Inspired by his own mentor, artist Daniel Greene (1934-2020), Jody Thompson shares how Greene influenced his lifetime of painting, teaching, and mentoring, and why it’s imperative that the tradition continues.
The Importance of Mentorship
BY JODY THOMPSON
April 6 of this strange year, 2020, I learned of the passing of my mentor, artist Daniel E. Greene. I always dreaded this day, but this is the way of life. He had been my most important mentor, the teacher and artist who gave me the discipline, confidence, tools, and knowledge to be an artist and teacher. This has served me well for the past 34 years.
At the age of 21, I arrived in New York City to enroll in The Art students League just in time to celebrate my milestone birthday. While in the registration office of this school, I found myself in front of a painting that stopped me in my tracks, a portrait of Robert Beverly Hale, a painting known to most as “the man with the hands.” I was in awe; it was signed by Daniel Greene, my first introduction to this legendary artist.
My second introduction to him was a few years later when Dan came to Nashville to teach one of his workshops. At the time, I was a watercolor artist, but wanting to participate I signed on to be one of the portrait models for the week. With the money I earned as a model, I purchased my first limited edition print by Greene, and later on was able to purchase number 001, the first of the limited edition print, of the very same painting of Robert Beverly Hale that I had seen in the registration office at The Art Students League.
Dan offered me the opportunity of a lifetime, to study and work for him in his private, north lit barn, Studio Hill Farm in North Salem, New York, during his upcoming Summer Session in 1986. My job was to assist him, which included: coordinating parking, wrangling super excited students, cleaning the studio, emptying trash, vacuuming floors, keeping the models in their poses and even helping him sell his car and installing a brick patio in exchange for some portraits of me by him.
Of course, this wasn’t exactly what I thought the job would entail, but it began to register with me, all the many things that it takes to be an artist and a teacher. With students coming from all over the world to learn from this master artist, Dan needed these things done so that he could focus on teaching. I must say, he ran a tight ship, providing me with a list of duties that he expected done… this was the beginning of the discipline I so greatly needed.
Working for him for two summers proved to be some really great times of my life, both as an artist and personally as well. He was always patting me on the back and giving me an encouraging word that would help build my confidence.
Dan provided all the information needed about tools, brushes, canvas, palettes, mediums, how to draw and see… he was old school. It was starting to dawn on me what all this really meant. He had studied with his mentor, Robert Brackman, who had studied with Robert Henri and George Bellows. Dan was passing the traditional foundations of oil painting, from the masters of old through mentorship. I gained more knowledge during these summers than I would if I had attended four years in a traditional college.
This was when the importance of studying and mentoring with an artist really dawned on me. I realized that this was a tradition that has continued through the ages, recipes being passed from master painter to student, who in time would turn to mentor others. I did not realize at the time that I was also preparing to be a part of this continuum.
In the years to come, still life subjects became the focus of my art. Like Dan, I had always enjoyed collecting objects, some with meaning and some because of their patina or aesthetics. The genre of still life allowed me to create narratives to express my hopes, dreams, sorrows, and happiness, giving me a canvas to deal with and put these things away in a painting. On learning of his passing, I was overwhelmed with both sadness and great memories. My natural response to this news was to go to my studio to deal with my emotions.
Twenty years earlier, on a trip to buy antiques, I found a brick with the word Ohio on it. Dan’s home state was Ohio, so I knew in that moment it was the beginning of an homage painting that I would someday do. I found other objects through the years that would be present in his narrative painting. I collected blue glass bottles, feathers, a pool ball that reminded me of stories he shared with me about his pool hustling in his earlier years. The 2 with a circle around it, fit the year of this painting.The children’s blocks, present so often in his paintings, with his initials, D and G. The number 86 represented his age at his passing and also the year that I first studied with him. I also included his pre-mixed portrait color chart that is well known to anyone who has ever studied with him.
While painting my narratives, I go into a private little world, usually not sharing the meanings with others, just allowing them to make up their own story. I recently painted a portrait of a paint brush, the kind used to paint houses. My Dad was a house painter and I had saved his last, well worn brush, knowing it would be in a painting one day. This is a glimpse into my process of content, the casting of objects into their roles in my paintings. I also paint objects for practice or just for fun.
By the way though, the greatest thing that happened over those earlier summers was falling in love with the young lady who had first introduced me to Dan. My artist wife, Pat Thompson and I have been living a love story now for the past 33 years, and I have Dan to thank for that as well.
In 2001, my wife and I started a teaching studio in The Factory, an old historic stove factory in Franklin Tennessee. We named it SouthGate Studio, modeling our classes and format after our time spent with Dan. When we first studied with him, our objective was to learn how to paint, not knowing at the time that he was also passing the craft of being a mentor. It allowed us the privilege of later passing to hundreds of artists, what he had passed to us.
Mentorship is important. It’s the passing of the baton to the next group, artist to student, who then become mentors themselves. This secures that the knowledge, the recipes, and the wisdom from one artist to the next continues. My hope is that painters today will find an opportunity to mentor; it can come in many forms and is so important and fulfilling in a way like no other.
Editor’s Note: At the 2019 Figurative Art Convention & Expo, we had the pleasure of honoring both Daniel and his wife, Wende Caporale, with a Lifetime Achievement Award (watch the mini-documentary below).
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