Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on September 5, 2016 with permission of the author. The article was written in conjunction with the exhibit "Robert Douglas Hunter and His Students," on display June 30 - September 5, 2016 at Bryan Memorial Gallery, 180 Main Street, Jeffersonville, VT. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at the Bryan Memorial Gallery, Jeffersonville, VT at either this phone number or Web address:
Robert Douglas Hunter and His Students
By Mickey Myers
Many of us will always remember those teachers who made a difference in our lives. This summer, Bryan Memorial Gallery pays tribute to the late painter and teacher Robert Douglas Hunter (1928 - 2014) with an exhibit of 24 of his paintings and 40 works by 17 artists who studied and painted with him between the 1950's until shortly before his death in 2014.
Robert Douglas Hunter was fortunate to have had exceptional teachers, and to have been an exceptional student, himself. Born and raised in Boston, he studied at the Vesper George School of Art in Boston (from 1946), and spending 5 additional years in study with muralist and portrait painter R. H. Ives Gammell (1893 - 1981), simultaneous to the beginning of his own teaching career. When he returned to teach at his alma mater in 1950, he was already firmly ensconced in a lineage that could be traced back through The Impressionists to French Academic painting. Soon, he would be shepherding that lineage forward, with students who are today the heirs of The Boston School and reputed artists and instructors themselves.
The Boston School was not an educational institution, but rather a style of painting, combining features of Impressionism with traditions of Western art. Though Vesper George was originally a commercial art school, The Boston School had its practitioners and pundits among its instructors and eager students.
If Vesper George was modest in its environs at 41 - 44 St. Botolph Street, it was huge in its capacity to fuel the imaginations of its students. Reasonably priced, accessible by public transportation, and accredited by the National Association of Trade and Technical Schools, its classes were small and unusually accommodating for some students who could join their peers in January if they missed the September semester.
With its arched entry among rows of identical brownstones on the edge of Boston's Back Bay, Vesper George was a model of the a self-contained campus, including an art supply store, a student lounge, a library, an assembly hall, an art gallery and large studio classrooms. Nearby were such iconic institutions as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Public Library, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
From his earliest years, Hunter had known "The only thing I ever wanted to do was paint." So into this intense, crowded and encouraging environment, first as a student and then as a teacher, he was at home as soon as he arrived. Social and personable, he was liked by his colleagues and listened to by his students. As many noted, when he walked into the classroom, they knew something special was about to happen.
Whether meeting in a classroom at Vesper George, or in a summer workshop in Provincetown, or less formally on a plane, through a friend, or at the Guild of Boston Artists, where Hunter was president (1973 - 1979), his students collectively describe the same response. He would connect quickly with their quests as students and emerging artists. Geoffrey Chalmers describes the affection Hunter would engender for the painting process, fostering yet channeling such enthusiasm that eventually one "could teach themselves," or so it seemed. Certainly the transmission of love for one's subject and confidence in one's choices was tangible
Geoffrey Chalmers met Hunter in 1956 in Provincetown when Hunter was studying with Gammell. He describes Hunter's polite yet matter of fact, straight-forward manner, when painting or giving a critique. Even toward the end of Hunter's life, Chalmers recalls the economy of his methods, delicately locked into extremely precise drafting with a lyrical sense of color. "He worked quickly," Chalmers recalled, "always finishing first."
Meeting Hunter twenty years later, as a student at Vesper George, and in subsequent workshops, Melody Phaneuf offers a similar observation about the joy of a Hunter critique. "He was always generous with his time, " and would arrange transportation to take a whole class down Huntington Avenue to the Museum of Fine Arts. By that time Hunter was a renowned artist, ". . . .and I loved his work," Phaneuf reports. "Things would just resonate with him, almost like a spiritual mentorship. To this day I hear his voice come up when I am solving a painting."
For 3 years, Phaneuf's studio was in the Guild of Boston Artists building on Newbury Street, and she recalls that Hunter would drop in when visiting the Guild, offering to critique her work. "He changed my vision. He gave me the courage to put things down the way I see them, rather than follow a formula."
Neil Drevitson studied at Vesper George in the 1960's. When his aspirations to be a fine artist were not met quickly enough in the course of study, he recalls requesting a meeting with Hunter. I promised Hunter " I'll be your most dedicated student," if Hunter would take him on for extra study. Hunter responded with an invitation to spend the summer in Provincetown, where Drevitson and his German shepherd were given lodging in the loft over Hunter's studio. Hunter and Drevitson set up their easels side by side, and observed an agenda of painting from early in the morning until 3 in the afternoon when Hunter left to go for a run, and then prepare for the evening's socializing.
Generous with his time and knowledge, Hunter recommended Drevitson for a job with the Oliver Brothers, the leading art restoration firm in the Northeast. Though Drevitson describes it as a humbling environment, Hunter told him he had "no right to paint so well without more training." Hunter showed Drevitson credits Hunter with showing him "how to see things," and they solved many technical problems together that gave the younger artist the knowledge him to be "his own painter." Drevitson went on to realize his own career as an artist with a gallery in Woodstock, VT, and to this day cherishes congratulatory notes received from Hunter over the years.
Hunter's method of instruction encouraged the flow of tutelage from one generation to the next. Believing that one never knows something quite as well as when you can teach it, many of his students became teachers themselves. Whether it was the infectious environment that prevailed in his classroom or the value in the depth of his teaching, many of his students still teach today.
Robert Scott Jackson refers to his days as Hunter's student as The Glory Days. Studying at Vesper George starting in 1968, he found Hunter to be friendly and his classes intense. Jackson refers to a triumvirate of teachers: Hunter and Sidney Willis at Vesper George and Ives Gammelil in his atelier in Williamstown, Ma, whose instruction came together in the way he paints today -- refined technique grounded in traditional values, with brilliant light and color effects, producing a modernity that is uniquely his own. In 1975 he opened his own studio and atelier in Newburyport, MA which continues to this day. "Bob started the whole thing rolling for me, and from him, I learned how to be a teacher. He could put his point across in a very nice way."
Gayle Levee signed up for some workshops with Robert Douglas Hunter at the Concord Art Center (Concord, MA) in 1995 when her recent move to Boston proved challenging for the Montana artist. Though she was accustomed to working in plein air, she found the long dark Boston winter uncomfortable and "working from photographs was killing my art." Though Hunter could not change the weather, he could influence what she saw and how she worked with it. Hunter suggested that the painting didn't have to be finished all at once, and that working wet into wet, painting in layers, could keep her work fresh. Hunter advised her "Don't pick at it. Just paint over it or wipe it off."
Levee felt encouraged by the light-hearted attitude that abounded in Hunter's workshops including some at his home, where basic light and shadow was studied in his back yard. Levee confirms that Hunter didn't talk a lot, but pointed out where the painting was working and what needed to be done next. "He was constantly finding beauty in everything, suggesting a way of seeing. The person who gives you that inspires loyalty." Levee has developed a curriculum on The Boston School in workshops which she teaches in Nashville. Paintings such as Splash and Gulf Stream in the current exhibit demonstrate the transition of theory and understanding of color from Boston to a warmer climate.
Dianne Panarelli Miller went to Vesper George from 1979 - 1982, the year before the school closed. Subsequently Hunter was among those who began the R.H. Ives Gammell Atelier on the third floor above the Guild of Boston Artists. Panarelli Miller was one of the first students chosen for a five year, full time scholarship program, learning the traditional Boston School academic curriculum. She notes that Hunter donated his time during her five years there, where she painted Relics of the Seaat the Gammell Atelier
As she teaches today at numerous local art associations in New England, Panarelli Miller describes viewing a video recently of Hunter teaching, and realizing she is teaching her students with his exact words 25 years later. She recounts that Hunter was the first person to ever purchase a painting from her, and that painting was still in Hunter's studio at the time of his death.
Sam Vokey attended the Gammell Atelier in Boston for 4 years, starting in 1987 after graduating from college with a major in English Literature. He had been painting by himself on Cape Cod when Hunter, a family friend, encouraged him to attend the Gammell Atelier, saying "You've got what it takes." Vokey's work explores balance within a composition such as its light and dark. His painting Moonrise in the current show is stormy and peaceful at the same time. Summer Storm Passing, from a color oil sketch originally, gets its serenity from the repetition of horizontal lines in the sky and in the landscape, inviting the viewer to participate in the passage. Vokey remembers Hunter as a hard worker who was always making connections, always very disciplined, treating painting as a job. "He was such a unique individual with no apologies. . . . I admired him for being himself."
T.A. (Ted) Charron was on his way to a Classical Realism Conference in Virginia in 1991 when he struck up a conversation with an artist across the aisle on the plane, who was heading for the same conference. The gentleman with the proper Boston accent was Hunter, of course, and their conversation lasted throughout the flight. Charron gasped when he realized that his travel companion was the Keynote Speaker at the conference, though it didn't take long for the two to exchange numbers. Charron was further surprised that Hunter would want to see his work and apparently Hunter was surprised that Charron would want to study with him. "Why, you are already an accomplished artist."
When they both got over their respective surprises, there was deja vu about Charron's first visit to the Hunter studio and household in Needham, MA. Filled with Boston School paintings exquisitely installed the house had a familiar ring to it until Charron realized he had seen it in the Smithsonian Magazine as previously N.C. Wyeth's home and studio. They continued these meetings, painting together, and critiquing each other's work for the rest of Hunter's life.
On one of their trips, Hunter's daughter Catherine Hunter Kashem joined them. Charron recounts the magical moment when Hunter had critiqued Charron's work and Charron had critiqued Hunter's work and both of them had critiqued Kashem's work, and then Hunter turned to Kashem, and said, "Your turn."
The value of painting together and sharing critiques was intrinsic to Hunter's method of passing on vision and technique while sharing the joy of discovery. In 1999 Richard Copello received the gift of a Robert Douglas Hunter still life and decided to look him up. Their subsequent friendship and Hunter's encouragement gave Copello the opportunity to develop the refinement in his painting for which he is so well known. John Murphy had studied art in Boston, but became a successful restauranteur for many years until a particular day when he recalls Hunter inquiring about his painting. Hearing he hadn't held a brush in 20 years, Hunter told him, "Grab some paints, and come with me." At 5:30 the next morning they went to the Fort Hill Trail in Eastham, MA and Murphy has been painting ever since. He recalls upon hearing of Hunter's death, he immediately grabbed his paints, and went to a spot they had painted together many times.
Vail Pagliarani felt that Hunter was missing the teaching aspect of his life when they met 2004 and Hunter encouraged him to bring samples of his work to be critiqued. Hunter told Pagliarani he was not going to be too concerned about hurting his feelings when critiquing his work. What came out of periodic critiques and field trips was for Pagliarani, a fascination with the character of the subject he was painting.
Repeatedly, Hunter's students tell of notes they received from him years after their formal education concluded. Usually brief, Hunter's notes would tell of seeing their painting in an exhibit and complimenting an achievement, an award, or an idea. To this day, many have kept those notes in their studios, cherishing Hunter's support, and re-reading them whenever the occasion warrents, or as Hunter said to Melody Phaneuf, "That one's a real honey."
About the author
Mickey Myers has been Executive Director of Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville, Vermont since 2006. An exhibiting artist in pastel and printmaking, Myers is originally from Los Angeles, where she studied with Corita Kent. Under Myers' direction, Bryan Memorial Gallery presents a biennial Vermont art historical series called Masters of Vermont (2007: The Women; 2009: The Men: 2011: The Watercolorists.) She is assisted in this endeavor by the gallery's Assistant Director Jim Gallugi. For Travels with Alden, Alden T. Bryan, son of Mary and Alden Bryan, and Fiona Cooper Fenwick, the gallery's Exhibitions Chair, collaborated on curating the exhibit. Myers lives in Johnson, Vermont, in an historic home originally built for the Vermont artist Georgia Balch (1888 -1981).
(above: Mickey Myers, Executive Director, Bryan Memorial Gallery. Photo courtesy of Bryan Memorial Gallery)
Resource Library editor's note:
The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on August 10, 2016.
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