Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Larry Hurt 1952-2010...Artist, Teacher, Musician, Friend

Today I said goodbye to my hero.

In the Indianapolis art community, it often seems like a small number of people are doing a great number of things. You hear about the same leaders moving from one organization to another and it sometimes seems as though you see certain people at every opening in town. As an artist by lifestyle, I see art events as a chance to catch up with people and see what's new in their work. If I never hung another show in my life, I would still feel invested in the art scene here because of the relationships I have to show for it. It's a privilege and an honor to say that I am a member of my city's local art community. That honor is thanks to Larry Hurt; one person who did a huge number of things.

Here is the not-so-short version of how he came into my life.

When I was growing up in Indiana, my family didn't really encourage me to pursue a career in the arts. Drawing was a big part of my life, like sports or any other hobby, but I had no idea how to cultivate that. I loved Disney animated films and anything that included a fun character (Ninja Turtles were the best). I eventually discovered the world of comics and thought for many years that I might illustrate them one day. But as I grew up, more and more people were asking me when I would start thinking about how to make a living. And, of course, teachers were always angry with me for drawing instead of whatever else they had in mind. I felt a very real sense that people were working against me or trying to show me that there is more to life than art. Because I didn't care about sports and wasn't much of a girl-chaser, I felt like an outsider among kids my every age. I simply had no identity. The isolation I knew as a child fed my highly active imagination.

As a teenager, I found my identity in a community of skaters and party kids (ravers). You could say they accepted me, but it's more accurate to say that I gradually evolved to become more like them. We went places most people didn't go and did things I was always told not to do. My father recognized some pretty scary patterns in my behavior and decided to move me across town. He gave me a few options, but none of them included staying on the east side where I had grown up so I passed on them all. At the age of 15, I was starting from scratch and I resented my dad for it.

My first day at Ben Davis High School, I met with my guidance counselor to fill out my schedule. I had been in the band at Lawrence Central but I knew I couldn't hack it at BD without some serious work, which I was totally unwilling to do. I had already sworn off art classes because of one I took in 7th Grade in which we drew a plant for several weeks. I just didn't want anything to do with something so stiff. Luckily, Ben Davis had a pretty serious Journalism curriculum and my counselor encouraged me to take the intro course to help with my writing. With one more elective left, I weighed my options and agreed to take the school's prerequisite art class.

What I found in the A hall at Ben Davis was a truly comforting environment. It seemed all the teachers had such strong ideals and went out of their way to create a safe and inspiring place. That first semester re-invigorated my love for drawing and gave me a taste of how broad the world of 'art' really is. It was also the first time I recognized how well, and how naturally I could draw anything. My teacher, Mrs. Stoner (real name), encouraged me to take Mr. Hurt's Drawing 1 the following spring. I still needed the elective, so I went for it. This is one decision that my ignorant, fearful, teenage self got right.

Mr. Hurt's class was so incredible. I realized quickly that the sensation we all felt in that hall with every art teacher was one created and fostered by Mr. Hurt and that all the teachers were following his lead. In that classroom, I met students who were deeply troubled and others who had it all together; all of whom were drawn to Larry Hurt. The lighting, the music, the art paraphernalia, the freedom to share ideas... these were the intoxicants Larry used to ease everyone into a place of peace. He literally fine-tuned every detail of the experience to allow students to settle in and work through our separate ethos. When I think about that time, it isn't the artwork itself that I remember. For me, it was the beginning of my 'real life'.

Among the sea of teachable moments that amounted to Larry's abundant life, were some that made a sobering difference to me. When I told him I didn't really care whether I went to college or not, he told me I had to go and study art: "You don't go to college to do what you want, you go so you can learn what you want to do..." He got me my first paying job as an artist when I was a senior; then when I fell short of his expectations he used that as a teachable moment too. When I showed interest in graffiti, Larry recommended I check out the first all-graffiti website, in 97 (which years later would feature some of my work). As if that weren't enough, he made it possible for me to paint one of my first murals in his classroom (a piece of which was on display at his funeral and now belongs to me). He then connected me with our school crisis counselor to paint a mural in her office (all with spray paint, in the school) . I told her about a mural event in St. Louis and she got me excused from school so I could go. I now host a mural event myself in its 8th year.

All of this is deeply meaningful to me, yet it says nothing about the perspective he gave me through his actual teaching of art. I once told him that I didn't see myself as an artist so much as a person who appreciates it. Larry's response: "You will find as time goes on that that will change." When I rejected the work of Picasso, he showed me that Picasso did the same thing with form that graffiti does with letters: move all the edges in a way that he found more interesting. The sketchbooks we prepared in his class gave me discipline. He had every art implement you could ever want to learn about and it was all there for the using. He crafted assignments designed to challenge any artist, then he shared what he expected me, personally, to do with it. "To be an artist is not just to be able to draw," he once told me, "it's a way of seeing and understanding the world around you..." Upon studying the Futurist movement, he opened my eyes to the fact that a true cultural movement is always a response to change (just like hip-hop in my lifetime) and that it can encompass every creative discipline. Larry was also a doodler and he taught me that for people like us, doodling is how we listen and even learn. Right on all counts.

The friends I have from that period are still the dearest to me now. I've shared the most important moments of my adult life with them and they are all people I admire. We discussed everything in Larry's classroom; love, friendship, art, politics and anything that mattered to us. He was there to chime in, never to dominate the discussion, only to say exactly what was needed to steer us toward our own self-discovery, then fade back again until he was needed. We all shared stories this week about that time in our lives and it is clear that Larry Hurt shone a light in all directions, even shedding light on those that seemed to glow already. He just had no filter when it came to pouring himself out. If he had it, he gave it in abundance to us all.

The most beautiful thing about Larry Hurt was not the way he handled those of us with great talent, but the way he handled everyone. As countless people attested at his funeral, he could see into every person he met. As Tom McTamney so eloquently stated in his eulogy, "Larry saw the very best you had to offer and made you see it too. And once you saw it, he would accept nothing less." Although I felt special in his world, I know now that I am special not because he favored me more than anyone else, but because he favored everyone, period. He did the work that we usually thank God for.

This week I cried shamelessly with grown men and women, threw my arms around people I had never met and shared my gratitude with his beautiful family. I drank to his memory and recounted his lessons. I felt a greater sense of loss than I knew possible, and yet wallowed in the good fortune of his legacy. As the tears rolled down, I felt a jarring fear inside. I fear a world where I can never thank Larry Hurt or ask him another question; but I fear much more that I could never be the man he was. The friends I shared with him drew near to me and we huddled close, looking around as if we all knew it was time to do something. Whether we say it out loud or in a glance, we all wonder now if the next Larry Hurt could possibly be one of us.

Whomever can fill his shoes, we all agree that person cannot rise up soon enough.

Rest in paradise, Larry. If there is a heaven, you are there; and if you are not, there is no heaven worth seeking. Thank you for never giving up on me and the others who had given up on ourselves. You probably never knew this, but my life became incredibly meaningful when you entered it.

1 comment:

Vince Gorman said...

Great story Dan. It's amazing how one person can truly make a change. I have to hand it to anyone who decides to become a high school art teacher. Teaching a subject that most others (parents, students and other teachers) deem a waste. These teachers somehow manage to tough it out through all of this. And the really good ones encourage and inform their students in such a way that it changes their entire perspective on life.