San José State University’s School of Art and Design Tuesday Night Lecture on April 13th was at overflow capacity in Art Room 133: renowned artist Nathan Oliveira was in the house. Regarded as one of America’s most prominent artists, Oliveira captivated the crowd with his self-effacing humor, sharing aspects of his stellar career involving printmaking, painting, drawing, sculpture, and educator spanning well over fifty years.
Born in Oakland, California in 1928, Oliveira began the talk by telling the story of a fateful meeting with his former high school principal who would steer him to enroll in art school. The principal was familiar with his already burgeoning art skills and encouraged the young student. One afternoon in his senior year, Oliveira told him of his new job as a bookbinder apprentice to which his former principal replied, “Well nonsense,” and suggested he needed to go to art school and become an artist. Oliveira then said, “Well, that’s really wonderful! Where does one go to learn to be an artist?” Not really thinking this idea was within his reach before this chance meeting, he would go on to enroll at California College of Arts and Crafts in 1947 on his former principal’s suggestion, with scholarships and his family’s support.
“When I walked through those gates (of CCAC), it felt at home. I found my place where I belonged. And that’s the way it was from the day I arrived to the day I left…and when I still go back there…”
His first job teaching was at CCAC teaching printmaking. Several years in to teaching he candidly revealed to the audience that something was still nagging at him as an artist. “I wondered where was this all going to take me?’
He told of the impact seeing a Rembrandt (Jooris de Caulcerii, 1632) at San Francisco’s California Palace of the Legion of Honor, “I ran smack dab into [a] Rembrandt and it almost knocked my head off because I couldn’t believe anything could be that beautiful. I really loved to do that. If I could only paint like him. Well, I was going to do that…..but wishing is not what is its all about. Wishing is a great part of it. Wishing, one has to get into the art and what you want it to be…”
He went on to speak about painting figures with the Bay Area Figurative Artists. He was enthused to be working as an artist alongside them, but yet “something was missing.” During breaks he would walk around and look at other artists painting or drawing figures, but they “all seemed to be alike, same windows, same interiors, chairs…a speck of reality that was non-threatening in any particular way. It was a moment in time that they could all share and I appreciated that…and especially coming from such fine artists as those men. But for myself there was still something missing. I still wasn’t satisfied. I wasn’t enough for me to just paint something. It had to convey something meaningful.”
Even at this point, Oliveira admitted to the audience he wanted to find his place in art. “I still wondered what I really wanted to do…No one tells you!”
While teaching at Stanford in the 1970s, Oliveira discovered the innovative monotypes of Degas. It was the first time he encountered that extensive of a collection of monotypes. The range of black and white in the monotypes and the expression he saw in them drew him back to Rembrandt, and later to Goya. He began “looking something to interact with” in the old masters and they started to suggest technically a “sense of place.” This idea immediately clicked with him. Looking at Goya’s prints of bullfighting, the print would suggest a sense of site, a sense of human activity, populated, structures and landscape. He was finding his sense of place by looking at Rembrandt and Goya and had an insight: he discovered the sense of site. In making prints, he found his own sense of site. This led him to then use color and enlarge the whole experience. Finding his own site 20-30 years into his career while already teaching at Stanford, Oliveira went on to say, “It [art] is not a superficial kind of relationship. It’s a struggle, a matter of interacting directly with an idea that you are forming and making demands… personal demands. Demands that are not necessarily something that you see everyday.”
After his talk San José State’s Natalie and James Thompson Gallery had an opening reception for Nathan Oliveira’s exhibition, on view until May 14th, 2010. Curated specifically for the Thompson Gallery, pieces from his Site Works include his beautiful monotypes, paintings and landscape-like sculptures.
Nathan Oliveira’s talk was engaging, honest, reflective, and illuminating for students, faculty, and visitors in attendance. His love of art and teaching was evident in his wonderful presentation. He generously shared with the audience that there were times in his own career he met stumbling blocks and had doubts, but he still forged ahead. The San José State School of Art and Design was most fortunate to have had such a distinguished and inspiring speaker.
When asked what advice would he give to students and emerging artists: “Work everyday if you can [in your art]” and “go with your gut.”
Nathan Oliveira, Born December 19th, 1928, Oakland, CA – Died: November 13th, 2010, Stanford, CA