Gerald Ferguson

Just last Wednesday, while gamely painting a demonstration self-portrait, I shared with my students how this exercise had been designed by my teacher, mentor and friend, the artist Gerald Ferguson. I had been his Teaching Assistant at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and had, with his blessing, imported the course to Guelph when I took a job there. He must have made a hundred of these demonstration self-portraits over the years, each one with his intense eyes glaring out from the masonite panel.

Later that day, Jerry was gone.

Our Jerry was legendary for his bottomless can of Diet Coke, his chain-smoking and his tough love approach to teaching. We students adored him even as he sometimes terrified us. What few of us grasped at the time was how instrumental he had been in forming the NSCAD that had drawn us to the Maritimes in the first place.

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Jerry moved from Ohio to Halifax in 1968, invited by NSCAD’S young president, Garry Nell Kennedy, to teach art history and run the gallery. He was quickly doing much, much more. His initiatives helped put NSCAD on the map: the lithography workshop and visiting artists program drew international artists to Halifax, and the NSCAD Press embraced leading contemporary artists and critics. He told me once that the visitors program wasn’t there for the students so much as for the faculty: “to keep them on their toes.”

The core of Jerry’s painting practice was always conceptual and process-driven. His paintings have a spare, muscular rigour. In recent years, his practice was based on frottaging various things–often slyly selected, as in his Ash Can paintings–onto raw canvas using hardware-store black enamel paint and rollers. His most recent paintings, almost straight-up landscape, reminded me of David Milne on steroids–a description Jerry loved.

As a teacher, Jerry kept students on their toes. In addition to supervising students in the Studio (independent) course, he taught Intro Painting clear through until his retirement in 2006. For many, “Intro” afforded a first encounter with this diminutive giant of conceptual art, with the course revealing the man: rigorous, methodical, logical, no-nonsense and utterly reliable. Eschewing theory and fashion–“What a fucking bore,” as he would say–he focused instead on basic technique and the fundamentals of colour and value. “There’s nothing more pathetic than seeing a grown man pushed around by a stupid little brush,” he liked to declare–his boot-camp approach extending even the most ham-fisted student a fighting chance. Each step was achievable and even a little success, he reasoned, would give the student confidence to continue. While regularly reminding us that painting is a “horse and buggy medium,” he somehow made it seem radical and worthwhile rather than old-fashioned.

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Old-fashioned was never an issue in his class in any case. This conceptual painter had students do copies of early 20th-century works–as both a way of learning by imitation and as a means of understanding that even the most cutting-edge practice has a history. “I’d rather look at a good painting of something any day over the thing itself,” he’d insist, and if painting was in your bones, chances were that he’d soon have you agreeing.

Though copying might constitute the one sure way of getting a handle on the intricacies of representation, he wasn’t the least interested in turning out a gaggle of latter-day Impressionists. Romantic, “dabby-dabby-doo shit,”–that unfocussed daubing of paint so beguiling to beginners–constituted for him a serious, albeit hilarious crime. “You’re not painting a fucking apple, you’re painting a fucking painting,” he’d declare. And painting was serious business: a way of thinking and seeing, of positioning oneself relative to both one’s contemporaries and one’s antecedents. It was bigger than you. And if you were awake and ambitious, such talk, such rigour, could blow your head clean off.

I was in Jerry’s Studio class in the winter of 1990. Our group of roughly 10 students met with him once a week for five or six hours straight, a stretch during which I cannot recall a single break. (And yes, Jerry never found it necessary to stop for a cigarette, given that he simply ignored the NO SMOKING signs.) The critiques could be terrifying but were never less than enthralling. Here was someone who knew so much–about painting, about art history, about contemporary art, about the art world–bringing all that knowledge to bear upon your student work with the same intensity he would for that of any artist. Painter Sara Hartland-Rowe was in the same class, and the other day she reminded me how “his assessment of work could be brutal, but it never felt unjustified. He seemed constitutionally incapable of lying. If he hated a work or thought it awful, he would say so. If he thought the student was uncommitted, he could be merciless.” To pass muster therefore felt significant: it counted for something.

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But Jerry could also be wrong. And part of the challenge was figuring out just where you stood relative to him. By firmly planting his feet, he dared you to assert your own position and, in so doing, to discover just what it might be. In the face of such a powerful personality, that was not always easy. For me, it got easier once I understood that I had his support.

For many of us, Jerry’s support extended well past our school days. It’s no surprise that memorials have been planned for Halifax, Toronto and New York. He helped his students get into grad schools, wrote countless letters of reference, shepherded us towards galleries, stayed in touch and always had time for a good long visit in the studio. His example proved that one could both teach and have a studio practice, to be a scholar and a collector–that one could and ought to do it all. I don’t think I could have become an artist without him.

Jerry had a saying about mentors: “Show the way. Pave the way. Get out of the way.” But damn it, Jer, why did you have to take that last clause so literally?

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