The other day Joe Blodgett and I were discussing what we might have done with our lives. We both thought if we’d become medical doctors we might have been of greater service to mankind. We agreed that putting out oil-well fires, blowing up buildings, and engineering underground sanitary sites were not for us. Joe took his usual stance that the job of teacher is so difficult that it shouldn’t be left to teachers. I told him I wouldn’t have minded being one.
“The problem,” said Joe, “is that teachers are often security hounds — they’re not like artists — they need the safety of unions, regularity of hours, and decent pensions. In the meantime, some of them burn out.”
I pointed out that artists burn out too. I agreed that sustaining a high level of quality instruction is exhausting. I told Joe that those who do it well need to be paid more, and knighted.
My role model was my attendance at Art Center College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Many of the faculty were, and still are, professional artists, illustrators, industrial or fashion designers, etc. Many were only part-time teachers. Also, in L.A., it was relatively easy to bring in creative celebrities for demos, discussions or group crits. Art Center was mighty enriching. It still is.
Both Joe and I have recent BFAs and MFAs among our close friends. Many arts grads arrive on earth like Martians stepping from a strange saucer. They are fresh from a culture of artistic literacy, sometimes brilliant, but not necessarily artistic competency. Many fine arts graduates have little or no idea of time-honoured academic procedures or processes. Many schools, many universities and many teachers just don’t see it as important any more. Countries like Russia and China think it still is. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before North Americans will be getting most of their art from Asia.
Joe took off and took my bottle with him. I noted three points we had agreed were worthwhile for current students who might seek a life in art:
— Consider workshops and seminars with professional artists.
— Know that some skills are going to be hard won but totally worth the effort.
— Take time for private study and work. At some point in your life you’re going to have to go to your room.
PS: “A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using and tiring it, just in the same way he can wear out the elbows of his coat.” (Winston Churchill)
Esoterica: Art teachers and professors often endure unnatural pressures from administrators who may have idealistic, political or theoretical sensibilities. It seems to me that independent adjudicators might be brought from time to time to monitor teacher capabilities. Students themselves need to have some vehicle for instructor evaluation. Further, post-grad evaluations would be really useful. In my case, it took several years to realize just how valuable some of those Art Center teachers really were. By then I was in the real world. “I began my education at a very early age — in fact, right after I left college.” (Winston Churchill)
The magic of empowering kids
by Anita Hunt, Upland, CA, USA
Security hounds? Regular hours? The safety of unions? Seems to me that Joe is laboring under the stereotypical vision of what “teachers” and “artists” must be. Actually, as a high school art teacher I saw myself more like a magician but instead of pulling a rabbit out of a hat I was usually pulling students out of the dark and teaching them to see the world beyond their video games and cellphones. My other great trick was finding time to do my own art — I had to give that one up because my doctor said sleep deprivation was bad for my health. However, every now and then, some vaguely familiar adult will stop me and say, “Remember how you said after taking your class we would see the world in a whole new way? Ge-e-e-ze, how right you were! Thank you.” I didn’t get to push much paint around but I did enable a lot of kids to “look” at art for more than the usual 3 second pass at museums, and who knows, maybe some of them have stopped to observe Joe’s work. Now I am becoming the artist I had always hoped to be, provided I don’t burn out first.
Finding our own voice
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
Even though I went to art school in London and got an MFA, my learning really didn’t kick in until much, much later. Supporting myself as an artist was not conducive to learning and discovering new art practice. Going to my room (studio) and spending several hours or more every day without distraction has brought about a learning curve that goes on and on. I do need to drag my work out of there and show it in a gallery from time to time, which is also a great learning experience, if only because the work looks different in another space. The reactions of observers can be both re-assuring and funny; still, they give me an idea of how to improve, change and explore. Selling a painting is gratifying, but can bring about the feeling that you have to keep going in that direction, and if money is the teacher, I won’t go far. It’s only in the solitary confines of the studio that work, play, experimentation, discovery and serious mojo from the muse goes down. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears” said somebody. Or was it “Physician, heal thyself”? Anyway, my point being, that after all the art school and workshops, there comes a time when we artists just need to get by ourselves and find our own voice, uninfluenced by the multitudes of workshops and “how to” art videos, not to mention the avalanche of images we get bombarded with daily on the Internet, TV, art magazines, museums and galleries.
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Invest in real training
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
There are many new art grad students out there teaching and they have little idea what the real world is like. This troubles me. So many things are wrong with our teaching/learning process. I put in years of figure drawing and anatomy study before I considered passing this information on to others as a teacher. But I find most don’t care, don’t have the time or just plain aren’t interested, even though they crave to paint the figure or do portraits. It breaks my heart. I see new painters struggling, in the dark, trying to paint with excruciatingly bad results and I can’t say a thing, unless they decide to take my class. Not to say I am a genius. I deal with this head on every day.
I have learned that if you teach, you have to overcome the fact every student you get will not know how to draw. Period. I audit drawing workshops and watch people making these little tiny figure drawings from a live model and the instructor critiquing the work. What can you learn doing tiny drawings? How do you articulate the bones and muscles on a drawing that you can barely see? The émigré Chinese here are kicking our proverbial asses with the training they receive and until we wake up and realize drawing and painting are worthwhile endeavors for our youth and invest in real training, western art students are in for a very hard, disappointing time.
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It’s a wonderful life
by Gwen Fox, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
I feel that we, as artists, are the luckiest people in the world. We constantly challenge ourselves to learn, develop our technique, understand the nuances of our chosen medium and along the way the true value of being an artist reveals itself. To be a truly good artist our goal is to continually peel away the layers of our psyche, like the skin on an onion, in order to discover the real “Me.” Painting has a way of breaking down the walls we have resurrected for ourselves to protect our insecurities.
As teachers we are constantly stimulated to become better, hone our communication skills while learning and relearning the art of listening. There is nothing like watching the world open in a student’s mind and heart. When they realize they have chosen the right path, and they were destined to create, and have discovered the door that was once shut tight in their mind’s eye is now wide open, it is amazing.
Like pleasant cows munching
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
I’ve thought recently that, as a workshop instructor, I’m enjoying the best of all possible worlds. No one manages my curriculum. There are no tests to ascertain if my students are learning anything. There are no observers, no evaluators, no paperwork demands, no peer reviewers, no meetings to attend, no departmental politics to worry about. My students run this democracy. If I don’t perform, I am done. Perhaps I won’t even know I have been ‘fired’ but I’ll no longer have a pulpit to expound on my artistic theories, no tiny theater to perform in. This is the freedom that artists both enjoy and fear. We have no tenure and no job security. All depends on our performance and our luck. What if all employees faced this situation at their job? I bet productivity would soar! Artists can’t avoid being philosophers and facing the fact that we aren’t really doing anything all that important compared to doctors and solar energy experts and the myriads of software designers that change our lives in little and big ways. Artists aren’t really harmful, though. We are like pleasant cows munching in our pastures, while the modern world speeds by. I’ve always thought cows were cool. They really seem to enjoy life!
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Thrilled for freedom
by Casey Craig, Wimberley, TX, USA
This is well-timed as I have been invited to be a speaker next week at the local Eighth Grade Career Day and talk about a career as an artist. Your suggestions for current students will be passed along. I’ll either inspire them to follow their creative bliss or scare them off to the nearest business school.
As for teachers, I was very lucky in high school to have a fantastic art teacher. She was slightly nutty as all good art teachers are. By the time I was a junior she would let me use the class like an independent study. While the rest of the class would have an assignment, I would tell her what I wanted to try whether it was, paper maché, batik, wood carving, stained glass or metal. She would give me a list for each project and point me to the nearest supplier and I was thrilled to be able to do what I wanted.
Confessions of a security hound
by Beth Beam, Little Rock, AR, USA
I am currently in my senior year at UALR finishing my BA in Art Education — closely approaching the burnout line, already. If I thought that I could make a living as just an artist, and it would enable me to feed my children (single parent), I would build the dream studio and go for it. Money has a weird way of crushing dreams, as the dream is always pounding away at the back of my mind. I try to find ways to avoid money’s manipulation of my life. Sadly, it tends to win. I’ve had the pleasure of selling a piece here and there in Little Rock. It always comes with perfect timing (car note due, rent, etc). I do agree, somewhat, with Joe’s comment, “Teachers are often security hounds.” However, I’m not a teacher yet. I’m first an artist. Yep, I’m both. And, my idea of teaching art is not all about the elements of art and principles of design. It’s also about teaching them to dig deep into their creative self and use it to do whatever they want in life. If I can instill that, they won’t end up like me trying to worry about the next meal, car being repossessed, being evicted, etc. You know, being a security hound — and not living my dream. If students are taught how to employ their creativity toward their ultimate goal, their future will be met with a life of security and fulfillment, allowing them to be artists and not security hounds.
Quandary of an artist
by Jamillah Ausby, Brooklyn, NY, USA
I want to thank you Robert for writing about my husband, Ellsworth Ausby. I am also a teacher, a sculptor, a painter and printmaker. I work in the Board of Education and certain colleges, but I am not going back. In a way, I don’t want to teach any more. Then I received a call from a College in New York and they want me to teach this class, “Exploring the Arts in N.Y.C.” I taught this class last summer and I was not going to do this class again but I told the director I would teach this class as it’s only for four weekends in August. I get to go to art museums, see a Broadway play, take students to a yoga class, a dance class, and concerts at Lincoln Center. But at the present time and in my heart I just want to devote more time to painting, sculpture and cleaning out my husband’s studio.
‘What am I doing here?’
by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA
I quit college after two years, partially because the more I immersed myself in the academic process of producing artists, I realized there were lots of art degrees walking around who still couldn’t paint. I had a few fine professors who loved teaching and sincerely wanted to impart their considerable knowledge. Others bewildered me. What am I doing here? I was learning more problem-solving on my own and personal study. I found some professional artists I admired and took their workshops and learned more in a weekend than I did in semester of school.
Considering the exorbitant costs of college today, one might consider establishing or sending our children to an atelier education. College is absolutely necessary for many professions. It is a fine thing for general knowledge for an artist but don’t expect to perfect your craft; that will take a lifetime. From the letters that appear here, marketing or business might be a more useful degree pursuit. Even then, does the same principle apply? We must acknowledge the uniqueness of our profession.
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by Barry John Raybould, UK/USA/China/Italy
I do not envy today’s art students who are looking to get a comprehensive foundation in painting — they have a difficult task ahead. Many young students now are starting to reject the contemporary art establishment thinking that creativity is all that is needed and the basic foundation or building blocks of the trade are not important.
The problem, though, is where can a student get that foundation today? Some small ateliers have started once more to teach the time-honored academic procedures and processes, but many of these ateliers limit their teaching to the knowledge taught in the 19th century. Hence the existence today of many artists basically copying the classical realism style and ignoring modern developments in painting.
Painting does not evolve by revolution but by evolution. Knowledge of painting increases with each generation. Although there was a period from the early 20th century until recent times in which much of the hard-earned knowledge from the previous 1000-plus years was ignored, this does not mean that in the 20th century there were no important developments in the art of painting. There were: brushwork, color, concept, realism — all these ideas were further developed in the 20th century, particularly ideas and developments relating to abstract design. The abstract design of painting is what transforms realism and illustration from a mere recording to a work of art. Schools that limit their instruction to just the 19th century processes and procedures omit this important source of knowledge.
Some of this knowledge can be gleaned from other sources such as design-specific courses in some of the art schools, but these are often focused on abstract art, decorative art or advertising, leaving the student who is interested in representational painting to work out how to integrate the ideas themselves.
Further complicating the learning process is the ‘missing knowledge.’ Shortly after the French Impressionists started to investigate new ideas on how we see color in nature in the late 19th and early 20th century, the new fashion for modernism effectively stopped any mainstream further developments in this field.
A few maverick painters, however, defied modernism, stuck to their own principles and continued to further develop ideas in color and in brushwork. Joaquin Sorolla was one of them, as well as many of the California Impressionists and artists in other impressionist movements throughout Europe and Russia. These artists produced some of the most exciting paintings the art world has ever seen.
Many of the these new discoveries in painting took place in Soviet Russia where painters had the advantage of continued government support for the academic training in art, plus time on their own to pursue more personal and ‘informal’ paintings. In their spare time these Russian artists explored these new ideas in color and brushwork. Unfortunately for today’s students, since realism was out of fashion at the time, this knowledge never reached the art schools, and is still absent from academic teaching today.
A few private teachers defied the general trend in art education and taught these developments to their students in private schools, amongst them Frank Reilly (1906-1967), Henry Hensche (1899 – 1992) and Sergei Bongart (1918-1985). Unfortunately none of these artist teachers documented their knowledge in any structured and organized way and the knowledge they passed on can only be pieced together by combining multiple second-hand sources. Some knowledge exists in notes made by students who studied with these teachers, and other knowledge has been passed on by word of mouth to successive generations of artists and teachers. (I personally spent many years to track some of this information down to help develop my own painting).
Some of the academic knowledge of the Russian was exported to China, and as you rightly say these skills are today held in great respect in Chinese art schools. This accounts for the quality of art from China and the increasing numbers of new talented artists coming from that part of the world. An interesting twist on this is that the Chinese have always considered brushwork and calligraphy as a key element in painting. Combining this tradition going back thousands of years with ideas from the Russians with their taste for bravura brushwork has again resulted in many exciting new ideas and developments in painting.
A profession in which the current knowledge is not comprehensively documented or taught systematically in any regular academic institution is indeed the most ‘Challenging Profession.’
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An anaplastologist responds
by Paul Fayard, Clinton, MS, USA
Your recent letter re: Ready-mades and nearly-dones reminded me of my experiences in the Blackfeet Nation years ago. I spent about four hours alone with my large format camera on top of a foothill within a sacred circle watching a storm roll in from the west. Witnessing the power and beauty of that place at that time will always be with me. I have never felt more connected to the world. On John Muir’s birthday it seems apropos to quote him: “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”
Re: your letter Just for fun? I was intrigued by your mentioning human prosthetics. What did you use? I am an artist, art educator and prostheses artist. The ten dollar word for my profession is anaplastologist. When I first started college I didn’t even know there was such a job much less imagined that I would be doing it professionally. I love what I do and feel very fortunate to be able to use my skills as an artist to change people’s lives. Over the years I have met many people with degrees in art who do not ‘use’ them directly in their line of work.
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Enjoy the past comments below for The most challenging profession…
oil painting, 20 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Darla who wrote, “If I had it to do over again, I would look harder to find a good basic art education instead of trusting that any college would have a good curriculum and teachers. A good teacher is a treasure beyond jewels.”
And also Marvin Humphrey of Napa Valley, CA, USA, who wrote, “The last true venue of art education was in Paris, 150 years ago. We art “students” need a solid foundation in the craft. Original ideas and concepts are purely personal. After 40 years of painting, I’m still studying, researching and learning.”
And also Carol Reynolds of Hawaii, USA, who wrote, “I have never taught art as I have been too busy painting!”