Although the Hudson River is tidal for over a 150 miles, all the way to Troy, NY, a few miles from the suburb where I grew up, in the first 18 years of my life I probably spent no more than a three or four weeks, on family vacations, anywhere near salt water. Yet I always drew pictures of fishing boats, lighthouses and stormy seascapes and read every sea story I could find in the school library.
When studying at Pratt Institute, I’d often bunk my morning painting classes to hang out at the Fulton Fish Market and take photographs of fishing boats with the Brooklyn Bridge looming behind them and of longshoremen pushing handcarts loaded with crates of iced fish over the cobbled streets. I got hooked by photography which, with all the social turmoil of the late ‘60s, seemed to be a much more relevant pursuit than the seeming inanity of the ‘60s New York art scene. After dropping out of Pratt in 1968 (it didn’t have a photography program at the time) I moved 400 miles inland to study photography and didn’t see the sea again for another ten years.
Harbor PointLife got in the way of that study and shortly after moving to Rochester, NY I again dropped out, this time from RIT, and had a checkered job history for the next ten years, the last six of which were spent as a Teamster driving tractor-trailers. When I decided it was time to return to college, in 1980, Rhode Island School of Design was my first choice largely because of its proximity to salt water. I was a free-lance photographer for 25 years after graduating from RISD and used my camera to open a lot of doors. The excuse of shooting a photo-essay is a great way to get into situations that I otherwise couldn’t, such as getting aboard tugboats, lobster boats and commercial fishing vessels. Photography, though a great documentary medium, doesn’t interest me as an expressive medium.
Oscar In 1991 my wife and I met Leo Brooks, a painter, who was working on Monhegan Island that summer. I loved his childlike drawing, bold colors and complete disregard for objective reality. I hadn’t painted since 1968, but Leo’s work struck a chord and started me thinking about painting again. The watercolor we bought from him, a fisherman very different from my own, is one of our most prized possessions. Being the procrastinator that I am, it was ten years later, 2000, thirty-two years after quitting art school, that the need to paint finally overwhelmed me and I signed up for a continuing ed painting class at RISD.
Having been a photographer for the more than three decades, the greatest joy I have as a painter is freedom from “reality”. While subject matter is still important to me, I can bend, twist, stretch, exaggerate and simplify the things I see. I can put things in and leave things out. I can even completely make things up. I can paint how things make me feel instead of simply what they look like.
trioAs a young art student I took myself and Art way too seriously. Having come back to painting relatively late in life I now understand that few artists have anything earth-shaking to say. In the paraphrased words of the late Edgar Whitney, a respected art educator and watercolorist, an artist is a shape-maker, a symbol-finder and an entertainer. I still take my art seriously, but my serious intent is to create something that’s well designed and entertaining to look at.
~ David Witbeck