Thursday, June 22, 2017

vacation part two

Packing up and getting out of town for a few days refocuses my brain.  I become hyper-aware of the people around me.  I notice the pattern and fit of their clothing.  I observe their behavior and wonder how it compares to their behavior back home.  In warmer climates I notice how their skin stretches and folds over the waist of their bathing suit.  In winter I watch as they cling to their phones and coffees as if those were baby blankets bringing comfort.  I record all these things in my sketchbook and draw the ones that really interest me as I sit on the balcony listening to the waves.

This most recent vacation provided so much drawing imagery.  It felt like a continuation of our vacation from last June where I first got the idea to begin my #buttdrawingmonday series on Instagram.  I suppose that we can easily get used to the idea of what a bathing suit is and that bathing suit fashion can change with trends.  I would assume that many of us have a built in fashion filter that fits our own personal modesty level.  But when you go to a beach in summer and really start to look around, you have to wonder if everyone has that filter.  Or if they just ignore it when it comes to beach attire. 

Some obviously turn their filter off on purpose.  The senior-weeker with the Bud Light cowboy hat and bright red Speedo bottom is a good example.  He walked up with a group of boys and admired one of our sand creations.  As he stood there and as he walked away, all around us people discretely pulled out their phones and took photos of him and giggled.  Some females also seemed to be wearing as little fabric as possible, regardless of their physique.  Some had hip bones visible with skin stretched over them and their extra small suits sagging.  Some seemed to also be wearing an extra small suit though they had not been an extra small (or even large) size in quite a few years.  The suit did its best to contain the skin that bulged over the top and burst out at every seam.  “Ten pounds of potatoes in a five pound sack” as my dad used to say.

This was not an exercise in beautifying the grotesque.  It actually had so much less to do with what the person looked like and so much more to do with the fact that they were proud of it.  In a society so obsessed with abs and butt lifts, these people seemed to be blatantly, pridefully trespassing.  Ladies might lie down just a few feet from you and your family and stretch out in a square foot of cloth that left absolutely nothing to the imagination, seemingly proud to put their bits and pieces on public display.  Grown men would peel their tshirts off to reveal a remarkable contrast between thin, spindly legs and an explosive mass of belly making them resemble a lollipop.  Some very much wanting to be seen, others oblivious that they are visible.

These people have mirrors.  They have trusted family members.  They know they look good in very little clothing.  Or they know their bodies test the thread strength in the seams of their clothing.  The cool thing is that no matter which end of that spectrum they may be on, there is no shame.  They shed their walking around clothes and spend the day on the beach in the equivalent of skimpy underwear not giving a thought to what others may think.  There’s something beautiful and powerful in that.

My 10 year old son was recently flailing his arms around and making odd noises for no apparent reason in a public place.  I turned to him and said “Dude, stop.  You’re in public.”  Without a pause he replied “But I don’t care what people think.”

He’s doing his best to teach me stuff.

I’m learning.

Friday, June 16, 2017

vacation part one

Vacation was good to me.

It always is.

I’m not just talking about rest and relaxation or getting away from the normal day to day.  I’m talking about imagery and concept related to making art.  When my brain is able to coast a little, space opens up and ideas fill that space.

G and I started taking weeklong trips to the beach annually back when I was in grad school.  The summer before my final year in the MFA program we took our first one.  I was frustrated with my sculptural work and had a loose idea of what I was going to make for my thesis exhibition.  It was a decent idea for a body of work but I wasn’t excited about it.  When we left for the beach I carried a load of books to read and my sketchbook.  My love of people watching is well known so I was quite distracted from my work on the beach.  In the early part of that week a group of newly graduated senior girls set up their tanning station just in front of us on the sand.  After a while they rolled onto their bellies and unstrapped their tops for that seamless tan, paying no attention to the incoming tide.  It was late May/early June.  The air was warm and the water was still a bit chilly.  We watched as each wave lapped closer and closer to the toes of the tanners.  And then, as the ocean enjoys doing to us, it sent one rogue wave charging ahead chilling and waking our beach neighbors with a start.  Such a start, in fact, that they forgot about their tops as they reflexively raised up and screamed.  It was quite a show for everyone and there was a lot of laughter. 

That moment had value.  It was funny and it was a story and it seemed to say so much more than simply what happened.  It immediately appeared to me to be an allegory, a moment that had the power to communicate something larger than itself.  I drew it in my sketchbook and that quick sketch evolved over the next few days into a very abstract mermaid form.  That form became a sculpture and that sculpture was part of my completely new idea for my thesis exhibition.  These were sculptures that made me laugh.  They were exciting.  The show was titled “Souvenirs” because each sculpture came from an idea or story from that vacation. 

A part of that simple form has remained with me all these years, always taking me back to that moment of receiving a story with a message.  Over the past 15 years that image has morphed into a whale, then a bird, then a submarine and it has always reminded me of the need to look for beauty and meaning in those moments.

Vacation was good to me.  Here’s a few photos…

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

life after advice

My undergraduate degree was a BA in Studio Art with teacher certification.  I wanted to be a teacher and I thought that working in a K-12 public school was probably the way to go.  Near the end of my degree, one of my mentor professors had a conversation with me and told me I should switch to the BFA degree.  At the time this was nonsense to me.  I had a year to go, I was going to get married and I was going to coast into a teaching job.  

That professor was Paul Martyka.  If that name means anything to you, you will understand just how significant it was for him to be encouraging me to move into a more professional studio art degree.  I understood that he was wise and quite good at discerning artistic ability in a student, but I was not able to clearly see what he saw.  Even while knowing that he must have been right, I could not take his advice.  

A year later I was graduated, married and dreading the process of interviewing for the teaching jobs.  I had a very eye opening experience while student teaching during my senior year and I knew that I probably wasn't going to be happy teaching K-12.  Martyka had been right, as he always seemed to be, and now it was too late for me to follow his advice.  

I only interviewed for a few teaching jobs but I lucked into this weirdly advertised job as a graphic artist for an embroidery company.  After a couple of years, I managed to turn that into a great paying job.  But designing for not-so-creative customers was not exactly thrilling.  It wasn't something that energized me and made me a better person.  This was not my place in the world.  It was simply, a job.  After another couple of years I found myself in Paul Martyka's studio back on campus talking about coming back to grad school for an MFA.  Only now can I appreciate how he must have felt having that conversation.  I'm sure he wanted to shake me and say, "You idiot!  Why didn't you listen to me years ago?  I could have saved you so much time and effort."

I've been teaching at the university level now for almost 15 years and in that role I've found myself on Martyka's end of those types of conversations.  With the aid of experience and "old people perspective" I can very often see where a student is headed either personally or professionally or both.  But most often, the student can't see it.  Even when they understand and logically they agree, they often can't bring themselves to follow the advice.

This is frustrating beyond explanation.  

And I'm not even talking about unsolicited advice.  Lord knows I give that on a daily basis.  I can't stop myself.  I see it, I say it.  I hear it's hereditary.  What I'm talking about here is someone coming to me and explaining a situation and asking for advice.  I assess the situation and factor in what I have figured out about that person and I provide guidance out loud.  Then the seeker ignores the advice.  

Sometimes I'm wrong.  It happens.  And when it turns out that I'm wrong, I don't sit around and marvel at the advice seeker ignoring my advice.  I'm just glad they did.  It only bothers me when I'm right.  

I've thought about Paul Martyka's advice recently.  What if I had taken it?  What would my life look like now?    

If I speculated, it would look a lot different.  In fact, I'm not sure that I would be in the wonderful place I am now if I had listened to him.  It's weird to think about it that way.  He was right, but I had to ignore his sound advice and accurate assessment of me in order to be where I am today.  I had to take the wrong turns in order to realize where I did not want to be.  I gained experience along the way that better prepared me for the day I got back on track.  

The five years of working as a graphic artist-turned-graphic designer not only showed me that I didn't want to work for customers, it also gave me a background and interest in typography, surface design and composition.  I also had five years of being a "semi-adult" which gave me some life experience to draw from conceptually.  Each of these Legos stacked up, one on top of the next until I was prepared for grad school.  

It's tough to be on the student end of these situations.  You're trying to figure out why you're in college - like, really why you're in college.  Not because it's expected or you were encouraged.  You're trying to figure out how what you've learned is going to be applicable in the years after college.  You're struggling with the youthful idea of rebellion against authority and the semi-adult idea of trusting respected sources of information.  And there's some part of you that just wants to just get a job and a mortgage and a family and try out being a real citizen.  

I'm realizing it's even tougher to be on the Martyka end of these situations.  You can see clear as day what path a student should take.  You can pull strings and send emails and open those doors for them.  You have been there already, you can stand in the path and tell them which direction is best.  And then you have to sit silently by and watch them ignore your advice.  You have to watch them struggle and stumble and fall.  

Eventually they'll learn and experience what they need and they'll have an epiphany.  It won't feel like an epiphany, but they'll start stacking up their own Legos one by one, each decision better than the last.  They may be back for advice or they may just find their own way.  It may take a couple of months.  Or a couple of years.  Or a lifetime.  And maybe they'll send an email so you can enjoy their success.  

But you'll keep giving advice because they keep asking.  And because that's a part of your place in this world.  And you'll realize how lucky you are to be able to give it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

the difference between mermaids and noise

I'm sitting at my dining room table.  Ten feet in front of me several teams of hummingbirds are warring over the favored nectar bank.  The window that separates us is one of the best features of the house.  Just beyond the window is the front porch and hummingbird traffic zone.  Beyond that is the front yard and beyond that is a field of high grass and wildflowers.  You can see the majority of the 10 acres from this seat, including the eastern sky that funnels the morning sun into the dining room.  

The first day I ate breakfast here six years ago I looked up between bites and saw a baby deer frolicking across the front yard.  I often see our hawk looking for his breakfast from the top of the tall pine.  On the very best mornings the kids scarf down their food and run off to adventures, leaving G and I to sit at the table talking and daring one another to have another sugar filled coffee.  I do love to eat, but I've learned that eating is not the best thing about sitting at the dining room table.  

That first morning six years ago, I learned to watch and enjoy the silence.  It was a great lesson and one that has treated me well.  

Right now, while I'm typing, Blue and Violet are sitting in the living room watching TV with volume up way too loud.  Each of them also has an iPod in their hands simultaneously playing some game.  Two things at once.  Every now and then one of them will begin to narrate their game out loud.  Then they'll fall out of their chair where they were sitting upside down and use the opportunity to cuddle with Timber.  

And last week, last week I observed the most heinous of all sins.  During our sand sculpting class we spent several days on the beach all day.  We were surrounded by the most gloriously wonderful of sound mixtures.  The wind, the surf, and the occasional gull or gleeful child laugh made a beautiful cocktail of sound.  Sitting on the beach with only these sounds is one of my favorite things about a beach vacation.  But you can always count on some Philistine to lug a speaker or radio out and plop it down beside you to try to drown out all the "noise" of the natural surroundings.  

My kids and my students have become dependent on the noise of distraction.  We can't drive to Walmart without Blue wanting to put his headphones in.  My students can't take their earbuds out long enough to weld.  I explain that they need to learn to hear the different sounds of the machines so they'll know when things are going well or going wrong.  They respond, "What?!" and then they pause their music until I walk away.  

Last week the beach reminded me of the need to listen.  When I returned home and caught up on emails I saw that my Dean had shared an article she wrote about the importance of poetry.  In her article she quoted T.S. Elliot in his story about a man who lived his life filled with the busy-ness of noise and never stopped to take the time to observe and listen to what life was saying to him.  Near the end of his life he lamented his choices and imagined that he could "hear the mermaids singing" while knowing that he had never taken the time to listen and it was too late for him. 

I believe we are all afraid to listen.
What if we get a great idea?  What if we have to act on it?  What if we try and fail?  What if we look ridiculous?  What will people think?  Fear hands us the earbuds.  Fear turns up the volume.  Fear keeps us exactly where we were yesterday.  Fear keeps us comfortable.

From my dining room table, I can hear the mermaids singing.  I can hear them from my front porch swing, from my beach chair and sometimes I can even hear them over the shrill shouting of the grinder.

I realize it is my job to help others hear their song.  So I'll drag my kids into the woods and across the lake, forcing them to leave their iPods at home.  I'll pull my students' earbuds out so they can actually think.  And I'll do my best to steer them all away from the figurative noise that tries to steal away their creativity.  

And at night, I'll put my own ridiculous phone down and take a break from endless scrolling until the mermaids sing me to sleep.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

that time we had class on the beach

Two years ago I was building a sand fort on the beach with my kids.  We had spent the week in the sand building new and interesting things each day.  Beach walkers would stop and ask questions and say nice things.  I joked with G while I was carving a skull on the front of the fort that my dream job would be to find a way to get paid to sculpt on the beach.  Last week, that dream came true.

Last Monday I waited on Luke and Molo to arrive at my house early so we could take off for Charleston.  We had to deliver a couple of drawings for the Piccolo Spoleto Juried Exhibition on our way to our sand sculpture class in Pawley's Island.  When we arrived about an hour earlier than the van full of the rest of the class, I tossed my luggage on the floor and walked out to the beach to survey the situation.  My classroom and sculpture studio for the week would be my favorite stretch of land on Earth.  

Last year I pitched my sand sculpture class to the department.  Everyone was on board.  Sandy is the go-to trip maker in the department so I asked her to make this happen.  She handled all the wrangling, finances and organizing of things.  All I had to do was go and teach the class.  

I know how this sounds.  You have to be thinking "Really?  That's a college level class?, You mean they paid you for that?"

And Yes.

And I can promise you it lived up to the academic rigor of any studio class in terms of time, work and effort put into each project.  My students earned their course credit.  They have the blisters, muscles and sore backs to prove it.

When the van arrived on Monday afternoon and luggage and bodies were wrangled upstairs to rooms, we gathered on the beach for a quick demonstration.  While I'm sure you all know how to pile up sand or dump a bucket upside down, our projects were going to be a bit more complex.  Students had been preparing for several weeks before stepping in the sand.  They researched some very accomplished sand sculptors and looked into several different methods of using sand as a sculptural material.  Each student started a sketchbook for the class and began designing things they wanted to make for the class.  But now it was time to actually start learning a new medium.  

They took to it very quickly.  You could almost see them revert back to childhood as they shucked off any sense of being cool or grown up.  They started digging and we all quickly piled up a mound of sand.  Within an hour it had developed into a skull with a wing and a crab claw and a sculpture logo on its back.  Instantly people started gathering to take photos and ask how we made it.  A mom brought her kids and was so happy to hear we would be there all week sculpting.  They vowed to check in after school each day.  People staying in our hotel were also excited about the prospect of seeing our work develop all week.  My students had all experienced showing their work in a gallery or in a critique and getting feedback from me, but for many this was their first time putting things out in the public eye and hearing feedback from regular people.  I could see my students responding to the smiles and laughter their work was providing.  

After a day of travel with a few hiccups and moving around some heavy, wet sand, they were ready to eat.  As a lover of all things beach, I planned for each day to feature a little hard work and a little fun.  We brushed the sand off quickly and loaded up to find some seafood.  We found Litchfield Beach Fish House very close to us and we piled in to see if they had room for 18.  The first words out of the host's mouth were "holy crap".  But after a couple of minutes they had tables pushed together and we all ate conference table style for our first family meal.  Bob, the owner came out to greet us.  His wife graduated from Lander years ago so he treated us like close relatives.  He made sure we all had paper pirate hats before we left and he insisted on taking our photo on his old fish truck.

There are many logistical things to consider when making sand sculpture on a public beach.  We wanted students to work close together so we wouldn't have to walk for miles just to check progress and critique.  But we also wanted to make sure everyone else had room to enjoy the beach.  We also talked about where to begin making each project.  The tide was always creeping in or out, providing the moisture you needed or threatening to destroy your work.  With their first solo attempt at making ephemeral art, most students opted to work above the high tide mark.  Still, they knew that each night they would need to flatten out their work so that the sea turtles would not have their paths impeded as they came in to lay eggs.  On this first full day of work, they made me proud.  They moved tons of sand (perhaps literally) and made some very good sculptures.  More and more beach walkers came up to ask what was going on.  Older Lander alumni would find us and bring their friends to see what we were doing.  Everyone smiled.  Everyone was happy.  Everyone was encouraging.  We worked from 9am to 3pm and my people were beat when they were done.  There was some sunburn and a lot of sore sculpture muscles.  After work we had another family dinner and then drove up to play mini golf.  We had a ball.  

As the days rolled by, everyone learned the importance of reapplying sunscreen often.  They learned to put on a shirt for a few hours.  They learned that eventually you have to stop pouring buckets of water on your sand and trust that it will hold.  They also learned about the positive power of public art.  We talked about the importance of sharing something positive with viewers and how they had the power to change someone's mood with their art.  We talked about making a positive contribution to their community.  These things started to register with my students and I think it may even change how they approach art making in the future.  

One night we thought our work was small enough to leave out all night.  We figured the turtles could navigate through easy enough in the unlikely event they decided to nest here.  So we accumulated 2 full days of sand sculptures in one small area.  It became our own little outdoor sculpture gallery and on the second day I watched from my balcony as crowds of people moved through the space carefully taking photos and talking about the art.  No one smashed the sculptures or messed with them.  It was as if they were in a museum.  Of course, the turtle patrol lady gave us a sketchy look so we made sure to flatten the area the next night.

We also learned about marketing.  After the first day Sandy and I talked about not only using social media to spread the word about what we were doing, but we also decided to send out press releases to the local media and even some news sources back home.  This was a great success for us.  The first TV news station showed up the following day to do interviews and take video and still photos.  The second and third stations showed up the next day to do the same.  One did a "happy news" segment to run after we would leave to talk about the impact we had on the entire beach area.  Several of my students were featured on the Official Myrtle Beach Instagram account and the Fox station out of Greenville ran a slideshow of our work on their Facebook page.  We also were the subject of countless personal photos.  Everyone brought their cameras and either drove to our hotel or walked from their residence to see the work.  Some of the visitors came out specifically to see our work.  It was truly a wonderful and encouraging response.  Not one single person complained about what we were doing.  Can you even imagine in this day and age how miraculous that is?  Of course we were careful to share with the hotel management just how much free publicity we arranged for them.  They were quietly keeping up with it all and were already aware that they had been mentioned in all the press.  We are currently in negotiations for discount pricing for next year!

We also sprinkled in a couple of educational field trips.  We took a half day to visit Brookgreen Gardens where we learned about renowned sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington and her contribution to South Carolina.  We took a tour of the sculpture garden and learned about several other American artists as well.  We also spent a day in Huntington Beach State Park and after working on the beach there, we got to tour Anna's summer home and sculpture studio.

On the last full beach day, we recruited a new student to Lander.  A young lady was on the beach with her family and I kept hearing them talk about the art and how the girl was interested in art.  She came over with her mom and talked to a few students and eventually to me.  She was in high school but already knew that she wanted to be a nurse.  She also has a big interest in art.  I happily explained that Lander has a great nursing program and that we offer a minor in art.  She was sold instantly.  We gave her some art department swag and got her hooked up with our school social media and she can't wait to apply.

I started out with the intention of posting a ton of photos of my students' work from the week.  There were so many great projects it was hard to narrow down the photos.  After a great deal of careful selections, I still had over 100 photos to upload here.  I decided that was ridiculous so I opted for more text and a minimal amount of pics.  I'll paste in some links to the news releases at the end and you can find several photos of sculptures there.  I decided it was more important to use words here because the thing that struck me most about that week was not the visual impact of my students' work.  I know they're good so producing great work in a new material was not that surprising.  What impacted me the most was how my students behaved.  

When you think of a group of 15 college students spending a week at the beach you may think of a pretty rowdy group of drunks trashing their rooms and needing bail money.  You might think they would be prone to making slightly obscene things in the sand and just generally being loud and obnoxious.  With this group, you would be very wrong.  They understood they were there to work and to have a little fun and they approached both with respect.  I asked them to get themselves up for breakfast at 8am and to be on the beach at 9am every morning and they did it.  We had no complaints to the hotel about behavior or noise and every sculpture made could have received a G rating from Disney.  

But here's where they went above and beyond expectations:  Our group featured just about every type of personality you can imagine.  There were students going through tough times emotionally, physically and mentally.  There was the interpersonal dynamic of a group spending every hour together for 6 days.  And in the midst of all that, they watched their tempers, edited their words and sometimes just sucked it up and took one for the team.  We couldn't make everyone happy with our meal choices or room assignments but they took it all in stride.  I watched as more than a few students saw other students feeling left out or bored and they went out of their way to befriend them and include them.  New friendships were made, closer friendships were made and some just learned to appreciate and love parts of people who used to annoy them.

Our schedule was made to allow for a couple of group dinners where we would all eat together at the same restaurant.  I figured the students might need some time to get away from the group and from the professors.  As it worked out, we ate all but one meal together as a family.  And that one meal that we were not all together, all but 4 joined us at the same table anyway.  Half of the group walked around with us all night when we went to Broadway at the Beach.  It was such a great group of students.  They are wonderful people.

Each day featured a hefty work schedule and shoveling sand all day is not easy.  I worked them hard every day just as I would in the sculpture studio.  But having fun is an important part of my philosophy of education.  I believe that creating fun in an educational environment is one of the major strengths of the Lander Visual Art Department and it's one of the reasons our department is so close knit.  On the beach we took breaks to toss the frisbee and cool off in the ocean.  We made our dinners fun by playing games and singing and making new friends.  I brought my surfboard on the trip so that students could give it a try.  No one knew how to surf but after I surfed just before dark one night, Luke was brave enough to give it a try.  The next day several others tried it and by the end of the week more than half had tried.  Adam got up a few times and was so proud of himself.  Changing people's moods, making people smile.  Happiness is crucial.  

On the last night we met in "The Spirit Room", a conference room offered to us by the hotel and showed the students a slideshow from the week.  Then we gave out silly awards.  I came up with a goofy award for each student, usually based on something funny that happened during the week.  Singletary spent some time at the local Dollar General buying cheap, goofball objects that she then spray painted metallic silver or gold in the alligator pit behind the Dollar General to use as "trophies".  We gave Singletary the "Best Mom Award" which was an actual trophy from the cheesy tourist trap and they presented me with a paper pirate hat signed by all the students.  It was all very fun.  

(Food Appendix)
Y'all know I love food.  G and I make lists of places we want to eat before we go on trips and we eat our way through town.  Last week we enjoyed the Litchfield Beach Fish House (crabcake sandwich and hushpuppies are a must), Habanero's (where we met singer songwriter Will Ness), The Grilled Cheese and Crabcake Company (where everything is amazing but I had the crabmelt with old bay fries and when G came down the next day she brought me a bbq brisket melt that was just as great), Graham's Landing (where our own Sabrina works and we enjoyed crab legs), Extreme Pizza at Broadway (the boar'der pizza with pulled pork and bbq sauce) and Moe's Original BBQ (pulled pork, ribs, baked beans and banana pudding).  My only regret is that I didn't get to take them all to Russell's.  Next year maybe.  

Singletary eats seafood only once per year.  She checked it off her list for 2017 at Graham's Landing.  Also, this is the only photo for 2017 with her eyes open.

Links for photos: