By the time I had reached the age of twelve I was an extremely good thief. Shoplifting was my specialty. I stole an entire set of oil paints from the local stationary store. I went for the deluxe model, large tubes of paint, brushes, linseed oil, turps, a palette and palette knives – no point in stealing cheap shit. I had been doing a lot of drawing and painting since I was four or five, but when I discovered oil painting, I went ape shit. Water colors are not a little boy’s medium, they are delicate and unforgiving. But oil paints – you can smear it on and scrape it off, make big gooey glops or light washes. I fell in love…
My dad was a reporter for the local newspaper and he was covering a trial involving the art teacher at the local junior college which was part trade school and part the first two years of University. Columbia Basin College, known throughout the state and even the nation for its football teams, basketball teams, baseball, track and even golf teams. Also a great place to study agriculture or welding. Then they hired Francis Coehlo to teach art.
Francis was a brilliant artist and teacher, his wife was a brilliant musician. I think she played cello in the Chicago philharmonic before coming to Pasco. They’d both grown up in farm country and now they had two children of their own, so they wanted to move somewhere that had a little more fresh air and wholesomeness than Chicago could offer.
Teaching art at Columbia Basin College had two other advantages for Francis – it had a good physical layout with lots of supplies for the students, and he could be his own boss. Day one in his classes started with him giving a tour of the facilities…
‘There’s the pigment, there’s the canvass, there’s the clay, there’s the carpentry tools, there’s the paper, there’s the door to my office. It’s always open. Come in and talk any time. About anything.’
And Francis was there, ready to talk about anything – from painting, to philosophy, to football, to abortion (he was in favor, this was 1961) to Catholicism (he used to be) to atheism (he was now). At the end of the term, each student would bring their work into the office – or a selection if they’d done a lot – and talk about what they’d accomplished. Then Francis would ask them what grade they thought they should have, they would tell him, he would write it down, and that was their grade.
His theory of teaching was that we were all born artists, but then it gets kicked out of us as we’re growing up. His job as a teacher was simple: stop kicking.
Suddenly, students from Columbia Basin Football Basketball Baseball Track Golf Welding and Agricultural College started winning prizes at art exhibitions all over the West Coast. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The Art Department at Columbia Basin College became the center for a storm of thinking and creativity amongst all sorts of unlikely students even including big stars on football scholarships who should have had better things to occupy their time.
Naturally, they fired him.
Francis fought it. His students joined in. They made publicity. They made art. They held a big auction to raise money for his defense.
This was all happening while I was busy filling canvasses with paint as fast as I could steal them. Dad got to know Francis from covering the trial and he took me out to meet him.
‘This is my son Fred. He’s an artist, too.’
‘Hello, Fred. Pleased to meet you.’
‘Hello Mr. Coehlo.’
‘So you’re an artist?’
‘I’d love to see your stuff.’
‘We have some of his paintings out in the car.’
For the rest of the year – until the appeal was finally and decisively over – I would carry my paintings up to the college so Francis could look at them. Usually the paintings were wet – I couldn’t wait for them to dry. Sometimes the wind would be blowing and the paintings arrived coated with sand. It made an interesting effect.
Francis would look at my paintings. He never said much more than, ‘That’s interesting.’
But I knew he meant it, that he really was interested and looking forward to seeing the next one. It was all I needed.