As a teenager the only Mentor I knew of was a member of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents – a Tower Comics character of minor interest, being one of the second string of heroes ignored in favor of everyone’s favorite Dynamo. I learned the meaning of the word when I reached college but the definition was confusing – the idea of someone actually taking time with me was utterly foreign. As you can surmise I had little guidance in planning my life and making decisions; as a result I’ve spent most of it getting old fast and smart slow to the point that I spend many nights lying awake trying to figure out how I managed to survive this far.
What saved me? A group of men I refer to as my board of directors. While I didn’t have a specific single mentor coaching me over a long period of time I did come into contact with a half dozen older guys who were kind enough to help me through the rough spots and important junctures in my young adulthood.
They are/were ( in no particular order of importance) :
- T.H. Auldridge
- Richard Bird
- Wayne Carlson
- LTC Gerald F. King
- John Prowse
- James Albert Smith
- William Whitaker
There isn’t enough money in the world to equal the value of the insights and knowledge I gained from these men ; they deserve recognition so over the next couple of months I am going to write about each one of them , starting with Richard Bird; not the navy officer Richard Bird who made pioneering flights over Antarctica but rather the art teacher Richard Bird who developed pioneering new graphic design programs at Ricks College (now known as BYU-Idaho).
Not every member of the art department at Ricks College was pleased when I enrolled in the fall of 1972, in fact my figure drawing teacher made several broad hints about changing academic majors. To be fair I was a little rough around the edges, having spent the previous summer working in an oil field . My attitude was also pretty grim. I was unhappy to be in Rexburg, having transferred from the University of Alaska only because my Best Friend wanted to go to Ricks College. Money issues were also part of the problem; the year before I had been offered a scholarship but declined because I didn’t want to cut my hair…and at nineteen it’s hard to understand why the school hadn’t saved it for me.
I had also never taken an art class and despite the fact that I’d spent my entire life drawing on every available surface that lack of formal training bothered some of the instructors…except for Richard Bird. I’ll never know if it was sheer luck , an effort to cross-level class numbers or someone settling a bet that had me making a last minute entry his basic drawing class – but after the third meeting I didn’t care. This Bird guy was good ! More importantly he saw through my lack of training and could appreciate the small talent and tremendous drive that I had.
…and when I say good I mean it in three ways.
- Good in regards to artistic talent. He would pick up a pencil, marker or brush and the imagery would seemingly flow out of the tip in an effortless manner.
- Good as in a good teacher. His demonstrations were informative , his classroom management was superb and in my entire life I have never had a more effective critique. He had this wonderful way of giving a totally honest appraisal without the ego-crushing that so often accompanies the activity. The critiques were always one-on-one and as he would finish he would say ” I want you to reach for an A” (penciling an “A” at the top of the paper) “but I’m giving you a B” ( penciling a “B” at the bottom of the paper).
- Good as in he took care of “his kids”. Two weeks before I finished at Ricks I went through a devastating break-up that left me with very dark thoughts. The morning after the break-up I managed to get to his class but with no desire to explain the red, puffy eyes and hair that would scare a comb to death I sat apart from the others – but any hope of avoiding interaction was in vain. Richard came over and spoke quietly with me, then when class was over he took me upstairs to his office and had me set up in the corner to work , returning periodically to check on me.
These frequent displays of brilliance wisdom-beyond-his-years made hard to figure out his age and I was surprised to find out that A) he had come to Ricks just a year before I did and B) he was maybe a dozen years older than I was. That youth made his subsequent achievements all that more amazing; among other things he started a graphics program that eventually morphed into a real-world design studio with students art-directing and creating posters, brochures and other communications tools that would have normally been handled by full-time school employees.
I also gained a wife because of Richard. In the fall of 1976 I was enrolled in a Presentation class at BYU and while showing my portfolio to the instructor the sole female member of the class perked up when I mentioned my time at Ricks. She asked me if I’d studied with Richard and somehow the discussion about this great teacher turned into a date and eventually an engagement.
( I think he always liked the fact that two of his kids from different eras had gotten together.)
We kept in touch over the years and every time I went to Richard for advice on teaching, technique, or just coping with life as a creative type I always went away much smarter than I had been before. It has always been a point of particular pride that he invited me back to Ricks years later to conduct workshops and share skills I had learned from freelancing. It hit me hard when I heard of his passing, more so because I had been out of contact with him for a while. When my own health issues started multiplying it became all too easy to postpone calls, letters and eventually email messages and I didn’t know of his passing until a year after the fact .
I had had no idea he was struggling with multiple serious ailments, but then I don’t think anyone did outside of his family. I don’t think I ever saw him without that same enigmatic half-smile he’d wear when marking my work with two different grades and I am sure he had that look to the very end.