Tom Sgouros talks to me all the time, and he doesn’t even know it. I was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, and it is his voice I recall most often when I am working now. What he had to say – whether in history of illustration, editorial illustration, studio drawing, or my independent study – was always illuminating and funny. His words have been touchstones I return to again and again.
In studio drawing, he would give us a semester-long assignment to work on between classes. We were to take one object and draw it over and over for the entire twelve weeks. He wanted to see “mountains” of drawings. Well, it didn’t take long for us to reach the “I have to draw this again?” stage. But that was when it got interesting. We had to push beyond the obvious and find new ways to approach that object on the page – to look beyond the object itself and really explore composition and design within the rectangle of the paper.
Tom’s enthusiasm about the process of art is contagious. When I recall what he said, it’s not just his words I hear, but also the quality of his voice. As much now as when I was a student, that excitement makes me want to get to work.
In 1965 all sophomore architecture students at RISD were required to take drawing. It was a transforming experience for me and may very well have sown the seeds that would eventually lead me away from that noble profession and into the world of illustration and books. I’m not saying any drawing course would have had such a life altering effect, but I was lucky enough to find myself in one of Tom Sgouros’ classes. The primary focus was on drawing the figure. Anyone familiar with my handling of the human form in my early books will quickly surmise that I spent as little time as possible in front of a model. I was, with Tom’s blessing under a bridge somewhere or on one of Providence’s many street corners drawing another landscape. What mattered to Tom was that we were engaged enough by whatever was in front of us so that we would actually think about the marks we were making and their placement on the paper. To encourage us further, Tom would drag in prints of drawings by Degas, etchings by Pyranesi and photographs of Cartier Bresson among others.
Because of their wit, wisdom and eloquence, I remember many of Tom’s words, which is a good thing since I probably couldn’t fully appreciate them at the time. The insight he offered verbally has been continually reinforced by the integrity of his example. As Tom gradually moved away from illustration and into painting, his determination to maintain the highest level of accomplishment in spite of the cruel assault of macular degeneration, has simply added to that resonant wisdom a profound inspiration.