He Turns Novices Into Artists

October 8, 2006
By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER lCourant Staff Writer

Years ago, George Johnson got talked out of his plans to attend art school, convinced by his parents' arguments that art wasn't exactly a promising way to earn a living.

Instead, Johnson settled into a four-decade career in property casualty insurance, forgoing paint brushes and color schemes for business.

        Stanley Carver, Korea era Frogman:  GENE NEVILLE, center, of Old Saybrook, shows a watercolor he is working on to fellow art student Brian Willis of Essex during a recent class at the Estuary Council of Seniors in Old Saybrook. Art teacher Stan Carver of Clinton, at right, 84, began painting at 60, and now teaches about 40 seniors. George Mumblo of Old Lyme is in the background.

That is, until retirement, when a newspaper blurb about a local art teacher caught Johnson's eye and brought him back to his longtime interest.  In the five years since, Johnson, now 77, has created enough watercolors to decorate nearly every room of his Madison home, entered area art shows and even sold a few works. And he's become one of the many disciples of Stan Carver, an 84-year-old retired insurance executive who has spent the past 15 years teaching art to seniors on the shoreline.

A self-taught artist who took up watercolors at 60, Carver now spends his mornings shepherding seniors through shading, color values and other details needed to transform a blank page into a painting worthy of framing. The former U.S. Navy frogman - a member of a group that was a precursor of the SEALs - prefers a tough approach, letting his students make mistakes before telling them what to do and mixing instruction with the more-than-occasional wisecrack.

He relishes the task as much as his students do.

"This is the best part of my life," he said. "I've been all around the world from the North Pole to the South Pole, and this is the best part of it." (The Antarctica trip was part of a mission with the Navy frogmen.)

With classes in Old Saybrook, Westbrook and Guilford, Carver, who lives in Clinton, takes pride in turning novi-ces into artists. But many of his students, like Johnson, find art class a way to reconnect with a childhood passion they gave up in exchange for jobs, parenting and the rest of grown-up life.

That was the case for Nan Iselin, a Westbrook resident who excelled in art as a child and had long felt guilty for giving it up when she got older. It took years before she convinced herself that the knitting, crocheting and clothing she made for her children were also creative, and rescued herself from the guilt.

She has further appeased it by diving into the art scene. After four years of studying with Carver, Iselin is a member of the Clinton Art Society and the Madison Art League, and has work on display and for sale at several locations in both towns.

Iselin's Wednesday morning classmate, Sandy Patten, spent years helping special education students with art projects as a teacher's aide in East Hartford. Her father was a commercial artist, but Patten never found time to develop the skills herself.

As it turned out, that was what retirement was for.

"I always wanted to paint in watercolors," the Westbrook resident said as she took a step back from her painting, a likeness of her daughter and grandson based on a photograph taken more than 10 years ago.

Other students came along different paths.

Marilyn Kearney's previous art experience was washing the paintbrushes her husband, Bill, used. As an American Magazine illustrator, he had reached a rare career pinnacle for artists, something Marilyn Kearney likened to becoming a diva at the opera.

When Bill died two decades ago, Kearney cleaned out his studio but saved his paints and brushes.

Perhaps it was osmosis, she mused as she explained how she recently took up oil painting and watercolors. She still uses her husband's brushes and paints, squeezing the tubes he used and thinking, "Ah, that was Bill's."

"I do things and say, `That's the way Bill did it,'" said Kearney, a Clinton resident.

For Carver, the classes are as much about fellowship as the skills. Some of his students have been together for 10 years.

"We sit here and laugh," Madison resident Barbara Zekala said during her class in Westbrook, where she was preparing to turn a drawing based on a photograph of an 86-year-old friend into a watercolor painting.

But the work is serious. Carver would rather that they learn through mistakes than end up with a nice painting half-completed by their teacher.

"He tries to act tough, but he's not," Iselin said, standing over the beginnings of a sailboat painting, composed entirely in shades of gray. Carver prefers anecdotes of his own tough-love methods, recalling how some students characterize his classes.

"They say, `We pay $50 to get insulted,'" he said.

Most come back because they get more than that. For Johnson, that includes more than painting. After all these years, he has discovered a new way of seeing the world.

Occasionally, he said, his wife will catch him staring at something and ask what's wrong. Nothing, he answers; it's just that he is noticing clouds, landscapes, the world in a way he never had.

"You look at something, but you really don't see it," he said. "Now I'll stop, and look at something."

Artwork by Carver's students will be on display this month at the Guilford Free Library.

Contact Arielle Levin Becker at alevin-becker@courant.com.