This weekend four of my high school classmates, Jeff Greene, Joe Danciger, John Williams, Stuart Cudlitz and I made a pilgrimage to our art teacher, the Vermont artist, John Semple, now 80 years old. He and his wife, Mallory, still live in the house they graciously invited us to when we were students at a tiny progressive school in South Woodstock, Vermont. All five of us, in one way or another, became professional artists. All of us credited Semple with launching us on our trajectory.
The house stood starkly on the side of the hill surrounded by stone walls that John built with his sons. Sons for whom I once babysat. The light poured into the house, where we found John busily framing paintings for an upcoming retrospective exhibition.
John greeted us at the door wearing a frayed madras shirt that Stuart swore he remembered from 1970, and some old khakis with suspenders.
John was happy to have stepped away from painting his crowd pleasing Vermont landscapes to dedicate himself to painting subjects he thought only mattered to him. To use a British phrase, I was “gob smacked” by his self-portraits. They were as intense as the late portraits of Bonnard — an unflinching look at the aging artist. One painting, where almost everything is cropped but his eyes, is direct and intense. In another, he bares his upper torso ravaged by two heart attacks.
John remembered all of us. He told Joe Danciger that he learned something from him. Joe was an intense painting student. John observed him reworking a painting over and over again. He thought to himself, enough all ready, this kid needs to move on. But Joe persisted. In the end he created a very successful painting. John said that he learned from that, and frequently thought of Joe when he reworked a painting that he would have abandoned otherwise.
Semple told Jeff Greene, “You had such facility. You were so talented. You painted with such ease, I didn’t think you would become an artist. I thought you lacked the drive.” The rest of us looked at each other with wide eyes. Jeff has created Evergreene Architectural Arts probably the most successful architectural arts painting and restoration company in the world, employing over two hundred artists! But Jeff replied, “In a way, John, you are right.”
Stuart Cudlitz brought drawings with him that he had done while at school. He wanted to show John the ones where he got what John was trying to teach him. Most memorable of all was one he did on the back of one of John’s drawings. Stuart didn’t have money for materials, so John cut up some of his own drawings and gave them to Stuart, so that he could draw on the back of them and have the experience of working on good paper.
John, who taught us all how to make etchings, continues to grow and experiment in print media. His studio was filled with colorful wood block prints.
One chilling print he showed us was of himself standing bumping up against the grim reaper. He sent a copy of it to his cardiologist with a note saying, “Because of you I am the guy on the right and not the guy on the left.”