Marks on the Soul

A two-gallery retrospective honors longtime PCC teacher/artist George Welch

George Welch is in a gallery at Pima Community College West doing what he's been doing for the last 40 years: teaching students how to paint.

Twenty large Welch works are on the walls, part of the two-gallery exhibition Retrospective: George Welch. (Raices Taller is showing his small works on paper.) So for this class, the subject under discussion is Welch's own full-body painting methodology.

"I do work with both hands," he says, directing the aspiring artists' attention to "Mondo," a giant African-inspired oil and acrylic from 1991. He waves his expressive hands in the air like a symphonic conductor. "I use my left hand and my right hand while listening to music. It's a call-and-response," mimicking the patterns of African and African-American music. "The left hand is fluidity; the right hand is the center and balance. They pull together the sprit and the mind."

Painted by those alternating hands, "Mondo" is a vibrating improvisation on the gorgeous colors of African cloth. Red, yellow, brown and orange shapes dance across a canvas that's been primed with black gesso, a technique that makes the pigments pop. The abstracted shapes suggest tropical plants and birds, and across the top, some black figures allude to the human form.

"That's like Mother Earth at the top, or a bird with its child under its wing," Welch says.

Most often, Welch's paintings are near abstractions, but he often slips figurative imagery in between slashes of paint. A doomed worker at a computer keyboard appears among the cascading debris in his "Fire 9/11" from 2001. (Welch was an eyewitness to the collapse of the Twin Towers.) The mountain peaks of the California coast emerge out of the 1983 color-field painting "Sur."

"My work is an appreciation of light, color and spatial relationships," he says.

The retrospective at Pima and the companion show at Raices Taller—where Welch is a longtime member—honor the painter at the end of his fourth decade of teaching art at the community college. He didn't set out to be a college teacher, Welch says during an interview after he's sent the students back to the studio.

"I had a studio/gallery in Chelsea," in his native New York, he explains. "I thought about doing a nonprofit gallery, a community arts center."

But he got a job offer in the exotic Southwest, teaching at a brand-new community college. He came in 1971, two years after the college opened. The new campus was in wild, open desert, and the curriculum was just as free in those early days.

"I got lucky!" he says.

He developed an art community anyway, both through his longtime membership in the Raices Taller co-op and through his teaching. As of five years ago, a colleague estimated that Welch had taught 5,000 students in his classes in painting, drawing and design.

Welch himself learned to paint from his mother. He was born in the Bronx in 1943, and art became the saving grace in a difficult childhood. His little sister died at 6 of spinal meningitis. When he was 7, his mother contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium; she was away for seven years. His father was unable to care for him, and young George ended up in foster care.

His mother took up art during the long days of convalescence at the sanitarium, and on her infrequent visits home, she passed her skills on to her son.

"Mom taught me to paint. We did that together," he says.

Those times were sacred to mother and son.

"Art was a religion when I grew up. It was more than marks on paper; it was marks on the soul."

Welch specialized in art in high school, and then studied at the Pratt Institute while working as a graphic designer. The earliest pieces in the Pima show are elegant collages that date from this period—inspired, he says, by the old cut-and-paste techniques of graphic art. In "Collage Pratt," from 1963, two painted figures, highly stylized, have been pasted onto paper, their cutout eyes and mouths allowing views of found photographic images inside.

The artist finished college at Central State University, a historically black college in Ohio, earning a bachelor's in art education in 1967. He had a brief, dispiriting stint as a welfare worker, and then took off—in the turbulent year of 1968—to Europe and Morocco, the first of many overseas voyages that influenced his art. In Paris, he witnessed the pivotal student riots.

"So much was going on everywhere," he says. "We thought the world would change."

Pima, in its own way, was trying to change the world, offering a low-cost education to kids from working-class families. Earning a living wage, Welch was free to experiment in his art. "I was not trying to sell my work to feed my family," he says. (Welch married late, in 1987, to Phyllis Aldridge Woods.) "I was trying to feed my spirit."

Welch has moved through art cycles ever since, frequently changing his style and creating distinctive series of works organized around such themes as earth, water and fire. Besides developing his revolutionary technique of two-handed painting, he has experimented with staining the canvas, painting on the reverse and doing rubbings, according to an essay by Joanne Stuhr in the exhibition catalog.

In the 1970s, he was painting color-field works that were pure abstractions. The lovely "Gravity" from 1975 has vertical cascades of delicate pinks and golds, with a flame of orange in center.

He began traveling to Africa in the mid-'70s, and those trips were life-changing. He turned away, in part, from Euro-American art trends and moved closer to the forms of his African forefathers. Welch was always inclined to view painting somewhat mystically, and after visiting Africa, Welch attempted to "merge visual metaphors of the dream world with (his) ancestral aesthetic." The vivid "black ground" paintings, like "Mondo," capture the bold forms of African carvings and the jewel-like colors of its cloth.

But Welch was also influenced by the desert where he unexpectedly found himself, by the javelinas darting across the Pima West campus, and by the drama of the open skies over the Tucson Mountains. His water series celebrates the monsoons, and his lyrical landscapes pay homage to light and color.

"Alto Plano," an acrylic on canvas from 1987, has an all-over pattern of pinks and yellows, greens and blues, layered atop one another in strong diagonals. They conjure up the colors of the desert after the rains come; viewed alternatively, they could be a view of the patchwork landscape from the air.

These multiple viewpoints are echoed in Welch's Sept. 11 painting, which merges multiple views of the collapses of the towers; it's painted from the point of view of the bystander looking up, of the trapped office worker looking out, and of the jumper looking down.

Now 67, Welch has lately circled back around to lyrical landscape. The newest painting in the Pima show, 2010's "Sonata," is a joyous two-handed work full of movement; its orange curves swoop and curl across the cheerful yellow ground.

"I hope that I'm progressing," Welch says with a smile.