Jack Potter: a mentor to many
This entry is dedicated to my Mentor, the man who resolved the conflict between my analytical and creative mind. He helped me to see how they could work together, that they are one in the same and have been all along. A fierce and gentle man, a proud and humble man, a complexly simple man. A man named JACK POTTER.
I remember fondly the first day I met him in September 1999. I was late and unprepared for my first day of his class “Drawing and thinking: A gym class for the mind” at The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I tried to sneak in hoping I could slip to my seat unnoticed. As I opened the door, my fox crawl was interrupted by a booming voice reciting a close-fisted statement of disappointment. “Oh crap, I’m screwed” I thought to myself. I looked up and saw a powerful looking, bald man in all black throwing a sketchbook across the room and commanding it’s previous holder to leave the room at once. “Oh good he wasn’t yelling at me, maybe he didn’t notice. . . If I could just slip over to that empty seat. . .” Then he looked up at me. “well, here we go” I thought to myself. He marched straight over to me. I smiled at him, the kind of dumbfounded smile a kid gives when caught with a hand in the cookie jar.
The fierce bald man looked me up and down hastily, then locked eyes with me. I didn’t dare look away. He squinted with smiling eyes and in a voice I wish text could convey starting at a squeaky high pitch and dropping to and impossibly low pitch seamlessly he said, “WELL, WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU. . . YOU LOOK GOOD. . .” (Jack always wrote in all caps with a bold thick ebony pencil, this was also reflected in his manner of speaking) He took me by the wrist gently and led me over to an empty seat. I carefully sat down as the whole class watched in fear. “I SEE THAT YOU’RE UNPREPARED. . .” he said gently. He then proceeded to take the pad and ebony pencil from the student next to me and placed it on my lap. “THAT’S FINE.” he added. I felt like a lamb being led to the slaughter. He pointed to the still life in the center of the room and calmly commanded me “DRAW. . . DON’T WORRY, I JUST WANT TO SEE WHAT YOU CAN DO.” The whole class was watching while I drew with a shaky heavy hand the objects I saw in front of me, starting with the outlines because I was trying to save time.
I remember thinking to myself, “Okay, this trap is about to spring any moment. This guy is totally toying with me”. Before I could finish my thought or the drawing, he snatched the page from the borrowed pad I was using. Held it up to the light as if he was trying to see through it.
“WELL THAT’S JUST LOVELY.” he said in an unnervingly melodic voice as he started walking away. He tore off a piece of tape from his white tape roll and taped it to the wall. The whole class was still watching in shock. I’ve never had an experience quite so unintelligible and I quickly realized that for better or worse, this man was an awesomely intriguing man to say the least.
For the next three years as an undergrad, I took at least one of his classes every semester, modeled for his classes before, between and after mine. Every moment that I got a chance I was in his room, Room 501 – 209 East 23rd Street, Jack Potter’s room. I fondly remember countless hours of listening intently to his words, words that I somehow knew even at the time would forever change me. . . and so they have. Jack wasn’t one of these professors who couldn’t hack it as a professional and fell back on teaching. He was a successful Illustrator making waves in the field when he decided he wanted to teach. His legacy was built into those who became his students, the artists that he changed forever. I know many artists who to this day consider him their mentor, not just in drawing, but also in thinking.
I can recall many instances when he and I would be having a conversation that he’d have to cut short to give a class critique. During his critiques would go on about such things as the importance of good opposition making analogies about “THE BOLD AND THE DAINTY: THE STEAK AND BROCCOLI”. Then he come back over and pick up right where we left off seamlessly applying everything he said in the class critique to whatever we where talking about.
When modeling for him, a pose would often be broken up into 15 minute intervals or so. He would use his multipurpose white tape (which also served as white out) to mark the pose on the floor so the model could have an easier time returning to it. When I was done with a pose he’s come over and stick a piece of tape on my shoulder to let me know it was time. Then he’d tell me what he liked about the pose or what I was wearing. It was very important to him to convey which details where ignore-able and which details were the “SPRINKLES ON THAT LARGE SCOOP OF ICE CREAM”. He’d express the importance of drawing the outer most contour of a pair of pants and perhaps the belt loops while ignoring the belt altogether and maybe adding in the outline of one pocket if it was particularly obtrusive in a visually pleasant way to do so. . . Drawing in this way, shapes are abstracted and you must see what the shape really is, so as not to fall back on iconic detail to convey what a thing is. “FEEL THE SHAPE” he would say. When I wasn’t feeling it while drawing, he would either prompt me to get up, take my pad and draw what I was failing to see while I watched him in awe, or sometimes he would place his hand on mine and guide me through the motion of the shape. In one quick continuous, decisive, sharply zig-zaging, then gently curving line, the contour of a person would somehow convey their splitting image. To this day I can vividly hear him in my head when I draw. Sometimes I can almost feel his hand guiding mine the way he would occasionally do so in class.
I fondly remember the last day I saw him. As I was getting ready to leave his class and made my way over to him to say goodbye for the day, he put his hand on my shoulder and said “REMEMBER, NO MATTER WHAT, I AM ALWAYS HERE FOR YOU, AND I WILL ALWAYS HELP YOU ANYWAY I CAN.” Then he hugged me, a deeper hug than he ever had before. It still warms me to remember it. I thanked him and merrily skipped off. When I got to my next class I noticed he snuck a piece of tape onto my shoulder. It gave me a good laugh.
A few days later after a particularly stale history class, eager to convey some revelation or another with him, I dashed across town toward 209 23rd street, room 501, “The Jack Potter Room”. Looking back I suppose my intended report was something akin to a puppy bragging to a seasoned service dog that it had discovered it’s tail. Jack never minded hearing about my “revelations” and always politely listened with gentle but sturdy follow up advice. I made my way over to the main building of SVA on 23rd street. I was about to fly through the doors when I was stopped by John Ruggeri. John was a long time friend, colleague and student of Jacks. I remember John placing his hand on my shoulder and leaning in to lock eyes with me. “Did you hear about Jack?” he asked.
“No, but I’m on my way up to see him now.” I hastily replied between breaths.
“Jack died” he said in a soft and sincere voice. I don’t know if he said anything else after that. A wall of blackness swept over all sound and vision. I don’t know how long I stood there for, I couldn’t see or hear anything. I remember somehow ending up in the cafeteria sitting across from John with a coffee in front of me. I remember the concern on his face. At one point he said “I’m sorry, I realize your very sensitive. Perhaps I went about telling you the wrong way” It was strangely comforting that he was thinking of me when he and Jack where so close for so long. I’m really not sensitive about many things, but Jack had given me a gold star in life, in a way that no one has prior or since. It was very kind of John to take time out to comfort me. I imagine it wasn’t easy for him. If I remember right (it was a whirl of emotion and cloudy thought) John informed me that he had a class of his own to teach, and pointed out that the news of Jacks passing to his current students might be easier coming from another fellow student. I was supposed to model for Jacks next class in which, many of the students were my piers. I found my resolve, it gave me purpose, a thing to do. I made my way up to his room, Room 501. It was empty save one or two students who always showed up early because they had an off period before his class.
I stood in the mostly empty room for a few minutes unsure of what time it was. Was I early or late? Did everyone leave already? For the couple of students in the room, I decided I would do what I came to do. I wanted to tell them the news but I couldn’t speak through the lump or pain filling my throat. I walked over to the riser in the middle of the room that served as jacks model stand and I posed. It was my best attempt at a classical arms outstretched before me hands and face upturned to the sky, marble statue pose I could muster. I held the pose and the students in the room began drawing. More and more students began to show up. I was early, class was just about to start. About 15 minutes or so into the class someone, I don’t remember who, opened the doors and informed everyone of Jacks passing, I choked a little but continued holding my pose. Students were looking around confused, unsure of what to do. I continued holding my pose waiting for Jack to tell me I was done. Some of the students left disheartened, some left crying out loud. To my surprise, many of the students stayed and continued drawing, some audibly weeping while they did, some silently.
I held the pose until I was shaking and my muscles burned, then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked and no one was there. I understood that it was Jack telling me I was done. Perhaps I imagined that hand because I wanted so strongly for it to be there, perhaps it was there. Either way, I knew I was done. I stepped down from the riser, exchanged gratitude with the students who stayed. I left and headed over to Madison Square Park, where I sat on a bench for a while wondering if I was dreaming. I felt a slight itch on my shoulder. I reached to scratch it and discovered a piece of white tape. Stuck right where I felt the hand on my shoulder. In the same place that Jack had stuck a similar piece just a few days prior. Needless to say, I was fairly bewildered by this, a deep swell of catharsis moved through me forever anchoring that moment in time for me. To this day that piece of tape rests rolled up in the medicine bag I wear around my neck. I carry Jack with me everywhere I go.
A couple of days ago I received an email from Daniel Zalkus, a student of Jacks, about an article(jack-potter-create-art-because-you-love) he wrote about Jack for the website: www.todaysinspiration.blogspot.com. The email was addressed to several others as well. We all began corresponding with our stories about Jack. It’s really nice to read so many fondly remembered stories nearly 7 years since his passing. Daniel was even kind enough to send me a drawing that he did of me in Jacks class:
Daniel has since posted another article about Jack: jack-potters-philosophy-on-teaching-you
I remember onetime I showed up to Jacks class and greeted him asking how he was doing, to which he replied “I KNOW YOU MEAN WELL, BUT PEOPLE AT MY AGE DON’T WANT TO BE ASKED HOW WE’RE DOING. JUST TELL ME IT’S GOOD TO SEE ME AND THAT I LOOK GOOD” That’s always stuck with me. I wasn’t even really asking how he was doing. I meant it only as a greeting. His reply incited me to think about the insincerity of common conversational language. Now from time to time when I speak or draw I ask my self if I’m really saying what I intend to say.
Nov. 27, 1927 – Sept. 14, 2002
You look good Jack. . .
1 thought on “Jack Potter – In Memoriam”
I was a student of Jack’s during my third year at SVA in 1976-1977. I came across a drawing I did in his class and it got me to reminisce which led me to this site. He was one of my favorite instructors and we had a great rapport that I treasure to this day. Thank you for sharing your memories.