I’m frequently asked whether it’s best to go back to school or back to work. I’ve been on the board of directors of a prominent art college, and I’ve also been an advocate of do-it-yourself for life — so I’m coming from both sides of the fence. Fact is, even if you attend what you think is the best art school in the world (like I did-Art Center) it doesn’t make you into an artist. You’re the one who has to do that.
Learning a skill or a trade is a hands-on game. As well as the instinct it requires a commitment to the materials and an attention to detail. It’s called passion. It’s mostly self-taught. It’s got more to do with character than with conversation.
Contrary to popular wisdom, the principal currency in the world of art is work. The idea is to get joy from your hands. When that happens everything else falls into place. What you have to figure out is how to best make this happen. If you are in need of a look-see into a lot of media, variety of approach, opinion, attitude, life-style, then perhaps a school is for you. But if you have a need to get passionate — perhaps you ought to go to your room.
No other generation has been blessed with so many brilliant books. There have never been so many professionals who are willing to share. There have never been so many opportunities for creative people. There has never been so much variety, specialty, information, and wonder. It’s a shame, but we ought to be granted many lives.
PS: “The artist who gives up an hour of work for a conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something that does not exist.” (Marcel Proust)
Esoterica: Epiphany. There’s a feeling you get when you see for yourself for the first time an effect, a technique, a creative event. I often think of the day when I saw what burnt sienna did when propitiously flooded with ultramarine blue on rough watercolor paper. I was eleven. I was by myself in the basement.
The following are selected correspondence relating to the above letter. If you find value in any of this please feel free to copy to a friend or fellow artist. We have no other motivation than to give creative people an opportunity to share ideas and possibly broaden their capabilities. Thank you for writing.
by Damion Dreher
I arranged a meeting with the head of the art department of Carnegie Mellon University, one of the best schools in the country and you know what they told me? They said to come to the portfolio review and that’s it, they didn’t make me fill out an application or anything and I took that as a confidence booster. After that I walked outta there with my little portfolio and smiled all the way home. I never went back to CMU or tried, maybe I should have but I got something from it. I thought that they must have seen something in my art, in what I do put on that canvas that they thought was quality, in the product or the person and his ability. That was all I needed. It gave me that inspiration to say that I don’t need school, just do what I love and everything will follow.
How do I?
Art school? You may as well ask a stranger to teach you how to weep or laugh!
by Shirley Erskine, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
I had an epiphany while attending a working seminar last week. I thought it was time to get off by myself and indulge in deep thought and work. It came to me like a bolt out of the blue. A floating shape that just appeared on the canvas. Expanded, it became a whole. I feel like I have been given my “life” back.
by Louise Cass, Ontario, Canada
You’ve missed what might be the whole point of Art Schools — it’s not really to learn how to do it. I agree that can be obtained from books but it’s the opportunity to meet artists one might admire. The chance to talk with them as well as meeting other students with similar interests, hopes and goals. The old fashioned art schools which I attended (the Montreal Museum’s School of Art and Design) provided this ambience as did The Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, UK. The art schools in the UK still provide the right environment.
If my parents knew what I was doing all day in BFA they’d freak.
Art remains in the artist
by Janine Applequist
The current letter includes a quote by Marcel Proust that peeked my notice and sent thoughts flying off in many directions: What does this means? What is implied here? Here’s another way of looking at things: “Art is nothing tangible. We cannot call a painting “art” as the words “artifact” and “artificial” imply. The thing made is a work of art made BY art, but not itself art. The art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made.” (Coomaraswamy)
(RG note) The balance of the quote by Proust goes like this: “Our friends, being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive.”
by Dolores Dux, Arizona, USA
I attended one of those really wonderful art schools and here I’m almost thirty years later wondering what is wrong my painting. I even asked a very prominent painter to take a look to see if he could help me. His response was “you’re talented, but I don’t see any passion.” Ouch! I guess I needed to hear it, but had actually known it for awhile. What passion there was had died and everything I attempted turned into another problem until it became incredibly difficult to enter my studio. Recently, I was asked to do a piece of sculpture… being a painter with minimum experience in sculpting I found myself reading up on materials, buying tools, researching the historical subject, etc. Suddenly I’m pumped. What happened? Now I can’t stay out of my studio. I’m finding it hard to break for dinner… and of course there is no lunch. This kind of enthusiasm is wonder filled. I’m discovering, creating… my hands are happy. Will someone please tell me what happened? Have I been working in the wrong media all these years or do I just love a new challenge?
On my own
by Bonnie H., Manitoba, Canada
At age 45 I returned to University to obtain a degree. I was in an honours program and was on the Dean’s honour roll. In the end the most valuable lesson was that I learned more on my own, in any one year while I was not in school, than I learned in any one year of “higher education.” Often when I am struggling to learn on my own, I think how much easier it would be to be taught, rather than reinventing the wheel. But if I were taught, I would only learn one item, like the tip of the iceberg. All the base knowledge that comes with experimenting, thinking, trying, failing, trying again, dreaming, analyzing, reading, looking and trying again, might not be obtained.
by Adrian Sheldrake
You don’t seem to think art can be taught and yet you seem to demand that university art departments turn out artists. In my 10 years teaching art at the university level I have never thought it necessary to turn out artists. Probably less than ten percent of graduates make a vocation, (other than teaching the subject) from their art. Graduates of law schools practically all, by contrast, give that profession a try. While people may paint, sculpt, and make prints for four years the object is to help them to become artistically literate.
by Tim, San Jose, California, USA
There’s a big difference between art school and courses on technique and the creative process. Art school is a shrine to conventional wisdom cooked up by the esoteric and impractical – afterall, those professors all have a regular paycheck.
School’s the thing
by Gerald Soworka, Sydney, Australia
As a late starter at art school I’m all in favor of going back to school. True it won’t make you an artist, but it will give you the camaraderie of like-minded souls, usually a supportive environment, lots of contacts and opportunities and, most importantly, access to good constructive analysis, feedback and criticism. This is the hardest thing to come by in the art world, in my experience.
Artists as a group seem to be reticent to engage in on-going training or formal professional development. After all we all know everything when we leave art school. I don’t think we necessarily need ever-higher academic qualifications in art, but occasionally being back in a course as a pupil can be useful. With someone looking over our shoulders with fresh eyes and pushing us in directions that we wouldn’t otherwise think to go we can open up new vistas in our work and see what we are doing more objectively. This mentoring relationship may have been the positive aspect of the old master/apprentice form of art education.
by oliver, Texas, USA
I know of technical masters that are not inspired artists. I know of a few inspired artists with not enough or too radical a technique. Many photographers in the fashion, journalistic, and documentary business that work profitably may ultimately fall into this. A few of these may transcend into artistic mastery as well. Many students of various painterly schools fall into the trap of learning the school but not pushing the art as well. The trick is to have people love your work, want to live with it, the galleries believe it is not risky to display and sell and art lovers with money believe all of the above and buy, and break the rules and inspire others to be better than they might have otherwise been.
Horns of a dilemma
by Louise Franco
Your last letter contained much wisdom for me and hit right at the core of a quandary that I’ve been thinking about for a few years. My background is: at the age of 48, I took my first watercolor class, and then a year later, took another class and since then over the next 4 years have taken individual lessons here and there as well as a workshop or two a year. I have enjoyed learning this way, but also realize that I really don’t know how to draw very well. I have been thinking about going to a local college (which would require driving some distance) and taking courses towards a degree. On the other hand, some friends and family have warned me that I might end up losing some of the spontaneity and freshness of my work.
by E. Lassiat, Paris, France
I read with interest and pleasure your letter. I also feel art is a very intimate experience and relies on work, passion and a strange search for some unreachable state of accomplishment. It offers you sometimes exquisite moments of peace, of intense pleasure, even the wired and divine sensation of being in harmony with the whole world, almost light as a bird and wise as an old shaman. But how rare are these moments and how demanding! This is how I feel about art, and it gives me humility and strength, because I know that no matter how hard we work, it doesn’t just come from us.