Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In which young Stape applies to the art school and is found wanting

Here I am, drawing outside, sometime in the mid 1970's.

I do intend to return to Edward Seago. I run subjects through this blog in rotation. Because of several large web sites putting links to this blog, I suddenly have a lot of new readers. Welcome, I am glad you are here. I do a number of things on this blog. Mostly it is a painting tutorial. But I do some art history and some art philosophy.

I am also telling my own experiences , I am doing this for a number of reasons, first of all I have spent almost forty years in the traditional painting world, and I have seen a lot, and it should be recorded and shared. Two, since I am giving you my opinions on art , you can't help but wonder, ( I would think ) who is this guy? But lastly and probably most importantly, it makes a pretty good story . You might want to go to autobiography in the side bar and go back to Monday March 23rd, This post will carry the narrative forward from that point.

I left high school early in order to more fully participate in the 1960's. A year later I applied to The Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In Minnesota if you wanted to be an artist, that's what you did.

I submitted my portfolio to the art school. I was doing whimsical ink drawings in a style that was a cross between Heinrich Klee and Alphonse Mucha. I think the year was 1970. I though my portfolio was pretty good, I had had some nibbles from a commercial art agency. The art school turned me down. I was flabbergasted, it didn't seem to make any sense. I knew what the kids made that did get in, and I couldn't figure it out. The school admissions office told me, if you go to to our summer school we will accept a small number of students from that program into the next years class. So I signed up for summer school.
Since I had been on my own for a while, unlike the other students I was living in an apartment and had to be out by the last day of the month. The summer school didn't start until about the 5th. So I went to the school and asked if I could move into the dormitory a few days early. They had just acquired this big old house and they assigned me a room in it, and I moved in. The next day as I am sitting out on the roof, smoking a joint and playing my guitar, a van pulls up in front of the house next door. A long haired guy gets out and begins to carry boxes and musical equipment into the house. I see he has big amplifiers to haul in alone and so I trotted down the stairs and introduced myself.

As we carried his amps up the porch stairs and into the house he explains to me he has just joined the faculty of the art school. He was a neon sculptor named Cork Marcheschi and he must have been in his late twenties and was moving in from Haight Asbury in San Fransisco. He was about the coolest guy I had ever met. He had led a band called the 40 foot hose that played the Filmore and had opened for all the San Fransisco bands I listened to. I had been in various dreadful garage bands and knew my way around the music of the era. So, we quickly became fast friends. I was considerably hipper than the rest of the summer school students, who were now beginning to arrive as virgins in their chinos and desert boots.

Well, I did the summer school and I quickly realized that the teachers there had no interest at all in the representational art I wanted to do. It was in fact "bad" to do that. I figured out, that's why they hadn't taken me in the first place. They only wanted people who were into avant garde art.
It was so strange, all these dowdy chicks with their phony berets and mirror studded India purses and their earnest boyfriends driving Wimbledon white Ford Falcons were going to push the envelope. They had been painting maybe six weeks, and they were already the tip of the arrow of art history. I was appalled. This made me all the more interested in traditional art and I began to study the works of the masters. The school sat next to the museum so I could go frequently and see the kind of paintings that I wanted to make.

On the last day of the summer school I was waiting to see if I had been accepted into the winter school, the "real"art school , my friend Corky showed up. He had been in the faculty meeting, my name hadn't even cone up. He had "sponsored" me and I was able to go to art school solely because of one hippie neon sculptor from the Haight.

Now after being a professional artist all of my life I wonder if any of those other students spent their lives making art. Somehow I doubt many of them did. What I figured out from the experience was that they were all conformed to the system. They were required to be avant garde. In fact nothing else was tolerated. They were all in a hand-me-down revolution against an art they had never seen. I still remember how shocked I was over that week as I put it all together. The whole thing was a sort of fraud. These kids were going to be trained to be teachers, who would teach other kids just like them to be teachers of other teachers on ad infinitum. It had already been going on just that way for decades. I lasted only one year at the art school.

The next year I tried the University of Minnesota. I took a test, got a GED and talked my way past the admissions chick in the beret by admiring her mirrored purse. It was the height of the Vietnam war and the U had 50,000 students. It was an exciting environment with a lot going on. But pretty much the same uninspired curriculum was taught in the art department. This was the low point for traditional painting, the absolute low ebb, with so many ateliers and schools available today in which to learn representational painting, it is hard to imagine that in the 1970's it had dwindled to a very small handful.

I discovered that if I hung out in the etching labs I could do the kind of art I wanted. In that department there was a sort of acceptance of traditional work, particularly if you were interested in the teachers collection of historic etchings, which of course I was.

Late one evening I was in the etching labs trying to get a small edition printed on the huge, iron spider wheel presses. The guy at the press next to me runs his plate through the press and pulls back the blanket and the sizing catcher and pulls the paper off the plate. I glance up and I am dumbfounded. It was a nude, and it was better than anything I had ever seen done in any of the classes or schools I had been in. In fact I had no idea anybody alive was doing that kind of work. My teachers certainly couldn't. I drew better than they did. I hadn't seen anything in the art magazines around the schools like that.

I went over to get a better look and struck up a conversation with the artist. There were a lot of art students in a school the size of the U so it wasn't unusual that I hadn't seen him around. He explained to me that he wasn't actually a student there. He had signed up for an adult ed. night class just to get at the presses. I doubt he ever even bothered to attend the class itself. This young man was going off, I think to Italy in a few days. I invited him to the little room I lived in and he wrote me a bibliography of books I should read and told me about the man who had taught him how to do, what I wanted to learn myself. I only knew him for a day. But this chance meeting was to be the hinge on which the rest of my life would turn.

His teacher was an elderly artist in Boston named R. H. Ives Gammell. I read Ives Gammells book "The Twilight of Painting" and it all finally made sense, and there were at least a few people out there who were interested in traditional painting. That chance meeting set me on a course for Boston and led me to Gammell and the opportunity to study with someone who could pass down to me the science of painting he had received from an unbroken line of masters and pupils going back into the French academy.


Unknown said...

Very cool. Thanks for sharing this. My story is kind of similar, went to a university because my uncle was against me going to NY, after year of BS dropped out, tried to do art while doing various jobs and got sick of that after a few years, returned to college, got a degree, found a friend who wanted to go to NY, so I finally got to go to the Art Students League and studied 10 years with Frank Mason. Would like to say the rest is history but I ended up getting into the advertising world. After getting cancer I realized I wasn't happy with my life and decided to try to devote myself more fully to painting which I've been doing since 2001 now. I'm having a tough time but am stubbornly refusing to go back to doing anything that keeps me apart from painting. I take solace in the fact that many artists including yourself as I've learned, put up with years of rejection and hardship in order to be able to do what they are most passionate about.
Kudos for you for sticking it out (and not letting yourself be brainwashed by those college phonies). Your work is beautiful. I told you how struck I was by your painting at the Mary Bryan Gallery. You should have received the top award in my opinion.
I'm enjoying your blog tremendously, thanks for doing it.

Mike Thompson said...


Well, I always knew I'd be an engineer and so I was and am. No pivot point there. But my entire life after school also hinged on one chance pivotal point I won't bore you with the details. My own pivot point in oil painting came on a Sunday afternoon in August in 2003 when I walked into Stapleton Kearns gallery and studio in Rockport, Massachussetts just to see what I could see. It would appear that these chance pivot points play a much more important role than we usually think. But you have to be willing to go in the direction it thrusts you toward or it is just another ho hum happening that means nothing more than do I watch the Cubs game or the Cardinals game tonight?.

I have read about several other representational artists dropping out of art school for pretty much the same reasons you did. What happened to art in the 20th century is tragic. Why traditional art had to be destroyed by the gatekeepers of art is a mystery. The seeds of this fight between new and traditional art were planted and growing by the time of the Impressionists and the divide became a gulf after the turn of the century. By the time WW2 ended traditional art's fate was sealed. (Heh heh! Or so they thought.)

One last interesting observation. My wife and I were in the new DeYoung in San Francisco 3 years ago. One gallery was filled with modern paintings, best described as ''melted faces'' type of art. 99% of the people who entered that gallery SCURRIED on through when they saw the works hanging on the walls. People evaluated it and voted with their feet. All is not lost.

Sandra Galda said...

whelp, I read all this while drinking my starbucks this morning. I enjoy your writing on this blog, and thank you for sharing your life story.

Unknown said...

I have herd similar stories from other accomplished artists around your age. I am glad that all of you stuck to your guns. It is because of you guys that we are seeing a renewal of traditional methods. THANK YOU! I would hate to think what would have happened if everyone bought into the modern art movement.

By the way, reading your old posts is becoming costly. I just bought both the Aldo HIbbard book and the Carlson book. I was supposed to spend that money on paint. I can't curse you though, its my own thirst for knowledge on the journey of improving my painting. Thanks for all of the great book recommendations.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you Walter.

I think it must be particularly hard to make it doing trad. art in NYC. But perhaps the market is so big that there is a place for everything.I know things are changing fast. I see a lot of figurative art showing down there. Particularly if it is edgy, I wonder when or if they will develop an interest in landscape.
I always thought when I grew up I would show at Grand Central gallery, but they are of course, long gone.


Stapleton Kearns said...


Frank Ordaz,has a great blog, I have a link to it on my side bar. He said recently thet he liked the model of the record stores. They have categories. You can get this kind of music, or that kind, the market decides what gets out there.

What sort of a game does one play with a cardinal, is it a religious game?

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you Sandra,
I always wonder about writing my own history,whether others will find it interesting, When I write technical or design posts, I nmow that they are useful. I figure I will space em out.

Stapleton Kearns said...


The great thing about books is that if you learn anything for the price of a book it is so much easier than having to figure it out for yourself in the field. The Carlson book is one of the greatest deals in the universe. The best book on landscape painting is also the cheapest.

Mike Thompson said...


Stapleton Kearns said...


Never heard of it.