By Robin Miller
January 17, 2013
The artist was gone, yet was still there in the studio, delivering surprises that yielded insights into this thoughts.
He was always thinking, always painting, writing or reading. There was always something new to try or discover.
Who’s to say he didn’t leave behind the rice paper scrolls on purpose? Then again, he probably didn’t think about it after pushing them aside.
They were just something to try, something to do. Perhaps, something he could explore later.
Or something he could leave behind to be discovered by his wife.
Libby Johnson thought about it now while driving to her mom’s house. It was Nov. 14, exactly two years to the day of Michael Crespo’s death.
He was her husband, the artist, the LSU professor whose name generates instant smiles among former students, colleagues and friends. Even among many who never met him.
For if they didn’t know Crespo, they knew his art. They can describe the animals in his paintings, how they glowed in the moonlight against the backdrop of dark infinity.
“Michael never thought of darkness as a negative,” Johnson said.
“He always referred to it as the void, a never-ending thing. It was infinity. It was a place where things were happening, and it was mysterious.”
And the mysterious is a nesting ground for possibilities, where new discoveries can be made.
So, it seems only appropriate that the LSU School of Art’s Alfred C. Glassell Jr. Gallery would title its exhibit of Crespo’s work, Mysteries: Works by Michael Crespo. The show runs through Friday, Dec. 14, and features some familiar Crespo works, as well as the unfamiliar.
One of these is Crespo’s final painting of a fox. It hangs in this show, standing out among the others because of its sky blue backdrop. No. This fox doesn’t glow beneath a full moon.
“I think Michael was thinking of something different at the end, and he changed from the darkness to blue,” Johnson said. “I wanted to show this one because it was his last painting.”
Then there was the surprise of the rice paper scrolls. They weren’t elaborate, simply ink drawings scrawled on paper. Yet there is elegance in its simplicity.
“I’d never seen them before,” she said. “They were probably something that Michael was just trying at the time, something new. They were part of his inner thoughts, yet I’m not exposing them by showing one of the scrolls in the exhibit. This was all a part of Michael’s personality, and I’m showing that part.”
She’s also sharing her thrill of discovery. She could feel Crespo with her in the studio; she could imagine the conversation that would emerge at the dinner table.
“It was always interesting sitting across the dinner table from him,” Johnson said, laughing.
“He was always thinking.”
Again, she said this while driving to her mom’s house, speaking through a hands-free phone. She remembered how a year passed before she could bring herself to sift through the studio.
And she remembered how the next year gave her the gift of surprises. Now, as curator of the Glassell exhibit, she shares these surprises with the gallery’s viewers, because they loved Crespo, too.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that Crespo, who died of cancer, has been gone two years. But Johnson doesn’t dwell on it. She, too, is an artist and teacher, and she shared in his adventures. They often traveled to Italy, which provided both with inspiration for their work.
“He was always finding inspiration in everything,” Johnson said.
All of this Crespo translated into his work, known for its power and sensitivity. Crespo painted in a style of fantastic realism characterized by strong contrasts between light and dark.
“Michael Crespo was an all-around master,” said Rod Parker, director of the LSU School of Art. “He was disciplined and rigorous as a painter and understanding as a teacher.”
Crespo was a member of the faculty of LSU’s School of Art for nearly 40 years, serving as director of the school from 1990 to 1996 and as interim director from 2002 to 2003.
He taught students at every level of the program, and received the university’s Distinguished Faculty Award in 1999 and an endowed Alumni Professorship in 2000.
“He was respected by colleagues from across the university and the wider community, and adored by his students for his patience and generosity of spirit,” Parker said.
Most of all, Crespo was beloved for putting his students first and selflessly sharing his advice and expertise.
“I took his class when I was a student,” Kristin Malia Krolak, Glassell Gallery’s director, said.
“He was always reading something to us, always sharing,” Krolak continued. “And he was always positive about what we were doing. He’d look at our work, and instead of telling us what we might be doing wrong, he’d show us what we could do to make it better. We just loved him.”
And now, in her own way, this is Krolak’s chance to return the love, for this show is Glassell’s first time to exclusively show Crespo’s work.
“We’re so happy to finally have a show of Michael’s work,” Krolak said. “It really means a lot to have his work showing in this gallery. Though we’ll be closed during the holidays, we’re going to leave the show up and the lights on in the gallery so people passing by can look at it through the windows. We want everyone to see it.”
The gallery also is publishing a catalog for the show, pricing it at $20.
“We wanted to make it affordable for students,” Krolak said. “We know that would have been important to Michael.”
The show also would have been meaningful to Crespo.
“Michael loved that space,” Johnson said. “He was involved in the development of it, and he really loved it. This show is a celebration of his work.”
This isn’t the first posthumous showing of Crespo’s work. He was working on a show for the David Lusk Gallery in Memphis, Tenn., before his death. Much of that work was done in his final year.
“He worked hard to finish it, and he almost did,” Johnson said. “It was important that that show take place because of the work he had done. But that show was more about the work in the last year of his life. The show at the Glassell Gallery is more of a celebration.”
It’s a celebration not only of Crespo’s work but of his life and who he was — and who he is in the memories of those who knew him.
Crespo was born in New Orleans in 1947 and was a child when his family moved to Baton Rouge. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the LSU School of Art and his master of fine arts degree from Queens College.
He joined the LSU faculty in 1971, and in the following three decades established himself as one of the leading Southern artists of his time. His oils and watercolors are included in public and private collections throughout the United States, including the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Aquarium of the Americas, both in New Orleans; Hunter Museum of Art in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Nordstrom’s Inc. in Seattle; Taco Bell Corporation corporate headquarters in San Diego; Promus Corporation headquarters in Memphis, Tenn.; and the Duke Energy Collection in Houston.
Crespo’s work also has been featured on the covers of magazines and publications. He published four best-selling books on the fundamentals of painting, and he received an artist fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts/Southern Arts Federation and a visual arts fellowship from the Louisiana Division of the Arts.
“… He was an icon in the art world,” the Glassell Gallery has quoted local art dealer and gallery owner Ann Connelly as saying. “He was one of our most influential professors of painting who has left a great legacy through his teaching and his body of work.”
Crespo was also an adventurer, and he sought to teach those around him to be as well. Inspiration produced possibilities, and possibilities gave way to discoveries, such as the discovery Johnson made in Crespo’s studio.
“There were three rice paper scrolls, and I knew I wanted to put one in the show, but I didn’t know which one,” Johnson said. “So I tried to channel Michael, asking him which one he would want in the show. I finally decided on the one with the fish.”
Yes, fish are swimming on this scroll, which hangs unframed on the gallery wall. This is just as well, because a frame would have only created boundaries.
And there should be no boundaries for these fish, because they are a work in progress. They are inner thoughts that Johnson has released to inspire others.
They are reminders that discoveries are never-ending.
And they are Crespo’s gift of surprise.