Alumni Interview: Gus Van Sant ’71

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker reminisces about art under the tennis court, and the making of his very first film—on the Catlin Gabel campus

Interview by Ken DuBois

What kind of experience did you have at Catlin Gabel? 
It was a good experience for me, since I had come from a public school where it was not as personal. And I found at Catlin, since it was so small, I was under a lot more supervision, and it helped me a lot. Dave Corkran was the main influence scholastically for me at that time, beside the art department, which was a main place for me to work. I was an arts kid for sure. And I spent a lot of the time there in the art department, which at that time was under the tennis court. 

Did you pursue interests in filmmaking, photography, painting, or creative writing? 
I did photography, painted, and in my senior year, along with Eric Edwards, made a 16mm film starring Evie and Nick Weitzer. The real writing mostly was happening in Corkran’s history class for me—historical projects. One was we took a title and investigated whatever was being said in the title. My title was “Travelers’ First Reactions to the Northwest Woods.” For this I found diaries at the Oregon Historical Society, and writing by John Muir, and my objective was to keep in mind the promise of the title, “travelers” and “first reactions”—were they travelling into the Northwest, and are these the very first reactions? We did write in Alan Greiner’s English class too.

Was there a community of artists at Catlin Gabel–students and teachers working together? 
In the art department, there were a number of people that I was working with: Tom Carr, Dave Jenkins, Anne Storrs, Janet Gray, Eric Edwards, and Jon Prince. 

Who were the teachers who encouraged or inspired you? 
Kim Hartzell and Susan Sowles were very supportive art teachers for me at Catlin. They were so helpful, and they encouraged a lot of hard work. In 1971, in the yearbook, we were able to actually print pages in it, and that was fostered by the yearbook community and Anne Storrs. 

Are there lessons you learned at a young age—about creativity and self-expression—that you still apply to your work today? 
Yes, a lot of things were coming about then. I made my first dramatic film as my Senior Project. Up until then I had mostly been making experimental 8mm films. This was the one with Nick and Evie, and during this project Eric Edwards and I learned all the steps that one would take to make a 16mm black and white film from the original rolls to workprint, sound mixing, A and B reels, and making a print. Which is still a way to make a film in 16mm today, if you can find the film. But I know there is a cinema department now at Catlin, so I made my very first project at Catlin and kept going from there. 

Are there teachers or students from your youth that you think about often, whose influence you feel on a regular basis? 
I usually remember the community of Catlin, of which there was a lot of talk then, and perhaps now as well, about how the Catlin community was feeling to us as students. And it was the time of Manvel Schauffler, who was a beloved headmaster at the time, but there was some problem, I think, with the adult politics at the school, which we were kept away from. There was a draft then, and if we weren’t planning to go to college we may go to Vietnam. There were some amazing characters there at the time, such as Dan Bump, a quantum theorist, I think. Dan would make his way down to the art department because sometimes art intersected with math, which was his thing, so I remember him holding his head and being amazed by some math problem that we had no idea about. 

All students mentioned are Class of '71 except Nick Weitzer '74, Tom Carr '73, Anne Storrs '72, and Dan Bump '70.