Interview with George Nick Part Six, On the Trojan Horse and thoughts on Teaching
In your last show at the Gallery Naga, I heard you say that the still life of the painted horse in drapery, as being the strongest painting in the show. “It is a wonderful, intense and mysterious painting to me, but I’m not sure I understand it.” You titled it, The Trojan Horse, and I wonder if the title has some significance.
There was a couple of other still lives that seem related, with the exquisite color, and amazing paint surface, almost sculpted. I was hoping you could say more about this painting.
There was a goal in that painting. The goal in that painting — I felt that the realization that we talk of earlier — I never felt that anything I had ever done was pushed through to the final degree, both emotionally and intellectually. I was satisfied with the drawing of it, the shape of it, the tone of it, how it fit in with the rest of the painting — all that kind of stuff — intellectually, and that I really liked it emotionally.
No painting I’ve ever done was completely done that way. As a matter of fact, this one was not done that way. I only got the horse, I didn’t get the background, I couldn’t carry it out, all the way, but I worked on that painting every day for three months, and my wife felt that I was never going to do another painting the rest of my life, and she worried about me.
But the thing is that I did get resolutions that I never got before, and I felt, that’s why I keep pushing the paint these days, is that I find as I keep going, the painting doesn’t go downhill, it’s going up, it’s getting better.
I want it better, and it’s feeding me, so I keep doing this process. That was part of that very complicated process, and I couldn’t keep doing that, because I’d scream. I was screaming while I was doing it, but I wanted to do it. Somehow I set these goals at different times, and I succeed at what I’m aiming for, at the time. A simple goal like climbing a mountain.
I’m not sure why I can’t come up with one process to paint everything, but I have never ever — I keep on switching and jumping around. I think I’m doing the same thing, but I fit things closer to one side of my character, or the other side, and it sort of rounds itself out, I think
I titled it The Trojan Horse because there’s something romantic and mysterious about the title. I had this wooden horse, ever since I knew Dickinson, and I’ve been looking all this time, painted many times, and that’s all the paintings I did that I succeeded. I’m not sure I’ll paint it again. I certainly won’t paint it that way. But I knew the horse very well, and I think I achieved what I wanted, after looking at it all these years. I didn’t plan it that way, it’s just that it seems to have come out that way.
The title — there’s something strange about it, and there is something worrisome about
The Trojan Horse, and it has something that’s vaguely philosophic to do with life, I think. I like romantic titles like that.
George Nick Detail from the Trojan Horse
What about the drapery in the painting?
Oh, the drapery. Well, that was a rug. That’s a rug that we had gotten from Bulgaria that’s made out of goats hair. It’s not sewn, it’s pressed together, and we’ve had it for like thirty-five years. My wife doesn’t like it to be out, very much, because it sheds incessantly. [Laughing]
But I liked it, and it was sort of a compliment, in some sort of lyrical way, but a simplified lyrical way with the horse, and I liked them together, that’s all. I thought I worked out that very well. I think it’s a background with the stretchers, and so forth, that were done in about four minutes; but I left it at that. That’s all.
Last question. You’ve spent much of your career teaching, and have received widespread recognition for being a great educator. You have taught hundreds of students over the years to become better painters.
Today many schools seem to place more emphasis on conceptual matters, such as social or psychological messages in art, and much less emphasis on teaching traditional skills, of painting from observation.
With this in mind, what advice would you give today’s students, who are looking for the best possible education that prepares them for being a realist painter? Or can you give advice?
I’m from the Mediterranean, with a lot of history and heritage, and I’ve have a lot of false theatre and bravado, so I would attempt anything. And I would attempt to give advice, too.
The first thing — it’s more like thousands than hundreds of students, okay?
Because I was figuring it out a few years ago, and I figured out I’d had about six to eight thousand students. I don’t know if I counted everybody. You see, the bravado comes out quickly.
Hey, you need the credit where it’s due.
Well, you’re not supposed to give it to yourself.
[Laughing] Well, you know I thought of doing that. I said, “Gee, I don’t know — hundreds, thousands,” but okay.
Well, school is a part of the world and the environment. If you look at the art magazines and businesses called galleries, and the promotions, and so forth, that go on, and you find that it has a flavor, and the flavor is what the schools imitate. So, I think they belong to the world probably more than I do. But I don’t criticize. I don’t feel one way or another about it. I think that anybody wants to, with the best possible education, prepare one for a real education.
There’s a couple of things. First, you find a teacher like Edward Dickinson, and secondly, you go to the museums and see who has done it — other people have done it — even who are both living today. I think by example, you learn a lot.
I think once Dickinson told me — I told him that, “I’m so glad that I’m studying with you, that I’m learning this stuff.”
He said, “Oh, well, you would figure it out yourself, but I probably save you five years,” he said, very casually.
In retrospect, I think, more or less, it’s true. People figure out a lot by themselves. We get a few hints here and there, but it fits in with your genes and your desires and your needs, and so, you would work it out, one way or another. I don’t think we’re so separate or so unique. I think the talents are unique, but I think the mind and man, himself, is seeking the general things that are possible.
The impossible feat of making a three-dimensional image out of [a] two-dimensional surface is part in your genes, I think. I think there are enough people around still wanting to do that, that do it, and make art out of it, so it’s like people who make rugs. I think it’s in their genes. They have some talent that’s available, and they develop the skills because it’s of interest to them, and they see they can make something that pleases them, if they work at it.
To Interview with George Nick, Part One, On Edwin Dickinson
To Interview with George Nick, Part Two, On Fairfield Porter
To Interview with George Nick Part Three, On George Bellows
To Interview with George Nick Part Four, On Cezanne and color
To Interview with George Nick Part Five, On Drawing