Richard Bledsoe “Still Life 1990″ oil on canvas 12″ x 9”
I spent too many years in college. Not because I didn’t know what I wanted to do; because I didn’t know how to get there.
I thought I wanted to be a film maker. So in 1987 I enrolled in Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University, the in-state school that offered the best artistic programs. The introduction year was called AFO: Art Foundation. We students called it AFO: Artists Following Orders.
AFO was intense and demanding, made to weed out those who weren’t serious. They exposed you to a little taste of all the disciplines: drawing, painting, sculpture, design. We even got to make a little animated film. I found I really took to art, and made it through the freshman year.
The problem was I found out during the foundation program, film classes were part of the Commercial Arts school. This was before digitalization had taken over everything design related. If I went into Commercial Arts I would have spent years working on designs with Press Type transfer lettering, a methodical hand-done system that required exacting precision. Not my skill set.
So still trying to get into film, sophomore year I changed my major to Theater Tech. I thought I’d get into the movies from learning how to create theatrical productions. Not a bad idea, but I quickly learned how hard it was to work collaboratively with all the dramatic personalities drawn to theater. Also not my skill set.
I was only 19 years old, and still had my options open, especially since my family was supporting me. So in what should have been my junior year, I started over again, in the English program. I’d write my way into the movies. Still not a bad idea, and I did well in this program.
These were still pre-computer days for me personally as well. I had a bulky electric typewriter, fortunately with a correcting ribbon built into it; this was my workhorse for my writing intensive courses. I set myself up at the kitchen table of the apartment I shared with roommates, drank beer and typed for hours, alternating between bursts of frenzied writing and periods of tense review and contemplation.
By the spring semester, I had turned 20, and my academic results were good, except for math class. Unfortunately I was still feeling frustrated. The words were coming, but were they enough?
Apart from my assignments, I was trying to write creatively, on my own. When I tried to write expressively, I felt the visions inside me were not being set free, but being trapped in cages of words. Language just felt so limited, not capable of the nuance and impact of visual imagery. The most important aspect of any vision is the part of it that can’t be reduced to words.
The authors I most enjoyed reading were craftsmen, technicians of language who still managed to tell a good story. This was a very different approach to the epic rushes of sublimity I yearned to evoke.
Hunched over my typewriter, pounding out yet another three page essay, my mind turned back to my early days of college. I remembered what satisfied me the most, moments that had little to do with my fantasies of film making. Pouring over library books of visionary artists. The spontaneous joy I felt coaxing big images to appear by the application of brush and pigments. A hands-on, tangible process compared to endless calculations and ponderings. Actions instead of words.
Unlike film, painting provided a combination of self-directed creativity with the graceful, ineffable presentation of visual imagery. I’d barely touched on the practice of painting, only had a glimpse of the possibilities, before practical careerist plans had led me elsewhere. Now I wondered if I hadn’t overlooked something very important.
I performed an experiment. For the first time in a few years, I made a painting. I bought a small pre-stretched canvas; I don’t even remember where I got the rest of the supplies, the oil paints and brushes I used. Maybe I borrowed them, or had them laying around from my freshman year. I set myself up a little still life: a candle, a rock, some folds of cloth. And in an afternoon, I made a painting, working to make the objects look as realistic as I could.
Even though the candle was white, I painted it as pink. That and the position of the stone I arranged ended up being super suggestive. After I was finished I didn’t need Freud to identify what I ended up creating was an unconscious phallic symbol. I took this to be a positive sign.
While making this small piece of art I managed to get paint on the wall, on the floor, in my hair, even on my underwear somehow. But even though it was only a small canvas, the fascination with the process quickly reemerged. I was creating objects that looked like they had volume; they cast shadows, occupied space, were illuminated with an imaginary light. Summoning these illusions felt magical.
The outcome was simple enough, a nice study in blue, pink and gray, a bit sloppy. But that plain little painting held vast implications. By the time I was finished, I knew I was going to have to tell my long-suffering parents I needed to change my major again.
My life as a painter had begun. The work hasn’t stopped for going on 27 years now.
“A true art is the visible manifestation, evidence and facilitator of the soul’s journey. “