Stop Copying: Shanth Enjeti

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Self portrait by Shanth Enjeti

My colleague and ex-student Shanth Enjeti is endlessly quotable. Here’s a gem found recently on the website for Montserrat College Art, where he’s a professor, and where I used to teach with him.

“The pursuit of replicating the work of an artist who inspires you is utterly incompatible with the pursuit of becoming an artist whose work inspires others. May your pursuit of the latter, begin here.” 

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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

The Gift

Last year, I gave a friend – an ex-student of mine, Karen Jiyun Sung, one of my “freebies” from an Urban Sketcher Conference. I loved the book, but because I usually work with materials which would disagree with the paper, I gave it to Karen for better use. She’s an eager, non-stop sketcher and I knew she’d fill it up long before I would.

This year, the book was sent back to me. I was “re-gifted.” Only now, the book was different. The proverbial seed that I had planted, had bloomed beautifully.


To my amazement, I opened up the book to find a beautifully drawn visual essay on cafe life in Seoul, Korea, where Karen is living. 

Here, I share with you, every single page in order. 

Now, I can’t guarantee that you’ll get the same results, but maybe you all should consider what are the possibilities with those extra sketchbooks lying around your house.
As for this book, I tried to return it. I’m simply not comfortable with generous gifts. But, no luck. Karen insisted that it was for me. She would not take the gift back.
So, I’ll forever cherish it and use it as a teaching tool. And I will share it with everyone.
More of Karen Sung’s work can be found at her website. This fall she’ll begin working towards her master’s degree in visual communication at the Royal College of Art in London. There, she’ll continue to focus on urban sketching/journalistic drawing.

Paper Trail

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Grades. Is there a more difficult and dangerous topic for students? We all know we don’t go to school for grades – we go for an education. Right? Well, easier said than done.

As a professor, I have to give grades, and I take them seriously. Ideally, they should be of no surprise to the student. That’s my goal, anyway. Students should feel, looking at their grade, and reflecting, that they were understood to be working hard -or not, succeeding -or not, and meeting expectations -or not. A tough grade, or a great grade, should expose the truth, and be the final lesson. It isn’t the lasting impression, however. Years later, I don’t remember grades. I remember the person’s character. A grade is all business – it’s not an assessment of the person themselves.

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How scary then, to be reminded publicly that ex-students remember those truths – sometimes forever. At Rhode Island School of Design, we write paragraphs to explain our written grades called Student Progress Reports, so there’s a paper trail. In today’s world of interrconnectedness, the private truths that I’ve written can float out there and can pop up at any time. One just did. I was filled with terror on first glace.

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Lucky for me, it was in the form of a compliment*, from my high-profile, ex-student, Clara Lieu on her popular blog. She’s now a columnist for the Huffington Post and an influential teacher in the foundation department at RISD. She got a great grade and report from me that semester ( which is not a surprise to those who know her). It could just as easily been a terrific and/or famous ex-student with a not-so great grade. That’s happened, too. We can’t all be terrific all the time. There are bound to be classes that don’t go as hoped, and unfortunately, the grade is a reflection of that.

For me, it’s probably a good thing that we don’t give grades for written grades. Spelling and grammar could kill me.

*”When I took Fred Lynch’s class over Wintersession in 1996, I was a complete wreck. I had a miserable experience in the fall semester of my sophomore year, and decided to switch into the Illustration department. Fred’s class was the one requirement that I had to make up in order to change majors.  I had no idea what to expect, and at the time, I didn’t even really know what illustration was. I didn’t feel confident about switching majors either.  A friend of mine switched and I followed him because I didn’t know what else to do. Fred’s class turned out to be a pivotal moment in my time at RISD.  His class was refreshing, exciting and highly stimulating.  I didn’t know that group crits could be so challenging, and yet have me laughing throughout.  I couldn’t have asked for a smoother, more inspiring transition into the Illustration department.”

Illustratons by Honore Daumier (1808-79)

Go Your Own Way

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In the arts, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. It’s plagiarism, and it’s a bad way to make a name for yourself.

E.A. Taylor, the Scottish artist, teacher and Paris correspondent for International Studio Magazine back in  1912, wrote dramatically about the misguided practice of young artists copying their heroes as a means of finding success.

The pity of it is that they (artists who imitate other artists) do not early realize that no two men see alike, and that to compress themselves into feeble tabloid editions of the recognized past and foremost present-day workers is not creating anything new in art, but is merely a display of superficial mediocrity. The true artist must surely feel the unrest in his soul in spite of the world’s applause, gained so often at the loss of oneself, and won lane by the ability in being able to assimilate. Only when he awakens betimes to conceive the horror of the long, tight tentacles of pose and imitation will he find lasting joy in his art; and if he can but add his little inimitable thought and originality to the flickering embers, how welcome it will be! Certainly it is only a fool who will not accept a known and tried experience in such ways as it serves to fulfill his wants. Influences will and must arise; but only the cunning workman will hide them, and toil on in elaborating his self-conscious frauds, imparting his unscrupulous methods to the young and innocent, deceiving  the many and killing his own soul. 

International Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art Volume XLV. No. 180, 1912

Illustration by Honore Daumier (1808-79)