A conversation with singingwren reminded me that I haven't really talked about her, crazy woman that she was. Some people will think that my views on art were shaped by this amazing bitch, but really, they were simply reaffirmed.
I took beginning drawing here at Ohio State because I thought it would be fun, and I might learn how to draw something more than hideous, gelatinous space aliens. It met five days per week, for two hours per class. That was a huge dent in my schedule, actually, especially since I knew I wouldn't be able to carry all the garbage someone attending an art class needs to carry, and so needed time to get back to my dorm before and after class.
This meant that the two hour class required approximately three hours, as I couldn't scehdule around it.
But, wanting to learn how to translate my thoughts into little lines on paper, I signed up anyway, and my life became a living hell.
I was surprised, I suppose, at how much time I was expected to spend on each drawing, on every homework. It didn't really bother me, though, because it was over the summer. It just meant that I'd get to sit in the shade and draw for a few hours, and I could call it "homework." This sounded like a bonus.
In fact, I actually exceeded the amount of time I was supposed to take on this stuff. I wasn't really very good (even by my standards at the time, which were simple: if it's on paper and you can tell what it is, it's as good as anything else out there), and I knew this. Then again, I never really wanted to get good, just clearer. I had no desire of ever taking another class. . . I just wanted to have some skill in drawing so I could make something pretty. (Yes: pretty and useless, for those wondering. I never expected any skill learned to be useful.)
But I put a hell of a lot of time into the pictures I was drawing. 4-6 hours per night, some weeks, was standard. I was improving bit by bit, but there wasn't any hope that anyone would ever look at what I was doing as "pretty", which had started out as one of my goals.
And I was okay with this. "Pretty" art is damn rare, anyway. But you could kinda tell what I was getting at, which, again, was the real important point.
So I was cruising along, happy with my progress, though the work I was putting into it wasn't as much fun as I thought it might turn out to be. I was plugging away at those 4-6 hour nights, doing self-portraits, colouring Mirror Lake, and drawing parking garages.
I even sat Tina down once and tried to draw her. What I ended up with was very amusing: it was Tina, if Tina were a 200-pound Italian woman with a mustache. We about died laughing oer that one, but (honestly) it was probably the best picture I drew the whole class. It looked real to me, even though I knew who I was drawing.
Then, we got to portfolio reviews.
Maybe I'm the kind of fluffy guy who believes that points should be given more for effort than for ability. Maybe I'm wrong to believe that an ounce of improvement outweighs a pound of talent. Hell, maybe I'm just a tad upset that I put everything I had into the class and then got shot down hard.
The comments on my portfolio review were pretty ugly:
- You're obviously not putting enough time into these.
- I see a distinct lack of effort on these pieces.
- I don't know what to tell you. This portfolio, I've never seen anything like it. That's not a good thing.
- You'll have to work harder if you want to pass.
- This, well, this is just bad.
At that point, I saw no reason to argue with the lady. She had made it pretty clear that 4-6 hours was not enough time to spend on one class, and that improvement was not nearly so important as talent.
Keep in mind that this is Art 170: Beginning Drawing. A 100-level class. With "beginning" in the course title. Honestly, the course description had no prerequisites of "Students must provide own talents and skills: none will be taught." I wasn't interested in taking another art class to start with. . . I knew where my talents lay, and they weren't with art. Yet my portfolio was being reviewed as if I wanted to get into the College of Art and see my drawings of parking garages displayed on gallery walls.
I once told my mother about that portfolio review, and she actually started looking for the phone number to the College of Art to complain. My mother, a teacher to the very core of her soul, was remarkably angry that any teacher, anywhere, for any reason, would tell a student who was working hard that a) he wasn't putting in enough effort, and b) he was bad. She didn't understand why I didn't want her to call.
"Mom, I'm in college now and can take lumps from my teacher," wasn't the reason she wanted to hear.
Well, at that point, I nearly dropped the class. See, the teacher had the bad taste to hold the portfolio reviews in her studio, where all her work, completed and in various stages of completion, was lying out for me to see. When I looked at her (literally) lumps of fired clay with stupid faces and a coffee mug (again, with stupid face) that had a hole in the bottom next to her signature, I realized that artistic culture at this university frowns upon things like "improvement" and "conveying an idea", and instead focused on innate talent and bad pottery.
And my attitude in that class went south.
Now, I still worked damn hard. I would not fail a class that is supposed to be about learning to express yourself. I would just express myself a bit more. . . vocally.
I challenged the teacher more often, and a small group of classmates and I would ignore the teacher's critiques about quality, and talk about the effort we could see in each other's drawings. We didn't work for approval, we worked for the level we wanted to draw at, which (with all of us) was "just enough to make sense."
I listened, I paid attention, and I studied hard. I just no longer cared about passing or failing.
Probably the best argument I ever got into with the teacher, though, came toward the end of class. We were drawing chairs and anvils and picture frames and craploads of junk. I was drawing an end table (I think), and she stood behind me for a while.
"You're not drawing what you're seeing," she finally said.
"Yes, I am," I replied, still drawing, squinting at the damn end table. "To me, they look identical. Except that my table doesn't change when you move your head."
"No, you're not," she insisted. "Look, that table has a straight leg. Yours doesn't."
I kept drawing, not looking up. "You're wrong. I don't see a straight leg. I see a curve. My proportions might be off, I suppose. Yeah, I could grant you that. But the leg is not straight. Not to my eyes."
She bent down to see things from my angle. "Yes, it is."
Finally, I stopped drawing. I turned and looked at her. "So, what you're saying is that I'm not seeing what I think I'm seeing?"
I sat there a moment, unsure exactly what to say. Finally, I responded, "I'm sorry. As long as I see what I see, I will draw what I see. If you want to fail me because my brain perceives the light differently than yours, I'll gracefully accept the E. But please don't tell me that what I'm seeing isn't there."
And that, I think, summed up my experience with drawing at Ohio State.
In the end, I walked out with a C. It was the hardest C I ever earned. I did better in physics, and I didn't do any work in that class.
My opinion of art didn't really change that summer, but damn if my opinoin of teaching didn't change. I was presented with a set of values I had never experienced before, where effort was ignored and skill was cherished above all else. I became totally disinterested in anything beyond "clarity" in my own work; while clarity is certainly not ideal in my work, it's better than some of the "skilled" work I've seen.
I still draw, doodle, and occasionally play with "artistic" things, but I don't care if anyone else likes them. . . They're for me, and they are what I always wanted: things I can just throw away.
I imagine I still have that 200-pound Italian lady lying around somewhere. I'll see if I can't dig her up.