James Richard Carpenter, 69, of Gainesville, Florida, died on August 9, 2016.
Jim Carpenter, as he was always known professionally, was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, on January 3, 1947. He was the second son of John Richard Carpenter, a conductor on the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, and Helen Budnick Carpenter, a nurse at Norwalk Hospital. As a young boy he was discovered to have a talent for dancing, which the adults in his family encouraged and nurtured. He was trained as a tap dancer and went on to dance in and eventually choreograph stage musicals. He was to dance, act and sing on stage well into his thirties.
He graduated from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, with a degree in English literature in 1969 and soon began a career as a public school teacher in Charles County, Maryland. First at Lackey, then at La Plata High School, he taught English, and occasionally Latin, but, over the course of almost 30 years in the classroom, he was best known as a drama teacher. He took graduate courses in dramatic arts at the University of Connecticut. Back in Maryland, he excelled as a director of musicals, 20th-century comedies and dramas – and Shakespeare. He was a fervent advocate of teaching Shakespeare through performance, and he had the reputation of taking students who initially found Shakespeare’s language daunting, casting them in Shakespearean roles, teaching them to interpret the text of the play in question – and turning them into skilled, confident readers of Shakespeare. He had come to understand that theatre was “all about text” – making text accessible to audiences in all its richness. At the same time, he was a master at using light, color and space to guide the eye of the spectator. His repertory extended from the medieval morality play Everyman to the spoof on operettas Little Mary Sunshine.
A prize-winning teacher, Carp, as he was called by his students, stressed collaboration in the performing arts, and dialogue in the classroom. His 1994 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Maryland examines the reading, rehearsal and performance of Hamlet in one of his productions, and shows him constantly listening to and learning from his students. Although many considered him one of the most talented people they had ever met, he set little store by talent alone, and stressed the importance of training, self-discipline, risk-taking and hard work.
Late in his career as an educator, he left the classroom for five years to work in county-wide administration and eventually served as Specialist for the Fine and Performing Arts for Charles County. In his last year in Maryland he returned to the classroom and once more directed students on stage – and for the Port Tobacco Players directed a spectacularly successful production of You Can’t Take It with You. The production won eight awards at the Washington Area Theatre Community Honors, including best play and best director.
In retirement Jim Carpenter began a new career as a painter. He had taken courses at the Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia, in the 1990s, but it was not until he moved to Gainesville, Florida, in 2003 that he had time to paint. He studied for five years with Linda Pence and took workshops given by other leading watercolorists and acrylic painters, including Carole Barnes. He began as “a painter of flowers” but in 2008 transformed, almost literally overnight, into a powerful spiritual and figural artist, working mostly in acrylic. (He partly attributed this transformation to his practice of the ancient Chinese art of qigong, or energy cultivation, which he eventually also taught.) Many of his paintings have theatrical themes. His work was juried into numerous national and international exhibitions. He was a member of the Gainesville Fine Arts Association and the Melrose Bay Art Gallery, and a Signature Member of the Florida Watercolor Society and the International Society of Acrylic Painters.
The first of his works to attract wider attention, Toreador, Toro, Tra-La, brings together “on stage” a matador, a clearly theatrical bull, and a flamenco dancer. (Who will upstage whom?) It was the first of his paintings he found sufficiently distinctive to submit to the Florida Watercolor Society for its annual exhibition. It was accepted, in 2009, and this was the beginning of a relationship that was to last for the rest of his life.
He discussed his work both before “live” audiences and on the blog accessible via his website, JimCarpenterFineArt.com , which reaches thousands of readers and followers world wide. He travelled in more conventional ways, too. An early visit to Spain awakened the passions he later transformed to paint Toreador, Toro, Tra-La, and he returned from Japan with new ideas of how to stage Macbeth. In retirement he honeymooned on the Via Veneto and the high seas. By the third of his many trips to London he was so at home there, especially in the streets connecting Covent Garden (home of the Royal Ballet) and the National Theatre, the Old Vic, the Young Vic, the flagship Waterstones bookstore in Piccadilly, the Royal Academy of Arts, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery (his essential London “ports of call,” top honors going to the National Theatre), that Britons asked him for directions, not the other way around.
Retirement for him, however, was not primarily a time for leisure. He admired the book How to Be Idle by Tom Hodgkinson – but in retirement he had a clear mission, which was to paint. And his painting was anything but a hobby, just as his paintings were not intended as mere adornments or garnishes. He loved to paint, but it was work. He spoke of his paintings as slowly revealing themselves to him through a long process in which he painted, scrubbed, and repainted, creating the effect of multiple layers and multiple eras. As in all his other work, there was in his painting an element of surprise, even for himself: “Although I am always present in the doing,” he wrote, ”I am always surprised by the way a painting ends.”
In 2010 he married James Hulbert, a writer, who had shared his life since 1991. They wed in Washington, D.C., and a few days earlier, hundreds of Carp’s former students celebrated the forthcoming nuptials at a party organized by them in Dupont Circle.
In April 2016 he saw one of his paintings, The End of the Pilgrimage, honored by the American Watercolor Society in its annual exhibition at the Salmagundi Club in Lower Manhattan.
He learned only upon returning to Florida that the lung cancer which had been diagnosed and treated in 2015, had gone into metastasis, and only in July that it was not responding to further treatment.
His admirers and collectors include at least two Broadway stars, a fact of which he was proud but that he never mentioned publicly.
He spoke most readily of his pride in the achievements of his former students: the teachers, the soap stars, the rock stars, the working actors, the techies, the parents who participated in their children’s education, the business leaders, the hoteliers, the diplomats, and of course the hoofers, the chanteuses, the belters, the bombshells, the wedding singers, the writers… It was an important part of his day to keep up on Facebook with the continuing lives of his former students, now his friends – and not only in the conventional Facebook sense.
Two experiences that deeply moved Jim Carpenter, help to understand who he was.
In 2010, on a whirlwind visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., he moved past the Motherwells he had come to re-study and was confronted – surprised – by a painting he did not remember ever seeing up close: Van Gogh’s White Roses. His heart pounded, his breath quickened, tears came into his eyes (just as his own paintings frequently make others cry). When he tried to analyze the experience online, he referred to it as an example of “the Stendhal syndrome” — in which an observer is so overwhelmed by the beauty of a work of art that they seem to become ill. What Jim Carpenter felt he was responding to in the Van Gogh, however, was not formal or artistic beauty: it was the boundless courage of Van Gogh, the total presence of the artist in the work, that gave it its enormous energy.
In 2016, three days before his death, his former students surprised him – again, a surprise – with a video in which dozens of them speak candidly about how his teaching and his belief in them changed their lives. Again, enormous energy. The video was played over 1000 times in its first ten days online. ( http://bit.ly/WeLoveCarp )
Jim Carpenter died peacefully in his living room, surrounded by loved ones. He left a message for his friends everywhere: “I love you all. I love life.”
He is survived by James Hulbert; his brother John Joseph Carpenter and sister-in-law Kathy Carpenter (Clearwater, Florida); nephew John Michael Carpenter (Oldsmar, Florida); niece Gina Carpenter Kuchta (Mechanicsville, Virginia); hundreds of other beloved family members; and thousands of students, friends, admirers, followers and collectors.
A celebration of Jim Carpenter’s life will take place Saturday, September 24, 2016, from 12 noon to 3pm at Francesca’s Trattoria, 4410 NW 25 Place, Gainesville, Florida 32606, telephone 352.378.7152 .
To contribute to the Memorial for Jim Carpenter at the Florida Watercolor Society, please go to http://bit.ly/givecarp , click the “add” button, make sure the “donation type” from the pull-down menu reads “Memorial for Jim Carpenter,” then fill in the amount and other information as prompted.
In addition, Jim Carpenter would have asked that you take a young person to a professional theatre or dance performance, or an art museum.