Thursday, September 3, 2009

Back on the moose: Fall semester '09

“What they call talent is nothing but the capacity for doing continuous work in the right way.”
- Winslow Homer
It’s that time of the semester, ramping things up, wrapping up others. Reading over the last class’ Instructor Assessment System evaluations has, as usual, provided some feedback to mull over. Egomaniac with an inferiority complex: gloss over, downplay and dismiss the positive + agonize over any criticism (“pole-vaulting over moose turds”).
When approaching another first day of class, I’m usually in a reflective mood, a little apprehensive and a little bit excited. This morning I was thinking back over the years of my experience not in the studio, not in the classroom, as both a student and teacher, but as a waiter.
Serving food to thousands of people gives a different perspective on teaching art: while the interpersonal dynamics of being an “authority figure” is a different role, there is an analogy to be made because the situations are quite similar.
Trained to accommodate a wide range of expectations, there is an equivalent task in trying to sell the special, oftentimes to the skeptical, the critical or the unwilling. There is a tiny fraction of those who I not only convince to take me up on a recommendation, but who will actually see I’m having so much fun that they’ll in turn decide to become a professional waiter. This ratio is about the same of how many students in a beginning drawing class will not only do the work well and with enthusiasm, but will go on to pursue a degree in the arts. That’s one hell of a tip, but it isn’t a very common outcome, and so there has to be something more.

We both want something from each other, and in this case it depends again on those expectations and assumptions. At the very least students are seeking three credits of a humanities elective to satisfy university’s requirements for their respective degrees, in turn earning enough academic training to get a good job and earn a living. Maybe 98% of a given class will never go on to draw anything again for the rest of their lives after this one class. While I don’t necessarily aspire to make everyone convert to a life as an artist, nor convince them to take up art as a viable career, at the least I strive to impart some degree of discovery that drawing, and in turn creativity, is a skill that can benefit and enrich their lives regardless of their individual levels of accomplishment and craft.
Like at each and every table full of people at a restaurant, there is usually at least one individual who wants to be there, is looking forward to eating out; they might experiment with different dishes or combination of foods; they like meeting new people, will engage in interesting conversation etc. You know, one of those annoying weirdoes. There’s an equivalent in every classroom: a student who actually wants to be an artist, enjoys taking classes, is willing to try new things, is an active participant in critiques, etc.
Then there’s the folks who just go along with what’s expected, just show up because they have to, it’s what’s expected of them. Eating is a pedestrian necessity of life, it’s simply fuel, not fun. For another person, everything has to be just perfect for them to be happy. For another, they really don’t want to be there at all, hate the place, hate the food, hate the waiter, have had bad experiences in the past, etc. Then there’s the one who doesn’t get along well with others, or acts inappropriately in public, or is selfish, demanding and rude, or the guy that nobody likes but puts up with anyways. And so on.
“An artist is someone who produces things that people don't need to have but that he - for some reason - thinks would be a good idea to give them.” - Andy Warhol
Then I show up at the table with a smile and a suggestion to try today’s special. They’re all going to get something from me anyways, hopefully what they want, but everyone’s gotta pay regardless. Ideally it’ll be a pleasant and rewarding experience for all of us, and we’ll have some fun, learn something new about ourselves and other people, and maybe, just maybe, be rewarded with inspiration in the belief that heyI can do this too.

Leaving aside the psychological mindset that affords one to confront a group of strangers with conviction and credibility, selling the idea of art takes as much work as it does summoning the motivation to create it. Sure, there are the days when I feel like I’m going through the motions, just doing my job and earning a paycheck. Fortunately those are rare, and the latent enthusiasm of a new day, a new student, a new class, a new semester and for each and every new drawing there will be the possibility of surprise, accomplishment and reward enough to stick with it. Seeing firsthand bored or burnt-out students, and jaded teachers that have plateaued in both artistic and educational capacities is a humbling and haunting reminder to stay balanced, keep focus, and challenge myself first.
A disciplined approach is the crucial foundation: “clocking in and being creative” might be anathema to many artists, but as with skills in every other discipline, from sports to cooking, constant practice yields consistent results. Nomatter what happens, regardless of their respective ability, completion of assigned work will show improvement - everybody gets better.
And as with my own work, confronting and surmounting other people’s inhibitions and issues of self-confidence are one thing, above and beyond actually doing a good drawing. There has to be tangible reasons to offering a class like this, and real-world benefits, practical applications beyond passing. My ulterior motives are to make it valid, if not valuable, make a connection so others can make their own connections.

A little bit of hopeful naiveté, some showmanship and entertainment, a dash of snake-oil, a healthy serving of respect and hint of fear. These are the ingredients that constantly go through the back of my mind while prepping for the first day. The syllabus is tweaked, class schedule updated, my philosophy of both teaching and doing art overhauled and tuned up. The classroom is tided up, tables are in order, student drawers clean with fresh pieces of tape on them ready for new names. The soundtracks are remixed along with slide-shows of sample works, and the copies are made for handing out. Demo materials and portfolios packed for show & tell, and the faculty exhibit is up (pic above).

Like everything else in life and art, just gotta remember to get up early.

Last week I had the first ever nightmare of being twenty minutes late for my first class, then thirty minutes, when I couldn’t find my copies of the syllabus. The studio was crammed full of fifty people, standing room only, when I walked in (yes, wearing pants), and then woke up. Reminded me of the only other dream I had as a teenager where I was working as a line cook during highschool; I had sleep-walked out to the kitchen and was desperately rummaging through the refrigerator trying to get an order put out.

Like an awful lot in life and art, I have no freakin' idea what that means.

“I have no idea what I am doing. But incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm.” – Woody Allen


  1. Yeah.. that evaluation sheet at the top with the handwriting that looks like a 4-year-old's? That'd be mine.

    This'd be Elbot, BTW.

  2. That'd make sense then...

    (Keep up the good work)