Mentors and Kindred Spirits

The two wicker letter baskets had reached a fullness that would admit no more correspondence. Heavy rains decided the choice: confront over 10 years of letters, cards and photos, sort, and discard those without written personal notes. Many would be returned to the baskets after re-reading.

Archivist, that I am, I was glad that I had kept them for so long, for they chronicled births, marriages, deaths, and especially delightful, children, as they grew to maturity, both, of relatives and friends. Diverse, and all of them, threading the warp and woof of our common humanity.

But, my rainy day reunions chronicled aging and deaths, as well. One of the most unbearably sad moments to be reminded of was the departure of my dear college Classics professor, Dr. Harry Carracci Rutledge in 2006. His ebullience, as a teacher, bearing intellectual kindred-ship, continued over the years, developing into a deep friendship which took us both to Turkey and Rome in the late 1990s. About Rome, he said, "You've never been there, and I'm the one to show it to you."

His letters still continue to amuse and enlighten me. His influence was made most acute in the realm of literature, where he excelled in drawing ties between ancient Greek and Roman myths, poems and drama, and modern themes. He showed that we were not so distant from our archetypes, removed in time, but not in behaviors.

I came to T. S.  Eliot, Eugene O'Neil, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and so many others because of his pointing the way. A superior education begins, as a possibility, in college. Only a great teacher can inspire one to continue the process. I'm still "doing my homework," because encounters with great art feeds the imagination.

We all have kindred spirits, as Emerson noted; I have been blessed with several, but I believe Harry was the most constant. For most artists, one's mentor might have been another, senior artist. I had support, beginning in childhood, from women artists, but, interestingly, it was the men, who provided the intellectual challenges, for that was the way of my generation of Southern women. It is a credit to those men that they paid attention to my inquiring mind without discounting my ability to understand: liberated men, ahead of their contemporary culture.

My first serious mentor in childhood (outside of my parents and my first grade teacher, Mrs. Spencer) was my mother's high school biology teacher and orchestra director. W. Leroy Mac Gowan, a cellist as well, who graduated from Harvard with a B. A. and a M. S in the early 1920s. He wrote letters to my sister and me full of challenging puns and codes we had to figure out in order to make sense of his writing. He punningly signed his letters, "You Run Kill Rawee." His letters were full of such delightful nonsense. As I grew into adolescence, he introduced me to Emily Dickinson's Poems and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays, accompanied by a letter from him I have saved within its pages since 1956. He taught me to underline passages which inspired me in one colour of pencil, and, in subsequent readings, by another colour, so that I might have the history of my developing understanding of each Essay. And, I have done so, re-reading Emerson every few years. Both men influenced my character.

Perhaps, the most important lesson "Mr. Mac" taught me was how to look at Nature, and what to look for: to see wholeness and continuity, as evidenced by the joining of tree branches as they flow one into another in groupings within the landscape. Or clouds, forming, drifting, all part of a rhythm, a kind of legato, as Mozart's music creates lyrical, mystical linkage of melody. My art would not exist as it is without these gifts of insight.

Nor, would it have embraced the often overlooked, fleeting, shimmering effervescences of life without the influence of a contemporary, fellow student in the 1960s, Jim Sitton. Without speech, he would point to the tiniest fragments of landscape (a branch of an October-coloured tree along a highway), showing me richness in the fleeting vision. He learned that from his teacher, the painter, Howard Thomas. Holding his hands to form a small, inch square frame, he introduced me to a world of enchanting visual minuets. He taught me to treasure the tiny gestures formed at the point of a very fine drawing pen. Jim's letters were works of art, in themselves, composed and drawn with fine, small, delicate, pale, pencil marks, like his exquisite drawings of bones and fish skeletons which he formed into rows of lace-like drawings, scrim-like curtains of shimmering virtuosity. He died, too young, in his mid-thirties, a victim of irrational violence from a stranger. But, I have his letters, and what he continues to tell me in those letters, are lessons in how to be an artist; of what it means to be an artist.

©Margaret Koscielny, 5/5/2013