Artist List
David Witbeck

In the first 18 years of my life I probably spent no more than three or four weeks, on family vacations, near salt water, yet I always drew pictures of boats, lighthouses and stormy seascapes and read every sea story I could find in the school library. 

When studying at Pratt Institute, I’d often skip my morning painting classes to prowl the Fulton Fish Market and take photographs of fishing boats with the Brooklyn Bridge looming behind them and of longshoremen pushing handcarts loaded with crates of iced fish over the cobbled streets. I got hooked by photography which, with all the social turmoil of the late ‘60s, seemed to be a much more worthwhile pursuit than the seeming irrelevance of the ‘60s New York art scene. After dropping out of Pratt in 1968 (it didn’t have a photography program at the time) and  moved 400 miles inland to study photography and didn’t see the sea again for another ten years.

The vicissitudes of life got in the way of college and shortly after arriving in Rochester, NY I again dropped out of school, this time from RIT, and had a checkered job history for the next ten years, the last six of which were spent as a Teamster driving tractor-trailers. When I decided it was time to return to college, in 1980, Rhode Island School of Design was my first choice largely because of its proximity to salt water. 

I was a free-lance photographer for 25 years after graduating from RISD, initially shooting for a number of regional magazines including “Yankee” and “New England Monthly”. I found that I could use my camera to open a lot of doors. The excuse of shooting a photo-essay is a great way to get into situations that I otherwise couldn’t, such as getting aboard tugboats, lobster boats and commercial fishing vessels. Photography, though a great documentary medium, doesn’t interest me as an expressive medium. 

In 1991 my wife and I met Leo Brooks, a painter, who was working on Monhegan Island that summer. I loved his childlike drawing, bold colors and complete disregard for objective reality. I hadn’t painted since 1968, but Leo’s work struck a chord and started me thinking about painting again. The watercolor we bought from him, a “fisherman” very different from my own, is one of our most treasured possessions. Being a procrastinator, it was ten years later, 2000, thirty-two years after quitting art school, that the need to paint finally took hold of me and I enrolled in a continuing ed painting class at RISD.

Most of my current work springs from a lifelong love of the sea, the New England coast and a fascination with commercial fishing. Having been a photographer for nearly three decades, the greatest joy I have as a painter is freedom from objective reality. I can bend, twist, stretch, exaggerate and simplify the things I see. I can put things in and leave things out. I can even completely make things up, which is what I do most of the time. I paint how things make me feel instead of simply what they look like.

As a young art student I took Art and myself way too seriously. Having come back to painting relatively late in life I now understand that few artists have anything earth-shaking to say. I take comfort and inspiration from the words of painter an art educator Edgar Whitney:  “If, facing the paper, your thought is ‘I am an artist,’ you have no clue as to what to do. If the concepts of your function are, ‘I am a shape maker, an entertainer, an expressive symbol collector’ … then you have an explicit road map.” Now, I’m most pleased when people look at my work and smile. It’s nice to be able to put together a collection of lines and shapes and colors that bring a little fun and brightness to a world that’s too often frightening and dreary.

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