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October 21st, 2005


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03:47 pm - My one and only art class in college. . .
Ah, my art teacher.

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?"

"Yep."

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.
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: "Bigger Than the Both of Us", -JB

(14 comments Leave a comment)

Comments:


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[User Picture]
From:chronarchy
Date:October 21st, 2005 08:21 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I didn't get those comments in writing. I got them face-to-face. Just not in front of anyone else.

The amusing thing about the School of Architecture doing this to students, though. . . Hasn't anyone seen the building they're doing that in?

Man, if only someone had done that to Knowlton. . .

But such things have a definite place . . . I'm just totally unconvinced that it's in a 100-level art class that's pitched to students as a course where you don't need any previous skill to enroll. It's a GEC for gods' sakes!
From:weavingfire
Date:October 21st, 2005 08:22 pm (UTC)

Nice

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I'm so glad she was clear with her constructive critism. Too bad it wasn't writing or poetry, you could have ripped her to shreds with witty sarcasm.
[User Picture]
From:chronarchy
Date:October 21st, 2005 08:23 pm (UTC)

Re: Nice

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Heh. As I was writing this, I realized I ought to write about my poetry class, too :)
From:weavingfire
Date:October 21st, 2005 08:41 pm (UTC)

Re: Nice

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I don't know...I think my poetry class story could possibly top whatever your story is...did you end up referring to the teacher as someone with similar traits to Hitler for the out loud poetry reading?
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From:shes_unreal
Date:October 21st, 2005 08:33 pm (UTC)
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I took Beginning Drawing and had a peach of a teacher, he was really nice and funny and good looking and a little flamey (which made it even more entertaining), and our nude model wasn't a bad looking guy either, and I had a great time. That guy really appreciated both effort and talent and I don't think anybody who didn't miss class and finished all their projects got good grades. Plus, you know, I can draw really well without even trying. It's too bad you had a bad experience, I wish you'd had my instructor and I'd had yours (because she probably would have liked me, art teachers usually do... but I don't really need to put effort into a lot of my art to be able to draw reasonably well, which is why I'm not really that into it).
[User Picture]
From:chronarchy
Date:October 21st, 2005 09:10 pm (UTC)
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*nods* I imagine there were people who liked the teacher I had. I may not be able to see why, personally (even the fact that she was kinda hot wasn't helping), but that doesn't mean others can't enjoy her class.
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From:shes_unreal
Date:October 21st, 2005 10:05 pm (UTC)
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Well I say I wish I'd had yours because, like I said, most art teachers like me.

That is assuming we had to trade for you to get a good teacher. I'd like to have kept mine and have you take class with him too.
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From:smithing_chick
Date:October 21st, 2005 11:45 pm (UTC)
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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.

The problem with that is that most of your classmates likely *were* trying to do exactly that- you can't have a different set of standards for a student just because they're less serious about the subject. When I've had to take math classes, my effort didn't matter either.

A certain amount of talent & skill is definitly expected in college art classes, just as pretty much any college class requires a certain amount of knowledge of the subject area. What would it have been like to jump into your first American Lit class if you haven't had an English class since grade school?

So, on one hand, it kinda seems to me that your expectations weren't entirely realistic.

However, having said that, she sounds like a pretty shitty teacher. There's definitly a problem with art profs that they can rely too much on the students being talented & so don't bother to actually teach anything. Drawing, as is any art form, is as much skill as it is talent & skills can be taught. A good drawing prof can make a huge difference in skill.

I can deal with a prof being rude during a critique if they can back it up with ways to improve the work. My painting prof told me that my self-portrait was "a really bad painting" & that I should destroy it. He also called it a "noble failure" because he appreciated wheat I'd tried to do. We had to paint in the style of a major artist & I deliberately picked one whose work I found interesting but who's style was completley different- Francis Bacon. It was horrible. But I learned some things about how I work & about how the paints can work. And I will never try it again. :P
[User Picture]
From:chronarchy
Date:October 24th, 2005 12:38 pm (UTC)
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What would it have been like to jump into your first American Lit class if you haven't had an English class since grade school?

Had it been English Lit, I'd have expected them to cover what they wanted kids reading, and help those who are having issues with reading comprehension.

Had it been composition, I'd have expected them to teach the basic 5-paragraph essay format, and to hold writing labs for those who can't grasp the concept.

Had it been poetry, I would expect them to give poetic meter and encourage us to play with it. I'd expect peer review and discussion, but in the end I would expect them to be more interested in the meter of the piece than in the unmeasureable "quality" of the piece.

But in none of these would I expect mastery of these, nor would I expect that they would turn in sonnets that held as much promise as Shakespeare, nor an essay that is critical enough to enter into an academic journal. These are classes that you take to fulfil basic requirements (which is what the art class was, as well), and so an understanding of technical aspects is far more important than the quality of what you turn out.

Besides, you can't measure and value art in the way you can measure and value physics equations or calculus' various derivations and sine/cosine . . . stuff.

No one can argue when you get a basic physics equation right. My art course was entirely at the whim of my teacher. Taking my (admittedly) bad drawings to the department to challenge my grade and asking them to look at them (without them knowing how much time I put into these things) would have been a failed venture: Who would believe I was spending that much time if they didn't see it? All they would see is the value of the piece, and there's no way anyone would give me higher than a D in terms of ability. My teacher did see the time I spent . . . I made sure she did. Sometimes sitting outside her office to practice my drawing.

As for expectations not being realistic: I was expecting only to learn some skills that might help me understand how to draw better.

What I received was a statement that I will never manage unless I went from 4-6 hour days (not including class, for a total of 6-8 hour) to 3-4 hours more per day. The insinuation, also, was that I would not pass unless I committed that 9-12 hours every day. . . and showed an incredible amount of improvement on top of that.

The teacher, I might add, never once offered to help, and when I asked, I got the response, "I don't really have time for that."
[User Picture]
From:edelweiss68
Date:October 22nd, 2005 12:13 am (UTC)
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"No, you're not," she insisted. "Look, that table has a straight leg. Yours doesn't."

Being a person who went to a four-year art college for a major I don't even really USE, the alarm klaxons went off for me on this line. Art is how one perceives, among other things. That response of hers was incredibly narrow for an art teacher. Would she have told Van Gogh or Picasso the same thing? Yeesh.

As for reviews, yeah, I went through many. Unscathed, luckily. Many of them, in a four-year art college, are juried reviews - which means your folio just gets ripped to shreds by ALL your teachers at once. Kind of like an artistic gang bang without lube.
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From:chronarchy
Date:October 24th, 2005 12:39 pm (UTC)
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Nah. She would have said that Van Gogh and Picasso understood the basics before they went off the deep end and started making those. . . things that seem to be considered the pinacles of art.

I've tried pointing that out before. It's the standard answer.
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From:creature_tamer
Date:October 22nd, 2005 02:43 am (UTC)
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I never took an art class in college, but that's largely due to the lack of luck I had with them in high school.

Drawing in particular is something I have always enjoyed, but art classes always seemed to devolve into an endless chain of pointless busywork rather than something which would help me develop skill. One teacher in particular would sometimes take my projects away from me and finish them herself. I wonder if it's simply one of those subjects that doesn't lend itself well to mass instruction on a classroom scale.
[User Picture]
From:chronarchy
Date:October 24th, 2005 12:40 pm (UTC)
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Haha. I like that teacher. I can see myself being an eccentric teacher like that.

"That's a good start, Billy. Let me finish it for you!"
[User Picture]
From:lisbet
Date:October 25th, 2005 03:09 am (UTC)
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I had a great teacher through high school -- he actually inspired me to take advanced drawing & painting, and later on, jewelry. But I lacked talent. I learned a lot about technique and I plugged along and got decent grades, but I knew by comparison that most of the other students were much better at it than I was. it was actually amusing, because I first took art in 8th grade to get away from having to take choir. I was terrified of both but art was kind of like the lesser of two evils for me. And my teacher was SO accepting and constructive with the comments, and appreciated my very raw efforts. Once in a while I even turned out a semi-decent piece of work. And he didn't laugh or make me feel bad about my crappy ones, he just pointed out where I could try a slightly different technique next time to achieve my aim. I wish you could have experienced something like this, I really do. But I wouldn't have ever taken a college course in art. I knew I would be really out of my league by then! Still, it would be nice if universities actually offered the kind of art class you wanted. Like "Drawing & Painting for Dummies 101" or something.

Oh yeah, and do post the 200-lb. Italian lady if you find her. We'll all be supportive and appreciate your efforts!

I once did a portrait of George Harrison and he ended up looking like an anorexic homeless guy...but it was an interesting anorexic homeless guy! (luckily we didn't have to say who the person was) My teacher's only comment was a raised eyebrow and "He's rather thin, isn't he?"

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