Fall 1989, Junior year. The class was ILS 330, Intermediate Illustration: Color. The previous one had been all black & white.
It might have been the first project, or the first significant project. But it was watercolor. We were working on it in class. Winsor & Newton Series 7 #3 sable watercolor brush. Bainbridge 80, or possibly Crescent 300 Illustration board.
While I had displayed some talent and worked a lot at developing drawing and painting skills since adolescence, I had completely and totally and utterly failed to establish any real lasting friendship with Watercolor.
So, on that day in September (probably) 1989, I was making a bit of an uncontrolled mess.
The professor, Dennis Nolan, came around to check on my progress. He said, something to the effect of, “Ok. We’re gonna let this dry for a bit, take a break, I’ll be back in about 20 minutes and I’ll show you some things,” in possibly the most helpful, most friendly, welcoming, unobtrusive, completely nonjudgemental kind of way.
He might as well have said, “Hey, looks like you and watercolor haven’t quite met yet. Let me introduce you…”
Some 20 minutes later, on a scrap piece of illustration board, he demonstrated a different approach to handling watercolor. And I got it. Y’know? One of those moments when a lightning bolt of EUREKA! carves a path through the brain.
I’ve shared little slices of this story through the years, and have always credited Dennis as “the teacher who helped me make friends with watercolor.”
The painting I was working on was the Strawberries. A few months later, it would be accepted into the 1990 Society of Illustrators Student show, a very competitive show, and would hang in their gallery in New York.
Without that Eureka! session on watercolor with Dennis, there would be no Strawberries. Nor Indiana Jones. Nor the Endangered Species series, which got into the 1991 Society of Illustrators Student show and won a scholarship prize as well.
Nor “Rough Landing," from 2016, finished a few weeks before the accident.
Nor Princess, painted last year, Summer 2021 for my friend Drew McMillen.
Maybe I’d’ve figured it out eventually, or another teacher would’ve helped me bridge the gap. I've been fortunate to have many top-notch teachers. But it didn’t have to be anyone else - the others could teach me other stuff. Because for watercolor, it was Dennis, on that day, Fall 1989.
He was truly among the best of all teachers, and witty and kind to boot. Not only was he an outstanding instructor on technique, he was a wise mentor who absolutely knew when something was up and what to say.
Not every medium can be my bitch, and not every piece of art I create comes out stunning. It’s something artists have to make peace (at least an uneasy peace) with, but at that point, not even 20, I hadn’t yet. With the move into color pencils and other mediums, my next few project or so came out … fine. Ok. But not outstanding, and that brought out anxieties, insecurities and frustration that, after leveling up with watercolor, not every single thing I made could be better than the thing before.
Well, Dennis had a clue-by-4 for that, and more. Because there was more to it. Yeah, I’ve always been overwound and the reasons are many and varied and some of them only recently identified and still not all sorted.
I kept in loose touch over the years. My sister worked at a photo developing place where Dennis would get film developed, then later as a server at a restaurant he and his family would frequent. The first time she recognized him (she’d visited me at Hartford, and spent a year there herself as well), she said something and he absolutely remembered me.
He wrote one of the letters-of-recommendation when I applied to grad school. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I had coffee with him sometime well after I got my MFA, and had self-published the first issue of BloodDreams. Searching through my computer’s Calendar, possibly May 2011. Sunday the 19th. Too too too long ago.
When I came back to New England, I’d hoped to check in with him again. But everything got busy, and extra complicated around family & the house & all that came beyond it. And then the accident happened (six years ago just last week!).
Nobody knows the full depth and width of how things changed inside my head after the accident, in varying ways over the course of years –– For all that I’ve tried to reveal some of it to people, I’ve never really fully communicated exactly how bad it got in my head - the words fail me, and few people are that patient and as good at listening as would be required if I could organize all the thoughts.
But for a while, I wasn’t sure I would return to art. The right-front area of the head is a particularly shitty place to get hit for an artist & creative person. A lot of important things live around there: visual spacial skills specifically used in drawing, painting, composition, creativity and creative drive, as well as executive function & emotional regulation. Wrap that up with an extreme sensitivity to light—something kinda necessary for painting—and audio processing issues that made every sound exponentially harder to process, and well. There's something that few people 'get' unless they've had something happen to their brain, and that's how you can really truly not feel like yourself on the inside in the midst of all of it. But there's habits and motions you go through, so most people are inclined to write it off when/if you try to tell them about it. It's hard imagining being in someone else's head, and inconvenient and scary to try when they appear well enough on the surface (see also: depression and a wide range of 'invisible illnesses').
I’ve wondered many times if Dennis might’ve said something that might’ve helped through the Brain Injury years. He probably would have known just the right thing to say, or something extremely helpful. But every little thing took so much effort, so much brain, and, with the additional drama of the lawsuit and my mother passing and Smudge as well, just looking into the path to reconnect with him was unfathomable. Too many steps, too many unknowns, so much overwhelm—and often a too-unreliable vehicle anyway. By the time brain & life were ok enough to maybe look into it, COVID hit, closing everything and bringing with it new anxieties for a wobbly brain to chew on.
So, when I learned back in August that Dennis had passed away, it hit hard. It’s hit me a few times, in waves, since then. Today I attended a celebration of his life, and committed to finally finishing and posting this post. I still don't know how to wrap it up, so …
Farewell, Dennis. I’m sorry I didn’t get to tell you more recently how much you affected my art and my life. But I do think you knew it. So that has to be good enough.
And, to be honest, there aren’t words that can really do justice to the impact he had on my life and my art. I wish I were a better communicator. But I suspect the lack exists mostly in language itself. There are some things that defy description.
Maybe I’ll try to paint it out.
author / artist rambles on about painting, writing, cats, punk rock, vampires, ska-core, mTBI, comics, and life in general.