In 1957, I started a new phase in life. I became a ninth grader. I entered the high school experience at Clayton Central School when I stepped into the huge (to me) new study hall, which would be my homeroom for a year. I had been in it before, but as an eighth grader, and only to timidly peek in. My father, Robert Charles, was principal of the school, and he was responsible for the addition, which contained the study hall. I had watched it being built atop the new gym. It was only about four years old when I got my desk assignment in a row near the front. My first day was about to begin, and it was both exciting and scary. I was also to begin my first real art course in Mr. James Destefano's art room.
Mr. Destefano, "Prof" as he was affectionately known to us, taught a class of ninth graders in mechanical drawing. I loved drawing as a kid, always trying to capture something on paper, and never quite getting it. Clouds eluded me.
It was the drawing I loved, not the discipline it takes to draw something well. I was a poor student, too careless with the disciplined drawing of straight lines, with or without a ruler, and not getting the pencil pressure or type just right, so that any mistake ended in a messy erasure. I learned to hate erasers, and the way they had of turning black and greasy with graphite. I still get a touch of that today, and now use a battery powered gem. Far less mess!
Prof was patient with me though, and not because my dad, the school principal, was his boss. He was patient with everybody, even the ones like me, who tried his patience sorely, I’m sure. My drawing improved, though sadly, not my mechanical drawing. My mechanical drawings to this day are always just a little off, even though I've become more disciplined at it.
What did work for me, and stayed with me to this day, was his passing of a true appreciation for art; form, function, colors, perspective, shading and composition became real to me, without my even realizing it. Everything I now know found its base in what he so enthusiastically taught his art students.
Any technical skill I have today as a photographer can be traced back to Mr. Joe Muggleton, the yearbook advisor of the school annual, “The Calumet.” During my sophomore, junior and senior years, he tutored me in the finer points of focus, exposure time, light and shadow.
"My father's friend, professional photographer Mr. Sam Williams, also gave hints here and there, about composition. Mr. Lester Corbin laid in a few tips on the interesting little hobby I had.”
But the art, the putting it all together to show something more than a mere image of the subject, and later, much later in life, the ability to actually paint images of what I could previously only photograph, that was a gift from Prof.
I did not recognize it as a gift at the time, nor later, as a pre-med student at Syracuse University, where I took a couple of art survey and interpretation courses. The art over the ages of human painters, sculptors, architects and designers became ever clearer and more important to me. Required liberal arts courses that they were, they jelled for me the things we discussed both in and out of art class, back in high school.
When Ken Follet's “Pillars of the Earth” came out in 1989, I could not wait to get my hands on a copy, and when Carol and I visited France and the U.K. in 1992, I had to visit Chartres, York Minster and Canterbury Cathedrals; places of which I might never have heard or had interest in, had it not been for Prof's enthusiasm for them, and the beauty and genius of their design.
The Candle to Which I Was Drawn
I can't recall the year, nor the exact circumstances under which it occurred, but at some time during my four years of high school, under his tutelage, Prof painted, in acrylics on canvas, a place on the St. Lawrence River which has always fascinated me since my youth, Rock Island Light.
He presented that painting to my father, and for years it hung in his office. After his retirement from seventeen years as Clayton Central School's principal, it hung on the wall of my mother and father's living room in Syracuse. On my Dad’s passing, I inherited the painting, and it hung in our family room, or my office, in the several homes we have lived in since.
Prof's daughter, Sara, told me that though she does not recall the painting specifically (I believe he painted several like it), she has fond memories of him painting at home, in acrylics. She said that he got into acrylics back then, when a supply salesman convinced him of the easy clean up, the bright colors, and the relatively low cost. These are the very same reasons I use acrylics today; those and the fact that I'm too lazy to learn oils.
[As an aside, the sad thing about all those different homes is that inevitably, in our zeal to pack, and often to downsize, we occasionally lost track of things. When we moved to an apartment in Alpharetta, Georgia, and then bought and moved to our house here in Cumming, GA, the painting was lost. We had it for nearly 45 years.]
Back the 1980s and early 1990s, when we still had the painting, we were well enough off to afford boat rentals when we visited the River. On occasion we rented a runabout, but now we both are far less capable of handling a small boat than we were then, so our primary opportunity to get out on the River is in the form of tour boat tickets.
When we did rent, one of our destinations was Rock Island. On last two occasions we actually landed there, but did not stay long, because it was windy and the rough water made it hard to maneuver around the not-so-large dock. And, have I mentioned that my bride of 52 years is not exactly fond of small boat, at least when I’m driving?
So it is, that we have not returned there, other than to pass by on a tour, or one of the several excursions we've taken from the Antique Boat Museum. This year, I read of tours being offered by the Thousand Islands Museum and Clayton Island Tours. I called the museum and made a reservation immediately upon finishing the article.
In the past six years, I have finally had the time, and the inclination, to start drawing again, and painting some of what I've drawn, or photographed. Many of my subjects have been of favorite places in Clayton, along the River by which I grew up, and of which I have such fond memories. To my astonishment I have actually sold some. I have many photos of Rock Island, but almost none are mine. So, I had a dilemma; I normally have an aversion to using pictures, someone else made, as reference photos, not only from the aspect that it isn't my work, but that it isn't what I remember, framed or composed.
Thus, the tour offered was a perfect solution: my own photos from a trip that would be as memorable as the last.
After a short wait on the evening of the tour, we left the dock in Clayton, and passed down stream, between the south shore of the St. Lawrence and Round Island. Soon, we found ourselves approaching the large dock, maintained by the State Park, Rock Island. Memories have become inaccurate over time, but I believe the dock is in roughly the same position as the one to which we moored back in the 1980s.
We had been promised a half-hour for a picnic and a tour of the Island; knowing I had little time, I used the first ten minutes to snap (if you can say that when your camera is an iPhone) photos of the structure I knew I would not be seeing again soon, one I had so looked forward to photographing.
Carol also put a few shots on her phone, and while doing that, we were treated to the approach and passing of a down-bound freighter, which I enthusiastically photographed. Then we proceeded to the gift shop, where a group of young Park employees greeted us cheerfully. After a quick pass through the first floor, leaving Carol in the gift shop, I went outside and took more photos of the island, the sunset, the light tower, and the passing freighter. Then it was time for our picnic. We sat with some folks from the boat, who were kind enough to offer us a place at the only table without a “wet paint” sign on it. We had a laugh or two about that, and the tendency of people to check such things, to see if the paint really was wet. Someone who checked, discovered it wasn’t, but no one sat there.
We had a lovely spot to sit and eat and watch the sun drop further in the sky, through a lacy arrangement of clouds, which appeared to presage a storm in Canada, or maybe farther down-river from us. Then it was time to return to the “Island Girl,” and continue our tour under the green steel arch of the Thousand Islands Bridge, which we have passed under and over so often in seven decades. I am always awed by its soaring arc, between two tall thin towers, and the spidery cables that give a suspension bridge its name. We continued the tour from there back up-river to Clayton, but to me, the crown jewel of our trip was the island and its magical tower, so close by to shipping that it seemed we might reach out and touch the passing freighter.
Rock Island Light House,
Painting by Joel Charles, © 2017
And now, “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say at the end of his radio shows. When we got home to Georgia, I started painting the last shot I took of the light tower, and the Keeper’s house. I painted it as it looks to me, and with nearly the same sky we saw that day. When I started to paint, I used to try to get as photographically accurate as I could. Photo realism is a style. But as I have continued, I have come to realize that art is not required to be photographic. I’ve had people tell me they thought my paintings seemed to look like photographs, when they first saw them. They really don’t; first, they are realistic enough to ensure that the observer sees and easily recognizes the object, or place in the painting, but they are not intended to be photographic. I don’t think I could paint that.
Second, nearly all of my painting’s points of view are above the head of any photographer, as if the observation were from the top of a stepladder. It is not intentional, it is just what I see when I look at a photo. People have noticed that also, and remarked on it. I don’t try to explain it. It just happens. I love detail, I love colors, I love the feel of accomplishment, when people see the finished product and know it for what it is. I don’t ask why it is that way. And I remember my art lessons, long ago, and I remember Mr. Jim Destefano, Prof, helping us appreciate the world we saw around us, and the beauty of the art that has been created to help explain and interpret it.
[All Photographs by Joel Charles, © 2017]
By Joel F. Charles
Joel Charles graduated from Clayton Central School, where his father was Principal for 17 years. He graduated from Syracuse University. He was active with the Boy Scouts for 25 years and Rotary for 20 years. Joel holds the BSA Silver Beaver Award and the Rotary Paul Harris Fellow Award. His career spanned teaching and working in the insurance industry. When he retired to Tucson, AZ, he took up acting, directing, painting and building sets for several Tucson theater companies. He has continued his painting and writing with articles appearing in the “Thousands Island Sun.” He has been a photographer since high school, with his favorite subject being the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands.