Post #643 • October 12, 2005, 10:53 AM • 4 Comments
I attended my 15-year reunion at RISD. Providence has transformed for the better. What was once a blighted expanse of concrete has become a beautiful New England city, with bridges over a freshly exposed river running through downtown and along College Hill. Occasionally a red leaf would appear in a canopy of green.
When I went to my 10-year reunion for high school, I learned that high school is a place in my mind that no longer exists in the real world. Those people, that place - all gone. And for the most part, with good riddance. But many of those people had turned into decent human beings, given a little life outside of the petri dish of prep school, although more than a few of them never left. They hung out with the same people, drinking, entertaining themselves, doing the banal things that people do when they have no purpose except the fulfillment of tiny desires.
At RISD, though, no one had changed. Everyone had aged, but no one had changed. I recognized people instantly, if only by face, even after fifteen years.
RISD had a huge effect on me, and walking around in its presence reminded me of that. This is where I formed my baselines for excellence, for hard work, for craft, for beauty. (This is also where I picked up my penchant for smart, slightly troubled, artfully dressed women.) I doubt that I always achieved those baselines as a student. HIgh school had left me a mess in some respects. But occasionally I could get it together and do something workable. A few people noticed. One of them was Tom Sgouros, a professor in the illustration department who has taught at the school since 1954. The weekend featured a reception in his honor, and I went up to Providence, in large part, to see him. I had heard that he had been having some trouble with his eyesight, after years of producing lovely, detailed watercolor still lifes.
At the reception I spoke with dear teachers from the illustration department: Jean Blackburn, who now has a daughter and a house out in Barrington, and Elinore Hollinshead, who is as pregnant as can be. I spotted Tom, wearing a dark blue blazer and an ascot. I went over and offered my hand. He took it, and shaking it warmly, said, "Tell me your name. I can't see you."
Oh, for the love of God. The man who taught me how to use watercolors can't see me from a foot away. I nearly started crying.
I told him my name. He remembered me, having heard of some of my accomplishments since school. (He could no longer read, but heard some things that were read to him.) He recalled my time at RISD, as a praiseworthy fellow that would embarass me to describe here and one I barely recognized, but it was sincere - he saw my strengths at a time when I couldn't see them myself. I wished him well, and he did likewise. He still paints, making large, simple, imaginary landscapes with thousands of nuanced colors. As an old man, Balthus described the phenomenon: he could barely see, but he could still paint somehow. He credited Heaven.
Eventually, no matter what happens, you have to.