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Nancy Kay Turner


At a recent opening, I was chatting with artists Ada Brown and Dean Swick when we realized that we all had been art majors at Queens College, City University of New York.  In a few minutes we were waxing rhapsodic about two of our professors--the esteemed Louis Finkelstein, and the charismatic Charles Cajori.  Louis (affectionately called “Louie”), who was gaunt and all angles, was a theatrical theoretician, known for jumping on tables excitedly explaining some obscure point about “vectors.”  All of us agreed that we didn’t understand much of what Louie told us, but somehow we divined in our eighteen year old brains that it was significant anyway.  Often, as our art experience grew into Louie’s words, we would have the famous “Ah-hah!” experience.  It would suddenly dawn on us, oooh, that’s what Louie was talking about.  It was the gift that kept on giving.

Queens College was the local school and practically free (tuition when I went was $50 per semester).  And when the Board of Regents tried to raise the fee to $200 per semester, we went on strike.  With our rallying cry “Our position, no tuition” we were able to keep it—well--extremely reasonable.  So it was remarkable to have the quality of professors that we had on the art faculty.  The abstract-expressionist painter James Brooks, the colorist John Ferren, the aforementioned Louis Finkelstein, Charles Cajori, the watercolorist Barse Miller, painters Harold Bruder and James Birmelin and briefly, the sculptor Richard Serra.  These artist-teachers seemed to like each other and made the atmosphere fun and collegial.

James Brooks, "Untitled", 1968, gouache
and acrylic on paper, 30 x 24 1/4".

Elmer Bischoff, "Two Figures at the
Seashore," 1957, oil on canvas, 57 7/8 x 56 7/8".
The students in my group, however, were not particularly ambitious, and so when class was over they all went home (Queens was a commuter college).  My fondest memory is painting late on a Friday night, in a deserted studio, listening to the new release of the Beatles “I am the Walrus” and thinking that this was heaven.  That summer I was accepted into the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture as a scholarship student and had the best summer of my life.  The other students were extremely talented and very serious, among them David Reed, Jonathan Santlofer, Catherine Murphy and Dick Mock.  All we did was make art, talk about it, read about it, and look at it.

The proximity to New York meant that Skowhegan could attract well-known artists, and when I was there, Pop superstars Marisol and Larry Rivers (he had just finished his monumental “History of the Russian Revolution.”) were amongst the visiting faculty.  It was my first brush with art royalty, and it was inevitably disappointing.  Rivers just wanted to drink and party, while Marisol was non-communicative.  Oh, well!

At Skowhegan, I was introduced to the Saturday morning marathon critique.  Five faculty members were called upon to comment on about one hundred paintings.  Vehement disagreements often occurred, and a painting of mine was the cause of one such debate.  One very traditional painter said that my painting made him feel “nauseated.”  But Elmer Bischoff, who was the most prominent painter of the group, defended my painting.  Later on, I chuckled as I realized it was because we had similar color sensibilities (I had painted a green and violet lady, and so had he).  

At the time, Elmer taught at UC Berkeley, where I applied and was accepted.  I was headed into the maelstrom that was Berkeley in the late 1960's.  Berkeley was the exact opposite of Queens College.  While at Queens, the faculty was great and the students were indifferent, at Berkeley it was the faculty that was indifferent and the students were fabulous.  Talking with Ada and Dean that night made me realize what a great gift teachers can give to the students they mentor.  It is the gift of a visual epiphany.