R.I.P. Steve Emmett

I heard the terrible news that Steve Emmett, a painting and drawing professor at Edinboro University of PA (where I studied), passed away Saturday, March 15.

I never personally had him as a professor while there, but I did have a run-in with him last October when I went to Edinboro to give a lecture about Flash animation. We ended up talking for a few hours, about his life up to his then current status, and I told him my short story and where a bunch of Edinboro students are working, some of whom he remembered from his classes.

He told me about how when he was younger he lived in Ventura, CA for a while, Colorado and a few other states before realizing that he didn't need to move around to find happiness. He said he was happy in the small town of Edinboro, able to pass his knowledge of art onto future artists at the school and still able to be a painter at home. He said "Let's be honest with each other, I know where I stand as an artist and I'm just not that great. I'm good, ya know, but not great." He did say he was OK with that, but those thoughts stuck with me for a while. At the time I tried encouraging him by saying many artists create work throughout their lifetime, and may not achieve artistic success in their lifetime, but do afterward. He agreed in part with me, but kept insisting his art was just alright, not memorable. I remembered and sincerely enjoyed his work from the faculty exhibits.

He left a lasting impression with me that I will always remember from that one conversation. He was very proud when I told him what many Edinboro students are working on in LA, NY and around the world. He talked proudly, and briefly, about his artistic sons. I know I'll always remember how full of life he was just a few months ago. My prayers and condolences are with his family and friends. He will be greatly missed.

Here's a few of his paintings to remember him by that I grabbed from the Edinboro University website.


bavaroland said...

Dear Chris,

Thank you for this blog. In my opinion, it is just the start of what might be a continual eulogizing of Steve.

The classic cliche of "You don't know what you've got til' it's gone" rang very true to me upon hearing the sad news of the death of my friend and colleague.

Steve, genuine, giving, and caring. Unlike many of us, he often took the time to comment on little things, and to voice his appreciation for people's work, or to take interest in their lives. He always seemed to me to one who offered "human relief" in a past-paced, and often automatic or "robotic" world of academia. I never once heard a student say a bad thing about him, and that means something in critical environment of academia.

Steve would smile and joke, and to him, an undergraduate student or a house cleaner was just as important as an administrator or a person "in power." He didn't play a political game.

I had no idea how deeply his death would affect me until he died. As for his perception of the "skill" or "value" of his paintings, I still contend that this was his brand of self-deprecation, and the reality is that he deeply valued his artistic work, to which he had a strong, personal connection.

I had the good (and bad) fortune to go to his studio with his wife, Amy the other day, and see the work in their chronology. What I saw was a combination of personal stories, both joyful and dark, and in retrospect, there were deeper and more personal connections to his art, the significance of which come more into focus in hindsight.Perhaps this is why he took his work so personally.

There is much more that I could say about him, and much more that I can't.

My most pertinent anecdote revolves around the fact that he read a book that I am writing, and immediately related it it to a struggle with discovery and madness that emerged in the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." This caused me to get out the book again and read it from a new perspective, and I was in the middle of reading it when I found out about his death. The whole time, I had been reading it with his comments in mind, and I began completely to see my work in a new light. The sad transition, however of Robert M. Pirsig's character's self-discovery and redemption has been reinterpreted for me, and that book now stays etched in my mind due to his death. Still, it seems as though Steve gave me a gift in his interpretation. It seems to have re-contextualized my whole art work and the focus of this book.

The long and the short of it, is that those he left behind love that he was here, and many harbor a wild spectrum of feelings of both joy and hurt now that he is gone.I can't begin to put myself in the shoes of his family, I know they suffer greatly at his loss. Did he know that there would be lines out the door at his viewing, or like his paintings, did he sometimes think that people would just blink and move on? We have not just blinked, he still is in my and many other people's consciousness.

I really am in no position to eulogize him, but he was a friend, and someone who made a strong impression on me. I miss him, and I think that many others do too.

Thanks for making this blog.

John Bavaro, Assistant Professor of Art, Edinboro University

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Karen said...

Steve was one of the best professors I've ever had at Edinboro. He taught me how to gesture draw, which out of all my art studios, has helped me the most with my major (animation). I can tell he also cared deeply about his students. When my Grandma died, he was one of a few of my professors who cared enough to talk to me about it. He told me about something similar he'd been going through and I didn't feel quite so alone. I had a lot of respect for him as a professor and just as a person in general. Even though I didn't know him that well, he had an impact on my life.

I also wanted to share something important he was discussing at the end of class one day. A few of us were still hanging around, and he talked about how much it annoyed him when people would tell artists, "you must have had a lot of talent to do that!", or something like that... because he felt that when people say this, it downplays the importance of work and learning in art. Art isn't something you can just be talented at and do perfectly, in most cases... you have to work really hard at it to get better at it, just like any other subject, be it chemistry, biology, math, etc. When people only attribute art to 'talent' and don't think of it as hard work, he saw this as somewhat disrespectful to the artists who put so much into their work. I think this discussion started after Steve mentioned the movie that had just come out, called "My Kid Could Paint That." I have to say, what he said made a lot of sense. I may or may not have related what he said 100% accurately, and I hope all I've said conveys nothing but respect for his memory.

In addition to all this, I found out I enjoyed painting in his class. It was one of the most rewarding studio classes, besides Animation, that I've taken. In one of my paintings, I was using too much medium, so he imparted upon me a very wise piece of advice: "Liquin's for Losers!!" He had our whole class saying it. I only have positive memories of him and his classes, and may he rest in peace.

Ryan Emmett said...

I think this whole blog is really wonderful. I admit the past month or so I have been trying to distract myself a bit from my inner turmoil, only occasionally allowing it to surface. The things written here have upset me but in a positive way. I was on break at work when I read through this and I immediately had to go to the bathroom to cry and I realized that I needed to. I can hear him saying the phrase "liquin loser" in my head (it makes me laugh) and we would have scores of personal conversations during car rides and over the phone about the bogus concept of "talent". He truly championed a level playing field where anybody who worked hard and had the right attitude could achieve a level of success for themselves. This wasn't some story to make students feel better but a sincere belief that he taught me and relayed to me my whole life. People would ask if I ever took him for class, and the fact is, besides being awkward and a bit unprofessional, I had no need to. He was no doubt my most important teacher (both of my parents were) for my whole life. I knew that before his passing and I know it now. He was honest with me. He would critique my work just like any of his students and I respected my father immensely for that. If something needed work he would offer constructive and supportive criticism. He was extremely humble with his own work. He was often frustratingly too humble. But he honestly cared about his students. When class was over and he was at home, we would talk for hours about his classes and art and teaching in general. His respect for any student who worked hard was immense. As frustrated as he would get with the beauracracy of being a professor at a state school, he really really loved the teaching process.

anyway... these entries helped me bring some much needed grieving to the surface while comforting me at the same time. i appreciate everything that's been said. thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hey Kris, I met you when you came to Edinboro last year for the flash demonstration.

Very touching post, here.

I was extremely inspired by Emmett, and had a few classes with him because I felt that he actually cared about my (and everyone else in the class) work. He was an incredible teacher, and a really really cool dude on top of that. It was great bullshitting with him outside and smoking a cig with him, made me look forward to breaks.

Rachel Saul said...

I had a hell of time in Steve Emmetts drawing class. It wasn't because of him that it was difficult mind you...it was because of him that it became bearable.
It was summer, and the days were long. (Even longer when you are someone who feuds with a pencil.) In truth, I'm drawn to abstract art not only because of the way it feels to me; but because it comes naturally to me. Anything representational, well it's just too much to handle sometimes. I felt like Steve understood that about me and didn't try to push me.
There's a point to my personal reference...Steve cared about where students were at personally. Everyday he'd see me to the side struggling and he'd come sit next to me. He'd talk to me about the day or the weekend and try to get my mind off of the drawing. Once my hand was focused and my mind at ease, he'd say; "Do you mind if I draw on your paper?" Of course I didn't mind. I loved that he got that explaining it didn't work...showing it to me did. Day after day he'd fix a line or just clear my mind. Before I knew it, I was beginning to see things differently. I was also beginning to draw better.
I didn't have any more classes with Steve Emmett. It wasn't because I didn't want to take him, mearly because his time offerings didn't fit into my schedule. I also didn't get to know him much more beyond that class. We'd say "hello" in passing or he'd ask how my prints were coming. But that was it. The odd thing is that he always intrigued me. He was such an interesting guy. In some of those class conversations I remember him making mention of how he didn't think he was the best artist ever; but I too remember being drawn to some of his pieces. I still think that some of the greatest artists are those don't realize they're the best...and I think Steve Emmett was one of them. He was a cool guy and a great teacher.

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Casey said...

i'm so glad i bumped into this. i've been fishing around online all night. i came across keith jarrett's rendition of 'somewhere over the rainbow'. i will always remember a conversation i had with steve. we were talking music and he mentioned his all-time favorite song ever written was 'somewhere over the rainbow'. at first, i sort of chuckled. he went on and said, 'it has everything in it', and started to ramble the words 'somewhere over the rainbow...bluebirds fly...there's a land that i heard of...why oh why'. and then as if an epiphany occured, even as though he had thought it before, he simply said 'where dreams really come true'. it was just a simple conversation that turned into something very touching (probably from the outside sounding very cheesy), but on the contrary, it was simply beautiful. ever since, i've considered the song as my own. i loved having steve as a teacher. i loved talking to him. he didn't bring any pretense. i loved his paintings. the dark silhouetted figure. the layers beneath. we shared a love for fritz scholder. looking back, i was trying to paint like him. this the first since hearing of his passing, that i've been able to actually stop and think about it. i wish his family the best.