The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Surviving Graduation

The View from the Studio Door: How Artists Find Their Way in an Uncertain World
By Ted Orland (2006)

Chapter 5: Surviving Graduation, Part 1

This chapter addresses college students in the fine arts, but I think it also applies to art students in week-long workshops or those who work with a mentor. The classroom experience is one of total immersion in a supportive environment where one fits in with everyone else. It’s nothing like the “real world” where artists are undervalued and often misunderstood. So, graduation or separation from the classroom environment can be scary. As Orland points out, sooner or later every artist needs to claim their artistic independence, and that means placing a healthy aesthetic distance between their own work and that of their most important teachers. Artists who fail to make that break may well stay in the game anyway, but usually as niche players, building entire careers out of beautifully crafted variants of their mentor’s art.

This is really about confidence and trust in our own abilities. A teacher or mentor gives us direction and immediate feedback, which gives us the confidence to make necessary corrections to our work. Teacher/mentors often think for us by identifying the weaknesses in our work that we’re too immature to see for ourselves and assigning new challenges that will lead us in what we trust is the best direction. For the student, severing this dependent relationship can be difficult and knowing when to make the transition is tricky.

In college, I learned how to paint in oils and acrylics. Watercolor wasn’t considered a worthy medium (for shame!) and still isn’t in some institutions. So, about twelve years ago I decided to challenge that prejudice and learn to paint in watercolors. I sought a mentor and worked with her off-and-on for three years. Between lessons I asked her to critique my work and completely failed to trust in my own ability. If she wanted me to change something, I changed it.
This dependence ended when I painted a work that I knew (deep down inside) was a good one. She told me to abandon that path, but I refused and kept going. The series of paintings that resulted from my rebellion won numerous awards in juried national and international exhibitions, and earned me two solo shows in notable venues.

But, how do we know when it’s time to graduate? For me, it was when I had enough technical skill to paint well. At that point, the only thing I needed to do was express my own ideas – to say what I wanted to say about my world – to speak in my own voice.

What’s your story?


RH Carpenter said...

Kathy, you hit the nail on the head with your story about your teacher/mentor and when to break away. Having broken away from a 6-year relationships with a teacher/mentor, I did so when I knew that I had learned all I could of techniques from her and had to say something for myself. I'm still working on that voice in my artwork but it's coming along. Graduation can be a scary thing - or it can be totally freeing.

Linda Roth said...

I knew I had graduated the day I said to the instructor. Don't tell me what I should do or how I should do it. I'll take over from here. You could hear a pin drop. But I had the basics. I knew my faults and what to watch out for. I could fly on my own. That was my last formal art class. In my own studio, I'm learning all the time. Learning never stops.

Celeste Bergin said...

I was in a group show a couple of years ago. We were all more or less expected to work in a similar genre and there was a common "theme". I worked feverishly on my submission. In the weeks before I painted painting after painting that were technically correct...but boring as hell. I knew that everything I painted was awful. I was really distraught over the whole thing. Finally, one day before the show I scrapped all the paintings I had painted and finally painted from the heart. My painting turned out graphically stylized and super-fresh. I put it in a frame and marched it into the show with a new resolve. Everyone loved that painting and it was the first time I bucked the system. Bucking the system = graduation.

Casey Klahn said...

These are inspiring stories. I have a quote somewhere of da Vinci, I think, who says that the student is poor who does not surpass their master. Did any of his students surpass him? Probably not.

I learned the art of rock climbing from an expert partner, and one day he failed on a climb, and offered me to lead through. This is the real stuff, where you place the devices (protection). I did it, and at a higher grade than I had previously led. An event I will never forget.

He was the good teacher in this story, huh?

I wish for everyone reading that kind of elation at advancing to the level of your mentor. I really like what you wrote, Kathy. "...a healthy aesthetic distance between their own work and that of their most important teachers."

Anonymous said...

I had a distinct experience early on. I had taken a watercolor painting class from our local community college for two terms. After the end of the second term I remember being in my studio, looking at my paints and paper and thinking..."now what?" That's when my real education began. I had to learn it on my own. I've been doing it that way ever since.

Graduation? I had a graduation of sorts that day. And, I started "grad school"...! Now, if I ever gain confidence, then I'll have graduated my "Masters" program! (I'm getting there)

hw (hallie) farber said...

In second grade my only B was in handwriting. I hated that grade but I refused to copy the teacher's writing; I liked mine better and my parents backed me up. An important early lesson.

Anonymous said...

I'm getting ready to enter into my second year with Cindy Wider- for online art instruction. I've resisted all the way through the process but yet, am not ready to walk away. I'm so immature. It's tough to be 48 and act like I'm five. But I do and I hang on and I'm learning despite myself.
I'm not ready to graduate but I am looking forward to that day.
And Kathy- I consider you an informal mentor. I'm not ready to graduate from you yet either. Forgive me my childish ways.

Unknown said...

Hi everyone - great stories!! Thank you for sharing your experiences with all of us. Isn't it interesting to learn all the variations on the theme of graduation?

-Don said...

I claimed my artistic independence at a very early age. As I've mentioned several times, I've always bucked the way I was 'supposed' to do something. If I was told I couldn't do something a certain way I had a tendency to do it anyway - just to prove I could. Sometimes I was right. Often I wasn't. I guess my college instructors didn't mind too much since they didn't kick me out.

Even though I'd always been one to push the limits during my college days, I think I can point to one incident as a defining moment in my quest for artistic independence. Our weekly watercolor assignment was to be a self-portrait. Our instructor told the class that he wanted us to paint ourselves looking directly into the mirror with no expression. He wanted us to focus on our features and felt any attempt at expression would set us up to fail. He specifically said that he did not want us to do a smile, because that would be too difficult. Guess what? Not only did I do myself smiling, but I did myself laughing.

On our critique day after we all put our paintings up in front of the class and were settling back into our seats some of the students were whispering about my painting - wondering how the instructor would take it. One of the ladies in our class looked over at me and said - pretty loudly -, "You're just a rebel aren't you?". It wasn't a recrimination. It wasn't an insult. In fact, she had admiration in her voice. The instructor laughed out loud and then concurred. We had a great critique that day and everyone saw that adding an expression to ones face wouldn't necessarily cause one to fail at getting their countenance to paper. It's a piece that I still have. In fact, when my wife, Laura, and I first started dating she confiscated it and had it hanging in her apartment. After our marriage, it always stayed on one of our walls until one of our major moves. Someday I'll pull it out of storage and post a photo of it to my site.


Unknown said...

Great story, Don!