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May 10, 2006:

Homer's Odyssey

By William I. Homer '51

Peter B. Lewis '55's exceptional gift for art programs at the University was the stimulus for this essay. I entered Princeton in the fall of 1947 with the hope of becoming a painter. I had some doubts about how well the University would serve this goal, but I persevered and sought as many opportunities for creative work as I could find. This was a difficult task because studio courses were not offered for credit. Thus, I and my fellow students with similar ambitions had to make do with whatever instruction was available through Princeton's extracurricular Creative Arts Program. These recollections portray a little-known pocket of creativity in the visual arts that flourished at Princeton during my undergraduate years, 1947-1951.

Although Princeton is not known as a training ground for artists, there are exceptions. A prime example is the eminent contemporary painter Frank Stella, a member of the Class of 1958. Both before and after Stella, only a few others have shared his fame. There seems to have been an unwritten principle, especially up until World War II, that instruction in the visual arts should be confined to history and criticism. If studio courses were offered, credit for such instruction was not awarded. Those few artists of this era who attended Princeton and subsequently became successful – William Kienbusch '36 and Cleve Gray '40, for example – seem to have flourished in spite of the University, not because of it.

In 1939, the Carnegie Foundation helped to fill an existing gap by supporting a Creative Arts Program at the University. With the backing of Dean Christian Gauss, the program offered instruction in painting and sculpture (as well as writing and music) by resident artists. The goal, however, was not to train professional artists but simply to enrich students' experiences in the arts by offering small noncredit courses to be taken on a voluntary basis. The first resident painters in the program were Alden Wicks '37, a devotee of Rubens and the techniques of the Old Masters, and James E. Davis '23, a latter-day Cubist who was fascinated by time, transparency, and motion. Their counterpart in the three-dimensional arts was Joe Brown. He was a boxer who had turned to sculpture and who coached boxing at Princeton and taught informal sculpture classes in the evenings.

When I entered Princeton in the fall of 1947, I looked for as many experiences in the fine arts as I could find, and that included a berth in the Creative Arts Program. Soon after my arrival on campus I made contact with Alden Wicks' successor, H. Lester Cooke, a watercolorist who was at Princeton completing a Ph.D. in art history. He was a very gentle man, cultured and endowed with great sensitivity. Because he was also an art historian, he was able to articulate matters of style and expression better than the typical artist. He was a great enthusiast for Old Master drawings and championed the importance of line and its expressive use in drawing.

Lester's classes consisted mainly of drawing from the human figure. Professional models, male and female, posed in a classroom in McCormick Hall. More advanced training in oil painting, chiefly portraits and clothed figures, was offered in an abandoned room high in the tower of the old Pyne Library. In response to student interest, a used etching press was acquired, and several of us made and printed etchings under Lester's guidance.

Lester's introduction to the practice of painting took the form of regular studio classes, though still without credit. In my junior year, however, he argued with the administration that selected undergraduates should be awarded credit for art instruction received from him. This request was granted in my case and, as I recall, for several others as well. Lester's teaching, for credit or not, bore fruit in that a small but later eminent group of artists got their start (or continued their studies) under his direction. (These are named at the end of this essay.)

From time to time, work from his and Joe Brown's classes was placed on view in informal exhibitions in the glass-enclosed courtyard on the first floor of McCormick Hall, a venue shared with student projects from the School of Architecture and photo identification tests for the Department of Art and Archaeology.

I also took a series of noncredit courses offered by Joe Brown who, like Cooke, taught a few student artists who wanted to do creative work. I remember that Joe's optional sculpture classes, held in the old Pyne Library, were attractive to some students (all male) because of the opportunity to see nude female models. I was not immune to this appeal, but I did take seriously the chance to compose figurative sculptures in clay. Joe was a master anatomist, and the knowledge I gained about anatomy was very worthwhile to me.

The few studio classes given for credit at Princeton were taught by Bill Shellman to prepare students for the task of visualizing and creating architectural renditions. In the strict sense of the word this was not art at all, but rather design. I took a full complement of these courses, since they were the closest things to art that I could enroll in for credit. I did fairly well in them, though I remember getting into a pitched battle with Shellman to the effect that photographs should be acceptable as works of art to satisfy an independent assignment that was required of his students. During my sophomore year, I brought in some of my recent “art” photographs and tried to persuade him that it took as much skill to create a good photograph as it did to produce a drawing or painting. I lost this battle and received a very low grade in the course, 5+, because I had not completed the final assignment in the way he felt it should be done.

I had begun a love affair with photography that has never ended. In my sophomore year, influenced by Jim Wiest '49, a good friend and fellow student, I became interested in taking and developing pictures on a serious basis. I spent much of my free time in that year in the University camera club's darkroom, working at that wonderful magic of seeing a picture emerge on paper in the developing tray. This new love distracted me from my traditional academic studies and had a very negative effect on my grades. I received letters of warning and was told that if I didn't improve, I would be dropped from the University.

During the summer following my sophomore year, I went to Maine to become involved in the study of art at Ogunquit, a coastal village that had gained prominence as an art colony. Several of us from Princeton – Al Nicholson '50, Dick Hilliard '52, and I – traveled to Ogunquit to become part of the Forum School of Art that had been recommended to us by Lester Cooke. He had a friend in Princeton whose young daughter had married Harmon Neill, the artist who had started the school. Neill had been associated with Portraits Inc. in New York, but had now “retired” to the coast of Maine.

When we got to Ogunquit, we discovered that the art school was almost nonexistent. We had our classes in the back room of an abandoned A&P store on the village's main street. Our living quarters consisted of a vacant garage, with the upstairs and a screened-in porch for sleeping. Our life there was minimalist, but it was enjoyable and educational.

Back at Princeton, I recovered my composure and my commitment to academic work in my junior and senior years. At that point we were allowed to major in our chosen subject instead of taking distribution courses in areas we weren't really interested in. As I became more and more involved in advanced courses for my art history major, I found myself somewhat happier, and in my senior year I encountered two truly great professors who had much to do with molding my thinking, attitudes, and values. They were Albert M. Friend Jr. and George Rowley. Friend was a brilliant teacher and a man of deep spiritual insight who looked at the artists of the Northern Renaissance – Van Eyck, Van der Weyden, Durer – from the standpoint of their expression of an evolving consciousness of Man. This approach to the history of art, combining a study of the visual image and mysticism, was a model for my intellectual development. Rowley was also a brilliant teacher and a profoundly spiritual man, and watching these two professors in action convinced me that becoming an art historian might be a very wise choice for me. By that time I had also exhausted much of my desire to paint. I was not bored with painting in any sense, but the interpretation, criticism, and cultural experience of art began to take on more importance for me.

I came to realize late in my senior year or perhaps just after it that history was not a dry subject, a meaningless collection of dust and bones from the past. History had a cosmic order, and the connection between events and attitudes over time constituted an organism, even a work of art, in itself. As soon as I understood history in that sense, living only in the present was no longer satisfactory. Had I continued as an artist, a total commitment to the current moment would have been expected – the essence of being a contemporary creative figure. I continued to paint and draw for quite some time after that, but the decision had been made that art history was to be my primary occupation.

As I delved further and further into the history of photography in the 1970s, as part of my study of American art, my interest in creating within that medium reawakened. It was but a short step from appreciating the aesthetics of master photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston to applying their principles to my own efforts in the medium. Thus, the 1970s opened up new paths for my own photographic creativity, which continues to the present day.

If, during my undergraduate years, Princeton had been able to provide intensive instruction in painting, drawing, and photography, my development and that of like-minded students might have been quite different. Peter Lewis' gift to the University and the expected shift in favor of creative art will enrich students of the current generation and in years to come. A troublesome gap will be closed, and those who have yearned for change will breathe a sigh of relief.

A list of accomplished artists who passed through Princeton's Creative Arts Program in the period under discussion would include Avery Chenoweth '50, Al Nicholson '50, Jim Melchert '52, and Steve deStaebler '54. Richard Hilliard '52 became a film producer and director in the 1960s. Charles Fehon '49 was active as an enormously talented set designer for theatrical programs on campus, though without the benefit of Cooke's and Brown's classes. Also a member of the Class of 1951, though not trained in art at Princeton, is the noted contemporary sculptor Stuart V. Krisel. END

William I. Homer '51 is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor emeritus and former chairman of the Department of Art History at the University of Delaware.