Ephemerama #17

I’ve been working hard in my studio and at my part-time job so I haven’t had much time to blog lately but today I decided to grab a little time to finish that 3 part series on my artist talk that I gave at R.I.T. back in October. This section is largely on my teaching style and a little section at the end on some life lessons that I’ve learned since finishing grad school. I regarded my talk at the university as too monotone and long but I received some great insights on how to make it better next time from the wonderful artist Cliff Wun, who taught me that these talks are really about giving faculty and students a taste and not a meal. Cliff knows something about sacrificing his body for his work, which I respect because I always feel like I can have a little more rigor in my career. He’s recently on the mends from a series of surgeries caused by his art materials though he’s still at it, making intricate and beautifully disturbing work. Here’s a few examples:

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“Pretty Meaty” and “You Can Make It If You Try” both by Clifford Wun

Anyway Cliff spent a lot of time with me during the faculty recruitment weekend and his advice on seeking an academic career in the arts was invaluable. It mostly centered around being aggressive, asking for what you want and listening to what departments need and tailoring oneself to that need.  So here’s the last snippet from my talk “Honor, Race and Dystopian Design, an Exploration of Recent Work and Pedagogy”

Teaching Philosophy and Student Work

As an arts instructor I strive to help students transfer their ideas into tangible pieces of art that can convince a viewer that what they see represents a well-conceived fictional world. I achieve this objective through the following: teaching well-tested design principles, probing students to imagine a detailed fictional world from which their work emerges, and by challenging students’ notions regarding the materials they use. I’d like to take you now through my ideas on teaching by charting how I put together an average course.

I begin almost every art course with exercises that help me identify the skill gaps the class. One such lesson is my “five-lines/exquisite corpse projects,” in which I ask students to develop an artistic idea from paper scattered with ink and drawn with five random lines. After the students are deep into their compositions, I announce a twist: to switch their piece with another student in class and complete this new work while making sure it remains their own. I’m often able to chart much of the potential output of each student with this simple project. This project becomes the basis from which I teach fundamental lessons about design, balance, and color.

The initial lessons in my courses are designed to help students learn how to create a convincing composition with significant imagination.  One of the most useful means at my disposal to do this is by linking sketching with a narrative. For example, in the beginning of the semester I assign students a sketchbook assignment where they are given one small object – for example, a toy soldier or a plastic dinosaur – and I ask the student to continually draw the object from various angles often 10, 20 or 100 times. After they are very familiar with the object I then ask them to integrate the object into stories based on simple relatable themes I assign such as the changing of the seasons, or the pressures of a “due-date” for a paper.

The meat of the art courses I teach involves students devising creative solutions to a set of challenges I lay down in “assignment statements”. These statements set out a principle to be explored such as lightness and shadow or tight foreshortened spaces, the materials that can be considered and a time frame to complete the project. These statements allow for a wide latitude of approach and material, and I often encourage group collaboration as a means to crowd source solutions to ideas a student feels might feel is weak or underdeveloped.

I’ve found that self-portrait assignments offer students built in motivation to do innovative work.  I add twists to traditional portrait projects by forcing students to see themselves differently, three of my favorite portrait projects are my composite self-portrait, falling self-portrait and racial stereotype assignments.

A simple initial example of catching a student off guard regarding expectations can be found in my composite self-portrait project. In this assignment students take written comments made about their appearance and composure made from in class interviews I conduct with everyone on the first day of class. Student then build a self- portrait response to these comments.

This composite self-portrait project is often pared with an out of class portrait project in which students depict themselves in the act of falling down.

Relying on interview comments in lieu of mirrors force students to pair their visual perception of self with that of their fellow classmates. In my experience the results produce intriguing and sometimes delightfully bizarre portraits. Similarlly the falling self-portrait project leaves the students predisposed to imagine themselves in the uncomfortable act of falling, thus further pushing the student to craft compelling work.

The final portrait assignment I’d like to show you is of my racial stereotype project. In this assignment I ask students to paint or draw themselves as a painful racial stereotype that they cannot choose. I assign the stereotypes to students who I feel over the course of the semester could benefit from seeing themselves as “the other”.

I often combine in class projects into units with both sketch and other out-of-class major assignments paired with the in class work. By combining in-class and out-of-class assignment into project units I impart the value of hard work, repetition and permission to fail into student’s tool box, creating in tern well rounded artists. Here are some other images of student works.

A further note on workloads in my courses. The courses I design are usually filled with many assignments, often seven or eight major projects in a typical 13/14 week course. I believe that it is through the crucible of time constraints and high expectations that students begin to delve deeper into their creative stores to possible produce good artwork. A schedule designed to incorporate several failed attempts at creating successful art gives students the space to learn and grow, and the time to correct any mistakes along the way.

Finally, let me conclude by stating two principles I believe in strongly when teaching at the college level. First I believe flexibility is key in teaching developing artists. I seek to always accommodate students’ particular way of learning. Second, I maintain an active studio practice. I keep busy making art and invite students to see what I’m doing. I also engage with students as a fellow artist. By treating students as burgeoning colleagues rather than adolescents needing close guidance I respect their experience and hopefully gain perspective I might not have considered.

Balance, My latest work, and a Bit of Advice

I’d like to conclude my talk with a few words about balance and ways to face reality. While I’m tempted to say that there is no balance in art, and that facing reality is a necessity not a choice, my own experiences suggests otherwise. Here are the results of my art career to date, and I’m going to be a little vulnerable here. I am 39 years old. I managed, initially out of fear of working a soul-crushing job, to get an MFA right after getting a BA. (I think this was a mistake because I don’t think I was emotionally ready for grad school even though my work flourished there). I became a union-organizer for lectures in the UM system and I lectured at Michigan; which I mention only because getting those positions and then being… um shall I say not asked to return to my teaching at the university, led me to pack my bags and move to New York. I for years worked part-time at the New York Times and at a UN affiliated NGO called Security Council Reports. During this time I put on self-curated shows of my work and my friends work. I left stable employment to pursue academic teaching jobs over the last seven years. This led me to travel across the northeast searching for teaching work. Through serendipity- that came about from the fiery embers of a failed relationship – I landed in eastern Pennsylvania where I now partially reside, my other home is the Bronx.  And I now paint in my first studio that’s not in my apartment since graduate school. I work in retail and I paint. I take visiting artist gigs and artist residency positions where I can get them. I offer this as a cautionary tale of the uncomfortable yet often thrilling life of an artist, and without a satchel full of regret either, as I have always maintained a high degree of independence in my life.

While I certainly could have orchestrated an artistic life with a degree more planning then I have to date, I remain satisfied that balance between my work, my art, and my relationship and friendships have for the most part been achieved. This balance could not have been achieved without a few key ingredient. They include maintaining a stable relationship with, and this is key, a non-artist; and living within a budget even a shitty budget like mine. Finding a sustaining relationship is of course a personal matter and one I can’t speak much about except to say it makes a huge difference in one’s sanity. However, money, that’s a subject I feel I can say a brief few words about. I graduated with a cohort of 31 artists when I left Michigan in 2001, by my count there are 4 of us still working creatively because work and family became their priorities. I offer no judgement on their choices but I will say the artists’ job of maintaining a healthy studio practice is exponentially more difficult if one is also balancing a family and a challenging job as well. I have met very few super-people capable of doing all this so choices, a choice to live within one’s means, choose jobs wisely, and plan families with an eye towards sacrifice must be made. Of course many of you are aware of these issues, but as my favorite R and B singer Jill Scott, sings on her new album, until you know, you don’t know about love.

I’ll end now with an image of my latest Pilot painting, “Pilot #5”, that I finished just last week. Once again I‘d like to state how important, at least to me, the act of day-dreaming is. I day-dream all the time. I’m day-dreaming now. I day-dream so much that at times I think my capacity to operate in what we call the real world rests on my ability to separate myself from it and frolic in my own head space. I’m often amazed at how much focus the notion of facing reality carries in our society. It’s hard for me to imagine any of our most cherished institutions such as our democracy, the internet the cities we live in, existing under the pressures of facing a corrosive and reductive perceived reality. Everything we fancy was fantasy until courageous people brought those ideas into our worlds from out of their heads, lets always remember to celebrate our imaginations. Thank you.

I wanted to end this post with a couple of discoveries brought to my attention from my friend Michael Baker. They are the artists Raymond Gallucci known mostly for his pottery and mosaics and Mildred Johnstone known for her needlework and quilts. Johnstone’s work in particular is very inspiring to me, along with her rather licentious life, we should all live so well. Here are a few images I found of their work. Until next time….


Here’s a rare Raymond Gallucci mosaic


Here’s a detail of a Mildred Johnstone quilt


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