My best teacher

14th November 2003 at 00:00
I took one look at him and thought, 'I'm home'. His name was Professor Jack Nelson and he saved my life

I was born William John Viola Jnr in Queens, to the east of Manhattan. My mother was from England and my father the son of German and Italian immigrants. Queens, when I was growing up, was full of Poles, Jews, black guys, Italians. It was the ideal multi-cultural experience and in those days there were no drugs about, although there were gangs so we had to be on our toes.

I was always the class artist, from kindergarten. The first day at school, I had never seen finger paints and they had them on the table; I made a tornado, on the paper. The teacher held it up for the whole class to see.

At home, my mother used to encourage me, sitting at the kitchen table drawing with me.

My first inspirational teacher was Mrs Hassel, my art teacher (at Public School 20 in Queens). We were doing life drawing and I made a mess of this girl's figure, giving her beefy shoulders and legs that were too short. So I drew huge jackboots on her feet, gave her a football jersey and turned her into a big, macho guy. I expected detention, but Mrs Hassel thought it was amazing and offered me a job illustrating the school newspaper. I got some confidence then that I'd never had before.

I knew my art was vital to me. It was like breathing. I had to do it, but I'm still astonished that what I've made is in the National Gallery. When it came to university, my father said I had to study advertising, because that was what artistic people who want to get a job do. I went to Syracuse University and spent an unhappy year and a half. I was in a rock band and cutting classes; it got to the point where I was in danger of being kicked out.

In the end, my advertising tutor suggested I try the experimental studios department. I went to the basement, where the department was, and this guy came out of a room at the end of a long corridor and said, "I'm projecting vegetation on the moon". He'd filmed grass waving at high speed and he was projecting it on to a papier-mache model of the moon's surface. I took one look at him and thought, "I'm home". His name was Professor Jack Nelson and he saved my life.

Experimental studios was like the orphans' home. Jack Nelson made the department from mavericks because he was a maverick. You could do anything, and he would encourage you. He was anti-establishment, he was an artist - he had this spark, that anything was possible. He taught me that the unknown was more important than the known. He passed away in 1998, but we still need guys like him.

Another important teacher was Daien Tanaka, a Zen teacher I met in Japan in 1980 at a retreat. My wife and I walked through the door and there he was, laughing. We immediately connected, even though he didn't speak much English. I had been reading books on Zen and Buddhism for years. I told him about the temple we were going to the following week, thinking that was bound to impress him. He said "That's Zen Mitsubishi" - meaning it was very commercial. His style was to wander round Japan, visiting students. He didn't want anything to do with big temples and status, just like Jack Nelson hated big institutions.

Daien Tanaka was an artist, working in pen and ink. He would cry, "Inspiration", and grab a pen and draw; it was flowing through him. He was a completely happy, carefree soul, open and emotional. He cried a lot. He was probably my deepest inspiration. My teachers are all gone now. Tanaka died in January 2002, the day before I finished the last edit on the biggest project of my life - Going Forth by Day.

Teachers matter so much. It's important for children to see that there is a path, and it's not necessarily the expected one.

Artist Bill Viola was talking to Wendy Wallace.A special private view for teachers of Bill Viola: the Passions takes place on Friday December 5, 6-9pm. For an invitation, tel: 020 7747 2424


1951 Born Queens, New York

1955-68 Attends schools in Queens

1969 Studies painting and electronic music at Syracuse University, New York

1974-76 Lives in Florence; director of production at video art studio, ArtTapes22

1976 Artist-in-residence at WNET Thirteen television laboratory, New York

198081 Artist-in-residence at Sony's research laboratories

1986 Completes first feature length video, I Do Not Know What it Is I am Like

1995 Represents the United States at the 46th Venice Biennale, with Buried Secrets

2002 Completes Going Forth By Day for the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin October 2003 The Passions at the National Gallery, London, until January 2004

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