“Where Did You Come From, Denis Ponsot?” Read about Peter’s talk with Art League watercolor instructor Denis Ponsot

Denis presenting one of his watercolors last year to Mrs. Lipitz, at 93

Denis presenting one of his watercolors last year to Mrs. Lipitz, at 93

Picture this. It is 1966. As a young man whose mother is a poet and whose father paints and teaches art, you are in France for the summer, having met up with your father who is photographing Romanesque art. After two weeks, your head filled with these playful, human-scale forms, you part company with him. He has given you a small set of watercolors, and off you go, visiting relatives and family friends, drinking in the world. At night you paint what you have seen with your eyes and what you see also when you close them, images from the back of your mind.


A dyslexic kid, you return to high school that fall, sign up for an art elective, and responding to the teacher’s assignment, you bring some samples of your summer watercolors. Your teacher, Mrs. Elaine Lipitz, looks your work over, looks you over, and says “Where did you come from, Denis Ponsot?” Forty nine years later you still remember the moment, for from that time on, you single-mindedly pursue an artist’s life, doing whatever you have to do to keep making pictures and to teach, teach, teach the arts you love.


The walrus-mustachioed Denis Ponsot and I are sitting in the library at the Art League. He tells his own story well, the hustle, the hardship, the determination. From high school he goes to the School of Visual Arts in New York. He finds work in artists’ studios—Adolph Gottlieb, Frank Stella, Al Held, Peter Max—learning, learning. Later he manages Lee’s Art Shop in Manhattan, where he learns about art materials and supplies in depth. Though never forsaking his first love, watercolors, he becomes dexterous in all mediums. This dexterity has two vital consequences: it serves to keep his own creative work fresh as he takes on the demands and potentials of new media and materials; and it makes it possible for him to be a teacher with the widest range of ways to inform and inspire students.


By 1982, still fully active as an artist, Denis begins to teach in earnest. He pours himself into the work. The best way to understand his commitment to teaching is to look at his weekly schedule now, more than 30 years later. Walk through this in your mind:


• Monday: 3-5 PM Kids Club after school class; then The School of Visual Arts adult watercolor 6:30-9:30 PM;
• Tuesday: Gurwin Nursing Home 10:30 AM to 12 PM; then The Art League from 12:30 to 10 PM which involves nothing less than 4 classes: from adults to teens, a gig he has had for over 25 years;
• Wednesday: 10 AM-1 PM. Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s upper west side; then 3-5 PM Kids Club downtown east side;
• Thursday: Kids Club 3-5 PM. Then a class at his studio in Queens for adults 7-9 PM;
• Friday: 10 AM-1 PM. at the JCC upper west side.

And that is not all: There are the workshops he leads to France or recently to Scotland. He designs every aspect of these junkets from flights to meals, from sites to materials. These long excursions, where as many as 20 adults travel with him to paint and experience immersion in a landscape and in community, are respites and renewals in his teaching year. The other on-going part of his working life is making art. Even now he is preparing for a large solo show of his work called “Oil and Water” to exhibit in the Alfred van Loen Gallery at the South Huntington Library October 10 through November 11. (His opening reception is on October 10 at 2:00pm.)


As I sit listening to the long and many-colored yarn of his life, I realize that I am in the presence of one of those rare, ambidextrous people who incarnate in equal measure the gifts of a teacher and the passions of an artist. “Teaching is my greatest inspiration,” he says now, looking at the life he has made for himself. No doubt the gift of Mrs. Lipitz’ recognition lives in him. Artists need to believe in themselves, but for many artists it is the belief of an admired teacher or colleague that first gives hope its wings.


About his teaching at the Art League, Denis has a particular relish. “It’s the freedom we have here as teachers that makes the difference. No curriculum, no restrictions.” This running room allows him to meet his students where he finds them and to seek out and encourage their particular gifts. His wide experience as an artist means he can demonstrate and guide in many mediums, and as his schedule attests, he offers instruction to a spread of ages from nine to ninety.


Let me share with you one of Denis’ recent watercolors: “Garden Fence” 22″x30.”

Garden Fence by Denis Ponsot


To say the least, this is a visually intense painting, Vivid in color, bursting in form, it overspills its rectangle suggesting an extensive fertile world from which it is extracted. It will coin its own interpretive language; its curling swirling rhythms, color and forms in glorious interplay, the strong man-made wooden fence offering a grid and support for natural profusion, the whole picture sweeping towards us and also inviting us in. Delicate and bold, it is a kind of self-portrait. It is for me like Denis with his romantic mustache and his quiet voice, his bright blue eyes, his channeled, boundless energy.

One final thought: Denis is one of almost 70 instructors at the Art League. Think of all those stories and all those gifts.