Roy Lichtenstein Was Small Potatoes When He Lived and Taught in Oswego

If It Were Not for Dr. Aulus Saunders, Roy Lichtenstein Would Have Died Unknown and Unrich 2019. Acrylic on paper, 19 x 23"

Roy Lichtenstein taught industrial design at Oswego State Teachers College from 1957–1960, two years before his leap into fame. I researched and imaginatively painted his tenure at Oswego and had an exhibition at the college in 2019. These paintings are of other teachers in the Art Department — colleagues of Lichtenstein, and a couple of them just as ambitious in their prime. However, they stayed back. In the mid twentieth century, fame was friendlier to those who broke out and braved the big city.

The painting above is of Dr. Aulus Saunders. In 1937, he was hired by Ralph Swetman to help turn the Oswego Normal School into a State Teachers College. He retired in 1968. Over the years, he was instrumental in hiring and nurturing many inspired art faculty.
In 1957, he chose Roy out of hundreds of applications for the job as Assistant Professor of Art. During that time the department was being stocked with several practicing artists, all serious about their craft, and some even dedicated to teaching.
Maybe not Roy. He was ambitious in ways disconnected from pedagogy. I guess he would have stagnated in Cleveland, carrying on with barbeque and agonizing repetition if the good doctor hadn’t “plucked” him out of suburbia.
In this painting Aulus draws an autumn night at East Park in Oswego the first year he arrived. He was a great inspiration to men and women seeking self-improvement through art and teaching. He must have wanted to punch his new hire in the eye when Lichtenstein handed in his resignation.

David Campbell Painted “Lewis Bluff” in 1958, and Roy Lichtenstein Did Not 2019. Acrylic on paper, 19 × 23"

If David Campbell showed this painting alongside Roy’s piece that year at the faculty exhibition in the student lounge, he would have outclassed his struggling colleague by a mile. Roy was confusing himself and others by abandoning his “feel” while making a leap in style from figurative to abstract impressionism. We only know this because Roy went Evel Knievel a couple years later to land somewhere completely new. And new can win in New York if you have the support and backing of a millionaire who knows many millionaires who have nothing better to do than buy a work of art for the price of a house. So Roy got paid a fortune copying comics, and David Campbell got close to zilcho making beautiful paintings.
No one said that life is fair. Certainly not Leo Castelli then, nor Larry Gagosian today.
David Campbell has a website where prints are available. Give his genius a try! Lord knows we could use something new for the rest of us.

In 1957, Joe Shoenfelt, Jewely Professor at Oswego State, Went on Sabbatical to San Miguel de Allende to Expand His Horizons. It Worked. 2019. Oil on paper, 17 x 22"

From a letter Joe Schoenfelt sent to students dated October 30, 1957:

“Tomorrow is the Day of the Dead and the streets are filled with candy skulls — little candies, big candies, candies of all shapes and colors, candy animals, skeletons, dolls, and baskets. They are the most lovely candies I have seen. But they all taste like plain sugar.
We went to one cemetery this afternoon and preparations were already being made for the celebration. A cemetery here is a very grim place. The people do not buy the lots: they just rent them, so that when the rent is not paid, the bodies are dug up. As we walked around we saw lots of skulls and human bones. Some of the skulls still have hair on them.
The Indian will have picnics at the graves of the recently deceased on Saturday, and that seems to be the reason for all the elaborate candy for which San Miguel is famous.”

In 1958, Frances Oler Did Not Frequent the Opportunities Offered to the Art Department Boys Club 2019. Acrylic on paper, 19 × 25"

Frances Oler was allowed to sit in the 1958 art faculty photo for the yearbook. She taught future teachers how to teach art to elementary school children. Cans of safety scissors, crayons, and dream potential squashed because she peed sitting down.
For years, Miss Oler lived kitty korner to our house. She taught our neighbor Helen’s children at the Campus School in Sheldon Hall throughout the 1960s.
This painting is how Roy and the other boys probably saw her in the flesh.

Roy Was So Jealous of Harvey Harris Because He Went to Yale and Looked Like It 2019. Acrylic on paper, 17 × 21"

Harvey Sherman Harris (1915–1999) was a painter and teaching colleague of Roy Lichtenstein at Oswego State. I imagine professional jealousy was a persistent worm in the minds of artists in 1958 as it is today. I think that is because artists in America dream (at times) that they are great with verve and originality — better than the rest even — when really, what they are privately pining for is an Elvis Presley® fame with a Wayne Newton® effort at expression. Truth is, everyone is free to achieve the inner peace and realization that there was only one John Coltrane, and we all should be
happy enough with that satori, making things better and drinking beer.

But few of us reach this happier place. Hence, university art departments nationwide, born from the seeds of children loving to make art, yet growing twisted and gnarled up, to be professional children chock full of debilitating envy and pride.

Listen to me, my colleagues and friends. We all suck. Now, back to work!

I published a book of essays and original paintings to commemorate the exhibition. Roy Lichtenstein in Oswego 1957–1960

Thanks for reading!


I paint and write myself in and out of Afib from a cedar shake cottage by the shore of Lake Ontario. I seek nice people who think like I do, sometimes.

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