Many people face their future with the presumption that there is only one life. They know it has to be lived with imagination and considerable effort. As some of my fellow Alumni Career Commentary authors have noted, life can often take unexpected turns in unusual directions.
But I discovered, mostly by good fortune more than wisdom, that there are a number of possible lives.
At first I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston every Saturday to study painting from the age of 7 until I finished high school. Then I studied Art History at Williams and did an Honors program with Professor Lane Faison ’29. Finally, I did some Graduate work at Columbia in Art History and fulfilled my civic duty by serving in the U.S. Army.
The real problems came after I left Williams and the other aforementioned institutions to face the world of choices. None seemed right for me. My family had been in Law and Real Estate but was wiped out by the ’29 crash. What I really wanted to be was a great artist but – having experienced my family’s economic hardship during the Depression – could not dismiss the possibility of becoming a “starving artist.” None of the other choices was appealing.
What to do?
I decided to prepare myself for a third life. Not the third life of retirement or social contributions to others. I was selfish and wanted the challenge of striving to be a great artist without having to conform my art to the taste of the monied public. Consequently, I decide to live a perfectly challenging and difficult middle class life but to save my real life for the third portion. That portion would have to be intensely honest and competitive with myself.
My wife and I worked for 30 years each, saved carefully, purchased land that no one wanted, turned it into a distinctive property, designed and built our home – much of it with our own hands – and finally retired. At that point I resolved to take on the challenge that I had always dreamed of: to create great art.
The issue was whose taste was to be trusted. Should I go out into the commercial world of galleries and museums to compete with other artists for fame and fortune? Or should I trust myself? I had studied, taught, wrote about and filmed art. Why did I need to toss myself into the great ocean of ego to achieve my goal? I already could envision what greatness would be. It would be art without stories, without politics, without the distractions of color, without enormous scale or appeals to emotions. It would be art of the mind and the eye fusing in heroic harmony.
So I did it. I worked for the next 30 years without selling or exhibiting my art. Finally I live in a world of my own making. My art and architecture are all around me. I know in my heart that I have succeeded by competing with myself. I lived the challenge without compromise.
Stephen Gordon ’55 retired from his “second life” as an educator in Harlem and then Westchester County, N.Y., in 1988. As a high school teacher, he taught a number of courses including Art History, Graphics, Painting and Drawing, Advertising Art, Photography, Film Making and Humanities. Now, 30 years into his “third life” as a full-time artist, he encourages other Ephs not to be afraid to “try it your way” as they navigate their own career journeys.