Primarily, I am a watercolorist. I have worked in oils and acrylics, but the spontaneity of a watercolor and its expressiveness, cannot be matched in other media that I have tried.
My introduction to this daunting medium was through classes at the UM-Billings (then called Eastern Montana College) in the early 70’s with art professor Ben Steele. He was a patient instructor, generous and kind in his critiques and certainly had a sense of humor. In one of our first beginning classes in watercolor, Mr. Steele was explaining the materials and tools that we were to purchase. One student asked why he couldn’t just bring in a palette made for oil painting. Ben Steele calmly and quietly replied, “well, I suppose you could, but the water tends to run out of the hole.”
Little did I know at the time of his early life experiences as a young adult. I don’t know when I was aware that he had been a POW in the Philippines for over 1000 days, a survivor of the Bataan Death March. Ben was not a man that would bring up such things in the classroom. Sometime later, I was made aware that Mr. Steele had joined the army in his teens, and shortly after basic training, had been sent to the Philippines to defend the islands against the Japanese. He was one of many that surrendered and were forced by their captors to march sixty miles on the Bataan Death March. No stops for food or water. The punishment for breaking ranks, falling or even catching bits of food thrown to them by the Filipinos, was bayoneting. Subsequent imprisonment led to starvation, disease and untold deaths.
However, the pain and suffering shaped him into what he would become after surviving the “concentration camps”, the transport by train to a ship that would take these weak, beaten, and emaciated prisoners from the Philippines to an even greater hell in the ship’s holds up to Japan to serve as coal miners until the end of World War II. For the reader that would like to delve into more of his biography, get Michael and Elizabeth Norman’s book “Tears in the Darkness.”
I learned perspective from Mr. Steele. Of all the art instructors I had had in workshops and other schools, including the Art Institute of Chicago, no one had had their students learn perspective drawing. In fact, in most schools in the ‘70’s, instruction was sadly lacking. The philosophy was that students should experiment on their own until they give up or find “their style”. As a classroom teacher, I thought it akin to giving pencils and paper to kindergartners and expecting them to master the alphabet and writing by scribbling on their own until they were able to do creative writing.
I will return to Ben Steele, my friend, and instructor, in future blogs. I will also turn my attention to relating my art own work with my history background, and my travels.