From science teacher to artist: The evolution of John 'Skeets' Richards Jr.

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Twenty years ago, John "Skeets" Richards Jr. was a high school physics teacher, who dabbled with oil paints in his spare time. Now, after selling 450 paintings, he's just as well known for his artwork as he is for his lessons in the classroom.

"Van Gogh only sold one in his lifetime," Richards said with a grin from his studio at his home in Williamstown.

His interest in painting began decades ago, when he was 12 and received a paint-by-numbers set as a gift from a cousin.

"It was a picture of a ship," he recalled on a recent morning. "It always hung on the wall [of his childhood home]."

It also perhaps influenced what he would paint later in life — seascapes, especially from the rocky coast of Maine, landscapes and still lifes. Paintings that he sells today at fine art galleries throughout the region and through his own website.

Richards grew up in the town of Adams, earning his nickname at a very young age. "At age 2, I was nicknamed 'Scooter' after Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto. Everyone got it mixed up and started calling me 'Skeeter.' The rest was normal evolution, " he said.

He graduated from Adams Memorial High School in 1965 and the former North Adams State College, now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, in 1969, and earned a master's degree in science education and administration from NASC in 1972. He taught for a year at the Berkshire Country Day School in Lenox and then in the science department at Drury High School in North Adams for 34 years, retiring in 2004.

In the 1980s, Richards found himself watching German artist Bill Alexander, who had a show on PBS. Alexander's technique was to literally slap paint on a canvas using what he called his "mighty brush," (a house-painting brush) and "mighty knife," a palette knife. His would paint the top of the canvas blue for the sky — and sometimes the bottom of the canvas also, if the painting was to be lake scene.

"I thought to myself, 'If he can do it, I can, too,'" Richards recalled.

Having no place inside the house to slap paint onto a canvas, he would hang it on a birch tree in the front yard. "There was always a blue patch on the trunk of the tree," Barbara Richards, his wife of 48 years related. "The neighborhood kids would always say, 'Mr. Richards is painting the neighborhood blue.' "

"Back then, I painted a lot, but not well," Richards said. "I was intent on becoming a better painter."

He started following Hudson River School painters Frederic Church, George Innes and Albert Bierstadt, and Winslow Homer. "I felt, deep down, I can't paint like these guys, but I can do better than I am," he said.

"I really love the Hudson River School painters," he said. "They felt that man is subordinate to nature. If man was included in the painting, he is small, while nature is portrayed as big. Man is insignificant."

His favorite works of art include Winslow Homer's "The Bridle Path, White Mountains," part of the collection at the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown. "I've thought many times I would like to paint a copy of that — and I might someday," he said. "The lighting in it ... How he captured the light is phenomenal.

"I've always been fascinated by portraying light in a painting," Richards said. "An artist can only capture 20 percent of light; you have to capture the illusion of light illuminating a subject."

Horses and the setting sun are featured in Richards' personal favorite of his creating, "Last Run," in which two workhorses are pulling a man and a load of logs in a wagon out of the woods. "I identify with being out in the woods in the snow and having the last rays of the sun hitting the cold woods," he said.

Richards began entering juried shows at the Southern Vermont Center in Manchester Vt., but was rejected. Around the same time, he was approached by Dr. Michael Albert, a pathologist from Buffalo, N.Y., who had spotted a painting on Richards' newly created website. "I got an email from the doctor, who wanted to purchase a painting of an old bucket with apples and ivy," Richards said. "I gave him a quote and shipped it. He turned out to be a collector of art for investment purposes. He wrote, 'I really like your art and, as constructive criticism, I advise you to get into juried shows.' My art took off and it gave me the confidence to go out and compete with other artists."

Albert has purchased six more of Richards' paintings since then.

"I took workshops at the Southern Vermont Center, and got to know and make friends with great artists, who have influenced me, including Andrew Orr, a landscape artist; Christopher Pierce, a figurative and floral artist, whose flowers just pop; and Lee Lopez, a superb still-life artist," he said, adding he was influenced by their techniques, style and subject matter.

"They showed me how to look at things the way an artist does, seeing things the way other people don't normally see them," he said. "When I look at grass, I look to see if it is a cool green or a warm green, and wonder how I can recreate that green. Looking at colors as warm or cool is one of the differences between how laypeople and artists see the world."

Richards' first show was at the Adams Town Hall in the summer of 2005.

"I was proud. That first show was a symbol of achievement. It was the craziest thing — I'd look at a painting and think, 'Where did it come from?' The best stuff comes from when it's like the brush is moving itself, almost an automatic response. I have no clue where it comes from."

For several years, he took part in the Pittsfield Art Show and the North Adams Open Studios weekend held in late fall in a storefront on Main Street. At an Open Studios weekend, he was approached by the associate director of the Lenox Gallery of Fine Arts, who wanted to represent him.

"Jeremy Conroy, the director of the gallery, sold 43 of my paintings in a five-year period until the gallery closed. The crash of 2008 killed many galleries. It was a good run though," he said, adding a problem for artists these days is the absence of galleries. "There are more and more artists vying for less and less gallery space."

Richards was then represented by Gallery Wright in Wilmington, Vt., which was flooded during Hurricane Irene in late August 2011. "I lost 10 to 13 paintings, valued at $10,000 to $13,000, that weren't insured. The gallery was under 6 feet of water."

He is currently represented by the John Zaccheo Fine Arts in Manchester, Vt., which is closing as the owner is retiring and wants to travel. "I'm selling most of my stuff on Facebook. It's incredible how it works," Richards said. Prices for his painting range generally from $200 to $4,000, depending on size, difficulty and quality. "The most I've had one appraised for is $8,000," he said.

These days, due to a physical disability, Richards said he rarely paints on site, preferring to take photographs of the scene and work from them. When painting a still life, he will set it up and paint it from real life about half the time, noting that flowers, fruits and vegetable spoil over time.

Since his disability, Richards said he has done away with a daily painting routine. "I've found the creative process works better if you take some time off," he said, adding he spends more time on each painting now. "I used to do four a month; now I'm doing two to three."

Richards said his style has changed over the years. "It's looser. A big change has been learning to use colors that aren't as bright. It becomes more realistic when you add shades of gray. Grays make colors stand out."

Of the three genres he paints — seascapes, landscapes and still lifes — Richards has no favorite. "I enjoy painting. I try to alternate them for my own interest in painting. It's easier to paint landscapes and seascapes than still lifes. If I paint an apple as an orange, people will know it," he said.

He turns and smiles at his wife, as he concludes, "Barb has been my muse. I attribute a lot of what I do to her. I guess that's true with most artists."


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