Seven questions with Scott Gordley, Ringling College’s new head of Illustration

Scott Gordley graduated from Ringling College in 1977, and his excitement about returning to the school and community he loves is as contagious as it is palpable.

After earning an MFA from Tufts, his career began as an artist in New York, illustrating for clients such as Time, Esquire, Reader’s Digest, Newsday, the London Times, Viking Penguin, and Hearst Publishing. His work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators, American Illustration, Print Magazine, Communication Arts, and curator Peter Schjeldahl, chief art critic for The New Yorker.

In addition to his illustration work, Gordley has exhibited and lectured around the world and has been commissioned to paint portraits for icons such as James Earl Jones, New Yorker theater critic Edith Oliver, Cher, and Madonna.

In his free time, Gordley is a jazz and blues saxophonist, having played as a member of numerous bands including Little Anthony & the Loco-motives, Johnny & the East Coast Rockers, Erik Narwhal and the Manatees and his own group, the Scott Gordley Trio.

And he’s not done yet. Gordley sees this chapter as a great adventure: “Ringling College of Art and Design is a wonderfully creative environment of diverse people who get to suspend reality for the sake of making art—where dreaming is required and not an activity to be condemned. It’s the perfect universe.”

Many years ago, painter Scott Gordley was a student in Ringling College of Art and Design’s class of 1977. He returned this fall as head of Illustration. Here are some highlights from the Herald-Tribune’s interview with him.

Is it strange to be a faculty member at a place where you were once a student?
It felt like coming home. For some reason, there’s a connection. There’s an awful lot of people from Ringling who gravitated north to New York, and we would get together up there. Those friendships are the ones that lasted the longest. They’re still my friends. I’ve attended three other colleges, and I can’t say that about the other three. Ringling has all these kindred souls of like mind, and when you’re all there in a creative environment, you get really close. I see that with my students today, and it’s incredible, I think.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Growing up in Ohio was pretty idyllic, pretty Tom Sawyer. I did the sports thing, but I had this other thing going on in my head, this art thing. I knew what I wanted to do from the first thoughts of speculating on what I would be. It’s not what you do for a living, it’s what I would be. It’s different. You don’t think about being a hedge fund trader when you’re 5. But you do think about being an artist, being creative. Ringling was kind of an eye-opener for me, where every student was into this.

What was it like to be surrounded by artists, coming from a place where you weren’t?
It was a little intimidating being the new kid on the block. I would just look at some of these artists and say, “Oh my God.” Then you go through that process and the rigor of learning, and by the time you graduate you’re feeling pretty good about yourself. You’ve made it to the top of the ladder—in art school. Then you graduate and you’re out in the world. I think in my case I spent a year or two just getting my footing.

At what point in your artistic career did you feel that you’d made it? Or have you felt that way?
I hit certain plateaus. I got a cover at Time magazine; I thought that was a benchmark. I did some major book covers, that’s a benchmark. And some portrait commissions—I did one of James Earl Jones. There was one very wealthy man who lost his wife and wanted to do something that honored her, so we worked together for six months on this painting. He wanted it to be very classical, music and cherubs and the like. When I finally did the unveiling, he just bowed his head. I didn’t know if he liked the painting, I was so nervous—and his shoulders started to shake and he just started crying. He put his arm around me and said “this is our masterpiece.” It was the first time I ever even considered that word for a painting I’d done—masterpiece. And I’m not sure that it is, but if I ever did anything that’s that monumental it’s that painting.

What’s been the most important lesson you’ve learned through your art?
I lost all my work in ’91, to a fire. My studio burnt to the ground and I lost 80 pieces of art I was getting ready for a museum show. It might have been a positive, funnily enough. I certainly lost all those paintings I’d done but I realized they were just—things, you know? I could paint more. It kind of cleaned the slate a little bit. I didn’t look at the work as precious as I used to. It’s just a painting, and I think I’m comfortable with that.

How would you describe your style?
I always call it classically rendered, with modern themes. I would say it’s neoclassical, but I’m sure an art historian would go, “that’s not true!” It sounds right though. It’s fairly tightly rendered work. I used to do abstract, but after the studio burned down I went back to more realism. That’s just where I’m comfortable.

Is there a specific lesson you’re trying to impart to your senior students as they’re finishing up school and getting out into the world?
I always say it’s a successful class when it feels a little bit like group therapy. Where people are talking and sharing ideas, not afraid to risk their own ego talking about something. Making art is a creative thing, a risky thing. And in a classroom environment, it’s got to be safe to take those risks. I’ve had students break down while presenting something personal. And the whole class just kind of mentally gathers around that person. In those moments, teaching really feels rewarding because you just facilitated this thing, this person evolving a little bit, or at least taking a step to take a risk.

By Dahlia Ghabour, Sarasota Herald-Tribune |  Photography by Matt Holler ’11
Copyright 2016, Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Reprinted by express permission of the Herald-Tribune Media group; and credit Dahlia Ghabour, Herald-Tribune Staff Writer

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