When I graduated from RISD 37 years ago, I was lucky to have a mentor in fellow painter and Professor Emeritus Gordon Peers 33 PT. A protegé of painter John R. Frazier, a 1912 RISD graduate and president of the college from 1955-62, Peers was also a former head of the Division of Fine Arts and a leading force behind the European Honors Program. He had retired from everyday teaching by the time I arrived at RISD, but serendipity brought us together – he had advertised for a painting student to help out around the house and garden and I was looking for part-time work. Over the years we became good friends.
Saturday mornings we spent in his studio looking at paintings. Sometimes we looked at my work and talked about its flaws and strong points. Other times, we looked at his work or Frazier’s or paintings by his late wifeFlorence Leif 34 PT. Always we talked about painting.
The time we spent together was invaluable to me, both as a person and a painter. I had never before spoken to anyone about art in that way. These were not academic critique sessions, but discussions about painting, painting choices and the whys and wherefores of art. Often we extended our time together by visiting galleries and museums. He helped me install my first two-person exhibition at the Lenore Gray Gallery in Providence. He introduced me to linen and quality paints. He expanded my stubborn and narrow-minded 22-year-old viewpoint and demonstrated by example the abundant possibilities open to me.
I will never forget the gift Gordon gave me and throughout my life I have endeavored to pass it on. In fact, this led indirectly toLegacies in Paint: The Mentor Project, the new show I helped organized at the Newport Art Museum.
In the last few decades, painting has had a rough time of it in critical circles. Artists look for new ways to be relevant and often eschew traditional painting, but all along, under the surface, painters continue to paint alone and in isolation. How do I know this?
Younger painters contact me out of the blue. I suppose it was the third or fourth such email that made me take notice and begin meeting with them. I became good friends with one of them,Mollie Hosmer-Dillard, and together we came up with the idea for this project and exhibition, which we felt would simultaneously do two things: show that painting is not dead and provide a forum for experienced artists to help younger painters on their way up.
When we approached the Newport Art Museum’s executive director Lisa Goddard and curator Nancy Whipple Grinnell, they were excited about our proposal and the Mentor Project was born. We chose to bring together 10 artists, many of whom happen to have RISD connections. For mentors, in addition to me (Paula Martiesian 76 PT), we invited David Barnes, Michele Provost, John Riedel 72 IL and Ida Schmulowitz 74 PT. We also reached out to four younger artists in addition to Hosmer-Dillard: Buck Hastings 06 PT, Li Jun Lai, Erika Sabel and Dan Talbot 96 PT. For four months, the 10 of us visited with each other in our studios, at exhibitions and in libraries. We shared our favorite artists, inspirations and work habits. We sought to celebrate the individualism of each painter and the visual in visual arts.
“I’ve been intrigued with the idea of mentoring for a while,” Grinnell says. “Artists are often telling me they work in a vacuum and I am always looking for a way to get artists talking to each other.” The fact that the project fit in with the museum’s 100-year anniversary of art education made it a perfect match.
“We are engaged in such a basic and fundamental human practice – painting and communicating,” says Buck Hastings. “Our visits preceding this show have given us a really special chance to communicate with those who are most invested – other painters. But I really feel like we’ve just begun.”
“One thing I started to realize,” Hosmer-Dillard says, “was that everyone will tell you something different based on his or her own perspective. There is no objective ‘method’ or ‘key’ to painting that a mentor can impart to a younger artist. But by their example, they give us the courage to continue and, with their insights, they provide ways to get at the mysteriousness of the conversation between painting and painter.”–Paula Martiesian 76 PT
Legacies in Paint: The Mentor Project is on view through May 5 at the Newport Art Museum, with a reception on Friday, February 1 from 5–7 pm and a panel discussion on Sunday, March 24 at 2 pm. The exhibition includes emails and correspondence between the artists, as well as artists’ statements about the project.
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