By Kyle Roke ’22
The art studio at Commonwealth contains, as any interesting location should, a wide collection of varied objects that I explored at the start of this year. There are, of course, the typical fake fruits carefully placed in a nondescript bowl; a pristine series of vases, pitchers, and other glassware; a human skeleton, maybe from a student that couldn't keep up in their sketchbook; and a bucket full of seashells of every aesthetic imaginable. All of these were decent options for a still life, but the one object that managed to enrapture me fully was something peculiar for an art studio: a tiny, faded, yellow rubber duck whose lifeless black eyes pleaded with me to make it a regular participant in my drawing projects for the year.
I've always found myself drawn to rubber ducks. Maybe it's some instinctive response to their helpless yellow stare, maybe I had some potently traumatic incident with one particularly vicious rubber duck in my youth. What I think, though, is that I was imbued with this affinity by my grandfather, a vaguely eccentric Boston College math professor with a fixation on ducks and cattle. His legacy, then, could be effectively honored with a series of duck-focused still-life pieces.
The studio, however, only had one rubber duck, so I couldn't just draw ducks for an entire school year. Luckily, there were all the other, more traditional sets of still-life objects, and considering I had just gone a year without taking a drawing class, drawing some combinations of them could give me the opportunity to get back into the visual arts. Moreover, I just kind of liked the idea of contrasting classic still life scenes with a slightly absurd rubber duck hanging out right in the middle. I wanted to take my drawings seriously, but not too seriously, in keeping with my grandfather's humorous but firm attitude toward his work, family, and everything else in between. I can also attribute my love for mathematics to him. I think of myself, first and foremost, as a math student, a product of math-major parents and a series of other STEM-focused relatives. My grandfather, though, as the progenitor of the whole clan, influenced all of us, both directly and indirectly. When I was still in elementary school, he outlined a proof that the square root of two was irrational for me after I had expressed interest, something I think catalyzed my interest in higher mathematics. Less directly, I often aspired to be able to understand the linear programming textbooks he had written.
This enjoyment of math, too, feeds back into my artistic process. A lot of the way I approach math is similar to my approach to art; fundamentally, my goal in math is to abstract away as many specific details as possible while retaining the underlying structure. Likewise, when approaching a new art piece, my primary goal isn't to capture every minute detail of the objects; such an approach would be patently impractical, and would also be pretty darn difficult. Instead, I try to establish the light over objects as a means of showing their physical structure, an abstraction of real objects that still retains the core shape.
Ultimately, I resigned myself to giving the duck companions, adding the objects that I had passed over at the start of the year to my series of still lives. I could appreciate them, though, as their varied forms provided a number of unique challenges for my art pieces. Across the year, I selected a bevy of shells from their bucket, rearranged plastic fruits into the perfect spots to complement each other in their bowl, set the vases up in a beautifully lit corner, and even returned to the skull of the skeleton. To each of these scenes, I added my own lightly absurdist touch, the faded yellow duck, between the shells, on top of the largest pear, in front of the vases, and inside the skull's left eye, abstracting the scenes and the fascinating duck in a way I hope my grandfather could have admired.
This article was published in the Summer 2022 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.