More from the Mark Doty book: he regularly compares painting—and so art, in general—to poetry, in its evocative, metaphorical syntax and usage and the ways it affects us when we experience it.
In still life, it’s the same: these things had a history, a set of personal meanings; they were someone’s. The paintings seem to refer to this life of ownership, and to suggest something of the feeling attached to things, while withholding any narrative. What could we ever know of this cup or platter, the pearl-handled knife? Their associations are long since dead, though something of the personal seems to glow here still, all its particulars distilled into an aura of intimacy.
I went to the memorial exhibition of one of my professors tonight. Most of my work was abstract through art school, but he was a figurative painter, and his classes were all working from life. He taught me more about observational painting than anyone else, and I can still hear his curmudgeonly admonitions to me, gently but firmly steering me to better, more confident work.
This is the other gift of art—not the one we give to the world, but the one teachers give to their students. It’s a special kind of gradual magic to watch your abilities grow right in front of you. The best teachers don’t let you tell them your limits, they keep pushing you against them, asking more. The best students trust teachers to show how to seek their own path ever farther along. Slowly but surely, we improve, even if we get worse in the beginning. New paths are like that, at first—it’s the easy road that hardly ever gets you to an end.
The painting above was one where I finally saw my work improving significantly, as my professor gradually limited our color palettes and we figured out how to do more with less. He taught me better than most that there is freedom in working within limits: freedom to show more with less, freedom to get started because my choices were limited.
I was proud of a few things I made in his classes. But I’m more proud of the ‘A’ he marked on the back of that little 8 x 10 oil still life. I miss you already, Domenic.