Saturday, January 13, 2018

Semester In Review: Fall 2017 Recap

Wrapped up another simply amazing semester: always a humbling privilege to have the opportunity to sit in the passenger seat and see where students take their work. There's been a couple brief updates along the way touching on specific highlights (pen + ink/collaborative pages and the annual greenhouse outings) but it looks as if blog updates from the campus studio classes will at best get covered with these all-in-one recaps (like for last spring and fall semesters).

But I still do take plenty of images so as to capture the memories, which many of the artworks also do, but it's always interesting to juxtapose the meta and mullings against previous essays from back when Ink & Snow first started. In most cases there's really nothing more to add: repeated lessons have all proven the point that the exercises work. As the image above during a subtractive assignment using charcoal so beautifully illustrates, it's all about getting your hands dirty. And I'll include a few bonus images of my own examples, since there's sometimes nothing better than leading by example - as in the case posted up top of sitting in for the caricature exercise as a participating model.
More below the fold...

Fundamentals: especially towards the front end of the semester a lot of classtime is taken up learning (or refreshing) many basic principles. Using charcoal to render value is so crucial throughout the rest of the course it comprises many exercises. Turing what was once only a shape into a three-dimensional form in space is as magical a process as is understanding and mastering linear perspective, which I emphasize over and over.

Pushing the range of lights + darks and using smooth gradations along with areas of contrast is the basis on which so much of the criteria in a successful piece is hinged upon. Here is an example of a student snapshot emailed to me for review: along with a short description of exactly what I'm doing and why, I'll reply with a quick demo using rudimentary Photoshop to illustrate the suggested tweaks. Using email to supplement in-class exercises is a useful tool, but limited in that sometimes it winds up taking way too much time, and pretty soon hours of every morning are spent working well before you even set foot on campus. Which may seem petty, but as a part-time adjunct with other jobs it can become somewhat of a logistical issue.

The Transparent/Reflective practice piece is a real brain-twisting thing to tackle, as it's easy to get lost within the deceptively simple still-life setup I like to use. We tape up a clear plastic cup to a mirror, then place a few clear plastic pieces of tableware inside the cup. Then just add directional source of lighting to create a nightmare of layers that require serious study and giving oneself the time to develop the piece, as this more than any other thing we've done will take a bit to fully realize on paper - which in turn drives home the importance of setting aside the requisite hours to complete assignments and critiques. That's the discerning factor between turning in a half-assed execution versus something that, uh, reflects invested effort, which is immediately apparent upon review. 

Smushing a student's face down onto a Xerox machine is a leap of faith that sometimes takes a little coaxing - but it's often a precursor to how they will in turn approach their work. The ability to persevere on a piece is a skill which determines a student's relative competence and growth over the course of a semester. Put another way, taking something ridiculous with seriousness can be rewarding and revealing.

Getting out of the drawing room and leaving the art department to practice our newfound skills in a different environment is an important tipping point where the abstract instruction becomes applied into real-world scenarios. also this doubles as a meta-lesson in how we will never run out of ideas: everywhere, all around us is nothing but endless opportunities to explore and create. Like the museum (any of 'em): it's basically a big ol' box full of stuff to draw. Go get 'em.

I quite often say outloud how much I hope my students eventually get to the point that leaving in the morning without having their sketchbooks at hand should be as vaguely disconcerting and uncomfortable as forgetting to wear pants. I want it to become like a phantom limb syndrome, as in an extension of themselves, an integral part of who they are, a repository of all things potentially important, and a historical document. Sometimes if it's an evening or weekend class I don't have the M-F/9-5 resources I normally can tap in the community, and so have to be a little creative, such as expanding the search off-campus. At the very least one of the side-effects gained through such excursions is learning to be comfortable doing your work outside amongst regular people doing their normal routine. An artist on-site immediately changes and charges the scene. What are you doing? Can I look? I always wished I could draw..

It should go without saying how much incidental inspiration I personally derive from all the constant exposure to such astonishing output. Indeed that is one of the many reasons some folks take art classes to begin with: there is a sort of creative osmosis that occurs when embedded in close proximity to others who are all engaged in the same activity. This is not a matter of competition, and at times requires the reminder that comparing yourself and/or work to that of others is of limited use. Every semester I repeat the mantra adapted from 12-Step meetings: there will always be somebody who is better than you, and there will always be someone who is worse. That has never changed in my experience, at any level at any time with any endeavor. That being said, the value of learning how to objectively critique will more often than not be an important tool, even if one has to keep in mind the parameters and qualifiers inherent to such an approach, especially within the context of a classroom setting. And to be completely honest, part of what's humbling is confronting the fact that there are students who are as good as or in some rare + wonderful instances, better than the teacher at certain things. For years I've known personally of the existence of cartoonists for example that are perfectly content to stay hidden in the woods and never show their work. But I know that they're there, and it it always tempers any inclination to patting oneself on the artistic back.

This all rolls over into never, ever getting tired of teaching art, seeing art and making art. Particularly pen + ink. And it is testament to the power of being in such an environment that I have been thoroughly drained at the end of a day and yet still find the time + energy to pick up an implement after a good critique and honor the dedication demonstrated by any of the students who rise to the challenge. If they can do it, especially amidst an overwhelming schedule of other classes and commitments, then I damn well better do the same.

Of course this works both ways... as my empathy breaks down pretty quick when I've been burning the proverbial candle at both ends. I remember in my undergraduate years that one of the salient points of instruction I gleamed from taking art classes was observing the art teacher, and studying how they were able to generate work amidst the requirements of a grown-up life. Putting aside the time spent in the actual classroom, the meetings, grading, extracurricular duties and demands on their day not to mention family life and maybe even personal pursuits - what was left over for art?
Case in point was getting to watch firsthand while I slowly imploded from the external pressures: working in excess of sixty hours per week between the two jobs, then throw in the freelance clients, add to that a major exhibit, plus a artist-in-school residency, and there's no room for the inevitable curve-ball right outta left field (in this instance an emergency family health issue that necessitated flying back East over the holidays). SO all I'm saying is that sort of pace ain't ever gonna let up, and learning how to take those speed bumps as fast as you can without losing your shit is an invaluable skill that for me got hammered home during my own thesis show process. You literally and figuratively throw everything you have at the wall, step back, and see what sticks. Then pick up the pieces and do it again. And again. Rinse, wash, repeat. Work while your at work, work like you're outta time even if you're ahead, because in the big picture you are always way behind.

At one point midway into the course it turned into somewhat of an therapy session as - especially with art majors it seems - there seems to be a semesterly stress point for a psychological meltdown. Deservedly so in many cases, because Life Happens, and prevailing over the innumerable and inevitable speed bumps along the way is part + parcel of being an artist. So admittedly there was an ulterior motive behind having some real-life working artists drop by the studio and share with us some of their personal perspectives from the trenches.

Last semester we were fortunate to have Sandy Jamieson visit (see detailed post here), but in accordance with my open door policy for any previous student to drop in and hang out, it's just as much of a real pleasure to see successful alumni circle back around and revisit their old stomping grounds. One of my favorites, as she is a rising art star not just locally but steadily expanding her reach into other venues, is Brianna Reagan. Again, she has an exceptionally valuable perspective to offer many a struggling student when it comes to disciplined allocation of resources, as in time. As a working mom there isn't enough hours in the day to finish anything, which is exactly the same situation shared by many if not most of the students in the class. And yet she's making it, in more than one sense of the word.

Same goes for Lucas Elliott, whose artwork has been taking him into all sorts of exciting & wonderful places. I sincerely thank these guys from the bottom of my heart whenever they swing by: I sit in the back and often wonder at just how lucky we are to have these amazing artists avail themselves to us - sure hope the students appreciate the chance to get incredible insights in such an honest, no-bullshit manner. It really means a LOT to some folks in the room, and they'll never forget it either: passing along the flame is such an honor that every artist out there practicing today owes it to themselves and the next wave of hatching talent to pay it forward.

Speaking of pen + ink, looking back over the selected excerpts from this semester’s comic book is always a real high point of each class- there’s something magical about holding one’s drawings as published work, on both a collective level and as an individual creator. Handing them out and sitting around the table for the critique provides a golden opportunity to underscore how empowerful it can be to hand someone such a set and say "hey - here's my stuff, check it out."

And now for the Intermediate I have begun assigning the collaborative page exercise, and the resultant amalgamation is a pure wonder to behold. And as with many other pieces throughout the semester, if they aren't exactly happy with the way it winds up, well then good: let that be the impetus for them to redo it the way that they see it, as it should have been done.

In assembling this post, I am continually amazed at the sheer volume of pieces I have documented over the years. Thousands of images, and each and every one of them special, or at the very least useful in its own way. They are like little bookmarks or crumbs left behind on the trail that show the way we went, and where we're going, on both sides of the table.

That's Life, or in this specific instance, Life Drawing. The all-too brief portion of the course devoted to working from a model is the capstone to an exhaustive survey, culminating in what for many creators is the apex of contemporary art. The immediacy of gestures brings us all full-circle back to that elemental primacy of why we draw to begin with: it's an act of creation, not the piece that's left over.

Samples from student drawings for our final exercise “Observation, Experience & Imagination”: 20-minute study from the model in graphite + 20-minute placing figure within a setting from memory of an environment drawn over the course of the semester + 20-minute incorporation of several elements from sketchbooks for fore/mid/background elements + 20-minute unifying composition with another medium (charcoal, pen + ink etc.) = some intriguing pieces that illustrate the varying degrees each respective area can be present in any work created or critiqued.

From the very first critique of the semester to the absolute last, when portfolios are turned in and the studio drawers are cleaned out, it's always a fascinating adventure to see firsthand the accomplishments of a diverse and talented group all creating their own unique pieces. There is a real sense of achievement - even within acknowledgement of any temporary setbacks - on both an individual level and as a collective. I've long since instigated a requirement for Intermediate along with Advanced students to upload their work somewhere on line, as most of them are declared art majors, and should therefore be well along their way at establishing an online presence as a component of the trinity: on the wall + on the web + in print or on product. So check out some of their efforts at the respective links:
Jill Suzanne Shipman Art, Stephanie Uzzell Art, Raven Shaw, Winter Osborne, Shayla Sackinger, Sydney Priest, Stephanie Riley Allen, Jason Hsi, Kevin Blanchard's Art Page, Carson Frank

In closing I'd like to share with you an example of one of the reasons I keep going as an art teacher, one of the many such affirmations I've been lucky to receive in retrospect. I know that there are many others who feel strongly - both good and bad - about their experiences. That's partly the reason I've been engaging in such solipsistic navel-gazing on a public forum on social media - it's a mere fraction of the total amount of reflection that's mentally going on in the background for most artists much less educators. I had a former student shoot me a brief message that kicked me in the creative pants and validated everything all over again, before it all gets subsumed again by the white noise of self-appraisal and second guessing:
Hey man, just wanted to say thanks for your part in my art education. Your class was the first I'd ever worked from live models, and the first time I'd ever tried a real nib pen, which was my tool of choice for years in the band days. I remember you once pointed out a mistake in one of my perspective drawings. Feeling something along the lines of "hey fuck you, I know how to draw!" I looked down and realized you were right. That helped teach me to be wide open to criticism, and to strengthen my own self-criticism, which has helped me improve more than anything else. I also remember admitting that I was afraid of the 'starving artist' lifestyle and you replied, "...I'm not starving." And that made a lot of sense to me.

Reminder: A disclaimer in that this essay (also see along the sidebar) - along with everything else on this blog - should not be construed as an endorsement from any of my employers: they are my opinions alone and in no way reflect the institutions, organizations or businesses depicted herein. All images of artwork are copyright their respective creators, which I ask + retain permission to repost for educational & promotional purposes.

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