The artist in the oasis

A eulogy for Frank Spring: artist and friend

The artist in the oasis
Frank and me, 2009

These remarks were given at the memorial service for Frank Spring on April 30, 2023, in New York City.

I met Frank in 2004, at a house concert for Classical Action. Frank was a founding patron of this series, where world-class singers and instrumentalists performed in beautiful homes, raising money for people living with AIDS — a cause near and dear to Frank’s heart.

The night I met him, we were in a home filled with contemporary art, and so our conversation roamed from sculpture to painting — then broadened to photography and opera and movies. I had just moved to New York City, mesmerized by the sheer variety of ideas floating around, and here in front of me was a person who had the same capacity I did to love and embrace and engage all of it. 

And so that’s what we did. 

For eighteen years, Frank and I endlessly toured museums, saw plays, went to movies and operas. We attended house concerts; we made art together. We even hosted a joint birthday party that turned his loft into a gallery-slash-nightclub, with people dancing among his paintings until the wee hours.

And, of course, we would talk. Over dinners downtown, or walks through Central Park after we’d visited the Met, or through long letters we wrote to each other, elaborating on beauty and wrestling with meaning. 

Art was woven throughout, central to our lives and conversations — but for Frank and I, art was always the beginning, never the end. Art was a doorway to deeper ideas. A way of understanding each other and ourselves. 

By the time I’d met Frank, he’d already come back to painting after a lifetime away; the first time I visited his loft, there were already a couple canvases leaning against the wall. So from the get-go, I saw him as an artist — but he didn’t quite think of himself that way. Not yet.

Obviously he liked painting; anyone who spoke to him about his work could see how he vibrated. I would occasionally bring him something like a new color-changing paint and his face would light up with possibility. Or he’d find a new material to incorporate into his paintings — some marble dust or fabric — and he would be giddy as he dragged me to the easel and insisted I run my hands over the canvas to feel the texture. He just loved that close engagement with art. 

More than once, in fact, we were at a museum and some poor docent had to scurry over and ask us to step away from some painting or other, because Frank — in his enthusiasm — had forgotten that not every painting is meant to be touched.

He liked this world so much, but painting in those early years was also a struggle. Just as art pushed us to engage deeper ideas, the act of painting forced Frank to face himself — and what Frank found inside was uncertainty. Fear. 

He and I talked about this often: painting came with benefits, but it also came laden with doubts. He couldn’t get rid of the questions: Was he qualified? Was he actually an artist? 

I note that his first self-portrait is called The Aspirant, not The Artist

Around 2015 or 2016, his doubts actually took over for a time. He was in the midst of a painting with a large red bird, hovering gracefully over a garden of flowers — he called it, simply, The Bird

About halfway through, though, he just… stopped. In fact, for many months, he stepped away from the easel entirely. He didn’t paint at all. It was almost as if he couldn’t hold his doubts and his brush at the same time. 

I don’t know precisely what got him through. Maybe it was the spiritual work with his partner, Tom, or maybe it was the yearslong support of his friends. But somehow during this time, Frank found the strength to choose the brush. To choose himself. 

He came to realize that it was ok to paint more for himself than for others — and by so doing, he realized that painting could be a sanctuary, a place just for him. Art as a safe space. 

And so as he returned to the easel, as he returned to this red bird, he gave the piece a new name: Oasis

And not just a new name. He did something he’d never really done before: he changed the painting, right there on the canvas, even though it was almost complete. This might not seem like a big deal, but for Frank, who loved control and planned everything out perfectly — for Frank, who up until this point had constantly second-guessed his own artistic impulses — this was a big shift. 

In the finished version of Oasis, if you look to the left of that graceful old bird, you’ll find a small artist’s palette with a smiling face. In the original plan, it had been a flower, but now it’s a new self-portrait. It’s Frank. The artist in the oasis. 

From then on, things were different, more free. Frank still planned out some of his pieces, of course, but after Oasis, he gave himself permission to play, to experiment, to trust his artistic impulses a bit more, to follow his weird and wonderful dreams without worrying what people might think. And you can see it throughout his later work: his brushstrokes are freer, his compositions looser — his joy more pronounced. 

And I was so proud of him for this. Proud because this new artistic freedom required him to let go of so many strictures that had been holding him back, so much weight and pressure that he’d been carrying with him — even if he rarely let on how much he held. 

I was proud that he learned to stop tamping down his imagination for fear of how it would be seen or judged. 

And I was proud that these changes didn’t stop at the easel — remember, art was always the beginning, never the end. 

In his later years, I saw Frank himself be more free — he lived a life less rigid. He started to let go of ego and control. Not entirely, of course; he was still the Frank that we all knew: the Frank with some strong opinions, the Frank who would brook no argument about the brilliance of the Beatles or Frida or Hitchcock, the Frank with a few rough edges. 

But he did start to change. To soften. 

And Frank saw this, by the way. He worked on these changes, he embraced them both in his life and his art. And he was glad about them. 

I was glad, too — as much as I loved that man I met at that concert all those years ago, I love even more the person he grew to be. 

That’s who I think of as we celebrate today. That’s who I think of as I look at the remarkable paintings hung here today. 

The person who learned to let go and trust.

The person who chose to live not in fear but in joy.

And the person who finally embraced the title that he’d craved for so long: Frank Spring, Artist.

Oasis, by the artist Frank Spring