Art school confidential

Back Bay View To Hancock; Acyrlic on Bristol Board; 9" x 12"; 2003

I have met a number of talented people who paid good money to wander, lost and hungry for real instruction, through art schools in the 70's and 80's, unable to find what they instinctively knew they needed.

What they all told me they knew they needed was to learn to draw.

I got lucky.

I found myself in the program at Boston University's School for the Arts (now the College of Fine Arts) in the mid 1980's, just in time to get "the good stuff" from "the old guys", some of whom retired (or died) around my last year.

Maybe it's not cool for a professional artist to dwell on her roots in school. I sometimes feel we are supposed to have arrived fully formed.

Yet there's no question that I put my art education to use daily, whether I am demonstrating a live drawing to a group of students or making stuff up in my studio, and I think it's important to acknowledge where I come from. None of us springs out of nowhere - even the self-taught - much as we may cherish the myth.

Essentially, without all that training, I'd have had nothing to rebel against - and paradoxically, to rebel with.

The founder of the program and head of the painting department, David Aronson, was a deeply talented and thoughtful painter and sculptor. He was hired by BU in the 1950's, freshly graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (then one of the best visual art schools in the world) to save the art program, which was a shambles.

First, he fired everyone.

Then he hired his peers. He knew they knew how to draw.

The resulting school became one of the few strongholds of centuries-old, traditional techniques and skills during the 1970's and '80's when much of that knowledge was being shoved aside, dropped, run over, skewered, blasted and steadily neglected in favor of other explorations.

I caught the end of an era. In my two last years at BU, a couple of the teachers originally hired by Aronson retired. A couple of them died. Aronson himself was to retire the year I graduated.

World famous painters, Philip Guston and James Weeks, both taught for years at the school. While I missed having them as teachers, their legacy was strong. I was unbelievably fortunate to have as painting and drawing teachers Morton Sacks, David Ratner, David Aronson, Reed Kay, Michael Monahan and Iso Papo. Each of these artists was a master draftsman. 

The amazing thing is that each of them was also an effective teacher. 

In addition, Sidney Hurwitz gave me the basics of printmaking, and Nick Edmonds, two years of sculpture that affected me deeply. I came close to declaring my major as sculpture. I had one female professor, Phyllis Berman, who taught design, and ended up influencing many of her students in her crisp style of still life and interior. 

It was a completely patriarchal scene, for sure, almost a parody of itself in that regard. 

We students were all called by our last names, and we were expected to realize that working hard was not just about getting good grades, but about showing yourself what you were made of and developing a work ethic.

Open to good new ideas, a fan of Bacon and Hoffman and de Kooning, Aronson built a strong and vibrant program and with the help of those great teachers, kept the flame of drawing and painting and sculpture burning bright in his then unfashionable corner of the art universe. 

In my opinion the true brilliance of his achievement, however, was not just to teach decades of art students traditional ways to draw and paint and sculpt.

Instead of worshipping academic art, we were encouraged to highlight the abstraction in realism, to use our skills to create something meaty and architectural, to appreciate the spirit of the early Moderns such as Matisse and Picasso.

However, no single artist was put forward. We had an excellent Visual Arts Library (my work study job for four years), and each of us was left to discover who appealed to us and build slowly on our influences.

But the truly remarkable, and I think still rare, philosophy quietly put across to those of us who were really listening, was that the training we were receiving was not an end in itself, but a means to make something extraordinary. 

Learn the rules in order to break them well was the unspoken principle underlying the rigor. And for God's sake, do something good.

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David Aronson  Philip Guston  James Weeks  

Bacon  Hoffman  de Kooning