Back when life was simpler, sometime in the years between late childhood and early adolescence, the bane of my existence was having to pull weeds as part of my weekly chores. Prostrate Spurge (Milkweed), Purslane, Redroot Pigweed, and nameless others would rear their ugly, sprawling tendrils through every manner of crack, crevice or healthy span of soil around my childhood home. This practice taught me 2 very distinct lessons. The first being that I hate pulling weeds. The second and the most profound lesson was the vehement separation between what was considered a good and bad plant, usually categorized by either its aesthetic appearance or its ability to grow, spread, and choke out more desirable plants. This philosophy, was not inherently mine; it was simply a reflection of my parents botanical preference regarding which plants were worthy of being part of their perfectly manicured suburban square of land. And like many philosophies instilled during my youth, it was not until early adulthood that I had reason to question it.
There is an unassuming building on Mt. San Antonio Community College’s (Mt. Sac) campus where magic once happened on a daily basis. From the outside, Building 1B/C was nothing special; it had a pseudo Spanish Mission style- complete with white adobe stucco and a red tile roof. The inside of the first classroom, by contrast, was a dark and dingy hovel that had the faintest of mildew smells in the early morning and then peppered with a peculiar “scent” from the pot trail behind the class by midday. Looking down, you could see that the floor was heavily traveled, with deep dirty scrapes that no mop could clean; a mere reflection of the 50 years of students dragging their art supplies in and out of class. And through that class led to the larger big brother- a cavernous space, adorned with high windows that flooded the room with natural light that bounced off of the industrial square tiles onto its faded white walls. The class still radiated an essence of the Mad Men era commercial art movement. The architectural industrial influence still dominated the room and old artifacts of magazines, advertisements, and old artwork could be found in the dusty spiderwebbed corners waiting to be unearthed and then once again forgotten.
This area, this refuge, was a hidden treasure for a select number of students. It’s value was not the walls and odd environment, but the Willy Wonka type figure that walked its hallways and made followers of us all. Robert Ronketty, better known as Bob, didn’t wear a top hat or make candy, but he did make artists. Bob, was a 5’8” rosy cheeked Irishman in his early 60’s who compensated for the missing hair at his cap with a tremendously jolly cigarette stained beard and for the first two weeks that I was in his class, I thought he had his right hand surgically removed and replaced with a coffee cup.
I wandered into Bob’s Beginning Drawing class as a late add my Freshman year at Mt. Sac… and wandering is a pretty accurate description. I didn’t know what I was walking into, I was just trying to fill my schedule to get full time status, but regardless of my intent, it definitely seemed like the universe wanted this kismetic experience to occur at this place and time.
I didn’t interact with Bob much in the beginning; classes are always pretty chaotic at the start of each term. But when the class got rolling, I got the sense that something special was going on. Each time Bob would address the class and begin to drop some words of wisdom, I could see that everyone’s eyes were locked on this enigmatic, but compelling figure and with each additional lecture, a few more students could be seen slowly falling under his recruitment spell. The spell I’m referring to was the seductive nature of Bob’s mantra that anyone could learn to be an artist. He demystified the process of how to create and see the world through an artist’s eyes, effectively carving back the years of bias and perspective that is forced on us through our developing years. The example he would use to demonstrate this phenomenon involved a kindergarten teacher who would tell her students, “You can’t color an elephant purple because that’s not how they look in real life.” And according to Bob, the loss of creativity was just exponential from that point on. So, in an attempt to stem that creative erosion, Bob made it his mission to help take everyone back to that age of wonder, when the adult world did not solely delegate what was possible. That fresh perspective allowed for a new found freedom to create without fear of judgement and discover that creating something with artistic merit was not solely an innate ability, but one that could be practiced, learned, and eventually mastered.
I know that a lot of people have similar memories about Bob. In fact, a few friends and I still reminisce about those times and we realized that it was Bob’s openness and nonconformist attitude that attracted such an eclectic array of characters. The best way I could describe it would be to think of a college campus as a box of crayons and the whole school is nothing but grays, whites, and blacks- except for Bob’s classes that contained every other variety of color possible. Every manner of young, old, male, female, or any other designation or category of person possible seemed to be drawn to Bob’s presence. And it was in this environment that I forged several long-term friendships, started to define who I was as a person, and cut my teeth on a very challenging academic pursuit.
I learned a lot from Bob over the years. Several lessons directly related to art, such as how to make a flaw or mistake a feature of your artwork or how to sell your art to help fund your next project and supplies. Bob even dedicated a great deal of time encouraging students to trace and copy as a form of learning and growth, arguing that it helped develop muscle memory along with teaching how to emulate other art styles. But one of the most interesting lessons I learned wasn’t really meant to be a lesson at all.
During a somewhat casual conversation about gardening, Bob described all of the plants he keeps on his property. I imagined that someone with such refined visual taste would be endlessly selective about what plants belonged in his field of view. But to my surprise and to a degree, relief, he had a pretty simple philosophy about it. He simply stated that he didn’t think too much about traditionally maintaining his yard- suggesting that it was more interesting to let nature decide how it should grow and thrive. And it was the last part that he mentioned that caught my attention the most. When discussing the trouble of things like weeds…. Bob had a really beautiful point of view- “If it produces a flower, then it’s not a weed.” It’s such a romantic notion that ‘s it’s hard not to get a little sentimental, especially now when I look back and reflect on that time.
The years I spent among Bob and his faithful followers are among the best I can remember. I feel lucky and privileged to have been part of an environment where an immense amount of talent and ambition traveled on a daily basis, many of whom now work for various studios, have their own galleries, or have returned to teach. The halls are still permeated with Bob’s stories of trading custom airbrushed graphics for old junkers that he would use to race demolition derby or how he would be up all night with a crew to create weird practical effects for a commercial shoot. The constant stories of last minute deadlines, the adventures of his youth, and his development as an artist still get passed back and forth amongst his former students. All it took was a cup of coffee in his hand and a wink of his eye, and you knew you were in for something special.
I tried to keep in touch the best I could over the years and even shared a pretty heartfelt conversation when I told him that I was going to pursue teaching as a career, while crediting him as the primary influence for that decision, which brought just the smallest of twinkles to his eye. And now that I am a teacher, I think about Bob’s advice and lessons quite a bit, but find myself repeating the philosophy of the weeds and flowers the most. It seems most applicable when considering my start in art to where I ended and that it wouldn’t have been possible if I was written off as a weed. So I try to use a similar philosophy when dealing with my own students. Everyone is in some stage of growth and the end result isn’t always clear. It might take a year, it might even take 5 to see some sort of growth, but if we don’t provide even the least amount of nurturing and most of all time, then we will never have the privilege of seeing them bloom.
Sadly, Bob passed away around 2012. Many of us did not have chance to say that final goodbye, but his work and his spirit will continue through the lessons and memories that he passed on to so many of his students.