Reflections on Chris Horton
by Peter McLean. 2005.
When we think back on our own journey, we often reflect on the persons and events that have shaped our lives. Important people stay with us, in our spirits, if not in person, and their influence continues to nurture us. We learn from them, try to integrate what they have passed on, and if we are lucky, we can extend those lessons to those who we teach in turn. Chris Horton was just this sort of person - an influential person - smart, curious, philosophical, rigorous, and talented; the kind of person that has a profound effect on everyone they meet. In all of his roles as teacher, colleague, friend, artist, and family man, Chris was powerful. Anyone who has had the honor of knowing him will tell you that Chris Horton has had a big impact.
I first met Chris in 1965 when he was teaching at Suffield High School and I was doing Admissions for the Art School. We both were absorbing the incredible art scene of the late 60's and early 70's, experimenting with abstract painting, new ways of thinking, and the beginnings of post-modernism. The world was changing in rapid and exciting ways. It was apparent even then that we shared similar views on art and life. We had a mutual respect for each other's artistic work, and recognized in each other a potentially valuable partner. This personal relationship became the foundation of our work together in later years at the University, where we developed the Experimental Studio Department, and were committed to the development of curriculum which incorporated all the best things which had come out of that period of artistic and social growth.
Over the course of his 30 years at the Art School, Chris was a devoted teacher who went beyond the call of duty for his students. He sat on hundreds of committees, was the Chair of many others, and he developed initiatives such as the Foundations Program that became models for other teaching institutions. He was that rare academic animal: a teacher who was skilled both at teaching Art, and the art of teaching.
He took a broad approach to his teaching, crossing departments and disciplines, from the most basic foundations studio courses to the headiest graduate theory, covering topics as diverse as drawing, experimental studio, art education, the history of architecture, and philosophy, both in the Art School and in the broader University. His curriculum vitae stretch for five pages, with dozens of papers, lectures, panels, guest appearances at other institutions, and exhibitions and curatorial achievements.
Chris could teach anything. He saw the value in interdisciplinary study, and in the exploration of ideas in the larger world. Art was not an end in itself, but rather a way to find meaning on a personal and a cultural level. He nurtured inquisitiveness in his students, pushed them to think, and understood that one of the most important things he had to teach was intellectual curiosity. He was passionate, and he wanted his students to be passionate too. A tremendous number of Christopher's students took up the challenge and went on to M.F.A. programs around the world. In 1997, his profound commitment to teaching was recognized when he won the University of Hartford's Larsen Award for Teacher of the Year, and he remains the only Hartford Art School faculty member ever to win it. Whenever I speak to Chris's former students, it is clear that he has had a tremendous impact on their life, and I believe this will be one of his most enduring artistic achievements.
However, it is not his only artistic achievement. That was one of the most remarkable things about Chris - when it came to his own creative life, Chris "had it all". He had a very fine education of his own, receiving a BA in Psychology from Amherst College, a M.A.T. in Painting from Wesleyan University, and doing work on an M.F.A. at Tyler School of Art in Rome, Italy. He had a voracious appetite for reading and absorbing cultural influences that he brought to bear on all aspects of his life. This intensity often came out in his artwork, which could be layered with a complexity of artistic skill and cultural meaning, but he was also capable of works of great lyricism.
During a recent conversation with Dean Power Booth, we were talking about his visit to the "Factory Five Exhibition" last year at the Canton Gallery on the Green, in Canton, CT. This exhibition brought together five artists and friends - Chris, Wick Knaus, Dave Robbins (both HAS graduates), Bob Bengsston and myself - who had shared a Collinsville factory studio space from 1966-1970. Familiar with some of Christopher's other work, Power was amazed by his diversity, after viewing a beautiful water color of a shimmering landscape of the Maine coast.
But that was Chris. He was incredibly versatile in all aspects of his life. During his lifetime he worked with an amazing range of materials and projects: painting, sculpture, drawing, systems generated works, environmental installations, collage, political explorations, memorial competitions, and stone variations - in stone, and about stones too. The chosen medium didn't seem to matter; he would spend countless hours perfecting each work to achieve maximum impact. He was interested in challenging the viewer's perceptions, and he could resolve any aesthetic problem through his incredibly skillful manipulation of materials and ideas. His work was exhibited in many regional and national exhibitions, and received acclaim and awards, including the 1st prize in the Rhode Island Sea Grant Competition in 1990, for his "Polar Ice Melt" series dramatizing where the future US coastlines might be as a result of global warming.
Over the years, we worked together on many collaborative memorial proposals including the Vietnam Memorial, the Kent State Memorial, the Astronaut Memorial, a memorial of Salem Witchcraft Trials, and the New York 9/11 Memorial. We had many hours of "brainstorming sessions," and it was here that Chris's incredible command of both material and meaning were at their zenith. The process of "creativity" requires the ability to solve problems by simultaneously developing relationships between materials, ideas, and perceptions. When it's finished, hopefully the outcome will be larger than the sum of its parts. And in the end, that was what Chris was: a man much greater than the sum of his parts. It was an honor to have been closely associated with him for more than 40 years as an artist, friend, colleague and teaching partner. It has been a pleasure to watch his family grow and his students learn, and to have had the gift of his company in all its many forms. Our great Hartford Art School professor has left a powerful legacy: he will stay with us, in our spirits, if not in person, and continues to nurture us all. His memory will live within us, throughout our lives.
Many thanks, Christopher.