Friday, May 18, 2012

Why Colleges and Schools that Don't Have Art Programs Should

As May comes to a close, and June slowly drags summer along, what seems to be my journey as a registered student comes to a close. I'm now in that phase where I'm going to be obsessively checking the database for my grades, consciously not going to the graduation ceremony, and waiting for my diploma reading "Master of Fine Arts" to come in the mail.

Of course, given today's economy, I'm having the standard "well, what the fuck am I going to do now???" problems. There is panicking, frustration, exhaustion, and admittedly annoying behavior on my part due to the aforementioned. That said, I'm truthfully not all that worried. I know that when push comes to shove, I'll find a way to not go hungry, and not just survive, but ultimately be satisfied and self-sufficient.  To those who see no practical value in an art program, I owe this silver lining to participating in them for over 10 years now. Here is short the list of why.

1- Creative Problem Solving: Thinking Outside the Box, and Executing
 The word "creative" is almost universally synonymous with the word "artist". Bottom line. The only problem here is that it's become such a cliche' pairing that most people in my experience don't seem to understand why. While most of my non-artsy compatriots seem to think that all it means is that we artists have the ability to make "cool pictures" or "interesting statements". My take on it (and I can only speak for artists, makers, and designers that act as object makers, since that is my vein of interest) is that artists are essentially charged with making something out of what appears to be nothing.  We get tools, either an assignment or an idea, and we use our resources to make it happen. Granted, I understand that this is awfully paired down and simplified, but the fact is that those are the only two steps that are universal to this kind of effort. Depending on what you're doing, or where you're doing it, there will likely be limitations (money, space, time, equipment, the laws of physics), but it still requires ingenuity, creative spirit, and an attitude that says "I don't really care how you get this done- just make it happen." This is something that I've found in common with almost every construction worker, engineer, computer programmer, mathematician, or athlete I've ever spoken to- and it is a drive one develops in an art program.

 2- Understanding Hard Work, Goal Setting, and Dealing with Failure
Creating something great, no matter what it is, isn't about already knowing how to make it. It is about facing the obstacles on the way to the finish line, and in spite them, saying "I'm still here." Many of my friends, who are all in either business or law school, don't have a good grasp on the level of difficulty being an artist (at least in an academic environment) can really be. Truthfully, they seem to mostly be under the impression that while they imprison themselves in a library, forcing facts and figures into their brains, I'm sitting around painting flowers with a beret and a glass of wine- false. If you don't put your time in at the studio in a meaningful way, it is noticed. It is a place where a grade isn't simply a measurable quantification of how many answers one has gotten right on a final exam. At the beginning levels, the art class environment is one where you're, rather than being measured on natural ability or talent alone, one is judged upon how hard they work. Did they work hard to produce? Did they fail? Did they learn form failure? Was there a clear sense of perseverance, and a hunger to succeed? These are questions I ask when, as a Teaching Assistant, I sit with the leading professor and evaluate the students we've been working with all semester long. Some are work-horses, some learn to care, and some never really end up giving a shit. That said, there is no room for apathy, quitting, or a half-assed effort. Not in my class, anyway. And for those who've always been groomed to believe that failure is not an option- it isn't always your choice. Everyone fails at some point, whether they know it or not. It is about how you gather that information, and use it advantageously for the future. 

3- Experiential Learning
Allow me to preface this by saying that learning disabilities seem to run in my family. My mother struggled with them all through school, and it has passed it's way along to all of the kids in my family (some worse than others). Baring that in mind, the traditional form of learning through repetitive reading have pretty much never worked for me. It has always taken approximately four times longer to get through any of the readings my classmates have doing, and sometime down the line I just stopped doing most of them all together. That said, I had to figure out a way to take in the information I needed in order to pass my classes- after all, it's hard to pass a literature class without reading the literature itself, right? Well, I figured out that many of these classes would require one of the tools I learned through art making- learning through "experience". What I mean specifically, is taking the subject, visualizing it, discussing it with at least one other person understanding how it works, what it is, and the flow of logic. Now, comparing the flow of how fabric should fall over a rigid structure versus the flow of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment are not a perfect comparison, but it's essentially what got me through Advanced Placement classes in High School, a BA with a large academic focus, and a Master's Degree- all complete with philosophy, literature, and art history intensives.

4- Detail Orientation, and Quality Control
In it's purest, simplest form making art is more or less about one thing- describing something. For those of you who are artists or art historians that just scoffed at that sentence, I get that it becomes more complicated than that, but bare with me. As I mentioned earlier, especially in drawing form life, there is an element of immersing one's self in something that becomes helpful when trying to turn a 2D plane into a convincing description of a 3D object (for those of us who are builders of sorts, the reverse can be equally difficult, if not more so). As I mentioned before, this is an aspect of art making that has been an invaluable source of enhancing my own research skills. Additionally, on the execution end of things, at several levels of art making, accuracy is absolutely essential. This is not necessarily (though it can be) in the sense of proportions or how much the object looks as it does it real life. As a professor of mine always says, "making art is all about creating a fiction". At the end of the day, it's the artist's (or whomever) job to take it step further and make us believe the fiction. Is what we're doing convincing, and why? Was the effort worth while? This bleeds into other subjects, as the root of it is essentially based upon building skills in finding the details, figuring out how to sort them, and making editing choices decisively and with confidence. 

5- Observation and Communicating Ideas
One of the fundamental qualities of making work, for me, has always been about information exchange. Articulating an image, let's say of a person, is no good unless it is something other than just a cold figure. Who could the figure be? What is the expression of their face or body language? Assuming there is color, what does the pallet or tone say about this person? These aspects of creating an image of a person can also help the reverse side of the coin, in terms of receiving information as opposed to giving it. Understanding how to create personality, behavior, and mood through art allows us to pick up on those details when we see it in person for ourselves. In terms of practicing the delivery of ideas and information, there is the dreaded classroom critique: a forum in which everything you've made is out on display, to be judged, picked at, and (presumably) defended. If there is anything I've learned after over a decade of being on both ends of the hot seat it's this- more than anything, they are designed to keep you on your toes. They force you to think quickly, speak confidently in front of authority figures and peers, and inspires preparedness so as to not look like a fool trying to pry their foot from their mouth. The more these sessions occur, the more practice one has for an anxiety-ridden arena where success is often determined by a third party.

For a few more tidbits on the subject, visit this article on the Live Strong website.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"How To Kill Your Imaginary Friends", and recent happenings

Hi everyone!

So it has been a while since i posted anything in here, but a lot has happened. I just got finished with a QCMFA group show at One Art Space (www.oneartspace,com) curated by Michelle Levy of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, had my solo thesis show to cap off my time as an MFA, and gave an artist talk/lecture at Hunter College as part of their Focus and Motivation lecture series. As I prepare for things on the horizon I felt it was time to put the conceptual aspects of my most recent body of work, How To Kill Your Imaginary Friends, into a written format.

Let me start by saying that I understand killing one's imaginary friends might come off as confusing, counter intuitive, and over all macabre. That in mind, theses "friends" are not the childhood inventions most of us have used to prop us up when we feel lonely. Rather, they are notions, fears, worries, and judgements arrived at seemingly from the ether of society we live in. They are the personification of those things we think about that cause us to be apprehensive, irrational, or even inert when decisions have to be made and goals are set. Both in the experience of art making, and really anything else that requires making choices, honesty becomes an important factor.

Now, by honesty I don't necessarily mean telling your mom that you hate the sweater she got you for your birthday or sheepishly raising your hand when people in the elevator want to know whose responsible for the horrible smell. What I'm getting at is being able to make decisions that are true to one's self, not marred by what we project other people want, what their expectations are, or what makes us "good". The simplest example that comes to mind is about subject or material in making art. It isn't uncommon to ask a painter why they work on stretched canvas and get an answer like "because that's what people buy, right?" Though to most people that might not sound unreasonable, the real question is if it serves the work.

On the heels of that, this body of work has been about trying to make decisions based only upon what I felt would make good work. Easier said that done for a young artist like myself who has only recently had this epiphany. The voices would just keep seeming to find a way to creep in there, and ruin everything (side note, it should be explained that many of these things do come from a place unaccompanied by ill intent). With these obstacles failing to wane, I decided that I would kill off these voices the best way I knew how- literally. So with that, I used paintings and sculpture to turn my insecurities into physical beings that I would subsequently torture, maim, or kill. I would treat them like insects, stomping them out leaving foot prints in the ground. I would quarter them, crack their heads open, and as a warning to the others that were to come I would put their heads on pikes, boards, and hang them from fish hooks to keep them as trophies.

At the end of it all, I found some relief. I felt as though it was working, and that through my desire to get to making good, honest work by getting rid of the internal obstacles preventing me I was in fact making good work. When it came time for the work to be installed and shown, I had one last revelation about this body of artworks. A complete stranger came into the space, stopping in front of a triptych title Waiting for the New Guy (picture below). They turned to me and asked "so did you get them all?" At that point I realized that the void on the pike in the center panel was a symbol- I would never get them all. This was not simply a short term project to keep me busy, or an answer to a finite issue. This was something I, and really all of us, will always have to deal with- constantly working to voice ourselves, make choices, and be who we are unencumbered by the weight of judgement, fear of rejection, or all out failure.

Waiting for the New Guy, (3) 27”x32”, 2012

Until next time.