broken. The most astonishing thing about Cezanne was that he frankly admitted, through his marks, how much trouble he was having figuring out where things were, that is, where exactly the objects he was observing were relative to each other. Any artist who has tried to draw what he or she sees has experienced what Cezanne was experiencing. It is an inescapable dimension of trying to restate what one has observed. Up until Cezanne, artists had said, yes, it is confusing to know exactly where this bottle I am viewing is, but I know the bottle is a solid object, so I’ll commit to my best guess at its location and leave it at that. Cezanne’s shift was to be frank about the confusion of the viewer, to leave evidence in the artwork itself of the contradictory and incomplete bits of contact we make with the subject through our kind of screwy perceptual processes. His art became about how we perceive rather than simply being a narrative about what we perceive.

I had had an intuition that Jasper Johns’ early work had something to do with Cezanne, but I couldn’t imagine what the link could be. As I began to understand Cezanne better, I came to the conclusion that Johns loved the way Cezannes were made and wanted to get at that without having the work emerge from observing some external object. How could one absorb the strengths of Cezanne’s work as an abstract painter? Johns’ big problem in the beginning was that he was uncomfortable with drawing, uncomfortable enough that his marks, if his work was to be based on observation, would be strangled by self-consciousness. Johns’ greatest invention in his early work was that he created a way to subtract drawing from the painting process. By choosing flags, maps, alphabets, targets, etc. he found subjects that could be created through drafting tools or via stencils. Either way, the doubt of the hand could be subtracted by leaving the drawing to tools. With that problem solved, he could begin to study the material quality of Cezannes directly, the repetition of an abstract mark, with minor variations of hue, and contradictory locations of strokes. The strokes themselves could be bold and doubt free because they didn’t have any other job to do than to exist. They didn’t have to describe anything. What a brilliant invention to be able to find a way to study and learn from one of the greatest observers while subtracting drawing as an issue.

Turner was another set of issues altogether. Like Cezanne’s, his work represented issues that I would only be concerned with once I a was a ways along the path of drawing and painting. From Turner, I learned restraint, the value of dirty colors, white, and ten-to-one relationships, treating the few moments of brilliant color as a punchline to be set up by other colors and held back until the last possible moment. Turner taught me how loud the tiniest shifts in hue can be. Along with Cezanne, actually all my heroes if I am being honest, he established an elusive standard that I am far from meeting.

My last hero, I found accidentally while traveling. I happened to be housesitting in Zurich and visited the city’s museum of fine art. I came across a room of absolutely extraordinary drawings and paintings and asked myself, “Who can this artist be that I have never heard of?” I looked at the little cards by the pieces and they all said Alberto Giacometti. I thought, “I know Giacometti. He makes those stupid stretched out figure sculptures that I don’t like. He isn’t a painter.” How wrong I was. Now he is the artist I feel the greatest kinship with and what I value about his drawings and paintings has changed how I view his sculptures. First of all, Giacometti was powerfully influenced by Cezanne. I often think that Giacometti spent his late career simply trying to make a Cezanne. Because he was Giacometti, his efforts always turned into Giacomettis, but the generating impulse was Cezanne. I can easily imagine spending the rest of my days trying to make Cezannes and Giacomettis that, regardless of how hard I try, always end up being Sylvesters in the end, partly because of the added dash of Michelangelo. Giacometti and Cezanne taught me the value of heroically trying to do the impossible, knowing full well that only failure can result. Giacometti and Cezanne also taught me the power of embracing the fact that finishing is an absurdity. Having abandoned finishing as a goal, I could now slow down and take the time my searches actually needed without rushing to a conclusion because of a need to finish.

I have plenty of other heroes. I learn something from most great artists. I have learned a lot from Matisse, Frank Auerbach, Kathe Kollwitz, Chaim Soutine, Oscar Kokoshka, Jack Levine, Mary Cassat, and many others. I particularly pay attention to artists like Alice Neel, Oscar Kokashka, and Chaim Soutine, artists who don’t have the typical drawing facility we presume that all artists have to have. Alice Neel was treated dismissively by her teachers but insisted on being a painter despite the lack of encouragement. The strength of her work demonstrates that the choice to make observation based art depends not on facility, but rather upon the willingness to do the work to manifest the uniqueness we each carry as seers.

There is one last major element in my maturation as an artist that was crucial. Perhaps twelve to fifteen years into my work as a visual artist, I had a full blown catastrophic artist’s block. Had I not had a serious block years earlier as a musician, I might have reacted to my block as a visual artist differently. The course of my work prior to the block had the sense of a single bloom. Each stage led to the next and each new stage was an elaboration of the concerns that had been growing consistently in my work since I started. Just prior to the block, one could guess with a fair degree of certainty, what my next stage might be. Before that stage happened, I had about a seven month interruption of my work because my wife, Joan, and I went to Europe to perform a piece we had created together of her solo choreography and my painted sets and music.

When we got back to the States, I tried to dive straight into the next logical stage of my work. No go. I had no interest in pursuing that direction any more. I think that for a while my work was being propelled forward purely by momentum, so I didn’t realize that my genuine curiosity about that direction was fading. Back in the studio, I knew I couldn’t do what was logically next, but I had no idea what to do instead. The more I tried things, the more it felt like I was out of ideas, out of impulses, that perhaps my time as an artist was over. I knew that blocks happen to everyone and that making it through a block could be hard work. I came to the conclusion that I was done as an artist, but committed to showing up at the studio for nine more months before quitting for good. I would just show up each day for a job I no longer liked and I’d do whatever I could think of to kill time. I made journal entries that where half drawing, half words. I did goofy drawings. I created ridiculous drawn autobiographical board games. Some days I even traced images out of books.Everything made me hate making art more.

Toward the end of the nine months I decided to experiment with fatigue. I asked one of my best friend/models to do a six hour session with me. Typically, I only work with a model for two to three hours before wearing out. The interesting thing about fatigue in drawing is that one reaches a point where one can no longer force himself or herself to do anything. You reach the point where you can only do what involves no internal resistance. At about four and a half hours, I moved to really large paper, shifted to drawing with big paint markers, and essentially stopped looking at the paper. A whole new kind of drawing began to emerge that was much more about movement, surface, and physicality, and less about a fixed choice of where the drawn subject’s physical limits were. As I think back to my memory of that first drawing, I may actually have been using two large paint markers, one in each hand. The new direction actually had a lot to do with qualities I loved in Cezanne’s work and that I later found in Giacometti’s work, but I wasn’t thinking about that when the breakthrough happened. It had more to do with giving in to the sensations in my body as my eyes moved over the subject. The two drivers were following surface and allowing contradictory understandings to pile up on top of each other without being resolved. Rarely looking at the paper helped me allow the contradictions and avoid being pulled into reinforcing a single version of the subject. In retrospect, I realize that what had held me back during the block was my inability to let go of my previous sense of what a drawing was. As long as the old ideas were present to any degree, they corrupted the emergence of a different approach. Well, the doors I opened at the end of that block are still open at least twenty years later, knock on wood. I don’t assume there will be no more blocks, but having made it through such a terrible one, I no longer am petrified by the possibility. The new ways of working that began late in the block are far more inclusive than my previous model of drawing had been and that change, to some degree, may account for how long this second phase of my work has been unfolding.

As I close this recounting, a few errant threads remind me of their importance. First, Egon Schiele. He was my first hero. His work gave me license to be angry. Anger was the first and deepest driver of my work from my having been the quiet child in a frightening and chaotic alcoholic household. Having expressed almost nothing but anger in my first five years of work, I finally had expressed enough suppressed anger that I could begin to explore other emotions as well.

The second thread. In the midst of my Michelangelo phase, I gave myself a Rome prize, six weeks to study alone in Italy. Walking the streets of Rome one day, I heard the singing of an eccentric street artist. The moment I reached him he stopped. I followed him until he disappeared into a bus. By chance, our paths crossed later in the day and I watched him sing three songs. Songs? Actually, they were sequences of tremulous rising and falling pitches that made no sense in terms of musical theory. What they possessed was a naked quality. He sang in the way I would imagine an insane person would sing to himself if alone in a forest. And all the while he was strumming a tiny guitar that had only two strings, untuned. The thing that struck me about this man’s singing was that it was profoundly defenseless. It had not a single layer of self-consciousness or self protection. Hearing that work, the work undoubtedly of a person who actually was in the grip of mental illness of some sort, I realized that that defenselessness was what I wanted of my own work. That defenselessness is what I strive for.

There is one last thread. I haven’t spoken at all of my abstract painting. Toward the end of my years of creating paintings from observation, I began to realize that my favorite part of the painting process was at the end, when the drawing problems had been solved and I could begin to play purely with the color, texture, and composition. When my son, Eoin, was born, I had less time to paint. What little time I did have, I approached with greed. I only had time for the most rewarding parts of painting, so I shifted to full on abstraction. Abstraction is actually challenging territory because the artist has to come up with everything. There is no referent as a starting point. That was fine. I could begin from whatever emotions were driving me at the moment, whatever making impulses. Eventually the painting takes on a form and a wrestling match can begin with the painting’s structure, composition, scale, color relationships, etc.. Toward the end of my first period of abstraction, my paintings degenerated into a kind of formal chess that became far to deliberate and had to do with me only in an aesthetic sense. At that point I stopped painting for years to concentrate on guitar making (another story). I still drew all through that period, but the guitars had become my form of painting both visually and aurally.

Now that I have begun to paint again, I find that I have to reach a point where I don’t understand at all what is going on, where the paint reactions are more absent minded. I have to find a suspended place where I feel that I am somehow reacting from the corner of my eye, my I, obliquely, outside thought. It is a difficult locus of action to find, but if I allow myself to be more thoughtful, the work gets trapped again in formal manipulation. The surprise and inclusiveness of the expression gets lost. When I first began making, the making itself was such a challenge that I essentially couldn’t make and think at the same time. At this stage of experience, the thought has to be intentionally suspended and that is as big a challenge as making had been for me in the beginning.

At age sixty-four, I still feel like a young artist. If I’m exceedingly lucky, I may get to keep working for another twenty-five years, at which time I suspect I will still feel like a young artist. I’ll keep you posted.

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3 Responses to The Education of a Young Artist

  1. Jane Sylvester says:

    I loved this.

    Sister Jane


    Mom always told me John and Amy weren’t planned either. I was planned as a playmate for John. The curious relationship I had with mom that followed was odd and maybe a figment of my imagination, but I do not think so.


  2. Tia Knuth says:

    I so enjoyed reading this, your depth of thought and sharing the ideas of art as an ever changing relationship more than an outcome. We tell ourselves so many stories about who we think we are based on our first few experiences with something. Am halfway through David’s book! I hear you saying you have a goal of making art without apology, defensiveness or reaction? To be completely raw and vulnerable and without fear of judgment. Lofty and totally possible. When you are making a drawing that is of this moment in what you see, how you feel and other sensations, we are taking the mind out of the equation essentially. Do you then draw to express that “stuff” you are experiencing or do you draw to respond to that stuff? Is it impulse and unconscious reaction over and over until you find what’s right or is it conscious response? Or layers of both?
    Going to sign up for a class. I look forward to meeting you!

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