Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Will Sculpt For Food

“So, you’re the one who talked my daughter into changing her major to Sculpture.”

Perhaps not the best start to a conversation with a stranger. See, there’s this former student, let’s call her Maggie (not her real name). She endured my instruction in Three-Dimensional Design for two consecutive semesters a while back and was by any measure a great student. Her abilities with 3D materials seemed to surprise her since she had mostly focused on Two-Dimensional art up the point where we crossed paths. This is a pretty common thing to see with incoming freshmen students. 3D materials are expensive and bulky and mostly too much of a bother for the average public school system, so most students come in with little or no experience with 3D.

Like so many of these students, Maggie was reluctant to embrace 3D design and like most she entered the course seeing it as a necessary evil requirement…something to be endured for a season and then to be forsaken. It’s entertaining (for me) to watch the evolution. Some students enter and quickly demonstrate their complete lack of devotion to a major in Art then slowly fade throughout the semester. Others come in and though they never really develop any eternal love for 3D they do come to realize the importance of learning how to handle real objects in a design space. These students begin to see the overlap from their 2D classes and realize the parts are working together for the greater whole. And then you have students like Maggie. Often they are quick to tell you their disdain for 3D and sometimes they are frank about their disdain for their 3D teacher. As the days fall off the calendar in September and October several things begin to happen. First I notice their negative attitude has taken a leave of absence. Soon they begin to devote more time outside of class on their projects. Before long, they actually care and are taking pride in their work and may even let a phrase like “this class isn’t so bad” slip from their lips. Still, it’s a small percentage who will think seriously about changing their majors to Sculpture or Jewelry & Metals.

I don’t teach any sculpture classes or metals classes and I receive no commissions or kick-backs for the number of students who decide to switch over from the dark side. In fact, when students approach me with the news that they are thinking about changing their major to Sculpture I give everyone a blanket answer: “It’s very tough. Don’t consider it unless you are ready to work hard”. I’m honest with all my students, but especially in these situations. If the student has not demonstrated an advanced ability in my classes I will quickly discourage any such move and attempt to point them in the direction of their real strengths.

Maggie shrugged off my warnings and I didn’t worry because I had no doubts about her ability or her work ethic. She changed her major to Sculpture and enrolled in her first two classes. Her decision was rewarded at the end of that year when her first real sculpture was accepted into the Annual Undergraduate Juried Show and she won some type of monetary award.

At the opening reception for this show Maggie introduced me to a kind lady who turned out to be her mother. I have this thing where each time I am introduced to a stranger I instantly forget their name. I can remember everything else about them but can never produce their name. It’s my superpower. The explanation for this phenomenon may lie in the fact that most introductions are routine and basically forgettable, but this was not an introduction I’d be forgetting any time soon.

I explained that her assumption that anyone had been “talked into” anything was not exactly how things went down and I assured her as best I could that Maggie was an excellent student and that I thought she would continue to excel in 3D materials. Mrs. Maggie’s mom then pulled out the big gun. She asked me if I could give her any assurances that her daughter would be able to get a job with that degree. She asked if I could promise her that her daughter would not starve to death after graduation. Mrs. Maggie’s mom was a concerned parent for sure, but it was also immediately obvious she was smart as a whip. She was not being sarcastic or mean. She asked her questions with a gracious smile but kept enough steady eye contact to let you know she was sincere. And I understood exactly what she was asking.

If you look in the local classified ads…good luck finding any listing for “sculptor”. The large factory beside the interstate probably doesn’t need an in-house sculptor. Go ahead and count the number of people you know who happen to be full time sculptors. Right. So why would any intelligent college student want to pursue a degree in a subject area that will likely NOT land them any sort of job?

I did my best to explain that while Maggie would probably not find gainful employment as a sculptor, she would be able to find many jobs - good paying jobs that her degree would qualify her for. This really is no different from many students who major in Painting, Art History, Illustration, or Math for that matter. It would be nice to think that all graduates walk into jobs that directly correlate to their areas of study but it would also be very far from the truth. I tried to explain that Maggie has the opportunity to develop and grow as an artist and that college would help prepare her for continuing to do that developing and growing long after her undergraduate days were over. She may find herself like a large percentage of artists working a day job to pay the bills and to fund her creative habits while doing that creating on the side. I even passed along an extensive list of potential art jobs. This is a list I’ve learned to maintain as this is at least the second time I’ve been involved in such a conversation.

I know people who have chosen their career paths. Despite talents or opportunities some individuals just decide they’ll work here or that they’ll take that job just because they want to. I’ve had young adults tell me they chose a career because of the salary and that they have almost no interest in the job. But I also know people who have had their careers choose them. These people understand up front that they will likely never be rich or famous yet they seem to sense that it may be better to find pleasure and fulfillment in the work you do…and in how you live your life.

I believe that making art is something that some people simply must do. Something compels the creative individual to share a part of themselves with others.

And yet I understand that this is not something that is easy to explain. Especially to parents. But Maggie will be fine. And her parents will be very proud.

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