Monday, August 09, 2010

Remembering Jack Potter: Illustrator, Teacher, Mentor

By guest author Daniel Zalkus

“Straight, Curved, Fluid”




“No Gray or Middle of the Road”

“Supreme Caring”

If any of those quotes sound familiar to you then chances are you’ve passed through room 501, Jack Potter’s class at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). His class, “Drawing and Thinking,” was a staple of the Illustration department where he taught for over 45 years.


The class description from the undergraduate/graduate registration booklet:

“A class governed by a variety of premises, a wide range of thinking and seeking to build a new and stronger visual vocabulary. Thought of as a gym, to stay in shape with exercise involving highly creative interpretations. Models and props will be used extensively.”


I met Jack in 1997, taking his class based on the recommendation of another teacher at SVA, John Ruggeri. Jack was a legend at the school and a well-known illustrator during his day.


I had no idea what to expect but what I got was an experience I cherish and reflect on daily.


This week I’ll talk about various experiences I had in his class along with stories and anecdotes Jack told about his illustration career. If anyone else out there knew Jack or took his class, I’d love to hear any stories you might have too.

Continued tomorrow...

* Daniel Zalkus is a freelance illustrator, graduate of the School of Visual Arts and loves to wear plaid. To see samples of his artwork please go to

* My Jack Potter Flickr set


  1. Anyone else out there take Jack's class or have any stories to tell about him?

    1. Anonymous4:36 PM

      Hi, I realize this is an older thread, yet I was just searching Jack Potter and found this and have enjoyed the post and comments tremendously.

      I'm Bobby Mcmahan, Jack's younger cousin in California and I'm sitting here surrounded by Jacks early works hanging on the walls. Oils, charcoals, and watercolors that made him cringe when he visited. A series of Audubon bird copies he did at 14. I always kidded him saying "Send me something current and they'll be put away" That never happened so they remain.

      As a child I was fascinated by this talent he had and spent many happy times watching him create. He was the Pied Piper in my life. In later years on most Sunday afternoons I'd get a phone call from him, his bombastic voice saying..."It's Jack - Lets talk movies!" I sure miss that and him very much.~

      Bob at

  2. i miss his class dearly. he had an amazing presence, a hurricane really-- everything felt crucial like you're riding adrenaline trying to get the lines down.

    he brought a tallish male dancer one time to class, to whom i created a sentimental portrait drawing. he saw it and said it's terrible, and that he hates it-- but if the dancer's mom would have seen it she would cry with joy.


  3. What a great story, Tomer - thank you! L :^)

  4. I first encountered Jack’s class while in my second year at SVA, Spring of 92. I had been aware of his bombastic teaching style through one of my roommates and had seen student drawings from his composition class while studying with Sam Martine. It was always riveting and magical to me that so much could be conveyed with such brutally simple drawing, shapes really, delineated with a jet black charcoal pencil line and organized in such a way that your mind’s eye couldn’t help but provide you with rolls of information, none of which was actually on the page. Up until that point I had been focused on the figure and gesture drawing in a more traditional way, preoccupied with ‘realism’ and accuracy. I became an instant convert and by the time I transferred to his class that Spring, I was ready to hit the ground running, because here was a guy who had found and was teaching the most exciting and direct way to convert visual and by extension, emotional experience, into marks on paper. Realism be damned.
    It was time to jump in with both feet. Attention, concentration and a discriminating eye were required because there was no going back once you started to lay down that strong black charcoal line. Of course you could always slap a piece of tape over it and redraw something, but the emphasis in Jack’s class was always on decision making, on interpreting what you saw. I’ve always thought of Jack’s class as an artistic monastery of sorts. A place of purity where the ordinary things of the world could be left behind and one was free to work towards perfection, always falling short, but the effort would create in one that “wrinkle in your brain” that would stay with you long after the outside world and all its mundane mediocrities would start to seep in.
    Thank you for doing this, Dan. I’m looking forward to reading your stories.

  5. JP-

    No problem. I'm glad to share and I hope everyone enjoys this week on Today's Inspiration.

    I agree with everything you said about his class and had a similar experience. In Jack's class the real world didn't matter. It was all about art and training your eye to "see".

    Even to this day I think about him when I sit down to work on a drawing.

  6. Anonymous1:47 PM

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Anonymous1:50 PM


    I'm amazed and immensely excited for this & all of the forthcoming posts on Jack Potter. My teacher, mentor & art hero. Yet, oddly, I have seen so precious little of his work (per his own design). I sometimes feel that I only knew half the man, and even less of his story. I hope to have my eyes open to even a little more of his legacy as well as hear more from his students, friends & colleagues. A group of which I am fortunate enough to be a small part of.

    I'm proud to have met Jack and been his student for the three short years that I attended SVA (1996-99).

    I stood transfixed when I was subject to my first critique, where his "harsh," "brutally" blunt assessments of my work were delivered with such a unique style & flair, that I couldn't help but laugh aloud while having my young, inexperienced eyes opened wide to just how much I still had to learn. Forcing me to see & accept the issues I knew were staring back at me before I even taped them to the wall. Demanding I take responsibility for what I had created & claimed as my own. His words sometimes hurt, but always in a productive way. Always inspired & got me hungry to improve & learn more, even more still. I knew from day one that, "This guy's for me." And I never studied under another drawing teacher again.

    His love for the odd, interesting, unique & divine was showcased each week as I anxiously awaited what form of glorious creature & setting he would bestow upon us, his disciples, each & every week. I always made sure to arrive to class early, just to have or overhear chatter with Jack as he dressed the stage and directed his players. God how he relished the big fatties & all of their luscious curves! I can hear him raving about how he wants to eat them up with a spoon right now.

    I miss him & his class more deeply & dearly than I can express. I think of him every time I pick up my EBONY pencil & draw something... anything. I hear his voice in my head, as if my own subconscious, reminding me to concentrate on the shapes & how they all work & fit together to tell the story. My story. Whether it be something sitting in front of me, or dancing around in my head.

    Most of all I miss his lust for life & the times when he would push me aside, demand I get up from my horse, so that he could sit & in a minimal flash of pencil strokes, show me what I was missing & just what an immensely talented individual he was.

    He also loved Pepperidge Farm cookies, and black. All too often, when someone mentions "The Man in Black," I think of Johnny Cash second.

  8. JP and Clarke; your comments paint such a vivid picture of Potter as a larger than life character - I'm becoming increasingly envious of those who had the opportunity to experience his teaching first-hand.

    Thank you!

  9. Jack is never far from my heart and mind. I cherish the wisdoms he shared. I still hear what he would say echoing in my head when I sit down to draw. Every now and then I pick up that ebony he gave me the last time I saw him and feel re-inspired.

    Thank you so much for posting this!
    It's so good to read what other have to say about him. How one man can be a mentor to so many, it warms my heart.

  10. I attended SVA as a Graphic Design Major about a decade before you did, Daniel. I love Jack's work and have a lot of his CocaCola ads framed in my house. I had both John and Jack as teachers but--by far--Sam Martine was much more powerful and influential. Where Jack was all about tough love and dogma, Sam was generous, articulate, and nurtured each student's unique voice. I felt that Jack was so intimidating that no one dared speak up during crits and he inspired a lot copycats. Sam knew how to make you a better artist and picture maker without repeating a formula. Sadly, he retired, but there are a lot of great artists who owe their success to the other guy who taught classes in room 501 eight times a week!

  11. Sam Martine was great too. More powerful and influential? I don't know about that.

    We all respond and connect with various teachers in different ways. Obviously Jack was a big influence on me but I did take many semesters with Sam. His approach was more realistic and figure based. Not saying one is better than the other, just different.

    I hope he's enjoying his retirement. SVA students don't know what they're missing!

  12. Sorry--I meant to say more influential and powerful *for me.* You sum it up nicely. Obviously Jack and John have many #1 fans and they have produced some great artists--like you! I agree we're both lucky to have experienced all three of their different teaching styles.

    I don't think Sam taught realism so much as translating and editing what we saw to create a good drawing. He always said that when the model ends the pose, the drawing is all that will remain of it so take chances.

    Sam also taught a Pictorial Problems in Illustration class that had a huge impact on my graphic design work but it was his drawing class where I experienced tremendous growth in the same way Jack's students did.

  13. Alex-

    You're right. Realism isn't quite the right word to describe Sam's class. It makes it seem like he wanted a full rendering which isn't the case.

    I remember the big thing Sam telling me was "Get the figure to turn". He wanted me to make sure that the model really felt like a solid form.

    Did you know that Sam was a former student of Potters? Apparently he was in the same class with Jack Endewelt.

  14. I didn't realize that. I thought they were contemporaries. I have terrible recall but I think Sam told me that Jack quit illustration because he was overwhelmed with deadlines and couldn't keep up with demand. I don't think he had a nervous breakdown or anything but he was, indeed, a star for a time who went supernova. We could argue about whether illustration or teaching was his true calling. They were both deeply appreciated.

  15. Dan - Punchy Black Line - gotta have that too.

    Let's see... After taking a year of High Focus drawing with James McMullen back in '91, I transfered over to John Ruggeri's drawing class. It was a very welcome change and enjoyed the process John taught much more then the High Focus drawing classes. Every once in a while John would mention the name 'Jack Potter'...well, I didn't really think much of it at first because it was just a name like any other. Then my friend TJ started taking Jack's class and would tell me to sit in on a class to try it out. I think John Paul was already in Jack's class by this time. So one day during my senior year, I just walked into Jack's class and we chatted for a few minutes. Somehow after out little chat I had an open invite to sit in on all of his classes. I took him up on his offer of course. I attended his class off and on for the next six years after meeting him.

    He had a bigger than life personality, kinda reminded me of Rex Harrison's character in 'My Fair Lady' -Bombastic, yet precise with impeccable taste. It was a treat to watch Jack sit at your drawing horse and actually diagram the scene on your page.

    After Graduating and going on to real world work I would always make time to stop by Jack's class once(sometimes twice)a week to "workout" the drawing muscle. I would often get to class early(night class) and either Help Jack with setups or help after class cleaning up. It was during this time where we(TJ, Dan, JP) would just shoot the bull Jack. Mostly, I wanted to know more about his life before teaching when he was working as an Illustrator which he hated talking about.

    Jack would greet all with a smile except maybe the students that showed up with the wrong supplies. oh boy... that's when you got bad Jack. The man could make a teamster cry. He was no nonsense and I think he took it as an insult if someone showed up not prepared for his class. He was there to teach.

    I think of Jack often. I miss his class. His class was an oasis.

  16. alinahayes5:17 PM

    I took his class in '97 as well. I wonder if we were in the same class together?
    I liked the way jack used to jump in and fix my renderings when my composition was off, particularly with white tape.

  17. I was very intimidated by him. (I took the class in around 1995, I think.) I was not a full-time student, just took a few courses while working a temp job on Wall Street in the day. I had taken Professor Zakin's drawing class (also a good experience) which was all about slowly building up rounded forms to make a figure and Professor Potter told me not to do that in his class. I was baffled and so frightened I couldn't make marks on the paper. So he came over and literally held my hand (I'm a lefty) and drew the model for me while I held the pencil.

    In my first critique I was still getting my footing and learning what he meant by the terms he used. I turned in an "illustration" of the models arrayed around a disembodied, reanimated head of W.H. Auden in a tank of liquid. I drew most of it with a #2 pencil, Cray-Pas, and inkjet printouts. He said, "I don't know what this is, but it isn't what I want."

    Other than those moments, which were the most intense bits of teaching I've ever been subjected to, he was encouraging, helpful, even nice. My work and I got much bolder. It was an incredibly valuable experience. The other students were all so good. One guy brought in big finished oil paintings for assignments and Potter said he was "just copying [some famous rich illustrator]". So he started bringing in pieces made of torn tissue glued to corrugated board that you could never sell in a thousand years. These, Potter loved.

    I realize there may have been elements of dehumanization and brainwashing in Potter's pedagogy, but it was worth it. He wasn't cruel or belittling, he just told you when he didn't like your work. He made you totally question yourself while telling you to go forward with the utmost confidence. At least I think that's what happened.

  18. Anonymous1:02 AM

    I am so grateful for finding so much of dear Jack on my computer. I think of him so often and just happened to google his name and was astounded to aee so much of his work on my computer. How did I so stupidly miss out on this! I was his very first model in NY and am in some of the illustrations and an oil painting for N W Ayers. Jack was so unique so very special and is so unforgettable. He was a great visualist. I arranged for him to get the apartment that shows the champagne bottle bottom windows in the background of the precious photos taken of him in his studio. After all of these years I still miss and remember so much of the time spent and love seeing all of the illustrations especially his favorite drawings of the boy and girl and the chess players in the village. I can still hear his commanding voice and his laugh. I still miss him.

  19. I’m so glad for this post. Jack was my art father and mentor. I studied and modeled with him for 6 years. His style and approach to drawing remained unique and affective. So many meals together, phone calls when I needed advice, post cards from his trips to the Netherlands... he’s just irreplaceable. Thankfully, I have one drawing of several hands he did for me in 1983, proudly on display. We last got together in 1997 at the diner on 6th ave. at the end of his block in 10th street. He was tough, but fiercely loyal as a friend and teacher. Love and miss you, Jack.

  20. I studied with Jack in the 80's with Roger Duncan, Tony Viramontes and Chuck Nitzberg, to name a few. Ana Ishakowa my professor at FIT told me, Donovan go take Potters class. The first class, I was so intimidated, and I remember if you got the Potter touch on the shoulder you were doing fine. That didn't happen for quite some time. Towards the end of the semester, Jack asked us to bring in two of our best works. I brought in my KPB like marker work. Eventually Jack came to my pieces, and went quiet, and then turned and said with that Baritone voice, “And who is this? ", I proudly raised my hand, and he turned to me and with his head tilted to one side and said...."Such old lady work from such a young man!". I never picked up a marker again and studied with him for six years. I eventually got my pat on the shoulder. Loved The Man.

  21. He was a wonderful teacher, one of the best I've ever learned from in a lifetime of learning. He was demanding and tough, but when you did well he didn't hesitate to shower you with praise."You're smelling like a ROSE today!!!" haha!

    I was so happy the day he finally said that to me.