Continuing this idea of the importance of looking back, I wanted to reflect on some of the teachers that played such an important role in my creative development. On occasion my students will ask me if it’s really worth it to get a college degree – why can’t I just go out there and make it on my own? Certainly possible, but there is a massive amount of creative and philosophical DNA that you will miss out on, that could have a profound role in shaping and directing a career as a creative. Teachers are the primary conduit for transmitting that DNA, the core essence of what it means to be a visual thinker. My teachers played such an influential role for me, and I am grateful for their sacrifice on my behalf.
Of course, being raised by a father who was an active artist and designer played a large role, but almost as important were the artist friends that he had, and the interaction I was able to benefit from them. Most of the teachers I will talk about either went to school with Dad, or he was good friends with. They had a common bond, artists who strove to communicate through their work and teaching, the philosophies and meaning that was so important to them. And better yet, they live their lives in such a way to be a stronger statement than any piece of art can communicate.
They are all good men – each striving to live their life in such a way that set a high bar for me to follow beyond anything related to being a professional creative. And I was fortunate to spend a great deal of time with each of them, whether as a student, or just hanging out with their families, or just being able to spend time in their studio and absorb the smells and vibe of what it means to be an artist. They all took the plunge, dove in head first into saying something, and they each did it with optimism, energy and a fantastic sense of humor. Click on the links to follow, and I think you will be impressed with the depth and skill of these artists, who blazed trails for many to follow.
Gary Ernest Smith
Dad’s friendship with Gary goes back to the 60’s as a fellow student at BYU, where a group of students practically lived in the “cave”, a dark studio full of energetic art students. That cave produced some amazing talent, and Gary was one of them. A gifted artist who taught for while, but jumped into painting full time and never looked back. Though I never had a class with Gary, over the years Dad and I made studio visits, and went to many of his show openings in Scottsdale. Gary’s work ethic is stunning, and his production over the years speaks volumes of the value of hard work, sticking to your vision and developing a craft that you not only enjoy doing, but is an important part of your soul. More importantly, Gary was always kind and generous with his advice, sharing of his time and talent. I remember one time Bill Heder and I made a visit to his studio, where he gave us large posters of his work, signed them, and then happily showed us his incredible comic book collection. It was a bit of nerd nirvana there for awhile. It’s not surprising that Dad drew this large portrait of Gary, a symbol of his friendship and love for Gary, Judy and his family.
In the Alpine days of the 1970’s Trevor and his then wife Elaine became good friends with mom and dad, and not just because Dad and Trevor were kindred artistic spirits. But they shared similar philosophies about community, the land, and living a simple but generous life surrounded by family and friends. Trevor and Elaine had a milk cow that we shared, and I remember getting lots of delicious fresh cream to pour over peaches from him. I loved going to his home, a classic artist home, complete with his work scattered about, as he ambling about in his coveralls. His abilities in drawing the figure (as well as some powerful sculptures) I regard one of the finest I have ever seen. For me, his use of the human body in communicating powerful messages of peace is both enlightening and spiritually engaging. Though I didn’t really learn to appreciate his work until long after he had moved away from Alpine, I followed his career as best I could. Mom and Dad always had high praise for Trevor, and had a deep respect for the man. I will remember his gregarious smile, and kind nature and will always enjoy the tremendous art he left behind.
I had Wulf in probably one class during my undergrad years, and it was interesting, mostly because his approach was so different than other faculty. But as I got to know his work, and his philosophies of art, life, the land, and striving for a Zion community – something resonated within me. Wulf wasn’t one to sit down and teach you techniques, but he did have strong opinions on they way he thought the craft of art should be pursued. In fact, it was fun to just say something that would get him fired up, like how computers were going to change the world of information for the better – that would launch him into a tirade. Anyway, a few years after I finished my undergrad I sensed he could help me develop further as an artist during my grad school days so I asked him to be my advisor.
He invited me to his home in Boulder once, and spent the afternoon looking at my work and gave me some valuable advice. He made it clear I could be an artist, but he said it didn’t look like I wanted to. I was holding back something, and he said fear was blocking me. It was true – fear is a real thing for many artists. Fear of failure, fear of how to provide for the family, etc. I was making a good living as a designer, and to jump full time into being an artist was something I wasn’t ready for, but yet a part of me really wanted to paint full time. Wulf saw this, and though he supported my work, he recognized the split personality of sorts I was battling. His support through a tough grad school experience was essential for my survival, and for that I will be grateful and hope I can help out my struggling students as well he did myself.
I started my grad school with the intention of becoming a printmaker. I love making prints, but Wayne elevated that love by teaching me the craft of hand printed lithography. For over a year I spent a lot of time with him and countless hours in the print studio. Wayne is a master printer, and his work is incredible from an image and technique standpoint. And he was always generous with his time, and transferred as much knowledge as he had into my brain. I spent some time in his home where he had a printmaking studio, and learned by working by his side in creating a litho print. One day he was working on a print by Gary Smith, and spending time with Gary and watching his print come to fruition by a master printer was a delight. Though I switched emphasis after a year to painting/drawing, I am grateful that a deep appreciation for the craft of printmaking is still a part of me.
I think of all the teachers I had over the years Bob’s one sentence he said to me while I was a young undergrad sticks in my mind. I still remember where he said it. It was outside his office on the 3rd floor of the HFAC at BYU, and I was just strolling down the hall to class. He was coming out of his studio, brush in hand, stopped me and said, “You should seriously consider going into teaching. You’d be good at it”. Then walked back into his studio to keep painting. My response was – Blech. I walked away thinking I didn’t have time for whiny students. I was going to go out and change the world my way, with my work, blah blah blah. Well, becoming a teacher is the best thing I ever did.
Bob was one of the most generous men I have ever known. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent in his studio while he worked on one of his huge landscapes, where we would visit about anything. He would look at my work that I brought to show, and we would visit for a time, then he would keep talking while he painted. He liked to visit while he worked, and his door was always open. One day I came in and country music was playing in the background, some song about getting drunk and my poor dog or something was playing. Bob was chuckling and said, “listening to country music makes me feel smart”. I loved his fluid oils, his fearless water colors, and that he worked big – something I still like to do. But most of all, I will remember Bob for his kind, selfless nature where he shared and gave to so many
I learned about the craft of painting from Bruce, so much so that I almost became as obsessed as he is about quality of materials, composition etc. After learning how to grind pigment, boil oil, grind some more, stretch canvas the proper way and then use strong compositional techniques I really felt like I was a better craftsman. But more than that – Bruce can draw, and his paintings were fantastic drawings (if that makes sense). There was a period of time where Bruce, Jim and Bob all shared a studio, and it was a delight to hang out with them while they painted and bantered. Though Bruce worked more methodically than Jim and Bob, his work glowed from the canvas, and was anchored by excellent drawing. I loved how he let some of the drawing show – the inner workings so to speak. While Jim and Bob flung paint, he patiently built, layer upon layer. I loved to watch that. I think I only had one class from him, but the skills he taught are still there, and when I work I often have his approach quietly whisper when something’s off, making me step back and be more patient and methodical. Get it right, and let the idea show through.
Not sure where to start with Jim, as he played such a large role in my development. It’s interesting how even though it’s been years and year since being with him regularly, his voice and personality are still apart of me when I work, or when I am critiquing a student. Just a few months ago I had my students in a figure drawing class do something Jim would make us do – that I hated. He would let us observe the model for about 5 minutes, trying to memorize the pose. Then he would ask the model to leave the room and we had to draw it from memory! In about 5 seconds you realize how bad an artist you are. Jim was trying to help us see, and keep the vision, and not depend so much on what is in front of us. My students hated it as well – and I just smiled.
Jim was about as facile a painter as I have ever seen, fluid, quick and confident. Confidence born from thousands of hours of drawing. He made it look easy because he had paid the price. Combine that with some awesome talent and you get a large universe of ideas that he gave to the world. As a teacher, he happily shared his ideas – chatting was not his problem. He loved to banter with us bewildered students, and it helped relax and focus on the task at hand. Many times he would excitedly come in and blare the music to some new musical that he just saw in NYC like Phantom, or Les Miserable. Drawing to that music, and having him poke his head into your work zone was such fun – until he told you the piece stunk and to start over.
Of all those who I was privileged to be taught from, Jim left an indelible influence that I try to pass on to my students. His positive, never give up attitude, tempered with real world experience that proved he knew what he was talking about made such a difference in the lives of all his students. I know he yearned to be painting while he was with us students, but how glad I am that he chose to be in the classroom for the years he did!
On days where I too yearn to be doing something creative, rather than be in the classroom, I am reminded of the men and women who took the time to engage my mind, instill a craft, and guide and help point the creative voice in me. I believe that teaching matters, and that good teaching sticks around long after the classroom is over. And the best lessons are often those that have nothing to do with the subject taught, but how the teachers live their life and treat their students.
Here are some articles and videos about these good men, their craft and the philosophies that surround their craft.
Interview with Jim Christensen
Interview with Wulf and his son Aram
Video about Trevor and his powerful sculpture of St. Francis
Gary Smith and Temple Mural Painting