“Where Did THAT Come From?”
I have often been asked that question of my art. In the past, my reply had been that I do not know. That’s true in a sense. I don’t know from what deep well art draws from. Recently, however, I have begun to ponder more deeply the genesis of my art and why I even choose to make art.
There have been several influences throughout my life that have “pointed me” toward engaging in creative expression. One important one was geographical, literally where I grew up–Old Lyme, Connecticut. For much of the 20th Century, Old Lyme was an influential American art mecca. For over one hundred years, the Lyme Art Association, the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, local artists and local galleries have contributed to the long history of arts in the region.
An Old Lyme artists’ colony was established in 1899 by Henry Ward Ranger, an American painter. Old Lyme’s arts enclave made significant contributions to American Impressionism, with some 200 painters visiting and living in the community during a 30-year period starting at the turn of the 20th Century. Many stayed at Florence Griswold’s boarding house, which today is an art museum housing American impressionist paintings.
I remember spending time in the Florence Griswold House as well as the Lyme Art Association just down the street, admiring two- and three-dimensional art by “the locals.” The experiences were subtle but, in retrospect, very powerful influences on me as a creative being.
My own exposure to art started when I was an infant. My grandmother on my father’s side was a capable watercolorist and her paintings hung throughout our house. My paternal grandfather dabbled in watercolor as well. My father began drawing as a child and produced a variety of pieces in watercolor, acrylic and pencil throughout his life. From a young age, my older sister, Jane Jennings, took art classes with Bill Steves at his art store on Lyme Street and has continued to evolve as an artist ever since. Elisabeth Gordon Chandler, a sculptor of some note, was our neighbor and Roger Tory Peterson, the noted ornithologist and artist, lived in Old Lyme.
When we were kids, our mother would take us on field trips–to New London’s Lyman Allen Art Museum or the Peabody Museum in New Haven. She’d even drag us into Manhattan to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ushering us onto the milk train in Old Saybrook at 5 AM bound for the City.
Even with the influence by and exposure to art all around me, I was never drawn to being a fine artist myself. Perhaps I was intimidated, I don’t know. Instead, I was a drummer.
In 1993, while I was teaching school in L.A.’s inner city, the school’s art teacher approached me to teach her classes for a semester. She’d been assaulted by a former student and needed time to heal from the trauma. She knew I was a special education teacher but told me that nobody cared what I did so I could do whatever I wanted. My sister Jane helped me structure the classes around Betty Edwards’ “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” a seminal work that has helped millions learn the fundamentals of drawing.
I taught six classes a day that semester, keeping just one step (or sometimes one page) ahead of my students. I presented exercises, handed out drawing supplies and watched as the dark and light chocolate faces set off exploring the graphite’s relationship with the paper. After the semester was over, I stopped drawing and didn’t take it up again until 2011.
One August weekend eighteen years after I stopped drawing, I was at home without family or distractions. My wife called from Boulder and asked what I was up to. “Nothing,” I replied.
“Why don’t you do some art,” she suggested.
“Like what,” I said, wondering where that idea had come from.
“I don’t know,” she said. “You like to draw.”
I didn’t feel like going for a bike ride, so I grabbed a piece of paper and a #2 pencil and started to draw. What began as a still life of two candle sticks and a small piece of marble on the dining room table evolved into a “merged” drawing of my face and a natural landscape.
When the family returned later that day, the finished drawing was sitting on the kitchen counter. My wife looked at it, then at me, then back at it again.
“Where did that come from?” she asked quizzically.
“I have no idea,” I replied.