Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Meeting With Sam

My old painting teacher Sam asked me if I would build a website for him. I'm not exactly sure he really even understands what a website is or why he wants one, but I agreed to make him one. I had sworn off web design for the rest of my life, but I came out of retirement because I had told him years ago I would make him one if he ever wanted one, and also because it's a great excuse to hang out with him.

We'll meet every couple weeks or so in his studio in Greenpoint. It's a huge loft studio- bigger than most apartments I've seen in NYC- located right on the Newtown Creek that divides Brooklyn and Queens. The walls are covered with his larger paintings, and below each is probably 5 or 6 smaller canvases leaning against the wall- almost all facing the wall to my dismay. In the front of the studio is a shallow wooden loft that he built to hold stretchers and old canvases and all sorts of interesting stuff I can't really get a good look at. In the main area of the loft are several tables with evidence of various art-related construction projects (a partially stretched canvas, nails from a mounted panel that's being disassembled) and several easels ranging from small to gigantic and deluxe to jury-rigged, each with a work-in-progress of some sort on it.

Usually we'll talk about the website for 20 minutes or so, then spend a couple hours talking about art and life. I decided it would be good to write down a bit about my meetings with him because the conversation is always good, because Sam is a great guy and a great teacher, and because though he keeps on trucking like nobody I know at a bit over 80 (I used to be fond of saying he probably wouldn't skip class with a gunshot wound to the stomach), I'm always reminded that he won't be around forever. I don't always agree with everything he says, but I'd like to keep some record of the things we talked about for me to remember. I'll probably leave out most of my commentary for the sake of record.

Tonight we corrected the color on a few images I had shot with my digital camera and browsed through some images that someone else had shot of drawings and sketches he had made in the military before attending the academy. He seemed genuinely shocked that he had done many of the drawings, and insisted with a grin that someone else must have done them. After this I asked him what he was working on. He showed me the beginnings of two compositions about Jesus- the first about the connection between Judas and Jesus, and the second illustrating a biblical scene where Jesus resurrects a man's daughter.

He spoke quite a bit about Jesus and Judas- about how without Judas there really wouldn't be Christianity- without him Jesus wouldn't have died on the cross. The composition showed Jesus forgiving Judas and sheltering him. He went on to talk about how the big difference that Jesus made was to bring the focus of life on humanity in contrast to the sternness and relative violence of the Roman and Greek cultures before him.

As per usual, he asked if I had any drawings he could see. I showed him my sketchbook, and explained a bit why I had filled most of it using a non-photo blue pencil, and how I had been experimenting with bending and twisting cubes to make figures. He then made a demonstration about balance and how it relates to composition- changing the size of the subject in relation to the canvas changes the size of the negative space around the subject and including the edges. He said an artist must always be aware of the balance between these two things, and that he has to cultivate some visceral feeling about this balance, and that small changes often had bigger effects on this balance than we imagine. He illustrated this using a little diagram depicting 3 soldiers on one side of a line and 3 on the other. Moving just one soldier to the other side of the line means that one side has double the number of soldiers on the other side.

Afterwards he recalled a story about Tom Sawyer painting a fence, wherein Tom starts out begrudgingly painting the fence, but acts like he enjoys it when he sees some friends approaching. Although Tom finds that actually does begin to enjoy it, it doesn't stop him from successfully tricking his friends into doing the job for him after they see how much he's into it. Sam said that an artist needs to be like Tom Sawyer in the story- that even if he doesn't feel like working if he begins to work on a given day and works long enough he will begin to find joy in it. He then went on to talk about how great musicians can jump right to this point with little to no warning after years and years of training. Sam recounted a show he had seen of Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov played with such feeling even when picking up randomly in the middle of a song in response to a question at a master class. Great musicians have a great power whenever they play- they never play idly or wimpily- they give it everything every time, and as artists we should do no less.

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