Thursday, March 17, 2022

Layered Creation

From a distance, it looked like a woman’s labia, topped with a hooded clitoris. Visible during the long walk from the fountain at the Stanford Bookstore to the the corner where I caught the Berkeley-Stanford bus, I walked towards the poster every day. And with every step nearer, the female genitalia slowly transformed into a standing naked woman, head and shoulders turned away, arm and hand descending to her crotch.


The poster was outside the Art Department gallery, announcing a show of monotypes, including those of Nathan Oliveira. I had taken Professor Oliveira’s watercolor class, so knew the artist well. I had only gotten into the class after an interview by Oliveira.

“You don’t have any art training,” he said, “and haven’t taken the prerequisites...”
“What is your major?”
“Economics... bachelor’s, and a Master’s in Statistics.”

His bushy eyebrows flicked upwards. His face was kind and gentle, round with a coarse black mustache that oozed a Hispanic heritage.

“Why do you want to take the class?”
“I’ve heard you are a great teacher, and I am studying information theory.”

Again, his eyebrows flicked up.

“What’s that case you’re carrying?” he asked.

He was interested in my electrical engineering black case, which looked something like a small cosmetics suitcase, but which held a collection of solderless breadboards, a 5 volt power supply, and a spaghetti of wires connecting one 7400 quad NAND gate to another.

“I’m studying digital electronics in electrical engineering,” I said, putting down my books, laying the case down, clicking it open.

“Electrical Engineering?” he said with a chuckle, followed by a friendly, warm, inviting smile.

“Yes, I’m designing a computer from the NAND gate up.”

As I continued, my enthusiasm for computers spilled out of me like a new father showing pictures of his first baby.

“I’m learning how to go from logic tables to digital circuits to assembly languages to operating systems to programming languages,” I beamed. “I’m studying the layering of information, hoping to build a computer that is smarter than I am.”

This last led him to a laugh, not judgmental, more an obvious shared enthusiasm of enthusiasm.

“Well, if you teach me about layering information in computers, I’ll teach you about layering information in watercolors!”

With that, I was on the roster.

“You need to make the subject of your watercolor,” he instructed at the first class. “You will make a ‘fetish’, something that has mystical powers for you.”

I didn’t understand what he was talking about, but on a walk around campus, I found a large, curving chunk of eucalyptus bark. To make it into my fetish, I looped the bark with a length of jute twine.

“Your fetish has to inspire you,” he said, looking at me, reading the doubt on my face.

What inspired me was my digital electronics lab. And at each art class, Professor Oliveira would nod and smile an acknowledgment of the tiny suitcase. We nick-named it “the little black box.” Note: Though Professor Oliveira was known as “Nate” (short for Nathan) to his friends and other students, I insisted on the respect accorded by the more formal title, especially since my father was a Professor at Stanford, too.

“What’s in the little black box, today?” he would ask, coming to me as he circled the class, observing each student’s work.

I would talk with him about my latest digital circuit, show him the logic tables, the schematics, and, if it was working, the blinking lights that showed the circuit in action. In my digital electronics class I had to design an ALU (arithmetic logic unit), memory, input/output, and eventually, my own CPU, with its own machine language. By the end of the quarter, the little black box was working and doing things that I couldn’t believe myself, even though I was its creator.

“It’s like a painting,” Professor Oliveira said. “At some point, it has a life of its own.”

Professor Oliveira taught me about watercolors, monotypes, and oil painting. Though the class was limited to watercolors, he would connect what we were doing to the other media, especially to monotypes.

“You never know what the final image will look like,” he said, his eyes twinkling with excitement, “because the image you have been working on is reversed when pressed.”

Another time, he explained the layering of information, as one monotype’s ghost image, still on the stone, inspired the next image.

Professor Oliveira wanted me to understand two things: (1) that an artist should only paint that which intrigues, that which has mystery, is sacred, and has special power to inspire, and (2) that painting is a process, a layering of understanding, in an attempt to capture that which inspired the artist.

By the end of the 13-week class, I still had not finished my watercolor.

“Perhaps it was not inspiring enough?” Professor Oliveira offered.

But it was more likely that I was too timid, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of being judged. I later learned to put aside these limitations, beginning in 1997, inspired by the work I had done for the Sterling Men’s Weekend and subsequent men’s team work.

By the 1980’s, Professor Oliveira had moved his studio close to my parents’ home on Frenchman’s Hill. I’d be sure to pass the studio when I visited my parents, and took walks with my dad. I’d peek in the windows to look at the large oils of hawks that Professor Oliveira was working on, part of his Windhover series. He’d moved on to another “sacred” inspiration, that of the hawk.

oil on canvas, flowers in a vase
Flowers in a Vase, James C. March, 2007

And I had moved on, too, giving up my artwork until 1997, after my divorce, after the end of my engagement to Brigitte, after the Sterling Men’s Weekend. I continued painting, more seriously, after the sale of my company, Wally Industries, in 2001. I would paint until the economic depression of 2008, when that and my severe sleep-apnea-induced psychological depression ground me to a halt by 2009.


I communicated with Oliveira two more times, before his death in 2010. The first time was when I found a monotype, part of the Tauromaquia series, at the Oakland Museum Store in 1985(?). It was stuffed in a drawer filled with many other prints. The price was $1,200, which seemed low to me. I didn’t buy the print, but called down to Gallerie Smith-Anderson in Palo Alto, which told me the current retail value was more like $2,200. I STILL didn’t buy the print until I had called and talked with Oliveira. He said the print, a donation to the museum, was still marked at his original price. He was angry with the museum, but said I should buy the work. He was glad the piece ended up where it belonged, with someone that appreciated it!

I talked (emailed?) with Oliveira one more time, soon after selling my company in 2001. I offered to finance a documentary on the Tauromaquia series. My vision was a slow dissolve, in order, from one monotype to the next, capturing the inspiration each print provided to the next. The audio would be a running interview of Oliveira, talking about the series, and about his relationship with monotypes. At that time, Oliveira said it was not possible, since the monotypes had been sold and were scattered around the country. A few years later (2007?), Oliveira let me know that he had found high-quality negatives of all the works, and I could use prints made from those for the documentary. Unfortunately, I was too depressed to take up Oliveira’s generous offer.

Oliveira will always hold a special place in my heart. He was the first to teach me how to look at art. Soon after getting my first job in 1978, I began collecting art. I only bought artwork of living artists where the artist benefited directly from my purchase of the art. Collecting art was a passion that I followed for some 10 years, until I realized it had become an addiction, draining my family’s limited income with works “I had to have.” I still have about 100 works that I don’t have room to display in my house. But now, 30 years later, most of the artists have moved on, and I should too...