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Exploring the Unknown: Two Lovely Articles on Art Learning and Practice

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field is an image of a small area of space in the constellation Fornax, created using Hubble Space Telescope data from 2003-04.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field is an image of a small area of space in the constellation Fornax, created using Hubble Space Telescope data from 2003-04.

I came upon links to two art articles on Facebook over the past week or so, posted upon the pages of Tim Dooley and Brian Hitselberger (scroll to the end for the links to the articles.) I kept them open in tabs all last week, awaiting a free moment of concentration to sit down and read them. That moment finally came this morning. Reading them sent me off on the following New Years’ tangent about the nature of time and the development of my work over the past 3 years.

School is largely silent at 7am, but for the roaring heat. We’re supposed to get some kind of wintery weather over the next 24 hours, so who knows if school will even be open tomorrow. Both of these articles put me in a good mood for teaching, though. And have given me some solace and encouragement in the ways in which my practice has been evolving these past couple of years. Overall, I get from these words a feeling of excitement in exploration and comfort in my many failures. Upon reflection, I see how my failures have often produced the greatest leaps into contentment with myself and my process.

I finished up graduate school in the spring of 2011. I immediately began to annoy Blake by flowing directly into what he calls one of my, “what does it all mean?” art existentialist episodes. I was satisfied with the body of work I did for my thesis exhibition. I felt that I had finally had the time to concentrate and produce what felt like a complete thought, or paragraph, or feeling, or expression. Not “complete,” as in finished, but more in the sense of “big enough to stand on its own and be considered, thoughtfully, for a time.” I felt I had investigated a subject in a variety of ways and was able to use the rough and tender processes of relief and stitching to sculpt it into a space. When I am satisfied with something, I just stare at it for hours in a Narcissistic sort of way, becoming lost in thought. And I feel this feeling that I can’t quite describe, like my organs are outside of my body–and look at them! Aren’t they neat?!?

At first, I thought I would continue out the series I was working on, being on #9 of a series of 12 potential subjects in a cycle. And I did begin one. But the sudden lack of time and facilities and space (living in a one room apartment with no press access and working multiple part and full-time jobs) did its number on me. I began to gravitate to a different side of my work, namely the quiet abstraction of crochet. It was what I could do on the floor at midnight while eating dinner and falling asleep in front of the television waiting for Blake to get home from his late-night cooking job.

And it took a while for this shadow of what I had been creating to start to feel like work again. We took a leap of faith, and moved to Kentucky after about a year. I thought I would have more time to create–I at least had access to wonderful facilities! But I ended up teaching 4 classes and taking on a part time job which accidentally became a full-time job, and I found myself as exhausted and ragged as ever. But I did keep on with my crochet work, made a few small relief pieces that reminded me of the scab-picking joy of carving, and kept drawing in my sketchbooks, of course. I gave myself tedious drawing assignments in which I found great joy.

In January 2013, the need arose to move once again. Blake left in the first days of the new year, and I stayed behind to wrap up loose ends in Kentucky for a few weeks. There turned out to be not as many loose ends as there might have been. I spent days in my bathrobe eating tuna and pickled beets out of the can, sitting at the kitchen table, and just drawing and water coloring whatever I damn well felt like. I felt sad and purposeless a bit at first, but I found I had such a buildup of ideas that I became blissful in drawing and could not seem to draw enough or fast enough. While I missed Blake, the time passed quickly and I produced a whole new suite of work.

These drawings, I see now, were a little obvious. But they were a good starting point for me, a good inner dialogue spilled out in pigment and hatched and cross hatched into shadows of ideas that I am now continuing to pursue. What really solidified it all for me turned out to be a visiting artists’ opportunity I had in October of last year.

It hardly feels that long ago, but going to the University of Northern Iowa for a week to make large woodcuts on fabric and turn them into an installation was like putting a frozen, slow-growing mold into incubation and watching it explode into renewed activity. I have this phrase stuck in my head, that it “saved my life,” which sounds so desperate. But it saved a little voice inside of me that had been silenced many times, mostly by my own self doubt and worry and lack of any moment to breathe.

But there is also a delicate balance to silence and noise, activity and idleness. Finding myself suddenly without a teaching job, not due to lack of trying (I’ve applied to around 80 some opportunities over the past year and a half) but more to random misfortune, as I am choosing to deem it, became almost as stifling a situation as being over-worked. I did keep creating and planning projects, but I felt guilty about my free time to make things, and I was quite worried about money.

My time spent in limbo, waiting to hear about my overseas job, supremely messed with my sense of time. It not only made the Fall of 2013 seem incredibly brief, but it also glitched my internal clock. In the limbo months, I would awake at 2-3am to check my email and see if any news had come about my job so I could buy my plane tickets to the UAE. I barely slept,  existing as I was on an imagined tenuous thread between 2 worlds. In one world,  I could not be myself in public, and I would be largely alone on Hannah Island. But I would also be teaching full-time and building my resume and would finally be more financially secure. The other world was filled with personal freedoms of expression, and the man I love next to me, and a few interesting prospects/projects. But I would have almost no money to pay loans and live on.

In short, the time of the past 3 years has a funny sense to it. The first year I barely remember time, the 2nd felt ever so long, and the 3nd was so incredibly short.

This long rambling post shall finally get to its point, however. I found two lovely articles, suggested by friends, and they helped me to look back over my successes and failures of these past 3 years with a new vision. Below, I’ve linked to the articles and have also pasted some excerpts of my favorite parts.

Perhaps, in the end, the message of these articles isn’t so related to what I have written above, but it got me started on the subject. It’s a fitting time at the beginning of a New Year to look back upon my last few cycles around the sun, and ponder what this one will bring.

The Articles

1. Permission to Fail: MFAs aren’t a problem: it’s artists’ being content with what they know.
by Barry Schwabsky
January 21, 2014

“Whatever has called a student to enter the department,” Singerman points out, be it a “love of past art, an excitement about the process of creation, a desire for personal growth, the ability to draw,” the instruction the student receives is intended to demonstrate that none of these are sufficient or possibly even necessary to being an artist. “Among the tasks of the university program in art is to separate its artists and the art world in which they will operate from ‘amateurs’ or ‘Sunday painters,’ as well as from a definition of the artist grounded in manual skill, tortured genius, or recreational pleasure.”

“[Art students]…are constantly being asked to divorce themselves from who they are—and, concomitantly, because art is still broadly (though ambivalently) understood as having something to do with vision or visuality, from what they see.”

“What is it that an art student is learning when she learns to use her own blindness or ignorance as a tool? That blindness can lead to insight is something I was never taught as a philosophy major, and I suspect I would not have learned it if I’d studied chemistry, history or French either. In medicine, the fledgling doctor needn’t learn how to be a patient. In none of these fields is it normally considered necessary for students to learn by systematically pulling the rug out from under their feet. That risk is peculiar to contemporary art.”

“Joseph Beuys’s affirmation regarding the artist’s “emancipatory lesson”: “each one of us is an artist to the extent that he carries out a double process; he is not content to be a mere journeyman but wants to make all work a means of expression, and he is not content to feel something but tries to impart it to others.”
–Permission to Fail,,2

“What’s encouraging to a reader of Draw It With Your Eyes Closed is to see how many art teachers understand, however obscurely, that their job is to do what teachers in no other discipline are allowed to do: propagate failure. ”

“As long as artists keep feeling the need to set themselves something like school assignments, they are in touch with their ignorance and not merely the servants of a program.”

2. Theory in Studio: The Sky and the Edge of Sight
By Dan Weiskopf
January 23, 2014

Essentially on the subject of “how artistic practices can transform and enrich the meanings of scientific images.”

“Artistic practices that draw on the sciences, however, face daunting interpretive challenges. Scientific images have determinate meanings that are established by the experimental and theoretical context in which they are produced. How much of the autonomous meaning of these images appears when they are incorporated in artworks? To what extent do these artworks depend for their coherence and success on the surrounding scientific context? And how do these works clarify or complicate the scientific attempt to transcend our perceptually grounded understanding of the world?”

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