In 1937, Dr. Saunders was hired by Ralph Swetman to help turn the Oswego Normal School into a State Teacher’s College. He retired in 1970 and was instrumental in hiring many inspired art faculty over the years.
In 1957, he chose Roy out of hundreds of applications for the job as assistant professor of art. At that time the department was being stocked with several practicing artists, all serious about their craft, and some even dedicated to teaching.
Not Roy. He was ambitious in ways disconnected from pedagogy. I guess he would have stagnated in Cleveland, carrying on with barbeque and agonizing repetition if the good doctor hadn’t “plucked” him out of suburbia.
Here Aulus draws in East Park in Oswego the first year he arrived. He was a great inspiration to men and women seeking self-improvement through art and teaching. He must have wanted to punch his new hire in the eye when Roy handed in his resignation.
From a letter sent to students dated October 30, 1957:
“Tomorrow is the Day of the Dead and the streets are filled with candy skulls—little candies, big candies, candies of all shapes and colors, candy animals, skeletons, dolls, and baskets. They are the most lovely candies I have seen. But they all taste like plain sugar.
We went to one cemetery this afternoon and preparations were already being made for the celebration. A cemetery here is a very grim place. The people do not buy the lots:they just rent them, so that when the rent is not paid, the bodies are dug up. As we walked around we saw lots of skulls and human bones. Some of the skulls still have hair on them.
The Indiand will have picnics at the graves of the recently deceased on Saturday, and that seems to be the reason for all the elaborate candy for which San Miguel is famous.”
Frances Oler is seated in the 1958 art faculty photo for the yearbook. She was allowed to teach future teachers how to teach art to elementary school children. Cans of safety scissors, crayons, and dream potential squashed because she peed sitting down.
This painting is how Roy and the other boys probably saw her in the flesh.
If Mr. Campbell showed this painting alongside Roy’s piece that year in the faculty exhibition, he would have outclassed his struggling colleague. Roy was confusing himself and others by abandoning his “feel” while making a leap in style from figurative to abstract impressionism. We only know this because Roy went Evel Knievel a couple years later to land somewhere completely new. And new can win in New York if you have the support and backing of a millionaire who knows many millionaires who have nothing better to do than buy a work of art for the price of a house. So Roy got paid a fortune copying comics, and David Campbell got close to zilcho making beautiful paintings.
No one said that life is fair. Certainly not leo Castelli then nor Larry gagosian today.
David Campbell has a website where prints are available. Give his genius a try! Lord knows we could use something new for the rest of us.
Harvey Sherman Harris (1915 – 1999) was a painter and teaching colleague of Roy Lichtenstein at Oswego State. I imagine professional jealousy was a persistent worm in the minds of artists in 1958 as it is today. I think that’s because artists in America think individually (at times) that they are great with verve and originality—better than the rest even—when really, what they’re privately pining for is an Elvis Presley fame with a Wayne Newton effort at expression. Truth is, everyone is free to achieve the inner peace and realization that there was only one John Coltrane, and we all should be happy enough with that satori, making things and drinking beer.
It is so easy to be an artist when it comes to pretending to occupy head space. Just draw a picture and let people guess at your profundity. As a 16 year old boy, often flabbergasted by the insensitivity and hypocrisy of man, I had no outlet other than a spoken word “why” to react to interplay with myself and a world gone wrong. A friend gave me the nickname “Philosopher Ron,” which I didn’t know what to do with other than add more “whys” to a lengthening list on the sins of friends and family. I was working class, poorly educated, and limited to wonder that never took me too far outside my caste. I had no mentor, no teacher, no guru. So, why did the chef at the restaurant where I worked my first job as dishwasher serve late arrivals spaghetti that he scooped out of the garbage? Was his life that interesting after punching out to save time on the clock washing garbage can pasta and reheating it, rather than boiling another pound? That week on my night off I watched “The Day After”, a made for TV nuclear holocaust movie that was all the rage among adults pretending to give a crap about their own government’s trespass on the rights of all life on earth. What was a moral dishwasher with the intellectual capacity of a stone, yet the sensitivity of a butterfly wing, to do with that information?
Naturally, for me in my station, as inquisitive young dope and novice dishwasher, I just asked “why”, and then went to bed.
I am sure Roy Lichtenstein either watched or at least heard about the movie, for adults everywhere always talk about things the TV wants them to. He was rich and well cared for in 1983, and although he had the eyes of many thousands of thinking peoples, he thought best to remain humble in his art and let Ronald Reagan be master of the weapons that would melt his loved ones. Roy made one political painting that year, a framed “abstract” entitled “Against Apartheid”, which was very safe and popular and showed that the millionaire artist cared very much about oppression in South Africa. The rest of his output for 1983 is more brushstrokes, more frames, and some apples. And he probably took Dorothy out for spaghetti late one night, at the hour when chefs get very bitter and angry over their station in life.
Today, Philosopher Ron can’t help but to think that all popular visual artists are lazy jerks to the survival needs of mankind. I think the same of priests of religion, pop musicians, and writers with best selling books. Each has a huge following, yet uses expression to maintain the means that keep them grounded to the same spot on the spectrum of goodness and badness. They reside where the money comes and popularity is maintained. Popular artists, like infamous presidents (all presidents), gain the world and lose their souls. It’s just a matter of fact.
Fear of insignificance keeps the ambitious producing nothing to prevent the race to our own extinction. Whether it be pretty pop paintings or the B83 thermonuclear bomb.