Celebrating old masters

Most of the professors who gather every Friday afternoon at Borders in Birmingham are octogenarians who don't look a day younger. Yet each still follows his lifetime passion for painting, ceramics, sculpture, photography, design or jewelry making. They'll never retire from the work that gives them enthusiasm for life and perspective on the human condition.

As painter and professor Bill Girard says, "I grew up in a small blue-collar town where art in the schools was considered a junk course but they had orgasms over a football game."

"How many thousands of years has man been out of the cave?" Girard asks. "They're all going back to the cave."

Sculptor Jay Holland, sitting nearby, adds, "They're denying themselves the enjoyment of art."

The choice of meeting place — a bookstore, not a bar — tells you something. In Borders' large coffee shop, Girard and Holland, along with painter Tony Williams, designer Chesley Odom, ceramist Gordon Orear, and photographers Bill Rauhauser and Robert Vigiletti, are surrounded by people sitting at bare tables, concentrating on books and magazines. The seven professors from the College for Creative Studies are lovers of all you can place in your palms and read.

Each taught for more than 30 years at what began in 1946 as the School of Arts and Crafts in Detroit, trying to convey the humanist belief that guided the school's first director, Sarkis Sarkisian: The power of art can transform the human soul.

At their Friday get-togethers, the profs express interest in and respect for their colleagues' work. Their conversation often covers plans for exhibiting work in local galleries. Rauhauser and Holland will be featured in a Center Galleries exhibition at CCS next month, alongside three other former faculty members who have been named professor emeriti in honor of their longtime service and commitment. Work by six of the professors is on display now in a CPop Gallery show that opened with a packed reception in November.

The men also discuss everything from the Tigers to George W. Bush ("Don't get me started on him," rages Rauhauser) to the contemporary Detroit art scene (which they treat with some skepticism).

"These kids draw with computers," Girard says.

"And photographers walk into it with no background," Rauhauser adds. "Suddenly, these guys are masters. It's like with music. Musicians used to have to play instruments. Now they can do anything with a keyboard."

They tease each other affectionately, like typical old guys, about balding.

"You're jealous," Odom says to Girard, "Because you can't spike your hair and wear purple earrings."

They're iconoclasts with big personalities; the proof is in their art. Vigiletti threw out his film cameras and dismantled his darkroom when digital photography arrived on the scene in 1996, before even younger artists gave up the traditional equipment.

"I started to play, to find out what you could do with a computer and a camera," he says. He gets creative in the printing process, using his computer to manipulate digital photographs into imaginative abstractions.

Rauhauser sticks with black-and-white film. He contends that color prints, especially those using dyes, will fade over the years.

"A student once asked about the color fastness of her wedding pictures," Rauhauser explains. "I told her they should last as long as the marriage."

The black-and-white advocate, whose work has been the subject of four books, once shot a romantic picture from behind three people on a bench looking at the Detroit River. In 1955, New York's Museum of Modern Art chose that iconic image as one of 500 selected from 2 million entries for its Family of Man touring photo exhibition (the eighth printing of the book about that exhibit was recently issued). Rauhauser's photos also accompany poems by Elizabeth Orear (Gordon's wife, who uses the pen name Laurent), for the newly-published Contemplation + Consideration from Press Lorentz in Ann Arbor.

Although working in a different medium, Gordon Orear, too, in his own way, defies convention. He's a ceramicist who hasn't thrown a pot in years. Instead, he produces what he calls "creative ceramic sculptures." He and Elizabeth also wrote the book Sarkis, about the nationally recognized artist and School of Arts and Crafts founder. Published by CCS and Wayne State University Press, with photographs by Robert Vigiletti, the book is still in print.

As a painter, Girard rejects today's unstructured abstraction; his paintings tell stories. He's also an expert restorer, who recently repaired a huge painting of the Sistine Chapel, an 1827 copy of Michelangelo's work. The Detroit-area owner brought a 7-foot-by-10-foot section to Girard after it was torn accidentally. Rauhauser adds, about his friend's talent, "Girard knows more about painting processes and the old traditional ways of mixing paints than anybody in the city of Detroit."

Williams also ignores contemporary trends. A master draftsman, he paints purely representational art, using acrylic finishes in oil. "He starts with a beautiful drawing," says Holland. "He adds a rather lean application of paint, though the lines are still there." An avid reader and student of feudal Japan, Williams holds a black belt in karate and displays talent as a chef — his vivid description of cooking a butterfly leg of lamb is artistry in itself.

A sculpture by group member Jay Holland rests beside the Mill Pond in Brighton. A citizens' group purchased the 5-feet-by-20-inches bronze sculpture of a male nude entitled "Decision Pending" because of Holland's significance as an artist and instructor. (First enrolled as a student at Arts and Crafts in 1947, Holland still teaches a Saturday morning sculpture class at CCS.) The piece was once knocked off its pedestal — vandalism inspired, perhaps, by the sculpture's realistic representation of genitals. It now rests on a stronger stand.

Holland describes the laborious process of producing a mold and the final sculpture using the lost-wax method. "By the time the sculpture is finished," he admits, "I probably don't make as much money as the guy who picks up the garbage. But I have a lot more fun."

Six Artists: Traditions of the Arts and Crafts School runs through Dec. 31, at CPop Gallery, 4160 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9901. Emeriti opens with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 18, and runs through March 1 at Center Galleries, 301 Frederick Douglass on the CCS campus, Detroit; 313-664-7800.

Julie Candler is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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