My mother suggested that I attend a small religious college in southern Illinois. My high school was in a rust-belt suburb of Pittsburgh. The building had been condemned and the curriculum should have been. I had taken four years of Latin because Miss Nessbit was the best teacher in the school and made that dry topic fascinating. There were no art classes. I never took a book home and got good grades. I really hadn’t given college a thought and easily acquiesced to her proposal.
I spent the summer after high school loading baggage into Greyhound busses at the Pittsburgh terminal on the graveyard shift, three to eleven PM. It is called that because one loses touch with the rest of the world. You are out of sync with everything. So I was ready, in September, for a new experience. And I was more than ready to leave Carnegie.
I took the train to Alton, Illinois and disembarked with my meager wardrobe and no idea of what I was headed toward. I was greeted by a small bus nick-named the Blue Goose. A few students and their luggage were loaded on the well-used vehicle and we headed into rural Illinois. As we rumbled the twenty country miles to the campus, I, a city boy, became nervous about what I had committed myself to. Alton was on the Mississippi River across from St. Louis and the college was also on the river situated on three hundred foot bluffs. The view across the river into the farmlands of Missouri was spectacular.
Since my topic is art, I will briefly say that the small campus was inhabited by dedicated professors, and small classes, and an embracing experience enabled me to mature at a gradual rate, and prepared me for life after college. I did find that my meager high school education had not equipped me for the intellectual atmosphere of college, and I bumbled through most classes. I still have dreams about not being prepared for some mysterious class. But I became dedicated to making art.
The art department was a small wooden building that was so fragile that the the floor shook when walked on. The main instructor was a small dapper man named James Green who was a New England trained watercolorist. He was facile with the medium and easily turned out paintings of boats and fanciful scenes the were reminiscent of Maine and Massachusetts. He sold these pleasing paintings to alumni and parents, and was the only professor who drove a Cadillac convertible. He created an atmosphere that let one create in their own way. He had a collection of books and magazines that led me to admire artists like Lionel Feininger, John Marin, Graham Southerland, and John Piper.
Watercolor was my first medium and is still an important part of my work.
My first art class at the college was a basic one, and I tried to paint a man on a raft poling his way on an unnamed body of water. A student assistant was conducting the class that day. When I asked him what I needed to do with the painting, he said calmly, “Burn it.” He wasn’t wrong.
Being a small liberal arts college, I was able to take the usual courses in English, the sciences, history, and even logic. Other activities included taking part in sports and singing in a quartet and the college choir. Since school and the army did not permit me to start a professional career until I was twenty-seven, I have wondered if it would not have been better to have gone to a professional art school directly. But since all of these varied activities are still part of my life, I think it has enriched my life profusely.
If you remember, cartooning was my early goal. Now I was introduced to painting. I can’t remember any direct instruction I received, but found my own way mostly by looking at reproductions of other artists’ work. In my senior year, I entered a juried exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum. It was a large semi-abstract watercolor done on matt board. It was accepted. I think I surprised the art department.
One of the projects I was asked to do that year was a set design for “The Seagull”, the theater production that Spring. When the curtain opened, the set received applause. I thought, “I must become a set designer.”
I graduated with a BA degree prepared for nothing professionally. When young, that doesn’t seem a problem.