Friday was a bitter sweet day for me. It began in the studio, the first day of a new project. I was creating images with three new artists for a project that has been 2 years in the making. Excited to share some of this new work I emailed a few photographs to one of my mentors, Ron Stark. That evening I received an email from Ron’s brother letting me know that Ron died of a stroke thirteen days earlier on July 13th.
I spent the Summer of 2011 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was there to run a popup gallery on the plaza. My goal was to sell some of my art and learn more about the art marketing world. I lived in a six unit apartment complex next to an arroyo about a mile from the plaza. Most days I would wake up and walk to the gallery. Some mornings as I was leaving I would see my neighbor sitting on his front porch smoking a cigarette. I rarely said more than hello or goodbye since I was hurrying to be immersed in art at the gallery.
After a few weeks things did not feel so hectic and I had couple casual conversations with my neighbor. Ron Stark was probably somewhere in his mid-sixties. Most days I encountered him sitting on his front porch having his morning coffee and cigarette. His grey hair was slightly disheveled and his eyes were maybe a little blood shot as he worked off his previous evening’s cocktails. On more than one occasion I had come home late at night and found Ron having a little drink on his porch. He told me he was something of an artist and when I told him that I worked in photography he said he had also done some photography, although now he mainly painted.
It is not surprising to run into an artist in Santa Fe. You can’t throw a rock without hitting 15 or 20. Of course many of these artists’ work rarely makes it much further than the refrigerator’s door.
One evening when I was returning home Ron asked if I would like to join him for drink on the porch. When I told him I didn’t have anything to offer up he said not to worry that he had some vodka, Smirnoff to be precise. Drinking his neat and mine with a cube or two it was only a few minutes before one of us told a joke. Only two or three times in my life have I met someone that inspired truly amazing joke swapping sprees. Ron was one of those people. One story lead to another. One punch line reminded us of another and one vodka lead to another. Laughing until my side was sore I eventually crawled home in the early morning hours with a blurry head.
After that first marathon joke telling session, my initial skepticism melted away and I decided to find out what kind of artist was living next door. Boy was I surprised with the breadth of his experiences. Ron was an accomplished photographer, painter and flamenco guitarist. He had known Ansel Adams and they had been in a group show together at he Smithsonian. His solo shows had been held in such notable places as the Corcoran Gallery of Art, The Phillips Collection, The Vienna Secession, The San Francisco Museum of Art and the Musee de la Photographie.
As the Summer wore on we got together for more joke trading sessions and had many engaging discussions about art. He gradually began to mentor me about this world. He told me about things to look out for when dealing with collectors and galleries. He saw layers in my imagery and helped reinforce my belief in what I was doing. We discussed the importance of creating enduring art.
Ron’s humor was never too far away. He told stories of meeting with collectors. Often when telling them the title of a painting he would add to the title ‘…with bunnies.’ Of course there were none but it would always force the viewer to look a little longer at the work just in case they might have missed the bunnies. This lead to one of our running jokes. Anytime either one of us gave some piece a title, we would always append it with ‘…sans bunnies.’
2011 was the Summer of a big forest fire near Los Alamos. That September, I drove into the forest near the Caldera and took photographs of the landscapes scorched by the fires. There were vast expanses of burned forests with rich shadows falling visibly between the barren trees. There were also the scorched trees contrasted with the fresh green growth. That night when I came home Ron was on his porch and he asked to see what I had been doing. After looking at a number of the images he asked me to email him a few. These photographs became the inspiration for his fire series of paintings.
Ron painted during the day with his easel setup underneath the trumpet vines that covered his porch. In the evening when I returned from the gallery, he would show me how each painting was progressing. I was fortunate to able to see his visions slowly emerge on the canvas. A truly rare opportunity to witness the creative process. I was glad that I was able to give back just a little inspiration since he had opened my eyes to so much. This fire series would be the last series of paintings that Ron would complete.
The last time I saw Ron was the night before I left Santa Fe to return to Austin. We started with a full bottle of vodka on the porch which gave way to late night of joke telling. There never seemed to be a bottom to our well of humor and wit that we dipped into when we got together. The next morning before sunrise I somehow managed to get up and hit the road.
We kept in touch by email over the last two years. He kept sending me photographs of his latest paintings. I continued to seek his council about the art scene. He provided some valuable feedback while I was creating my book.
It is oddly reassuring getting to watch someone who is quite accomplished in your field endure the same struggles as you. He lived the things we talked about like having faith in yourself and trusting the process. Last March Ron wrote in an email to me, “My painting in progress is boring me and I need a new idea to work on like the fires. It will come in its time.”
Our last correspondences were in June. I had just interviewed an aerialist who had agreed to be part of my new project. I told him a flood of ideas were coming just knowing that I was going to be able to incorporate this new element. He told me it sounded exciting and was looking forward to seeing some images. He shared a few of his latest paintings and I told him I couldn’t wait to see them this Fall when I would return to Santa Fe for a visit.
Coming out of the post office today I was stopped on the sidewalk by a somewhat elderly man and his wife. They asked me to help them figure out how to use Austin’s new high-tech parking meters. I was in a hurry, running late to help a friend move a couch. I decided to take a few minutes and show him where to deposit his coins. I watched and coached as he we went through two handfuls of coins. Dropping in nickels, dimes and quarters one at a time into the machine. When he reached the maximum deposit I showed him the green button to press that printed the ticket. Then once he managed to get his car door unlocked I stuck the ticket to the inside of his windshield. They thanked me and said they were off to explore the capitol. I guess taking a little time to lend a hand to a stranger is the best way to show thanks to someone who took time for me.
2 Replies to “Mentor, sans bunnies”
I learned photography under Ron at the Smithsonian in the mid-70’s. We stayed in touch for a long time, mostly by phone. Thanks a lot for your story! – Jerry Blow
Hello! I found a painting at a yard sale and it’s signed Ron Stark. It would be great if you were willing to take a look and see what your thoughts are.