Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Report from the Phamtom Zone

“Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either.” - Marshall McLuhan

For a lot of people, myself included, summer has always been a time of extracurricular study. This desire to learn in the summer seems to have developed when I was in grade school and my parents would send me to places like computer camp or wilderness “adventures” or twice to Space Camp. (That’s right I went twice.) What my parents instilled in me was that it did not matter what subject I was studying because all learning made my life richer. This desire to learn virtually any subject has continued into my adult life where I’ve spent my summer months learning how to rock climb, getting my pilot’s license, living in Argentina to speak Spanish, etc. Several years ago I decide to spend a summer in the south of France at cooking school. Like all of my endeavors, if I was going to make the investment to study cooking, I wasn’t going to waste my time, so I enrolled at a professional cooking school. I had no intention of becoming a professional chef, but then again, I had no intention of becoming a professional artist when I enrolled in art school either.

As a whole, the time I spent in France was a fantastic experience, but one instructor at the school nearly ruined the whole thing for me. The fact of the matter is that I am not a very good chef and this one instructor felt it was his job to inform me of this every day. He would constantly berate and belittle me, saying that I was wasting my money at cooking school because I would never become a professional chef. He would go on long tirades about how the school was a sham because it was just taking money from people who did not really have a chance at becoming a world-renowned chef. He would then turn on the other instructors, calling them hypocrites who were just there for a check because they would actually try to help the students improve their skills even though they knew that most of the students would not go on to be top chefs. Of course, the other instructors tried to speak calmly to him and explain that it was ridiculously arrogant for them to assume they understood the reasons why any one student was at school and it was equally impossible for them to ever really know what any student was getting out of the educational experience. They would try to explain that their job was not to just inform that students that they would be failures as professional chefs and then belittle them into quitting but rather their job as a teacher was to simply help students improve their skills no matter what. The problem was that this instructor was so arrogant that he could not see that sometimes people have different goals for their education that might not be the same as the reasons he had for going to school. He could not see that he was not being helpful and honest by "telling the truth"; he was just not smart enough to see that there can be many truths, all of which are equally valid.

Take my experience at cooking school, for example. Except for that one instructor, I got more than I expected from my experience at cooking school. I may not be a master chef employed at a top restaurant in Paris, but now I can taste the ingredients and skill put into a master level meal. My life is totally and completely enriched by the experience because the school has changed how I interact with every meal I eat (and I can cook a few meals really well.) But, according to that one instructor, I wasted my money and all of the instructors who helped me enrich my life were nothing but liars and hypocrites because they didn’t tell me over and over again that I was a failure. The notion that people can enrich their lives through the learning process was completely missed by that instructor and I see now how that was his limitation and his loss.

In fact, cooking school is one of the reasons that I decided I wanted to be a teacher. I saw how fulfilled the other instructors were with their jobs. Everyday, people would go to them and ask for help at making something and by the end of each class, everyone’s life was a little bit richer. I can’t think of a better job than one where people come to me for help making something. I love teaching art and I don’t care if my students go on to become top artists because that’s not my job.

I’m not sure what I will spend this summer learning, but I’m sure it will make my life richer and I’m reasonably sure that I will not going on to be a professional at it (but I’ve been wrong about that many times before.) I highly recommend that everyone take some time and study something this summer. If it’s art school, that’s great. Just don’t let anyone tell you that education is a waste of time if you don’t go on to be a professional. Education is always enriching.

If you are learning or doing something interesting this summer, please share it in the comments section.

I spent one whole week just making omelets.

My wife and I teaching photography in the “summer” to underprivileged students in the “Ciudad Oculta” or Hidden City of Buenos Aires.
For info on what my wife and I teach in the summers, click here.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

A Report from the Phantom Zone

I don’t know a single artist who if you ask them why they make art will say that their primary goal is for people to say nice things about them and their work. Artists, of course, have a wide range of motivations for making work that usually change from day to day and project to project. Some typical motivations for making art that I have heard recently include self-expression, need to make political commentary, desire to contribute to culture, etc. As we all learned when we were children, the reasons for making art are virtually endless and are entirely based on the individual. Regardless of motivation, it appears that art making is a relatively safe venture and the worst thing that can happen is that someone might say something mean spirited about a piece or perhaps even write a nasty article that misrepresents the work or artist. Strangely though, I have noticed that many artists become disproportionately caught up in what other people say about them or their practice. One bad review or spiteful comment and an artist’s practice can be severely derailed, even though exterior validation was never a primary goal for making work in the first place. Well, things have been placed in perspective for me recently as two of my close friends have become sick from making art. Suddenly, caring if someone else makes an offhanded or malicious comment about a piece of art seems ridiculous. One of my friends may die and that’s not a joke.

I’m sure all artists have heard anecdotal stories about artists who have been injured while making art, like Karl Zerbe. Zerbe was an artist in the 1940’s who fled the Nazi’s, had his work destroyed as “degenerative” art, became the head of the Department of Painting at the SMFA, but then had to stop painting because the toxic fumes from his encaustic paintings were killing him. I also know many photographers who have developed severe reactions to darkroom chemistry and can no longer be around the chemistry, but I don’t know anyone who has died. It was shocking to me that one of my friends has developed cancer from paint fumes and another is permanently injured. One of my friends, artist Michael David, is bravely open about how toxic gases released while he was painting have destroyed 70% of the nerves in his feet and 30% of the nerves in his right hand. Painting nearly killed him. Do you think he cares what someone says about him or his work any more?

My other friend who has just had surgery to remove the cancer caused by paint fumes would prefer to remain anonymous, but not because she is afraid of what people will think. In fact, she has entered a phase of art making that I believe most artists would be jealous of. She truly does not care what other people think about her or her work. She continues to make artwork because it adds meaning to her own life and part of that meaning is allowing other people to share in her life by displaying the work. If someone else likes it or doesn’t like it, she doesn’t care. It’s not for them; it’s for her.

She is in the place where I want to be when I make work. Whether it’s artwork or writing or anything else in my life, I want to be in a place where people are welcome to say whatever they want because I don’t care. From now on, every time I make something that I allow other people to participate in, I will think of my friend and her unbelievably positive and wholly freeing attitude of not caring what anyone else thinks. Well, I guess that’s not quite true. I wrote this article in particular because I know my friend with cancer will read it and I hope she’ll know that I have nothing but love, respect and support for her. Anyone else can comment whatever they want about me, my writing, my artwork, whatever. Believe me, I don’t care. A snide comment is not the worst thing that can happen.

Michael David, “Atlantic”, 2001-2002, Oil and wax on wood, 30”x26”
Michael David’s work is available through Lowe Gallery

Karl Zerbe, “Portrait of the Artist’s Wife”, 1945, Encaustic on Canvas, 47”x36”
Karl Zerbe’s work is available at Mercury Galllery

There is an article on how to safely use encaustics here.

Interview with Julian Cox about Richard Misrach

Richard Misrach’s “On the Beach” opens at the High Museum tonight and runs through August 23.