Friday, January 29, 2016

Mr. Martyka

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. 

Friday, January 22, 2016


I get bored easily.  

Really, really easily.  If a few seconds go by and I don't have something that I'm currently doing, my mind takes off on a mission to find an entertaining task.  If ADD/ADHD had been a thing when I was a kid, I'm sure I would have been labeled.  Every once in a while this sort of thing will distract me from a boring task like finishing a sentence, but most often this desire to keep my mind engaged is a good thing.

It seems to me that our society is afraid of boredom.  Give the typical American under 50 years old just a couple of seconds of silence and they'll pull out their phone to cast out the demons of boredom.  Most of us are given to the lie that scrolling through miles of nonsense online is actually doing something.

But what if that silence, that boredom is actually really healthy for us to experience?  We had these wood doors in our house growing up.  They were stained dark brown with even darker brown organic wood grain lines.  I remember staring at the wood grain and letting my eyes and my brain work together to create images, sort of like you do with clouds.  There was an almost Virgin Mary on the back of the bathroom door for most of my childhood.  

When we are afraid of being still, we miss the opportunity to see things.  Some things are only visible after you sit and stare at them for a time.  And now, some 35 years later I still remember some of those wood grain images but I cant tell you 5 things I saw on my phone 30 minutes ago.  

I'm so glad we didn't have hand held electronics when I was young.  I hate that my kids have them now.  We made pretend guns out of sticks and had wars.  We hammered together rotted boards into dangerously high ramps and raced our rickety bikes off the tops only to crash down on the other side in a huge pile of laughter.  I live in fear that my kids' biggest adventures will involve Mario or happen inside a Minecraft world.

I went off to college in 1990.  My only phone was connected to the wall of my dorm with a cord.  I took my new-fangled electronic typewriter with me when I moved in.  Our freshman dorm was a cinder block cell and we shared a bathroom with maybe 20 other dudes on our hall.  When we were tired of watching TV, we walked around campus or sat in the rocking chairs on the porch of one of the historic buildings and talked about goofy things for hours.  

I met that guy when I moved in.  I had no idea who he was, but someone had put us in the same room together because we were both art majors.  Chad Costello.  That's what I knew about him when we moved in...just his name.  I learned more about him over the next 4 years as roommates.  As it turned out, he was cool and when I got bored in that cramped dorm and came up with some hair-brained thing that we should go do, he was always game to go do it.  I like to think those goofy things helped us bond.  That's an actual Polaroid instant photo, by the way, and I think it came from Stan's camera.

And that's Stan.  He was doing an impression of our water frog, Jeremiah.  Stan transferred in as we started our third year.  He was also an art major and in the art ed program with us.  He became part of our core group of friends.  Once we got to know him, we opted to get a bigger apartment (because we left that tiny dorm after our first year) and the three of us roomed together for the last year or so.  But during that third year when we were still in the smaller apartment, Stan would come hang out with us a lot.  If I was the person to cook up goofy ideas of things for us to do and Chad was the person to laugh and say "Yes, let's do that!", Stan was the one to say "Yes, and let's make it even more fun by also doing this!".  

That summer we all had a mandatory Maymester class in the education program.  We found ourselves with no studio classes, very few people on campus, and a lot of extra time to fill.  That was a fun summer.  And it was that mix of friends and time that gave us Matilda.

That's Matilda.  Also a Polaroid instant photo.  This was way before digital so these hard copies are the only documentation we have of her.  Matilda was a life size paper maché cow.

They couldn't keep us out of the art building that summer and one day while walking from the art building that was next door to our apartment building we passed the giant dumpster and noticed a big wooden saw horse hanging out of the top.  That was the moment our friendship dynamic kicked in.  It may have been suggested that we take it and make something cool out of it.  Someone agreed.  Someone else agreed and may have suggested it be a life sized cow.  

The next few days are a bit blurry.  We worked together like a machine.  We dragged that saw horse into our two room apartment.  It fit perfectly in our kitchen/living room, though it took up most of the space.  The door would open, but you'd have to squeeze between the leg of the saw horse and my chair just to get around the room and into the hallway.  On the other side we had just enough room to open the refrigerator door.  Perfect.  That night we brainstormed what it was going to look like and how we were going to get enough materials to complete it.  We made a couple more trips back to the dumpster to get some extra wood for the armature.  We nabbed some paper and glue and we went to work.  A few days later we found some balloons to make utters that would actually work and we painted her white and black.  

She was beautiful.  

And that's when we realized we had a life sized cow in our small apartment.  The old apartment building had a cool courtyard and it was decided that Matilda needed to live there.  We scoped out the site and headed back to the room to move her.  

And that's when we realized she was much bigger than our door.  We briefly considered taking her out the window but it was decided she would not survive such an uncontrolled and possibly violent fall.  We were nothing if not expert problem solvers.  Say what you will about not having the foresight to think about getting a giant cow out of a small door, but we had the entire problem solved in a couple of hours.  A hand saw may or may not have been borrowed from the sculpture studio while we amputated two legs and then surgically reattached them in the hallway.  The skin was repaired and repainted and she was ready for her new home.  She was good as new, though a bit groggy from the anesthesia.

 That's the college aged me (with hair) milking Matilda in the hallway right before we carried her outside.  Afterwards we sat in the rocking chairs on the breezeway while Matilda grazed in the courtyard.  Matilda was a great friend to us that summer.  She taught us about the importance of boredom.  She showed us the power of stillness.  Sometimes when I'm wasting my minutes scrolling through my phone I can still hear her faintly mooing, "Put it down and make something."

Today Chad is a minister in Florence.  In his line of work he knows a thing or two about the power of stillness.  Stan teaches art in Walhalla and runs with his artist wife, Robin and they make stuff every single day.  I think Matilda would be pleased.