This might look like something a child would do, but I painted “The Laplander” while a 21-year-old art student at RISD. My illustration teacher, Judy-Sue Goodwin-Sturges, gave me a roll of brown paper and told me to work big. She could see that I was struggling to find my way artistically and this was her way of getting me to see other possibilities.
The Laplander, tempera and pastel, 1977
The assignment was to illustrate a story about a Laplander. So, I bought some tempera paint, wide brushes and some children’s pastels and taped the 6 ft. long sheet of paper to my apartment wall. I can remember how exhilarating it was to move the wide brush across the paper. It felt as loose and playful as a finger trail on a foggy car window. As part of the excercise, I tried not to think too hard or overwork the painting.
detail of "The Laplander", 1977
When I brought the rolled up painting to class and hung it up with the other student’s work, it was by far the largest piece and was highly visible from across the room. During the critique, another teacher walked past the open doorway and poked his head in. He pointed to my picture and called out, “What is that?” I don’t remember if anyone responded to him, but he soon walked away. Now I must tell you that every art school student has bad critique experiences, but this was very unusual behavior for a teacher who has no connection to the class. This man, whom I shall not name, no longer teaches and has gone on to become a very famous illustrator. I can remember being shocked at his rudeness, but also felt excitement because he noticed my work. You see, I had previously decided not to register for his class because my friends had complained that his class was torturous unless you were willing to draw in his style. I’ve never spoken to him about the incident and for years held a grudge against him. It wasn’t until I saw him 20 years later at an art show that I experienced his human frailty, that I could see him for what he was, just an insecure man who is vulnerable like everyone else.
I’ve kept The Laplander painting for 30 years and recently unrolled it, ironed out as many wrinkles as possible and photographed it outside. Seeing it today reminds me of a time when I was unsure about how to make my mark and how, with the help of an insightful teacher, pressed forward into unknown territory. There have been other moments of uncertainty, but I continue to strive for qualities like sincerity, strength and vulnerability in my art and in my life.
"The Laplander" with Salley today
My teacher, Judy-Sue Goodwin-Sturges still teaches at RISD and encourages students to develop their own individual styles and find new ways to extend themselves artistically. Thanks, Judy-Sue, for helping me find new possibilities, then and now! Here she is in the early 90′s with some of her former students who are children’s book illustrators, Salley, Ashley Wolff and Holly Berry.
Judy-Sue (back), Salley, Ashley and Holly 1992