Ralph Putzker: A Recollection by Susan Platte


I've heard it said that you should consider yourself fortunate if you have had three good teachers in your life.  I feel extremely lucky to have had Ralph Putzker as a teacher, mentor, and friend.  How do I describe Ralph Putzker to someone who doesn't know him?  I can say that Ralph is smart, warm, funny, and a talented artist and educator.  But that doesn't really say much when compared with the complex person I know Ralph to be.  I can say that Ralph is generous, but that's a stingy statement compared to the time, energy, compassion, thoughtfulness and vision he's shared with me (and all of his students).  I can say that I think Ralph is a great person, but

Ralph is a true Renaissance man who applies his enormous range of experience to his teaching. He was born in 1921 and was raised in San Francisco. His father worked as a pharmacist (who could legally dispense heroin over the counter) and helped create the language Esperanto. At eleven Ralph got his first pair of glasses and saw the stars for the first time (perhaps this is the origin of his love of building telescopes and looking at the stars). A drawing of trees that he did before he could see clearly shows trees made with strong, overlapping lines of greens, grays, and pinks; Ralph learned early what nearsightedness can do for an artist's vision. It reduces what a person sees to its essence of color and shape. Those of us who aren't similarly blessed must squint through our lashes to get something of the same effect. Ralph liked to remind us that many famous artists were nearsighted. When he was about 12 his mother took him to audition for a major role in "Sign of the Cross". He got the part of the leading lady's young brother who is killed by lions in the end. At 13 Ralph was arrested during the dock strikes of 1934. "I was hit over the head by a policeman and taken to jail". When he was 18, Ralph was the youngest artist to have a one-man show (of paintings) at the De Young Museum.

He married in his twenties and worked in every conceivable occupation, including on the docks, ("I recently opened a book I hadn't opened for thirty years and found a twenty dollar bill that had been using as a book mark. That's how much we were making in those days"). He painted, earned two Ph.D.s, (in psychology and education) taught college, raced stock cars, flew airplanes, learned to speak Spanish fluently, grew and installed turf sod, owned a Christmas tree farm (with a great, old red tractor that was steered with foot pedals, and where he showed me what owls do with the indigestible parts of the rodents they eat), spent several hours on several occasions talking with Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, and he traveled. Ralph served in the Pacific during World War II, on the ground, and in airplanes charting countries for bombers. "I felt like I was going away and no body was ever going to see me again".

Ralph's Ph.D. dissertation was concerned with the study of creativity: what it is, how to measure it, the characteristics of people identified as creative, and ways to teach people to develop creativity in themselves. Ralph taught creativity to his students. In class, he worked hard to help us expand our "fluency, flexibility and originality", the essence of creativity. He talked about the conditions that cultivate creativity in people, and he appreciated our creative efforts. To develop our creativity. Ralph regularly provided us with lists of things to do, experience, and see as a means of adding to our "compost heap" of things to draw from when making art. He showed us how to look at big things and small things (he carried a three-lens jeweler's magnifying glass to look at very small things), he showed us how to see patterns, light, intensity, and color. He showed us how to look at something as though it had no color.

Ralph's teaching techniques were simple and immensely effective. The first class I took from him was a basic drawing class. Ralph placed a lot of emphasis on learning to see the visual world and on de-mystifying the works of well-known artists to make them more accessible to us and to help us feel more like the artists we wanted to become (so we'd keep practicing). To that end, he regularly started sentences with, "We artists," meaning "you and me and Monet", thereby including us in a circle of established artists. Most classes started with Ralph slowly flipping through the pages of art books he had brought from home, stopping to show us the different kinds of lines artists used, the way they used patterns, the different ways they used light and shadow and, most importantly to me, the mistakes they made. He'd point out erasures and places were the artist had made changes by drawing over mistakes, leaving the original versions underneath for us to see. (De-mystifying art, artists, and the processes of making art was an on-going theme for Ralph. In "Fakes and Frauds", and art history class, we went to the de Young Museum to see how works are conserved. We were shown x-rays that revealed changes painters had made as they developed their works. Some of the "under paintings" clearly showed mistakes that were similar to those made by beginning art students. It was a revelation to find out that the way I was learning was similar to the processes used by established artists.)

As a professor of fine art at San Francisco State University, Ralph made learning easy. He used his immense intelligence to break down the subject-at-hand into understandable pieces. A response to a student's question might receive an answer that incorporated several disciplines. It might result in Ralph seemingly thinking aloud as he associated one idea born of the question with another and then another, and might include words like friable, crepuscular, insouciant, phosphenes, chiaroscuro and sun dog. On the first day of Photography 101, he asked us a question, "How do you know how to prepare the developer and the fix?" Photography was mysterious to me. The images I admired were beautiful and I wanted to make photographs that were just as good, but exactly how I was to go about doing that seemed almost beyond my comprehension. Ralph didn't make us suffer long. He held up a yellow Kodak package of developer and said, turning it around, "You read the instructions on the back." De-mystified, photography became an immensely fun and satisfying way to make images that reflected the way I saw the visible world. Several of Ralph's photo students have gone on to make their livings as professional photographers.

Ralph insisted we look at the world. He'd point to something and say something like, "Look! There's a yellow fire hydrant, and next to it, a yellow curb, and above it someone wearing yellow shoes getting out of a yellow car under a yellow awning over a window with yellow letters painted on it. And look, in the window there are yellow lemons in a yellow basket. And look, (by now he was really excited), there's a reflection of a yellow building and yellow street markings reflected in the window". He was always telling us to look, and asking us, "What do you see?" He'd get just as excited when we saw something. In that way he cultivated excitement in us about the visual world and about learning in general. He turned our eyes to "on".

On the first day of that drawing class that I took from Ralph, he decided to teach us perspective. In classes I'd had before perspective was presented to us as a rather dry, almost scientific subject to be applied, with measurement, to any work that depicted something near and something far. You didn't actually have to look at anything to apply it.

Ralph said, "Come, stand in the hallway, with me." We all trooped out of the studio into the hallway and followed him as he leaned his left shoulder against the wall. "Look at the lines of the wall at the end of the hallway where they meet the floor. Look at where they go. Now, without taking your eyes off of that point at the end of the hallway move to the opposite wall." We moved and leaned against the right wall. "What happened to the floor lines and to the ceiling lines and to the way the wall next to you appears? What about when you sit down on the floor while looking at that point at the end of the hallway?" We all sat down. "What happened?" We talked about what happened to the lines. We were excited. We had never seen apparently static lines move before. I must have been quite a sight as I spent the next few days weaving from side to side in the hallways of the various buildings in which I had classes. Ralph had us moving and looking and looking. We were experiencing drawing. We were experiencing the visual world.

One day, Ralph asked us to identify the color of a wall inside the classroom. "White", we said. "Is it?" he asked. We looked, again. There were shadows that were gray. Some shadows were dark gray; some were light gray. "Really." he said. "Look again." We looked again and saw that some of the grays were actually blue, some were brown, and some were red. By the end of the class it was clear that the wall definitely was not white. And the blue sky wasn't blue. And our tan complexions weren't brown or white or pink. And the grass wasn't just green. And the student union wasn't gray. And the garden soil wasn't brown. From then on, nothing looked the way it had before that particular class.

In my last year at school, Ralph graciously helped me fulfill a course requirement by letting me work as a student assistant for one of his photo classes. There were times when everyone was in the darkroom, busy, and not in need of our help so Ralph and I would spend a few of those minutes teaching ourselves to speak Navajo, an interest born of a recent field trip to Arizona. Ralph's enthusiasm and support paid off when we returned to Arizona the next year and I could speak and understand just enough to know when someone, who spoke only Navajo, was asking for a soda from a store owner but was having trouble making himself understood. Ralph was as pleased as I.

Studio art classes include the dreaded "critique" of each person's work during the last class. Ralph's critiques weren't dreaded. When assessing a student's work, Ralph concentrated on what was successful about a piece (e.g. one square inch in the corner) and then encouraged the student to bring the rest of the work up to that standard, thereby implicitly telling each of us that he considered us artists and had faith in our abilities to become more skilled at what we were doing (and utterly failing to pass on the message of too many teachers: that we student artists simply couldn't aspire to anything better). Ralph made learning necessary, like air and water were necessary and, in the process, he cultivated our love of seeing and of art, and he modeled ways of teaching and learning that continue to serve me well twenty-five years later.

I glanced into an empty classroom one day and saw Ralph sitting at a table with a map spread out in front of him and some kind of flat, silver tool in his hand. I timidly wandered in and, without my asking, and much to my relief, he began to explain what he was doing. It turned out that Ralph was working on a pilot's instrument rating and he was using the chart and a "flight computer" to plot a course. He explained the chart and its symbols to me, the flight computer and how he was using it, and how it all fit together to get him safely from takeoff to landing. He explained it well enough that I came away feeling like I understood something I never would have expected to understand, and with my interest piqued. Ralph paid for my first lesson a few weeks later and I learned to fly.

What we learned, those of us who were insightful enough to take classes from Ralph Putzker, went far beyond how to make art. Like a truly great teacher, he taught his students to be curious, to think critically and ask questions, to be excited about learning, to stretch "the limits" and to be willing to make mistakes in the process of acquiring knowledge and new skills. He opened my mind and sparked my interest in art, science, psychology, aviation, education, and learning in general. Thank you, Ralph.

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Website and Scans by Stephen Johnson. Please contact Stephen Johnson at steve@sjphoto.com for contributions of material.
Artwork Copyright ©2001 by Ralph Putzker. All Rights Reserved worldwide.
February 25, 2001