Encountering Tony Hepburn

Tom Lauerman
 

I first encountered Tony Hepburn during his brief stint as a visiting artist at the university I attended while earning an undergraduate degree in painting. I watched for several days as Tony built one of his iconic gate sculptures. He was handling clay as if it were lumber, and working on an architectural scale. Big, seemingly dry slabs were assembled with copious amounts of drippy clay slip. His process was astonishing, as was his ability to work with such focus, in public.

As quickly as he had arrived on campus he was gone. Tony’s visit was just a few days. His gate, however lingered around the department for the remainder of the semester until it was later fired, crated, and shipped. I walked past it each day and contemplated the individual who had put it together.

But I didn’t get to know him then. So, in 1999 I was able to take a two week workshop with Tony at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center near Aspen, Colorado. I had been out of school a few years, had been working very hard, but had been doing so in a vacuum. I was craving intellectual dialogue and critique. I was eager to encounter foreign ideas and individuals. It would be a tremendous understatement to simply say those two weeks with Tony changed my life. I can look back at those intense, funny, and enlightening days and recognize them as an introduction not only to Tony, but to what the life of an artist and educator can be, in its most potent formulation. Tony’s energy and his understated humor and his astonishing insights crackled with a strange, relentless intelligence.

That encounter led me to Cranbrook Academy of Art, where for two incredible years I was fortunate enough to become a part of the remarkable environment Tony had carefully cultivated. While there, Tony introduced me to so many remarkable people, and carefully explained to me the most astonishing concepts. Typically we met one-on-one, once a week, early in the morning, before the studio came to life. Our conversations evolved unhurriedly, in hushed tones, with many pauses for thought, and no small amount of emotion and intensity. On one such morning he wrapped up our meeting and asked me to give a tour to a prospective student, Shannon Goff. Several years later, but again at Cranbrook, Tony was in attendance as Shannon and I were married.

In the past few months I knew I would get word one day soon of Tony’s passing. He had been very ill. I am thankful that I was able to tell him how much he means to me, to us. I have kept him in my thoughts every day. I made some objects spelling his name, the way he often did, just to think of him and try and connect with his remarkable energy.

On January 4th 2015, I flew out to the Anderson Ranch Arts Center where I led a “January Intensive” workshop. I had not returned to Anderson Ranch since that first encounter with Tony 15 years before. On day one of the workshop I got the call about Tony I had been dreading. As Shannon told me the news I walked into the surprisingly tiny, cluttered, and utterly unassuming log barn where I first began my lifelong conversation with my mentor. I looked around, trying to remember on which wall he had tacked up his large drawings, on which table he had laid out his eccentric tools. Scanning the room my eye came to rest on two deconstructed watering cans on a high shelf on either side of the room. Tony was gone, and yet here was Tony. The two large spout ends resembled two enormous eyes, observing the work of the studio, surrounded by the work of so many of his friends and rivals and collaborators.

Rest In Peace Tony, Thank You for opening my eyes and my mind and my heart.

Tom Lauerman, Snowmass Colorado, January 2015
 
 

Tony Hepburn, Birds, 2004, charcoal, conté, acrylic on paper. Collection of Detroit Medical Center/Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital. Photo by Tim Thayer.

Tony Hepburn, Retablo, 2004, charcoal, conté, metal, acrylic on paper. Collection of Detroit Medical Center/Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital. Photo by Tim Thayer.