Portrait Of A Painter


This photo doesn't do the finished portrait of Gen. Doolittle by Sam Ryskind justice (really, it doesn't --the man's a much better portrait artist than photographer) but I'm posting it to give context to Ryskind's eulogy of one Joe Funaro, a professor of painting at Paier College of Art. Take it away, Mr. R:

According to the Paierisite (my bible), Joe Funaro's favorite scotch was Chivas Regal. He was implicated in the disappearance of a student who uncapped a tube of Prussian Blue in his life painting class, and in 1974 it took 12 New Haven riot police to pull him off the skinny frame of [a student] who mistook his Paier diploma for a draft card and tore it to pieces on the graduation stage.

A lot of students were terrified of Funaro. I don't know why. I got along with him great. Some might point out that I never looked him in the eye as if not to challenge his dominance and I reflexively curled up into a ball to protect my soft vital organs when h e approached...mere coincidences and exaggerations I assure you.

But Joe Funaro did command a certain air of authority more typically given to masters living in Renaissance Florence than to art teachers in this age of familiarity. That was what intimidated students, that and his forthright assessment of students' work. Let's face it, art schools attract a lot of people who have no real desire to draw or paint but have falsely concluded that they must be artistic because they scored so poorly on the math and verbal portions of the SAT. And arts schools do little to disabuse tuition payers of this false bit of logic. Quite the opposite. This type of student is an essential part of the art school ecology. As a result many art teachers evolved a vocabulary specifically for the purpose of accommodating this species of student and can validate even the crummiest artistic efforts.

Funaro wasn't quite so evolved. He was strictly old school. I think the highest praise I ever got from him was when he took my pencil and eraser, sat down in front of my drawing which involved a complicated bit of foreshortening, examined it for about two minutes comparing it to the model and said "That's reasonable," and handed me back my pencil. That didn't happen much.

Almost all of my drawings from his class sport his clear, expertly rendered thumbnails showing me where my drawing went astray-- how I had missed the way the model torso and hips were offset, or reminding me just how the biceps tucked under the deltoids or the hinge-like structure of the ankle.

Joseph Funaro once explained, "I'm not an artist, I'm a painter. Picasso was an artist." He said it, but not in that worshipful way people say Picasso WAS an ARTIST. It was a flat assessment of his skill set, sort of the way a surgeon might say I'm not a doctor. "Surgeon" seems to fit when I think back to all the triage he performed on student's sketches and paintings.

I distinctly remember in his head painting class-- that beginning rubout phase where we were supposed to not worry about getting a likeness but to render the head as an entire form. I considered the directions and right away decided I'd distinguish myself by going for a likeness. After about two hours of intense rubbing, smearing, scratching, rag twisting, wiping, dabbing and daubing, I had distinguished myself by failing to produce a head or even a likeness by the time Funaro, making his rounds, got to me. I had the sense he was a little disgusted. "Give me your rag." I gave him my rag.

"The model's head is darker then the background," he said. He was not trying to make conversation. He was cluing me in on how he approached a painting: first things first-- what is dark, what is light. In my painting the background and the model still had the same values. I hadn't even thought about it. And then with the very same rag that had been failing me for hours, he takes three big swipes atmy canvas, lightening the background and causing the head to stand out in sharp relief. And a likeness so strong even the pitifully misaligned features I had been spending all class sweating over couldn't spoil it. He hands me back the rag and says, "The shape of the head creates the likeness," and moves on to rescue the next student.

It's been 10 years since I've had Funaro as a teacher and two since the last time I saw him. We weren't great friends or pals. He was the teacher, I was one of many students. Still, I am saddened by his passing this Christmas Eve and wanted to write down a few words about him in tribute to our Italian master. Perhaps someone else can do better. Maybe look up old [aforementioned student] and finish the beating Joe intended to give him. Or, better yet, since New Year's Eve is coming and we are all scattered around the country, sometime before midnight pour a shot of Joe's favorite scotch and we'll all drink a toast to a painter.

That's a portrait in itself, isn't it?
UPDATE: Another student has a photo (isn't this just how you pictured him?Except I expected splotches on his shirt) and one of Funaro's portraits up.