Tough Lessons

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Art schools can be cruel places.

David McCullough’s book, “The Greater Journey” is a chronicle of decades of American artists, authors and scientists, seeking education and inspiration in Paris.  A master collector of terrific anecdotes, McCullough shares two stories that caught my eye,  as familiar tales of criticism faced, and tough lessons learned.

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Tough Teacher

Of Samuel Morse’s painting lessons in London, under Washington Allston:

As a teacher, Allston was exceedingly demanding. His critiques could be “mortifying”, Morse wrote, “when I have painted all day, very hard and begin to be pleased with what I have done…to hear him after a long silence say, ‘Very bad, sir. That is not flesh, it is mud, sir. It is painted with brick dust and and clay!” ‘ At such moments, Morse felt like slashing the canvas with his palette knife. He felt angry and hurt, but with reflection came to see that Allston was no flatterer, but a friend, “and that really to improve I must see my faults.” 

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Washington Allston,      self portrait

 

Tough Classmate

On George Healy’s first day studying at the atelier of Baron Antoine-Jean Gros:

In the world of the Paris atelier, rigorous hazing was an established tradition any newcomer, let alone an estanger.

Proficiency in drawing came first and foremost. Drawing was the foundation  of everything, it was preached, and most of every day was devoted to drawing a live model, the students packed at their easels elbow-to-elbow. Once, during an early session, while a model was taking a break and Healy concentrated on looking over his efforts, another student, short, rough-mannered, and older than the rest, suddenly stepped in and shoved him aside, saying “Donne-moi ta place, Petit” (“Give me your seat, Kid”).

“He coolly turned over my sheet of grey paper (Healy would remember) and sketched the model, who resting, had fallen into a far better attitude than which we had copied. The outline drawing was so strong, so full of life, so easily done, that I never had a better lesson.”

The rough-mannered student, Thomas Couture, was to become one of the celebrated French painters of the day, and as a teacher have great influence on many more Americans to follow. He and Healy became fast friends. 

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drawing by Thomas Couture

Lessons: Be a Stove, Not a Refrigerator 

Words of wisdom, which I’ll use often, as a mantra for my students, my classroom, my school and for myself – from an article about professional photographers who use Instagram as a vehicle for artistic exploration: Be a Stove, Not a Refrigerator. Cook up new things, don’t just preserve old ones.

“…even within the parameters of a style, (Gueorgui) Pinkhassov’s images are charged with a perpetual element of surprise – he says he’d rather be a “stove” than a “refrigerator,” would rather cook than keep. The effect of seeing a new picture by him, as you scroll down the instagram feed, is often a jolt of wonder and gratitude.”

– On Photography, “Instagram – Free, Chaotic and Immediate – Has Become a Place to Watch Great Photographers Work Out Their Obsessions” by Taju Cole, New York Times Magazine, 12/13/15

Teaching: It’s Not (Just) the Critic Who Counts

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The Critics, 1862, by Honore Daumier


“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

 

Every day of teaching, for me, is a risky day – a careful day. That’s probably true of all teachers.

As for me, I lead critiques, which can be so helpful, yet so dangerous. Students put their homework on the wall – their personal creations – their own ideas- and face public scutiny.  My job is to take it from there.

I’ve said many times that “crit” is not short for “criticism” – it’s short for “critique”. A crit should always be a learning excercise -a practice through which students learn how their work is seen through discussion with others. It’s where they learn of the infinite possibilities through observation of what everyone else created. And it’s where they learn how to improve through instruction and suggestion. I should add that it’s where students learn about accountability too – integrity.

But, day after day, I’m reminded that critiques can be risky. Students can feel judged – and can take things personally. Or, students can be defensive or closed to new possibilities.

It’s a tightrope we walk in critiques. But if student is as enthusiastic as in the quote above: “face marred by dust, sweat and blood,” then the focus goes to the maker. They have faced the blank page.

It’s easy to criticize, but it’s trickier to critique. And the difference is everything. It’s education.

 

Further Observation

Educators: remember not to monkey around with critiques. Get to the point. Say what needs to be said. Being useful demands courage. The courage of walking that tightrope.

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The Experts, 1837, by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps

Lessons: “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You…”

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Not long ago, Montserrat College of Art (where I teach) hosted the illustrator and designer, Oren Sherman as a guest artist. He lectured inspiringly and then visited classes including mine: Senior Illustration Thesis. It was there that Oren shared a terrific life lesson – that his professional career changed when he “stopped asking for things and started offering things” as a strategy for success. He urged the Montserrat seniors to do the same.

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Dunkin Donuts painting by Amberlynn Narvie

As an example, he spoke of my student, Amberlynn Narvie’s terrific paintings of the “regulars” at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, where she worked for years. “That’s a great story” he said. “Call the editor of the local paper and start from there.”
She acted on his urging and did even better. She put the work on Reddit and was immediately contacted by both Boston.com (the Boston Globe) and Metro Boston.

Now she’s been interviewed by both papers, and so, her career begins.

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Lessons: How to Draw Trees

Not long ago, I was a “Visiting Artist” at a fancy, private school in Connecticut. After a show and tell of my work, I welcomed students to ask questions. The first question was, “How do you draw trees?”

The question knocked me on my heels.  I’m not sure I’ve recovered yet.

After a short pause, I told the student, “I draw trees the same way I draw everything else. I look at my subject, and then I make marks on the paper that represent what I’m looking at. I translate that which is before me to the page.” The girl looked somewhat disappointed by my answer.

Since that time, I’ve reconsidered my answer. Not because of the student’s reaction, and not because my reply was wrong, necessarily. I mean, what I said was true. That is how I draw trees. Kind of. But, maybe I didn’t give the best answer. There’s more to it.

I certainly understand the disappointment of the questioning student. Non-artists think of drawing as an illusionary skill – a set of tricks – things that artists know and non-artists don’t know. If I would simply share with the student the trade secrets, then they too, could draw trees well, like I do. However, unfortunately, my answer didn’t reveal a secret. My answer continued to make drawing sound like a sort of mystery. Not purposefully. Actually, my intent was to do the opposite – to reveal an important fact about drawing – that there is no trick to it. There is only looking, and making marks (and making meaning, but more about that later).

We’ve all seen drawing books which have chapters such as “How to Draw Trees.” For years they made me bristle at the thought that they were selling a formula for drawing trees (and everything else). When you study drawing in art school, as I did, you aren’t taught a formula for drawing. Rather, you are taught to see. You draw and draw and draw and look and look and look again, critically. A good drawing looks right and a bad drawing looks wrong. There are endless variations of drawing approaches (from cartoony to abstracted), but they all end up looking right or wrong. In the end, the drawings prove that the artist has translated a well-seen truth. I must admit, however, that suplimenting those hours and hours of guided looking and mark-making was the sharing of the real inside stuff – the timeless principles of drawing success: composition, perspective, gesture, value, proportion…etc. Those aren’t tricks or formulas, but just looking and drawing wasn’t enough for me to succeed. Good teachers sharing good lessons were essential to my future success. Recently, I’ve come to realize that some of those “How To” books are actually intending to teach people to see trees better, not to draw them a certain way. That I can support.

Perhaps the biggest problem with my answer is that I didn’t even mention that drawing is a form of expression. When I draw a tree, that’s not all that I’m drawing. I’m also drawing thoughts, feelings and reactions. It’s an expression that I’m sharing. How I draw a tree has everything to do with that expression. A drawing of “I love that tree” is different than a drawing of “I hate that tree.” I’m not just making marks, I’m trying to make a point. I’m making meaning.

Finally, and most importantly, we should face the fact that the question itself, “How do you draw trees?” is the problem.

At its best, drawing is not about how.

How I’m drawing trees, has everthing to do with why I’m drawing trees.

I draw trees, or anything else, the way I do, as an expression of what I’m enthusiastic about. That’s the “why” part. Why I draw is to capture moments of time and place, and light and textures, and shapes, and memories, and more. If I were a natural science illustrator, or an abstract expressionist, I’m sure my drawings would be very different. I’d draw them for different reasons, and with different enthusiasms. Actually, if I were any other artist, my work should be different. Drawing is personal. The fact that my drawings end up looking similar is not a reflection of how, but rather, a reflection of my enthusiasms and intentions, in other words, whys. I start fresh every time, and aim to always make something new. But in the end, I’m a singular person and my work reflects that.

So, if I’m ever asked, “How do you draw trees?” again. Here’s what I’ll say next time:

“I draw trees the same way I draw everything. I look at my subject, and try to be conscious of why I want to draw it, and what I want to say. Then I make marks on the paper to represent what I’m looking at, and to reflect what I’m thinking and feeling about it. Through drawing, I try to translate everything to the page as if for the first time, and to share it with others.”

Somehow, I can’t help thinking that that same student would be no more satisfied with my new answer than the old one. But, at least I’ll feel better with it. It’s closer to the truth.

Back to School Recommendation

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Lucky is the student who gets Clara Lieu as their teacher. Currently she’s an adjunct professor in the Freshman Foundation Program at Rhode Island School of Design. How do I know how good she is? I teach Sophomores at RISD, and one question I always ask my students in conferences is who they’ve had as influential teachers, to which all of Clara’s ex-students reply, “I was lucky. I had Clara Lieu.”  She’s a passionate, no-nonsense, wise and informed teacher, not unlike how she behaved as my student, years ago. Teachers, too can be lucky to have her in their class.

Now all of us can have Clara Lieu as their teacher, because she’s put many of her lessons for students, artists and teachers in a book called Learn, Create and Teach: A Guide to Building a Creative Life

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Here’s a taste, from the section which gives advice to  students:

See every assignment as an opportunity

“The biggest failure is that I am approaching weekly assignments as assignments.” -student

If you treat your homework as only homework, that’s all it will be. When you’re not interested in your efforts, it’s always glaringly obvious to everyone else. Beware of apathy. Your work should be an opportunity, not an obligation. There’s nothing more discouraging than seeing someone who is clearly not invested.

If you treat your homework as a chance to push yourself and/or to create something new, ambitious, and distinctive, that’s exactly what you will do. One of my favorite stories involves an assignment I gave a few years ago on the topic of “layers.” I walked into the classroom on the morning of the group critique and saw that one student had drawn chickens and eggs. I thought to myself, What the hell is he thinking?!

When it came time for the student to present his drawing, he said, “Well, Clara, the assignment was on ‘layers’ so I looked up the definition in the dictionary and it said that a ‘layer’ is a chicken that lays eggs. So I drew ‘layers.’” He had an air-tight premise and I couldn’t nail him on a thing.

Many students view the parameters of an assignment as a set of difficult rules that strangles their creativity. Instead, think of the parameters as a departure point with the final destination in your hands. In this case, the “layers” assignment was interpreted in the most unexpected manner and yet still was perfectly within the boundaries. The student used the requirements to fuel an innovative concept.

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Ideas will always prevail over technique.

“The first good idea is almost never the best idea, and now I try to churn out ideas constantly, one after another, through the good and bad, and record them all.” -student

I went to art school with loads of people who could run circles around me with their technical skills. I think there are hundreds of thousands of people and probably more in the world whose technical skills put mine to shame.

If that’s the case, what possible chance do I have to distinguish myself? My ideas make the difference. Good technique will only take you so far. At the end of the day, it’s the ideas that matter. Make your work an op-ed piece: Express an opinion or point of view that can only come from you. Don’t create a book report that only regurgitates sterile facts.

Collect all of your ideas. Have a sketchbook or journal with you all the time so that you can record anything that comes up. Think about your sketchbook as primordial soup in which anything is possible and as visual documentation of the inner workings of your mind. Always be on the hunt for ideas and images. Your sketchbook should brim with raw concepts, random thoughts, and unfiltered content. After all, you never know when something will surface that could become valuable in the future.

Exorcise yourself of the most obvious solutions and your work will become more original. The first idea is never the best one. When I get started, I purposefully sketch out on paper my most cliché attempt so I can get rid of it and move on to something more distinctive and innovative. Then I make sure to exhaust every possibility. Sometimes you can figure out what to do by simply knowing what you don’t want to do. A process of elimination can be very effective and bring you closer to where you want to be.

For more information on Clara Lieu’s book and teachings, check out her blog. Lot’s to learn there, too.

 

2013 Faculty Address to the Graduates of Montserrat College of Art

Each year a faculty member of Montserrat College of Art is chosen by the graduating class to deliver a commencement address. As this year’s speaker, I had the pleasure of creating the following speech.

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Thank you, seniors, for inviting me this morning to speak to you on behalf of the faculty of the college. Thank you, faculty, for not blocking me from the microphone. (I know you all very well, and I know the temptation was there.)

Parents, grandparents, family, friends, trustees, colleagues, Mr. Representative, honorary degree recipients: Good morning.

Let me start by saying, I know how you feel.

I know what you’re thinking…

Graduates are thinking: “Please don’t talk about me in your speech!”

Mothers are thinking: “Can he keep this brief?”

Fathers are thinking “Hmm… what will I have for lunch?”

So, that in mind, please allow me to talk about other students, and I’ll try to be brief, so that Dad and I (I’m a dad too, after all) can get some lunch.

Seniors, you are just minutes away from having the same education as I have, a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Same education, that is, if you don’t count experience: life experience—the “what’s comes next” part.

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When Pablo Picasso was asked how long a particular artwork had taken him to create, he would answer by stating his age. 57 years, or 38 years or whatever age he was.  After all, it takes a long time to become a great artist and years of experience add up to your latest work of art. Being a great artist is a lifetime pursuit. You could say to someone when they ask how long that sculpture took to make… “about fifteen years!” No doubt, your parents know you’ve been majoring in art since you were very young. Did you start when you were four years old? Five years old?  It’s hard to say when we started to be an artist. And, being an artist is not something you retire from, really.

But it was at Montserrat College of Art that you made the difficult transition from making Art as Play, to making Art as Work—your life’s work.  Art Work.

Our best students work exceptionally hard here at Montserrat. And there is no such thing as hiding in our classrooms.

When I spoke at an Education Conference last summer on the topic of creativity and education, the audience, who were all science education professors, were very, very interested in what happens in my classroom. (Actually, they were far more interested in my class than my own students are, which is a different story.)

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When I told them that we had lots of “critiques,” their eyes grew wide. “Tell us more of these… critiques.” They said.

“Well,” I said, “my students create projects, which, when they are finished, are placed in the front of the classroom. We gather around them as a group and discuss them for the entire period.”

“For the entire period?” they asked.

“Yes.”

“How often do you do that?”

“For me, almost every class.”

“And you say the students are evaluated publicly? In front of each other?”

“Yes, in front of each other, and by each other. Together we talk about the strengths and the flaws of the work and the efforts exhibited…and we talk about how it could be made better or redone. We talk about the concepts behind the project, the research involved, the success of the communication, the craft. My colleague Antoine Revoy likes to say ‘Making art is making decisions.’  In art and design, decisions are made manifest. They face us all. In class, we discuss those decisions and the impact on the project’s result. We break those decisions down. We talk a lot about changing our decisions. That’s what a critique is.”

“Students get evaluated publicly? For hours?” they said. “Our students could never ever do that! They couldn’t survive it!”

I think if I told them that at Montserrat, at the end of each semester, a panel of teachers from different disciplines critique your entire semester’s work, with you alone in a room, they would have screamed and then fainted.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about what we do here at Montserrat. After all, I was educated the same way you were. By hippies. (I’m only joking… I was never a hippie…not all of my teachers were… but some of them were (pointing at the faculty). Oops, I didn’t mean to point at President Immerman.

No, I was educated as an artist and designer. I too, faced assigned problems, thought hard about creating a thoughtful, unique solution. I worked for hours and hours to bring my concepts to life and brought them in to test them out, in front of everyone. I, like you, learned by facing the blank page… creating solutions… and surviving critiques.

When I read business magazine articles about the “top qualities of best employees, or bosses in today’s marketplace” … I think… we artists and designers exhibit those traits every day.

Take for example, Fast Company Magazine’s “The Five Biggest Characteristics of Great (Business) Leaders.”

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1. Flexibility

I’d argue that an artist or designer has more flexibility than almost anyone in tackling problems.

2. Communication

Every work of art is a work of communication (whether it’s designed to be or not), and every critique is a useful discussion of its results.

3. Courage, Tenacity and Patience

This whole art thing takes courage, tenacity and patience, believe me. It’s uphill all the way.

4. Humility

Every single work of art that I’ve ever made could be better. Art and art schools make you humble… pretty quickly.

5. Responsibility

With artists and designers, success or failure is on your shoulders. Who are you going to try to blame for a lack of success. Seriously, who’s work is this? Your work.

Now, I’m an artist who is a professor. I’m also an artist who is an illustrator. Maybe you’ll be an artist who is an illustrator, or an artist who is graphic designer, game designer or art director. Or, maybe you’ll be an artist who is an entrepreneur: a buyer or a seller. Maybe you’ll be an artist who’s an artist.

Frankly, I see no reason why an artist couldn’t go anywhere with their education. I have an ex-student who’s a lawyer and one who’s a veteranarian. One of my Montserrat ex-students is one of the nation’s foremost chocolate sculptors. She made plaster bunnies for my class and now she makes chocolate bunnies for  your Easter celebrations.

In other words, the name of your concentration doesn’t have to be the name of your career in order for you to be a success. Heck, you could be an artist who becomes the next State Representative… (I doubt the Representative majored in “Representation” as an undergraduate.) Now, of course, you should only run for Representative long after our guest here, has retired… by their own decision.

I have two more stories and then a gift for each of the graduates—an assignment, actually—an opportunity, really.

First story:

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One day, a few years ago, when I was drawing in the small medieval city of Viterbo in Italy—I have to good fortune to teach in Montserrat’s Italy Program each July—I met a special friend. While sitting in the shade, looking up and drawing for well over an hour at an odd house on the edge of town, I heard singing—opera singing—not particularly good opera singing. Where was it coming from? I wondered.

Finally, a short, middle-aged man, wrapped only in a bath towel, came to an open window above, finishing his aria. I looked up. He then looked down, sensing he was being watched, and we both smiled at each other. I held my sketchbook up for him to see, and he nodded.

For the next two weeks after that encounter, we passed each other occasionally on the busy streets of Viterbo, exchanging smiles and nothing more. And the next year, and the year after that, we continued to nod at each other as we passed on our way. To this day, never a word has been spoken. But we have a bond. We have exchanged our art and perhaps shared that vulnerable feeling of having done so.

You graduates all share a bond. What you’ve done, or what you’ve survived… it’s pretty special. Pretty personal. You solved your problems personally and you faced your results publicly…. you were extensively critiqued. The work that you generated was personal, one-of-a-kind.

You are self-made graduates. Self-made men and women. You need to now see the path ahead as your canvas. Be self-made. Use that skill, that experience, that education as you become a self-made person.                                                                                                                                                                                                                Use that creativity—that integrity—to face problems and know you can find unique solutions and implement them yourself, or in collaboration with others. And remember that you know how to present it, learn from it, rework it, try it again, do it differently, and always know it could be better. In other words, critique your life.

So, where do you start.

Perhaps with a sandwich,” your father is thinking.

Well, how about a snack first.

A snack and an opportunity to spur you to move on to your next endeavor.

Second story:

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Long ago, as a very young professor, before I came to Montserrat, before you were born, I was teaching an advanced illustration class and as the first assignment, I passed around a brown paper bag of fortune cookies to the class. I asked each student to reach in, grab a cookie, read the fortune out loud to the class and to then illustrate it for the next week’s class… for critique.

The following week, as I was walking to class, I passed a huge billboard, a block from my classroom, which caught my attention. What was a re-election campaign billboard for the notorious Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island: Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci, had been changed—had been defaced.

The billboard which had featured the Mayor’s smiling face, was now a billboard featuring the face of former professional wrestler, Andre the Giant! Along with the face was the printed the word “OBEY.”

Wow, I thought.

An hour later, in class, my students put their illustrations on the wall for critique. Under each image was the fortune, which I asked them to pin below. As I looked down the wall, I noticed one was grabbing a lot of attention. It wasn’t a typical work of art… it was the entire front page of the newspaper. It was the front page of that day’s Providence Journal, the big paper down there.

I was confused. I asked, “who did this?”

A pimple-faced kid in the back of the room ran his hand through his hair and then raised his hand shyly. He looked like a skateboarding kid. He dressed like one and had a scab on his arm.

I asked him, “So, is this a found object, used as a solution to the problem?”

“No”, he said, “that’s mine.”

“So, you made this newspaper? Or, did you take this photograph?” I asked. The front page had a large, above-the-fold photograph of the very billboard I had seen walking to class. In big bold type, the headline said something like, “Mayor Irate About Defaced Image on Billboard.”

“That’s his billboard!” a student shouted.

My face dropped. I realized that this kid, using my homework assignment, a lowly fortune cookie fortune, had created a local sensation. He’s climbed up in the dark of night and changed that huge billboard to make his statement, and to do his homework!

“Read the fortune, read the fortune” the class called.

And I did. It said:

To Affect the Quality of the Day is No Small Achievement

That student was Shepard Fairey, who’s gone on to affect the quality of many days all over the world with his art, design and illustration. He’s perhaps best known for his famous “Hope” poster, created for Barack Obama’s presidential election campaign. He’s kept that spirit alive all these years later, and he’s kept his deviousness alive too. He was arrested for the billboard he did for my class, and he was arrested on the night of his opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston a few years ago for creating graffiti in Downtown Boston.

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I’m not the only one to have given him an “A” for his efforts.

Class of 2013, good luck. See the world as your canvas. Continue to create for the world and continue to critique the world.

As a parting gift, assignment, snack or creative opportunity, I offer you a lowly, random fortune which I ask you to take from this brown paper bag. Use it as you wish. But remember, To Affect the Quality of the Day is No Small Achievement.

A large, brown paper bag of fortune cookies is then presented to the graduates, to be passed.

Thank you.