By Jim Harris
Robert Finch, who turns a very youthful 79 in April, attended the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts), and upon graduation, became a teacher there. He later became Chairman of the arts department at Haverford College, retiring in 1988.
His lovely Germantown home is full of his work, always changing, always new. Whenever he asks me what I think of a new piece (we are neighbors), I panic and tell him that that I know nothing about art. “Oh sure you do,” he replies in a reassuring, unassuming way that I would not expect from someone so accomplished or so connected to academia.
Thus emboldened, I offer a few bumbling impressions, hoping not to say anything insane or offensive, and I’m flattered when he actually seems to value my opinion — a tribute to his skill as a teacher and ambassador for art.
My only faux pas occurred when I asked him to “stand in front of that picture” for a photo. “Don’t call it a picture,” he said. “Call it a ‘painting’ or a ‘piece,’ but it’s not a picture.” It all became clearer to me when he explained his philosophy.
“I teach a ‘Basic Drawing’ class at the Main Line Center for the Arts,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I’ve never been able to figure out what ‘basic drawing’ is, but I tell my students, ‘Leave your intellect outside and come in with your feelings and emotions.’
“There is no one way to draw, only YOUR way. You have to figure out who you really are through your drawing. Artists need to find out where they fit in, and how they can personalize these traditions that they are carrying on. It’s not just about reproducing images with accuracy. Henri Matisse said, ‘Accuracy is not truth.’ Emotion carries the truth.”
Finch pointed to one of his paintings, “Indera”, of a reclining woman, seen from above. “Try to see the figure as a symbol of a female form rather than as a living, breathing person,” he said, “and experience the shapes in the most direct way.”
I asked him, “If it’s not a real person, then where does it come from? How do you begin?”
“I make drawings first, formed out of my intentions,” he said. “I don’t know where they come from. In my work as an artist, I always picture myself as if in a groove, or a ‘favorable furrow.’ I roll out of bed and into the studio. I’ve had many moments of pure joy there.
“A lot of my students are adults who gave up drawing when they started having families, and now they want to reconnect with their art. I consider myself very lucky to have had a wife (Sue Finch) who has allowed me to pursue my art all these years.”
“Behind every great man …” I began. “Yes, and I am indeed a very great man,” he chimed in, laughing.
An exhibit of Robert Finch’s work will be opening at the Nichols Berg Gallery in Chestnut Hill on April 1. The show will have about 20 paintings and 25 drawings (and no “pictures”), including a series of “automatic” drawings (i.e. “done without a lot of thought”). “It’s a retrospective,” Finch says, “including pieces from all parts of my career.
“The owners of the gallery, Scott Nichols and Steven Berg, are exceptionally fine people. Just what the industry needs. They came to my house and picked out what they liked. They ‘take in’ their artists, and keep them on display. They’re very nice and kind. One of their artist clients, Harry Hasheian, brings cookies to every opening.”
A quick perusal of Mr. Finch’s works on his website, http://www.robertfinchart.com, suggests that many of his paintings and drawings are portraits, and many of them nudes. I asked him if painting nudes had ever presented any particular problems.
“Once, a good friend of mine asked me to paint his wife nude. I found that a bit awkward,” he said. I asked Robert if his friend was pleased with the results. “Oh yes,” he said, “but they got divorced,” adding quickly, “It had nothing to do with the painting.”
“Another time,” he went on, “I lent a “rear view” drawing of a nude to the Philadelphia Art Alliance. A member, who happened to be an attorney, came in and said, ‘I want that drawing out of here. It’s obscene!’ Well I don’t think it’s obscene; it’s erotic. All nudes are erotic. As a matter of fact, that drawing will be in my upcoming show, and I’m not worried at all. Well, maybe a little bit.”
Stop by and see for yourself. The exhibition runs from April 1 through 30 at The Nichols Berg Gallery, 8611 Germantown Ave. For more information, call 206-380-4070 or visit www.nicholsbergart.com.