by Mark Kurtz
I grew up in Waterbury, CT and from a very young age found myself doing something with a pencil or brush in the hand. I still have and use the first drafting table my grandmother purchased for me when I was about ten. From the moment I sat down in front of that drawing table, I knew where my heart belonged.
The biggest turning point regarding my career as an artist came when I took a trip with my mother to visit my maternal grandfather in Riga, Latvia. He was a prisoner of war for many years and after being released by the Russians, he returned home to live out his years as an artist. My grandfather was a military officer and I admired him greatly, even though I met him only that one time. My grandfather, nor I could speak each other’s language. My mother translated for us and yet, our strongest communication came through art over a period of five days. So at around age 13, I knew my place in the world, that of an artist, nothing more, nothing less.
Academically, I excelled throughout high school and played varsity baseball for all four years. Many around me at the time, including my father, strongly urged that I pursue sports well into college and possibly beyond, but it was of no interest to me. Of course ESPN wasn’t around at the time and athletes weren’t earning ridiculous sums of money either. Not that I would have done anything differently anyway. Who needs money, I am an artist!
When I returned from Latvia, I took art lessons privately and it was during a conversation with my art teacher that I learned about Rhode Island School of Design. After many discussions regarding the excellence surrounding RISD as an art school I knew that was where I was going to go. I had a guidance counselor in high school try to discourage me from applying to RISD telling me how difficult a school it was to get into. I wasn’t moved or interested in what the guidance counselor had to say, I knew what my purpose in life was and nothing would stand in my way. The rest is history; I received a B.F.A. in Illustration, 1983, from RISD.
After college I was on a mission or like some would say, in the pursuit of happiness like most young graduates. It took many years settling in professionally making a comfortable living as an artist/illustrator. Being rejected in art is like the common flu, you know one day it’s coming and the feeling can many times be miserable.
In my case it wasn’t the flu that sidelined me, it was Late Stage Lyme Disease. Just when my career as an art director/illustrator was taking off, the bite from a tick would profoundly change the direction my life. Who knew that Lyme Disease could have such devastating results? For me, Lyme almost ended with a death sentence. Today I smell the roses; of course I check them for thorns and ticks first!
When I returned from Latvia my appreciation for the United States was much different. I remember looking out the hotel window over Red Square in Moscow as elderly women washed down the streets in preparation for Lenin’s upcoming birthday, soldiers instead of policemen stood post. This was the day of the Iron Curtain and being an American in the heart of Russia at the time was an unsettling experience. It shaped in many ways how I view freedom and government rule even today.
Some artists at some point in their career decide to become recorders of history and social evolution, my work today going forward falls in that classification, even though I paint portraits as well as landscapes for private art collectors throughout the country as well.
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda and bin Laden not only united a nation but deeply divided Americans in the years that followed. Norman Rockwell’s original Four Freedoms paintings created sixty-six years ago are a reminder of past history, while the revisited version painted by me draws one’s attention to issues facing us today, hopefully creating a dialogue with the viewing audience.
There isn’t one single snapshot that defines us as a free nation and that in my view is the strength of the American fabric tying each of us together. Whether I live twenty more years or a single day it has become my purpose to record history, through honest, objective, temperate eyes. These Four Freedoms are a jumping off point for me today. Freedom like health can never be taken for granted, and when one loses either one or both it is a day to be reckoned with.