Stuart Downs, one of my undergraduate instructors at James Madison University, died on Saturday. It was unexpected (at the age of 63) but he died of natural causes. I'm sure this doesn't comfort his family much. I'm not sure it comforts me.
I miss Stuart. I did miss Stuart, while he was alive and we were in different parts of the country, but I kind of thought I'd see him again on one of my trips back south. Our communication over the years since I left JMU was brief and sporadic but it meant a lot to me. He was an incredibly generous and gracious instructor, mentor and friend. He treated his students with respect, while he challenged us, and he was unfailingly supportive of our endeavors. Above all, he was kind. I adored his Open Studio class. It changed the way I looked at art and writing and collaboration. He treated me as a peer. He treated us all as peers. From Stuart, I learned what it means to be an artist – it means you have to acknowledge the art of others, you have to praise it, and you have to do this genuinely, with love for both the art and the artist and without ego. I don’t always meet that criteria, but I strive to meet it, and I try to share that message with my students and model for them, as he modeled for me – so sweetly, so effortlessly – what it means to be a lover of words and ephemera, of noise and of silence, and of all the things that may not seem beautiful at first, but with time and patience, are undeniably beautiful. I’m so sad he’s gone, but I’m glad so many people miss him. I hope that makes sense.
This poem by Jean Valentine, written for her friend Adrienne Rich, appeared in my inbox this morning. It seemed appropriate to post it here, with these words about Stuart.