Click on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thomas Cornell

The Birth of Nature, the Death of War, 2011, Thomas Cornell
It's a disturbing fact of life for professional artists, but very often they are forced to choose between a life of constant insecurity and privation (starvation is mostly a thing of the past), and a comfortable, relatively obscure existence as an art instructor. For the working artist, the career either soars or plummets. Seldom is there anything close to a smooth assent to the top or a gentle glide to obscurity. For a teacher of art, whatever the level, there is a degree of financial security (often called tenure), a great deal of satisfaction in helping and watching students grow as artists, and some degree of local community acceptance. What the teaching artist sacrifices for all this is time. In essence, we trade major portions of our life itself for the knowledge of where our next meal will come from. Certainly there are summer months when the teaching vocation allows a respite in which to work and travel, broadening both our outlook and our output. But that seldom permits the intense concentration and prolonged focus needed to make a name for oneself as a prominent artist.
Robert Frost summed it up quite well in his The Road Not Taken:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Thomas Cornell Self-portrait, 1970s
I did not take the "[road] less traveled by." Neither did Thomas Cornell. I did not become a prominent artist. Neither did Thomas Cornell, though in his case, in teaching for some fifty years at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine), he taught a wrung or two up the academic ladder from my mundane position at a local high school for about half that time. However both he and I discovered one additional inherent attribute not so well known with regard to the teaching profession--retirement. From first-year rookie to rapidly aging "old school," virtually every teacher, at any given point in time, can tell you the number of years until they can retire, maybe even to the month, and day. I retired October 30, 1998. In 2001, Thomas Cornell became the "artist in residence," a professor emeritus at Bowdoin, which is a sort of beatified apotheosis having a bit more prestige than simple retirement. Whatever it's call, the period late in an artist's life restores a limited amount of the precious commodity of time in which the artist may establish a legacy of sorts, becoming, if not prominent, at least attaining some degree of respect, which may, or may not, portend a "life after death" for that artist through his or her work. That was the case for Thomas Cornell, who died of Cancer at the age of 75, almost a year ago (December, 2012).

Cornell's John Hancock mural didn't even rate color photography.

Michelangelo, 1965, Thomas Cornell
Cornell was born in 1937 in Cleveland, Ohio. He graduated from Amherst College and later studied at Yale. His early work consisted of dramatic portrait etchings of prominent individuals in the arts and humanities. His Michelangelo (right) from 1965, is richly embued with an intense depth characaterizing both the man and the artist. However, it takes a major work of art, a major commission to "make" an artist. Cornell's chance came in 1985 when John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company commissioned him to paint a mural themed around the four ages (seasons) for their corporate headquarters in Boston. While the work is quite competant (above), no one has done much "writing home" about it. The third segment (autumn) is typical of Cornell's painting style.

The Four Ages, Autumn, 1985, Thomas Cornell (third penel in the John Hancock mural).
In more recent years, Cornell's work embraced a complex, anthropomorphic theme involving social, environmental, and ecological issues in which Cornell was not so much painting as expounding. His Birth of Nature and Death of War (top), completed shortly before his death, evolved from a simple, crude, pencil sketch (bottom) through several color sketches into classical sounding but modern looking anthology involving several other related pieces such as The Education of Nature. Through it all, Thomas Cornell did not become famous. While his work is in a number of museums, it seldom hangs on their walls. His painting is impressive, if, perhaps, a bit philosophically esoteric for most tastes. Will it provide Thomas Cornell with the artist's "life after death?" I guess you'd have to say it's too soon to tell.

The Birth of Nature (initial charcoal sketch) 2010, Thomas Cornell.
Compare it to the final painting (top).
Cornell talks about his Birth of Nature in the video below:


No comments:

Post a Comment