We (my sister and I) called our mother’s father “Granddaddy” because he was so kind and dear. We called our father’s father “Grandfather” because he was formal and distant. From my early age Granddaddy enjoyed my artistic efforts, and often bought my drawings for a quarter. Grandfather fancied himself something of an artist. Many of his, and hence my, ancestors were professional artists, and though today I see his efforts as quite amateurish, his drawings then were nothing short of miraculous. He drew often, for the sheer pleasure of it. I loved to ask him to draw a ship or a horse, and he obliged. It was at those moments that I felt close to him. I still have a painting he made of a train emerging from a tunnel that he gave me for my fourth birthday. When I was nine Grandfather gave me my first set of pastels.
Art has been a prevalent interest of both sides of my family. It is no wonder, then, that by the age of five I knew I wanted to be an artist.
When I was seven my widowed father remarried. My stepmother was the niece of a prominent illustrator and fine artist, Frank E. Schoonover who, as a young man at the opening of the twentieth century, had traveled this country painting Indians and plein air landscapes.
I was eleven when Phoebe introduced me to oil painting. She was not a painter, but she knew about palette knives and linseed oil and how you needed a big tube of white. Within a year I was ready to go further and asked for lessons.
“You need to develop a style before you get lessons,” she told me, and my family dynamic being what it was I did not know or think to ask again. I never met my step-uncle or had a conversation with anyone who knew about art.
I limped along through the school years. My “talent” was recognized by peers and teachers but never really encouraged until the kind mother of a classmate saw my work and said, “You missed your calling!” Halfway through college my calling suddenly yanked me into a state of great anxiety and out of Princeton, where there was no studio art program beyond a couple of pass-fail electives. I went home and painted and painted and asked to transfer to art school.
“You will go back to Princeton or I will find another young man and send him instead.” Times being what they were, my choice was between Vietnam or Princeton and I chose Princeton.
The rest of my story is a tedious string of attempts to support myself and a family through artistic pursuits while sinking deeper and deeper into a quicksand of menial jobs that, while I attempted to save out time to paint, sapped my energy and spirit, until finally, after twenty years, I accepted that I could not ever hope to produce art for a living without a lot of help, and took on a profession that demanded every bit of everything I had—except art—and I made the most of it. I don't regret my teaching career. In fact I am very grateful for it. But it was not art.
So here is the point I tell art school graduates who complain that they did not learn technique. When you go to art school you spend four years in a milieu which validates the preeminent importance of art in your life. You must not underestimate the value of that steady confirmation of your aspiration. Most all art school alumni concede this issue.
(By the way, a recent study, which I regretfully cannot find to cite, found that the majority of art school grads are happy and successful, in stark repudiation of the commonly accepted nonsense that art school is a dead end.)