"Paintings are like children, no? They're all beautiful at the beginning. Then look what happens to them." Robert D'Arista

Once I heard students asking D'Arista what they should call him. He gave them two choices: Professor D'Arista or Maestro. Behind his back, some thesis year students called him 'The Big Gorgonzola'.

I hear his voice whenever I paint:  "Don't undo five hundred years of history by painting every detail."

He squinted and his Italian acccent made him sound like Bela Lugosi. I used the Lugosi voice when repeating something he told painting class: "Let's face it. When we paint, we hall-u-cin-ate, no?"

I have no first memories of him. He was just the drawing teacher for my Tuesday morning Life class when I started my Masters at American University. Even though the campus, students and teachers were unfamiliar, I had spent much of the previous decade drawing in a classroom, so his drawing class didn't seem much different from previous fare.

We did gesture drawings to warm up and contour drawings to slow down. He left the classroom during long poses. Every so often, he'd swoop back in for a quick turn around the room and swoop out again.

One day he swooped in and stopped at Carlton Fletcher's easel to unpin Carlton's drawing from the drawing board. He proceeded to rip a small drawing from a corner of the drawing and toss the larger part on the floor. He pinned the smaller piece to the drawing board and swooped out of the room without saying a word. The class was stunned. Carlton waited a moment before saying quietly, "I'll take that as a criticism".

To illustrate his teaching, D'Arista made frequent references to music, mythology, and technology. He imitated trumpets when talking about a color that was garish. "Like so - braaaaaaaahhhhh".

Discussing when to stop working on a painting, he explained grammar's perfect tense, used to describe an action that is complete, perhaps warning those obsessed with perfection that the path might lay elsewhere. He told us about a new warning system for jetliners. The computer voice was too calm; the pilots didn't respond quickly enough. They changed the computer's voice. D'Arista imitated the new voice, eyes wide, arms flailing and cigarette ashes flying through the air - "Stall Stall! The plane is stalling!"

On the first day of Composition class, he gave a lecture at the blackboard. "A very long time ago, before your sainted grandmother was born, a man lived in a cave, hm? And this man took a stick and drew a straight line in the dirt floor of his cave. [Draws line on blackboard] The man looked at it and thought it was very good. Then the man drew another line [draws again] at a right angle to the first. Then another and another and viola, he had drawn a perfect square. And the man thought this was the best thing that he had ever seen in his life."

In the course of that semester, he taught us about the inner square and the compositional grid used to hold paintings together and give them harmony. There was talk among students of an Art Follies, so I wrote a song called "I Won't Draw A Grid" to the tune of "I Won't Grow Up " from Peter Pan. I nervously sang it to him as he walked between classes. He didn't say anything but gave me a sidelong glance that told me he was concerned for my sanity.

He announced during a lecture: "No lines into corners!" I asked why. He waved me to the front of the room. I stood next to him feeling on the spot while he took a drag on his cigarette and examined me with a dour expression. He said in measured tones; "If I were Perugino and you were the young Raffaelo, I would," - he drew his arm back as if to backhand me - "give you a hit." He took a pull on his cigarette. "Now what was it you wanted to know?" I repeated my question. He said, "because the eye leaves paintings by the corners. Now back to your easel and stop causing trouble".

When he was really upset, he raised neither arm nor voice. During thesis year, a woman who lived on my block commissioned me to paint a small, oval portrait of her from a black and white photograph. She wanted her dress to be pink. During one of D'Arista's passes through our studios, my painting caught his eye. He pointed at it and asked what could possibly explain this? I told him. He told me to take it out of the studio so he wouldn't have to see it again.

An immaculate craftsman in the production of his art, he was careless with power tools. While preparing for a show, he cut the tip off his right index finger- his painting hand - with a power saw. His wife put the tip on ice and rushed him to the hospital. Throughout the five hours of microsurgery, D'Arista lectured the surgeon on medieval history. After the operation, D'Arista was disappointed that the doctor hadn't held up his end of the conversation.

He was part teacher and part priest. Perpetually short of money, I was interested when another art student proposed a green card marriage. I would live rent-free in her condo for 6 months and she would pay me five thousand dollars and buy me a car. I went to D'Arista for advice. He asked if I had taken any money from her yet. I said no. He told ne that my soul had, most likely, not yet been compromised.

I had difficulties with another member of the faculty so I went to D'Arista for advice. Not wanting to bash one of his colleagues, I hedged and I told him I didn't agree with the other professor's teaching philosophy. He said, "Really? That's curious. Tell me: What is his teaching philosophy? I wasn't aware that he had one."

I spent my last summer at A.U. as his teaching assistant for his painting class. I imagined that we would spend hours discussing the art of teaching painting.

I arrived early the first morning and found him in his office. He told me he would take Monday, Wednesday and Friday and I would take Tuesday and Thursday. I was dumbfounded. What should I teach them?. He told me to start by showing them the right way to lay out the paint on the palette. That was the extent of my formal instruction on the art of teaching painting.

When he lectured at the blackboard, he used a large wooden chalk compass so old that the screw didn't hold the arms tightly, making his chalk arcs wobble. When the summer ended, the class threw the usual party. I collected money and we bought him a new wooden compass. Visibly moved when I presented it to him, he made a speech saying that painters were the only people on earth who truly mattered and that everyone else was only here to serve our needs.

Lowell Gilbertson

Studied with D'Arista at American University from 1980 - 1983

I won't draw a grid
I won't draw a grid
Like they're showin' us at school
Like they're showin' us at school
Cause that is so old fashioned
Cause that is so old fashioned
And I am so cool
And I am so cool

You'll never see
Someone like me
Employing compositional geometry

I'll never draw a grid
Never draw a grid
Never draw a gre-id
Not Me!

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