It was hot and I was nervous. I was walking into my freshman level 2D Design class at 6:30 pm in mid August, 1990. I knew exactly no one taking this class with me. I had no idea how to find the basement of some on campus apartment building where this class was supposed to be located due to construction on the art building. I had no idea who or what the teacher was going to be. The thin printed schedule sheet simply said “Martyka”.
I found the stairwell and entered the dark, pipe laden basement and among the desks strewn about the open area I saw one other human. He was a middle aged man, neat and prepared with lots of supplies. I assumed this was “Martyka”. Boy was I wrong. I spoke and quickly realized this was not the teacher. He was Bill or Billy for now. Within a week he became “Billy Goat”, as Mr. Martyka was fond of assigning more appropriate names to some students. The room filled with other people that were more my age and then he appeared. It was as if fear and dread were personified. His face was angular, almost dangerous. The rest of him was hidden under baggy jeans and a long sleeve plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His wrists, hands and fingers had the look of machines. His eyes patrolled the room and he sized us up quickly before opening his mouth and completely terrifying us just as any good professor will do on the first day of class.
That moment we were stricken. His eyes scanned and penetrated us. I’m certain he could see through skin, walls, and steel. During the excruciating 3 hour studio class, you could feel his eyes when they fell on you. They easily found their way into the deepest, darkest boxes and files in your brain. They carefully flipped through each of your insecurities and secrets and gathered the intel Mr. Martyka needed to effectively challenge you for the rest of your life. This razor sharp teaching mechanism was the thing that made you hate him and love him at the same time. You wanted to be invisible to him and to fly under his radar but at the same moment you wanted so badly to impress him and garner his artistic respect. It was a terrible and wonderful thing to be his student.
Some students fled from the challenge. When they did, he let them go. Pursuing was not his game. But if you stiffened your spine and engaged with him, Mr. Martyka would meet you where you were and he would dig his spurs into you until you became great.
Critiques were brutal. That first semester we had about 15 students in class and on critique night we would pin our compositions to the wall. After each one had been properly flogged, he would do one last thing before dismissing. He would carefully assess each work and he would take each one down from the wall and then put them all back up in order from most effective to least effective. It was complete and total agony. Yet, it was that moment in each critique that I so looked forward to. I wanted to be first. I worked my butt off because I hoped to one day be the best. I hid it well but Mr. Martyka knew. He always knew. My compositions were in the bottom half of that lineup for most of the semester. The second to last project that semester my design was second place. The last project, mine was first. I had done it. I had pleased the master.
I took another class from him during my junior year. Printmaking took a similar path but this time with a smaller group of students. This meant he had more time to spend needling each one of us. As we all tried our best to please him that semester, it was as if we had each started over at ground level. No sketch was good enough. All of our ideas needed to be pushed farther. When he approved an idea to be printed it always felt as if he gave up on us ever getting it right and told us to move on just so we could meet the deadline. It was a terrible feeling. That semester he taught me the importance of keen visual observation. He taught me to have impeccable craftsmanship. And at one memorable point during a critique he actually told me my print was “very good”. It was a sublime moment. I had pleased the master again.
At least that’s what I thought at the time. I thought it was that moment when Mr. Martyka was happy with my progress. Of course, Mr. Martyka was really happy the moment I started trying. He was happy I engaged with the process and worked to make all my ideas better. Whether we ended up first, third or second to last, his goal was to help us improve.
Mr. Martyka was an exceptional artist. His work was so meticulous and impeccably crafted that I still can’t quite understand how he did it. To compare his X-Acto skills with that of a top-notch surgeon would fail to do him justice. Even calling him a master artist is not an adequate description. He was a painter, a printer and a sculptor and he was great at everything. And so very proficient. To this day I don’t believe the man slept more than two hours in a 24-hour period, ever. But as great as he was and as proficient as he was, he could have focused all of his attention on being an artist and he could have achieved even greater fame as an artist.
Twenty-something years later I realize this. I realize that he chose a life of service over a life of fame. I realize that to a great extent we, his students, were the reason he chose this. He chose to pour his life over into the lives of his students. This he did out of love.
Even so, Mr. Martyka was the walking definition of gruff. He was tough, he took no BS and I’m pretty sure he never looked both ways before crossing a street. Cars were afraid of him. He had carefully crafted walls and defenses around him and lucky was the person who was given even a brief glimpse behind them. In my final two years of undergrad I caught a couple of quick peeks. When I was thinking of going to grad school I set up a meeting with him and we had coffee at a local shop. That night he trusted me with a very moving personal story and I never saw him the same way again. Inside that Tin Man was not only a heart, but it was a huge, loving and kind heart. During grad school and in the 8 years I was privileged enough to teach with him at Winthrop I got a few more peeks behind the curtain. As a teacher I saw how he loved his students through his teaching. Funny how clear it was from the other side. His students still sat there paralyzed by fear but now I could see how he lived to pour his knowledge into his students. I saw that this was how he showed love.
From 1979 until last Wednesday, Mr. Martyka created works of art at Winthrop University. Each semester for those 37 years he created students who left his classes as better artists. As wonderful as his paintings, sculptures, prints and cut paper collages were, his students were without a doubt his greatest works of art. He would blush at my saying so, but I am a proud and thankful work of Paul Martyka.