The Quakers have a kind of secular prayer; in the face of darkness or uncertainty, they "hold in the light" a person in need of compassion or optimism. Two years after the death of Larry Sultan -- extraordinary artist, teacher and Bay Area presence of over thirty years -- I hope to honor and remember him in this way. In the light. As he was to many, Larry was the best teacher I have ever had. I came to study at California College of the Arts because it meant the chance to work with him, to know him (or try to know what he knew), which I did for the year before his passing. It's hard to believe that it was just a single year; Larry became such an important and forming person in my life that I am still running things by him in my head.
What I really learned from Larry was not just how to be a good student, or artist, but how to be the best kind of teacher. Larry was generous, darkly funny, and sharp, though never in a way that cut. He could charm the birds out of the trees. More than anything, Larry made himself vulnerable to his students, never presuming that he knew more than we did (though, of course, he did). He challenged us to be deeper thinkers by way of mutual curiosity. Larry wrote in an email to a few of his students, myself included, in August of 2009, "I'm not sure how it works, but I often feel spoken through during the meetings. I'm not sure you share my feelings, but quite often I leave your studios like something really good has happened -- and it's happened because there was a real exchange between us all, that we acknowledged but weren't overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in being artists and in trying to talk about art."
For all of this, my own recollections of Larry wouldn't do him justice alone. He was too big. I've asked a small group that knew him well -- a curator, a colleague, several former students and assistants -- to contribute to honoring his memory two years after we lost him. I am still adjusting to living in a world without Larry, which is simply not as funny, honest and interesting as a world with him in it. Feel free to share your own comments or memories on this piece.
Image by Jon Rubin, Larry dancing at Jon's wedding
Whitney Hubbs, former student: Two years have passed and I continue to feel like Larry's on my side, like we're on the same team. He made me feel like the path I was on was the right one... and I know that because he told me so one night, a night in his honor, he made the gesture to put me at ease. Larry taught me to be giving, to breathe more, to see lyrics in the everyday, and to know when to pause and let things go and at the same time when to reflect on a memory.