Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Farewell, Paul Martyka. Artist, Mentor, Friend.

It is with an anvil-heavy heart that I must share the passing of one of my greatest mentors, artistic influences and inspirations, Professor Paul Martyka. Losing him will leave a great, big void in my life and in the many, many students' and faculty members' lives whom he touched and inspired over the 37 years he taught printmaking, painting, and design at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC.

Martyka (most folks knew him simply as "Martyka") was one of those teachers that you are a little afraid of, but you try endlessly to impress. I was lucky enough to study in many of his classes. Actually, I made a point of it. He was a razor sharp individual. Smart, funny, quick-witted, and massively talented. He was well-versed and proficient in drawing, printmaking, painting, design, and he taught them all. And I registered for them all. If you could cut through his salty exterior, you would find Martyka as generous as he was critical and particular. He would go to great lengths to share his time and knowledge and craft with any student who showed promise, intelligence, and curiosity. He could often be found at school or in his studio late, after hours, missing meals--whatever it took to help a student with a question or in need.

My greatest memories of Martyka were made during an independent study drawing class I took with him during my senior year. It was a class he created, took upon himself, and made time for in his already busy schedule. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend one-on-one time with him weekly, getting to know him more (and him, me) both artistically and personally. By the end of this course, I had a group of drawings I was more proud of than anything I'd ever done. I was proud enough to want to somehow make a show of them. And so we did. Martyka helped me secure some space on campus (some unused classrooms at the time) and together we cut frames (he was also well-versed in woodworking and sculpture) and we hung a show. We had an opening reception, we had a celebration. When I accepted an award at the end of the year for drawing, he was standing right there beaming, and I've always regretted being too insecure to grab him and give him a giant, thankful hug.

More than a teacher, Martyka became a true friend. After graduation, he continued to motivate me to do bigger and greater things. I kept drawing and painting and eventually left the south to try art on a larger scale, moving to Chicago to figure things out. I showed my art in galleries, practiced graphic design, and ultimately found a place in the art world where I felt loved, inspired, and at home--illustrating books for children.

For a time, I tried to keep in touch with him, but Martyka's attentions were always where they needed to be. At home. With his art and with the students that needed him most. He had very little time for anyone or anything else in his life. For a short time, I was lucky enough to receive that attention. And for that, I'll always be grateful.

Not a day goes by where I'm at my drawing table, scratching away with my pen or painting in some color and washes with a brush, that I do not think back on one or more of the things Martyka said to me. One or more of the insights and bits of wisdom I was so blessed to have picked up. Insights I will always remember and will always use. I'm not exaggerating or romanticizing. This is the truth.

Paul Martyka was one of those larger-than-life types that one can never imagine not being alive. And in some way, I suppose, he never will die. I'll certainly never forget him for the rest of my life. I'm so thankful to have known him.

Before I left town, I convinced Martyka to sit for me a while so I could draw a series of portraits. Neither of us were terribly comfortable about it, but I'm so glad I did.