by Alan Feltus
Why do certain people decide to become artists? What experiences, personal attributes and cultural cross currents come into play that lead them to choose the life of an artist as the only one for them? What are some of the consequences for the artist, his students, his friends and fellow-artists as a result of these choices?
This memoir is an attempt to address these central questions about my life. Until I was six years old, my parents rented a brownstone house in Midtown Manhattan where my life was relatively stable and uneventful. Then my mother and my mostly absent father separated, and my mother took me and my brother to Mexico for nine months of distraction from the fact that they had separated. That was followed by a few years of no money or place of our own to live in. I attended public schools and boarding schools. The first apartment we had to ourselves was on 57th Street and Sixth Avenue, and for its proximity, the Museum of Modern Art took the place of the Metropolitan Museum as my favorite place of refuge. I also began to spend time in the studios my mother’s artist friends. These are my origins as an artist.
As an extremely shy boy, I turned inward. I was a silent observer who became a self-reliant thinker and dreamer for whom the world of making art was the only one that had meaning. When I was seventeen, my mother took me out of school in Massachusetts, and together we spent a year in Europe. For my fourth year of high school I was a student at the Overseas School of Rome. It was a momentous year in my life. And from there I studied art first at the Tyler School of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, then at Cooper Union in New York, and then at Yale.
I write about yearning to be no longer in the shadows of my mother and her boyfriends, longing to be independent and on my own, and about my obsessions with girls. I write about the people who were most meaningful in my life, and about painting and drawing and teaching. I write about how the deep love I have of Italy that began when I was seventeen grew stronger ten years later when I was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome for two years in a failed first marriage, and remarrying and having children and more years of teaching and making, and exhibiting paintings. I describe moving to Italy in 1987 with my wife and two boys and restoring stone farmhouse and studio in the quiet hills behind Assisi.
It is a book about how I came to be the artist I am, what the life of an artist is like, and how an artist sees the world. It is about being a maker of things and a collector of things found in the monthly antique street markets, and about living among them in a house and studio I continue to make more personal and extraordinary.
I end my memoir with returning to a New York on a trip, hoping to find a meaningful closure to this story. But, I did not return to a city in which I could even begin to see myself as a boy and as an art student. Instead, what I found to be far more meaningful was the degree to which I have been important in the lives of friends throughout the years I have lived in Italy. I saw that paintings and collages I had given to these friends long ago have been hanging on their walls all the while, and I realized that I had changed their lives more than I ever thought possible. And that meant a lot to me.