I studied studio art at Cal State Long Beach. Before that, Orange Coast College, and a string of other Junior Colleges. I learned early on in the studio art classes that I should really take what the teacher says literally and treat each new class as an opportunity to learn something new. It’s not that I was such a good student or had such a good attitude about learning, it was that this approach at first had the effect of writing with the wrong hand and made me produce really crappy work in the beginning, whether it be drawing, sculpture, painting, whatever. As the semester wore on and I gradually incorporated my own methods to the class, it really looked like I was benefiting from the teacher’s instruction. The result was usually an A, a happy teacher, and I accidentally learned something. Lesson #1: don’t be afraid to change your approach.
My favorite teacher was this guy named Doug at Cal State Long Beach. He seemed like he lived in his own world, and that his whole life was an art project. Whenever I was around him, I could glimpse a little of the world through his eyes, and it was a much more interesting world. He usually listened to my ideas and debated with me a little, and then supported my decision and just threw some rhetorical questions at me now and again. He also had the solution to any technical problem I had, ever. Before I had him as a teacher, I honestly didn’t know that (Lesson #2:) being an artist is as much a way of thinking as it is a way of doing. Mr. Buis presented these ideas to me in a way that I understood, and was very fond of saying that you don’t want to beat your audience over the head with the meaning behind your work. I always wrestled with that one, because I don’t like being misunderstood when I’m trying to express myself. It also bothered me to walk into a gallery and look at something that made NO sense at all. I like things a little more overt, like the slightly Picasso’d female reproductive system made out of yarn that I saw in a gallery on campus one day. I knew he would have hated that, but I smiled and inwardly thanked the artist for making their point make sense. And as a consequence of not wanting my teacher to think I wasn’t cool, I held back on so many questions. I should have implored him to go with me to the on-campus galleries with me when I didn’t understand the exhibit. I went into a gallery one time and it was full of round yellow smiley-faces, you know, the ‘shit happens’ smiley face? I walked out of the gallery feeling confused and irritated. Maybe that was the artist’s intention.
I took Art History from at least 4 different schools. I don’t remember why, because I think I only needed to take 3 classes, but I think I must have dropped it at least once. I got the most out of the last one, the one that looks at how art history is taught to us, and how our experience is subject to how things are presented to us, and how an exhibit is curated. In fact, that made me question how everything is presented to us, and I always stopped and took that into consideration. In other words, Lesson #3 was to examine what goes into your “pipe” before you “smoke” it
There are also two interesting classes after Art History called “Art criticism” and “Art Theory”. The guy who taught this was great, and I should have been paying an entrance fee right there at the door in addition to the tuition. He put together these amazing slide shows that I’ll never forget. He seemed to be able to sort out what we would really be interested in. Have you ever seen that image of the guy who is painting by shooting paint out of his butt? I don’t want to try to Google that, or I would add a link. That teacher was also the one who introduced me to one of my favorites of all time, the guy who spend 21 days in a gallery with a coyote. Because how can you think of that without looking at it from the coyote’s point of view? This teacher, however, told us that you don’t have any chance of getting your work into any important gallery unless you had a master’s degree in fine arts. That didn’t make any sense to me and never has. Whatever. Lesson #4: don’t limit yourself.
I’ve been reflecting on this because even though I had all these great classes and all these great teachers, going to school to study art took a lot out of me, and took away a lot of my creative energy where there had once been an abundance. I miss it, and am slowly waiting for it to come back. I got the urge to draw the other day, and was so taken aback by the urge that I almost didn’t pick up a pencil and draw. I used to have that urge all the time, and spent hours in my room in front of an easel, just sketching away. Drawing is mostly about seeing, my work has me retouching photography all day and therefore looking at images only in terms of dark and light and abstract shapes. I’m really curious to see how that has affected my drawing style. I never got past the headaches that were induced by the Betty Edwards method, and I really should have just maybe followed lesson #5: find your own style. I mean I had this drawing teacher who was so against the “drawing on the right side of the brain” method, and I just looked at him blankly because I honestly didn’t know there was another method of drawing. I thought that would be like skipping the eleventh grade. You just don’t do that, kid. It’s sad, too, because I miss how stimulated I’d get in a good art class, and how worth it it is to find the good art out there and to strive to be a part of it.
Finally, Lesson #6: get out there and look at art, and you will come home twitching with inspiration.
Joseph Beuys in “I like America and America likes me”, 1974, Rene Block Gallery