This is an occupation known as painting, which calls for imagination, and skill of hand, in order to discover things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural objects, and to fix them with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.
— Cennino Cennini, Handbook for Artists, 15th Century
Robert Sweeney, William R. Mead Professor of Art, has spent a lifetime searching the shadows of natural objects—still life, landscape and architecture—for what is hidden. For more than four decades he has taught students Cennini’s quotation, to inspire them towards that “light bulb” moment when an artist learns to look abstractly.
For Sweeney, a career in art came after struggling through high school and art school, fastidiously trying to reproduce the forms of his subjects. But then the light came on.
“I started just putting marks on the paper relating to something I saw underneath the surface,” he says. “And it was a total revelation. Suddenly I was really looking abstractly, discovering something I was missing before completely.”
“It is a turning point, and it’s where you live and die as a painter.”
It’s something that might not be readily apparent to the casual observer of his still life and landscape paintings.
“Learning to draw or learning to paint is not about copying the surface,” he says. “When you look at a painting you’re actually misled by the finished results. All of the other work is underneath, and that’s where the real discovery is to be made.”
Sweeney first came to Amherst on a part-time basis, expecting to return to the Boston University College of Art, where he’d been working since earning his master’s degree.
“But I found that this is a whole different kind of teaching, a different kind of approach, which really, really interested me.”
One of his favorite courses to teach is Basic Painting, where he works with students who have no background in the medium.
“I have to start from the absolute ground zero and I love that. Each year I teach the course, I basically am reinvented,” he says. “I’m a different painter this year than I was last year. I’m thinking about different things.”
While many of his students have gone on to careers as artists, Sweeney says his role as an art professor in a liberal arts setting is not simply to replicate himself.
“My students invent a life for themselves,” he says. One might head an art auction house. Another might find a niche that combines art and political science. ”And they are committed to that because they created it themselves. I find that a lot of my students end up doing these things that you wouldn’t have predicted as a profession. And they are successful, and happy, and it makes use of the education they got here in a palpable sort of way. It truly thrills me.”
“As I tell my students, the best thing I can wish for you is that you’re going to discover your own place, where your obsession is,” he says.