The Mysteries of Michael Crespo
How one man’s dedication to his students prompted the ultimate labor of love
By Savanna RoncoPosted Oct 31, 2012
The savory, mouth-watering smell of lasagna was in the air. As the sun set, a group of people gathered around the table, with a Scrabble board laid out. Insightful conversation filled the room. Add canvases and a college campus, and this was the late Michael Crespo’s studio. It was filled with his students, but if you were to ask him, he wouldn’t blink twice before saying they were members of his family.
In tribute to the late artist, the LSU School of Art’s Alfred C. Glassell Jr. Exhibition Gallery will host “Mysteries: Works by Michael Crespo,” a new exhibit curated by those who knew him best, featuring art created by the beloved faculty member and director of the LSU School of Art. The gallery is located downtown in the Shaw Center for the Arts.
Gallery Coordinator Kristin Krolak knew she wanted to put this exhibit together as soon as Crespo lost his battle to cancer in November 2010.
“The exhibit is completely a labor of love,” said Krolak, a former student of Crespo.
Krolak asked Libby Johnson, renowned painter and wife of Crespo, to curate the exhibit. The choice was natural, as Krolak knew that Johnson would be aesthetically qualified to choose her husband’s best works, while also having unique access to pieces that had never been shown. In her curator’s statement, part of the catalog that will accompany the exhibit, Johnson wrote that she chose the pieces that were “the most ‘classic Michael’ and the ones that represented the major stages of his career.”
Crespo was born in New Orleans in 1947, and moved to Baton Rouge as a child. He received his bachelor’s degree at LSU’s School of Art before receiving his M.F.A. from Queens College, CUNY, in 1970. The following year, Crespo returned to Baton Rouge to join the faculty of LSU’s School of Art.
While director of the LSU School of Art, Crespo oversaw the design and execution of the Glassell Gallery, which makes it the ideal place to hold an exhibition of his work.
As an artist, Crespo drew inspiration from the world around him but also from the spiritual world, a world of magic and mystery. In her curator’s statement, Johnson said, “Michael lived his life with the consciousness of places only he could see. Those places live in this work.”
Others that knew him say he drew inspiration from mythology, nature, and his own dreams and imagination.
“Michael lived in his imagination. But as introspective as he was, he was passionate about sharing those ideas,” Johnson said. Crespo was known for his bold-yet-sensitive paintings. Nearly all of them were done in a style of fantastic realism and often characterized by light subjects on dark backgrounds. His works are included in public and private collections across the country.
“He was an all-around master,” said Rod Parker, director of the LSU School of Art. “He managed to make everything look effortless. He always looked at his students for what they had the possibility of becoming.”
Krolak and Leslie Charleville both had the opportunity to have Crespo as a teacher during their undergraduate studies at LSU. As they talked about him, smiles emerged on their faces.
“He really liked his students, and he loved teaching,” Krolak said. “He was approachable. He treated you like a friend and he cared about you. Everything about him was sincere.”
“He didn’t treat you like a friend, he treated you like family,” Charleville added.
Crespo taught his students to always be open and explore the world around them. Krolak described days in class when Michael would come in and say, “Today, everyone gets an ‘A’, so don’t worry about it and just paint.”
Crespo would take the time out of class to cook for his students, play board games with them, and provide constructive criticism where they needed it.
“His students challenged him just as he challenged us,” Charleville said. “He was in no way pretentious [even though he had every right to be, she added fondly]. He learned from us and we learned from him tremendously.”
As the gallery coordinator, Krolak hopes that those who don’t know of Crespo will first and foremost notice his beautiful paintings. His students believe that you can feel Crespo’s sensitivity in the paintings whether you knew him or not. For them, it will be a chance to visit with their adored professor and friend again through his works.
“When visiting the exhibit, people should be able to tell that they are in the presence of someone who had a particular style and point of view,” Parker said. “That’s what’s amazing about art. It communicates across all languages and culture. On one hand it’s traditional and on the other it’s completely distinct.”
Everyone agreed that Crespo’s death came too soon.
“It’s been two years, and if I think about it I can still cry,” Krolak said. “You wish that every person could be as special as he was.”
According to Krolak, even after Crespo found out he was terminal, he was still taking lessons and learning new things. He had a love of life itself. He was always questioning. He was open to the universe.
Charleville added, “He believed that death was just another part of the journey.”
One of the last paintings Crespo did in his life, Fox at the Aegean, is done on a light blue background, in contrast of most of his other paintings done on a dark or black background. Krolak explained that, for her, the darkness represents mystery, while the light blue seems as if Crespo may have finally “seen the light.”
“It is my belief that [Crespo] was painting about places he knows even more intimately now,” Johnson said. “The beauty remains here in this room and elsewhere.”
“Mysteries: Works by Michael Crespo”
Oct. 27-Dec. 14
Alfred C. Glassell Jr. Exhibition Gallery
Shaw Center for the Arts
100 Lafayette St.