Monday was a very Black Day

Posted on June 21, 2011 in Blog Post, Editorial, News, Writing

Ah, I feel like I’ve lost another father. Monday, it was a very black day. On this day, my mentor, my teacher, my friend, the man who inspired my passion for the tradition of painting, and taught me the difference between “of” and “about” and the rudiments of critical thinking on visual terms — Ron Bitticks, passed away.

There will never be another crazy old coot, so patient and willing to hear your thoughts on art, and discuss their implications, so thoughtful in formulating criticism, nor so insightful into finding one’s voice, and future generations of artists will be the worse for it. I firmly believe that without Ron, I would have ended my college experience as a angst-ridden ball of frustration and impatience.

I met Ron in my Junior year at MIAD. I was supposed to start studying painting with him my sophomore year, but he was on sabbatical, so we started our sophomore year with Professor Gary Rosine. In my Junior year, Ron had returned to teaching. As an introduction to the course, he spoke at length about painting, and gave us a brief insight into his artwork early in our studies, with a slideshow of some of the encaustic work he had done in the past. He told us matter-of-factly about his tour of duty in Viet Nam, and how some of the experiences he had there influenced his artwork. (Ron is pictured as the one with glasses wearing a white t-shirt.)

Ron was a LRRP (Long Range Recon Patrol), whose job it was to go on long outings in country with his team, to find and kill the enemy. He recounted an experience where he came back to camp, amazingly alive and unhurt, in spite of the gunfights he and his team had found themselves involved in, with a bullet lodged in a live grenade on his belt. He discussed very briefly some of the other experiences he had in Viet Nam, in war, and how that led him to learn about art, in order to cope with these experiences, and the imagery that came of it.

On a one-to-one level, Ron could fix you with a glance and ease his way around your rhetoric, your defenses, your pride and ignorance, injecting respect and humor, and storied anecdotes, to illuminate, the way one opens shades on a dark room, the significance of your accomplishments, and the potential of your proposition. So much of what I know about teaching, building rapport, I owe to that man. I only hope my students can appreciate the fact that I would not be the instructor I am today without that experience. Ron is pictured center of frame in this image, wearing glasses.

One of the stories I remember most often from Ron was that of a painter (I wish I could remember exactly which, I believe it was Matisse or Cezanne, or someone of that order), who, while being interviewed, was asked about his favorite brushes and medium and type of canvas, etc., details about his working method. In response he stated, “It is of no importance, I could just as easily paint with birdshit and a shoestring.” The reason of course being that it wasn’t the materials, rather it was the thinking that made a painter great. One of Ron’s encaustic paintings. At the end of his career, he did these large encaustic paintings, loaded with Japanese imagery.

To give you another impression of the man, you can read his acceptance speech for professor emeritus status from MIAD here.

I regret deeply that as we once discussed, we were not able to teach together, I know I could have learned a great deal more about teaching (particularly about teaching art) in the process. It pained me to see how he had aged when I spoke to him at his retirement party, a year or so after some health issues involving his heart. I knew then, as he was moving away with is new wife, that I was likely never to see him again. I was the only one from our class to show up for this event, which was sad. I would sincerely give just about anything to have another conversation with him, to discuss my current work, teaching, and learn more about his experiences in art. I wish he could have seen the work I’ve been doing lately, I’m sure he would have been proud of the painter I’ve become.

I will do my best, as I am sure will the rest of our class, Pat, Brian, Brandon, Katherine, Tammy, John, even Noah, to pass on the experiences that he offered us. MIAD quite simply would not have been worthwhile without his influence.

For those of you who knew him, there will be a memorial service held on Thursday, from 4pm – 7pm. Details can be found here. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel also did a write up recently, which can be found here.