Joe Mack could turn a snail into a student. He could make a bull brilliant. Caught at a desk between bricks and tiered windows I caught glimpses of him in a holy light, steadying his hands and pressing his thick lenses up his nose to focus his energies. He looked like any artist in his mid-eighties should look, with white hair creeping around the back of his skill like ivy, skinny legs held up in suspenders, and checkered button-down shirts that helped his translucent skin glow in every color. Joe presided over Huntington Fine Arts in Huntington, New York. He was the president, minister, bully, and power generator.
When I started at HFA, I felt like a peasant in Joe's kingdom. As a freshman in high school, I learned the process of decision making and action taking, but the process was slow. By the time I became a knight, I had fought in the extended battle against myself to learn to trust my instincts, and I had won. Joe initiated this in me, and it has affected me in all my other areas of work, study, and play. Mistakes do not haunt me after four years of art school. I will summon all the potential in my resources until every difficulty between where I am and where I want to be ceases to be difficult. I will not stop until I express what I intend to express, or come to realize the existence of an ulterior intention that would have been overlooked. Changing directions sometimes makes more sense than following through on the first one. Joe taught me that, too.
The other students and I used to slip our paintings between the closing doors of an elevator that nobody used, and chase them up the two flights of stairs from the plaster-dust, paint-dripped linoleum tiles to the office of pure substance. There Joe would be, ready to talk to each of us personally about where our work was and where it needed to be. He used to say to me, "It's a terrible thing, to be born a creative person. You will know it for the rest of your life." When I would come in clean clothes on weekends to work on a painting, I would see him covered in plaster dust, immersed in something new. "You're dirty," I'd tell him jokingly. "No, you're dirty. I'm working," he would correct me.
The summer before I left for college I worked at the school every day. Some days I would work on internet advertising for the school, sometimes I would design t-shirts or flyers, and sometimes I would have the enormous pleasure of sitting across from Joe in the back corner of the office. He would share stories with me from his archives, vignettes that continually resurfaced, refreshing the outermost realm of his mind. One story I remember most clearly was the one about the single mother and five kids who were all living out of their Cadillac. She found Joe and told him her son was gifted. Joe believed her because, "all of them were." In 1974, he took the kid in and taught him the foundations of studio art. In the 80s he was able to get a job and by the end of that decade, he was a high ranking illustrator at Disney. Joe's cerebral rolodex was always spinning.
When Joe died at the end of 2007 he was still teaching. Friends, colleagues, and students all spoke about the ways in which he sculpted their world. Steve, an old employee of Joe's and the school, told another story from the 1970s about when the school was first starting out. Joe instructed Steve to tear down a wall in the old building, to make room for the drawing studio. Steve protested, claiming the wall was essential to the structural integrity of the building and that it was too big. Joe's response was, "Use a ladder." Metaphorically, he provided that same ladder for me to destroy my preventative walls. My first self portrait sculpture in class was going terribly until I thought I was finally getting it right. I asked Joe to come over and peek at it, and he did. While standing behind him I watched in horror as his muscular, vein-ridden fists punched my soggy grey self. I couldn't believe what was happening. He was severely damaging what I had spent hours working on. Luckily, it didn't take me long to realize that my first crack at it shouldn't have been the best. The first draft never means as much as persistence. The first attack at the problem at hand means nothing until you start over, and trying again is oversimplifying until trying again means one less time that you have to try again before you get what you want out of it. A few weeks later, there I was, ready to create a plaster mold of m first complete self-portrait.
I'll be indebted to him forever, he taught that each student had a voice that would come into its own as soon as it was really listened to. And he was proved right with each student that got the privilege of his ears. Though I have been fortunate enough to have many mentors throughout my life, I love Joe the most because he did it for everyone. He enabled me to continue to mentor myself. He provided opportunities for me that nobody else running a prestigious school would have. He trusted my creative instincts unwaveringly, and through doing so, taught me how to trust my own. He used to come over to my easel, take a look at what I was doing and whisper, "You're brilliant, and I think you might know it."