Published in the New Bedford Standard-Times on June 25, 2011
In most professions, the word "retirement" means relaxing or traveling. It connotes doing the things you always wanted to do but didn't have time for when you had a job.
What happens when an art teacher retires? According to two professors who retired last month from the Department of Fine Arts at UMass Dartmouth, the years ahead will focus on what they've always done: painting in their studios. Just more of it, now that their schedules won't include working in the classroom from September to May.
As Willoughby Elliott and Severin Haines look back over their long careers, of 44 and 36 years respectively, both realize that teaching has provided them with lasting rewards they couldn't have foreseen.
Elliott began his job search after earning a master's degree in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1967. He sent out 60 letters of application to various schools, but the mass mailing proved fruitless. Then a personal recommendation turned up an opening at the Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute (which became Southeastern Massachusetts University in 1969 and then UMD in 1991).
Right from the start, Elliott expected a high level of effort from his students. He points out that many of them were the first in their families to attend college. Also, male students in the early 1970s were faced with the draft and possible deployment to Vietnam if they didn't perform well enough to stay in school. But it was the challenge of accomplishment in the classroom that provided the greatest motivation. "I think we demanded hard work from them," Elliott declares, "and I think we got it."
Elliott's first classes were in basic drawing for freshmen, and drawing is still the subject he finds most rewarding as a teacher for its emphasis on process. He has especially enjoyed teaching drawing to seniors during his later years at UMD. "After 3 1/2 years, the students have heard it all," he says. "One more step and they're out on the street. I just tell them what I think and get as honest as I can."
Elliott says the years of helping his students at their easels has advanced his own "visual insight." He also believes he writes and talks about his own work more concisely because of his teaching experience.
Painting in his own studio, Elliott has developed the brightly colored abstractions of his graduate school years into richly toned landscapes. He finds landscape to be "a vague area between total abstraction and realism." Without the demands of a full-time teaching schedule, Elliott now plans to make his landscape views "a little broader in my approach."
He also has plans for exhibiting his artwork, with a retrospective coming up this fall at the New Bedford Art Museum, to be curated by Haines, and later a show at the Cotuit Center for the Arts. Plus he maintains ongoing affiliations with the Rogers Gallery in Mattapoisett, the Left Bank Gallery in Wellfleet and Jules Place in Boston.
During the course of his career, Elliott has seen other faculty members come and go, but he "stuck." He attributes this professional longevity to his affinity with UMD's focus on drawing from nature. His legacy, he believes, is an emphasis on careful observation and dedicated application.
While he concedes a sense of relief that "come September, I won't have to put my game face on," Elliott admits to feeling "hot and cold" about his retirement. He does not rule out the possibility of continued involvement with the university, such as sitting in on graduate-level reviews or presenting figure-drawing classes for other faculty. "I still have a fire in my belly," he says of his love for teaching.
Haines' background as an artist is distinguished by his lifelong relationship with the Swain School of Design in New Bedford. He first attended the school at age 7, when his mother took him to art classes on Saturday mornings, and years later he earned his bachelor's degree there. After receiving a master's degree from Yale University, Haines returned to Swain to teach, as a part-timer for three years and then for 10 years as full-time faculty, nine of those years as department chair.
When the Swain School merged with SMU in 1988, Haines came aboard, at first teaching color theory, two-dimensional design and beginning painting. At the outset, he admits, he missed the unique camaraderie that had characterized Swain's smaller and more tightly knit community. But his professional transition was eased during his first semester at SMU when he found that three of his painting students were particularly devoted to their craft. Not only did the trio inspire their classmates, they reminded Haines of how much he enjoyed teaching.
Haines finds that teaching has helped him "keep my head in art intellectually," as well as "broadening my scope" as an artist. "I get the opportunity in teaching, say, 15 students, to vicariously explore 15 different directions at once, and explore areas I would never have gone myself."
While his devotion to his students is clear, Haines has always maintained that the primary role of his teaching career is to support his studio work. This focus was reinforced when he took a sabbatical in 2007 to prepare for a solo show at the New Bedford Art Museum. From May to the following January, he could "paint with no distractions" and "pursue ideas one after another."
Haines ultimately produced more than 25 works in oil on canvas of vibrantly patterned landscapes inspired by his native Norway. "I was more confident than I have ever felt," he says. This success convinced him that it was time to consider retirement.
Still, Haines isn't ready to leave teaching altogether. Like Elliott, he would like to continue on a part-time basis, perhaps offering color theory or landscape-painting classes in a continuing education setting. He also has a number of upcoming exhibitions planned, including a solo show next year at Crowell's Fine Art in New Bedford and another one in two years at the Dedee Shattuck Gallery in Westport.
Retirement will surely include some time for relaxation for both of these professors emeriti. Elliott has just put his sailboat in the water for the season, and Haines plans annual trips to visit family in Norway. But what both artists are truly looking forward to is being able to devote all their energies to creating in the studio.
As the newly retired Haines says, "It's time to get to work."
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