I'm sitting here in my office at the end of the semester. There a student's graduation cap on my desk. Classes have ended and exam week is upon us. My students are feeling the pressure of a thousand projects all due during the same week. I, along with most of my peers, am anticipating those projects, assessing the semester and thinking about what I need to do differently next year. This is a really great characteristic of an academic job. Each semester provides a new start.
As I reflect a little this morning I was reminded of a silly thing that happened last week. Tuesday afternoon was a slogging day. After a full day of studio classes and running around non-stop, we had a meeting and then three of us headed out for a 3 mile slog. The two students who joined me, Bolt and Gazelle, were the most dedicated sloggers for this entire year so we actually didn't slog at all, we ran. We made our way over to the athletic facility and ran around the bouncy track a few times before hitting our mileage and running back to the main campus. As we made our way down the big hill we could hear the thumping of music. It seemed an impromptu circus had made it's temporary home on our campus. None of us were sure what was going on, but as we got closer we saw the inflatable bouncy house type things scattered across the front lawn.
These two slogger students are the kind of people who are up for whatever, whenever. When I have one of my hairbrained ideas, they're right behind me. As we slowed our roll to survey the situation, we saw snow cones, popcorn, a rock climbing thing and a mechanical bull. We decided we were going to have to participate. Bolt and Gazelle started messaging other art people to come out. My phone died at the end of our run so I couldn't round up the troops or take photos of the fun. It took a while for a group to assemble but we got everyone to ride the bull and climb the weird palm tree rock climbing things. It was a lot of fun. As soon as everyone was finished a lady came over to us and asked us to be the judges for the costume contest. Apparently this was an advertised event and students were asked to dress up in beachwear. So there we were, the art kids, standing in a line judging the group of people in grass skirts and flower shirts while they pranced in front of us doing all sorts of funny things. We laughed our butts off. We chose the obvious winner and then headed out having enjoyed ourselves.
I didn't get the email about this thing. My students didn't know about it. We were planning to go play tennis after the slog. But we saw an opportunity and we showed up. We got free snow cones, had lots of fun and judged the contest for the school. All because we showed up.
People have been talking about showing up in the weeks since the Boston Marathon. The lady who won gave a quote about showing up and doing the work. You may not be considered the best in the game but if you keep showing up and doing the work your day will eventually come. And logically, if you don't show up, you have no chance. You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.
This seems like such a no-brainer but many of my students are afraid to try. I've noticed this tendency in my own kids as they are offered the chance to try new things. If they don't think they'll be great at it or if someone else at school is really good at it, they don't want to try. They're afraid they wont be good at it so they would rather pass. Sometimes I'm able to get them to try anyway. Sometimes they're great at it. Sometimes they're not but we still have a lot of fun trying it.
My mentor professor in grad school gave me some advice when I graduated. He told me that if I wanted to show my work I was going to have to apply to everything, enter everything and show up at galleries to ask for shows. He told me that the opportunities would not come looking for me. If I wanted to be successful, I was going to have to show up. I took his advice and I've been lucky and blessed so far in my career.
As I look at this graduation cap on my desk, I offer the same advice to my people who are leaving the nest next week. Try. Show up. Put in the work. Apply for the dream job. Go to the gallery. Enter the contest. Ride the mechanical bull. Don't miss a single opportunity because of that little voice inside your head. Tell that voice to shut up and hold on.
By the way, I held on for 12 seconds.
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Each spring semester we have some sort of fun gathering for the students. We've done pizza things and cookouts with themes for what to wear. Last year we had an 80s themed skate party. It was epic. This year a group of students decided we should have a formal type thing and the idea of the Art Gala was born.
You may not know this about me but dressing "formal" is not something I do ever. I have t-shirts for every occasion. Church t-shirts, everyday t-shirts and work t-shirts. I even have a small stack of running t-shirts - mostly the free ones you get for doing a race. I do not, however, have a stack of tuxedos in my closet. I threw away all my ties years ago and honestly had to borrow a couple for a wedding and some other thing I was forced into recently.
So the announcement that we were going formal threw me a bit. Naturally I had to go with humor. G and I looked up crushed velvet light blue tuxedos online but decided we couldn't pay that for a good joke. So G went to work with her skills and pieced together a colorful suit for me.
When students started to worry about what they were going to wear and we started having conversations about it, I started encouraging people to think creatively. They are art students, after all.
And then the funniest thing happened. Someone sent an email. The email told everyone they needed to actually dress formal and take this seriously.
I know, right?
If there's a faster way to get me to not take something seriously, I don't know what it is. Sadly this was the week of the event and we were all so very busy that I only had time to help one student make their own formal gown.
Sabrina volunteered because of her own dress issues and we went to work one morning fitting her for her steel formal gown.
Once the armature was welded together it was time to sew. But we had only hours so we sewed with zip ties.
The idea was for it to be transparent or translucent. We were scavenging free materials from the sculpture studio and working with what we could find. We had a roll of black plastic mesh and a couple of rolls of fabric.
This was intense. We had a team of people helping at various times and we ran right up to the deadline.
Sabrina added the big white bow on top of the giant steel posterior and it was showtime.
Or, I should say it would be showtime after we dragged the huge thing down the hall and squeezed it into Uncle Ricky's big SUV to transport it.
Then we squeezed the gown through a couple of doorways and up the stairwell. Then we squeezed Sabrina into it. The waist had to fit tight and we feared the mesh would dig into her skin. The solution was a nice, soft layer of pipe insulation. Except that the insulation made the waist a tad too tight. No worries, she just held her breath and it was latched, locking her in for the evening.
It was worth the trouble as she won "Most Creative Outfit" in the competition.
These people knew what they were doing. Spencer had a blue cape. Maggie, Drayton, Ashley and Smoak looked like pros.
Katherine, Hannah, Grace and Anna were traditionally formal as well.
I was a mess with my yellow pants, green suede shoes, skull bow tie and I don't even know what that jacket is doing.
There was dancing and silliness all night. Isaiah, Cali and Yessica had a ball.
As did Ashley.
Uncle Ricky looked so serious.
Kenya was there in a kimono, complete with the little bamboo sandals.
Hannah and Katherine
We even had a runway for everyone to walk down showing off their attire for the contests. But my phone in the low light only gave me a series of blurry runway shots. I still thought you needed to see this one of Emily in her Starbucks gown.
We had two DJs including DJ Jersey, our very own Art Historian, James Romaine. James is amazing.
And we ended the night with a limbo competition. I have no photos of that because I was in it. I got pretty low but not as low as Smoak and Spencer. They were the final two but Spencer pulled out the win. He's like a noodle.
I didn't get a shot of Mercedez but she won for "Best Formal Outfit". It was a cool formal dress with pieces of mirror all over it. It was awesome. I like Mercedez.
Friday, April 6, 2018
I need to be drawing. I haven't started a large drawing in a while and the ideas are welling up. Since winter break I've been reading and doing a lot of planning for all the crazyness that comes with the spring semester. Art hikes, Sculpture Deathmatches, new projects and such. And spring has been confusing here. It was cold, then it was warm, even really warm for a few weeks. Then spring break came and it was cold again. It's warmed up a little again but I've still had to wear a jacket and something on my head each morning and that's not normal for April in the South.
When it warmed up the first time, nature thought winter was done and things started blooming. My cherry tree started to bloom and then it got cold again. You could almost see the surprised look on the tree as the first blooms just sort of hung out there waiting on more. It was weeks before the other blooms emerged. I was slogging with my art crew yesterday and in the warm late afternoon the pollen was wafting through the breeze. We ran by a particularly harsh flowery smell and I looked around to see what it was. Across the street to my left there was a curtain of wisteria hanging from a tree in full bloom.
Wisteria. It reminded me of something. Oddly enough it was a song I don't think I've ever heard.
My hometown is Sparkle City. Spartanburg on the map but since every city needs a hip street name, it's Hub City, Sparkle City or if you watch the news it's often Murderburg. That last one is mostly a joke. Mostly. Like any city worth it's salt, Spartanburg has a Krispy Kreme. It kinda has two really. The original one is pictured in these photos. It was the beatnik looking building with the cool sign by the road.
The franchise is owned by Glenn Reese, a local politician and the father of one of my school friends, David. David and I were in 1st grade together and we graduated together. He never brought me free doughnuts though.
A few years ago the franchise moved literally just across the street to a new building that I'm sure proved to be more modern and better for making the doughnuts but the new brick rectangle building lacks the visual appeal of the old A-frame beauty.
Blue, Violet and I had a few minutes to kill on Easter Sunday so we dropped in to have a couple of Easter doughnuts. We grabbed a stool at the countertop by the window looking out over the classy old abandoned building across the street. These stools were not the same. This countertop was not as cool. So we went across the street to show the kids what a real doughnut shop should look like.
That's the countertop I sat at back in the day. Those are real doughnut stools. That cash register was never connected to wifi.
People who were eating a doughnut with a friend and only staying a few minutes would sit at those first seven stools with their backs to the parking lot. These were quick turnover seats.
The side stools (right) and the back stools (below) were for the relaxers and the people watchers. These people were having coffee, maybe no doughnuts and they were going to be a while. With their eyes on the door and on the quick turnover seats, they observed everyone who entered. They listened to orders and conversations. They were mostly quiet, though sometimes they'd whisper to other patrons in the same section.
One night my friend John Mills and I went for a doughnut and a coffee. This was back before Starbucks took over the world. We decided to sit in the observer section and see what life was like there. See that stool in the photo above? There was a guy sitting in that spot with his lady friend beside him. He had a long droopy mustache and a mullet sticking out from under one of those white ship's captain's hats. He was missing a tooth. Probably more than one but the one I remember was right there in the front. His tooth vacancy didn't stop him from smiling a big, happy smile at me when I sat down.
Those of us who hate social situations know that smile. It means, "I'm going to talk to you". And he did. Immediately. He asked where I was from and what I did. He interrogated both of us as if he was checking to see if we qualified for the "stay a while seats". I was in a good mood so I played along, returning fire, question for question. He was just passing through on his way to Florida with his girlfriend. I don't think he ever used the word girlfriend though. He called her by some kind of sweet hippie-ish nickname and she smiled quietly through the parting of her long frizzy hair. She looked at him as if she was in orbit around him. She appeared completely enamored by his presence. Either that or she was high, which I realized soon was a distinct possibility.
At sentence two I knew he was a space cadet. His language gave him away as a hippie but in the mid 1990s it was cool to be a leftover hippie. I tried really hard not to focus my eyes on the hole in his tooth-line as he spoke. He made hard, intense eye contact and smiled his sentences out of his mouth. He told us that he met his lady friend at a summer festival where he was playing guitar in the street. He was playing a song called "Wisteria" and she came out of the crowd and danced in front of him in the rain while he played. He told us that at that moment he knew they were destined to be together.
John and I were thrilled to find such entertainment on our first visit to the slow seats. We laughed and smiled as he talked and we tried to commit his face and his stories to memory on the spot, almost as if we knew this was a significant moment. We knew that when we left Krispy Kreme that night we'd never see this man again. He had stories of picking fruit on farms and traveling across the country for music festivals. He talked about concerts and his favorite jam bands. None of this was surprising or noteworthy. It seemed like small talk coming from someone that could easily have started a cult with his magnetic personality. His excitement started to rise as he told us stories and shared his "wisdom" with us younger folks. And that's when he said it.
A story ended and there was a pause. He took his mug in his hand and raised it to his lips. I could imagine the steaming black coffee passing through the void of the missing tooth and racing down this throat. I'm sorry, it's just how I am. He stared blankly over the counter. We looked over at him to see if we were done. To see if it was time for us to leave. He sat his mug down on the formica counter and the sparkle had returned to his eyes. He locked eyes with me and he said...
"Do you ever just stop and think about how crazy it all is, man? I mean, right now we are sitting here at this counter and we're moving at 66,000 miles per hour. Isn't that crazy?"
I broke eye contact long enough to turn my head over to John. John has a big brain but he didn't know the answer to this riddle either. I looked back at the hippie guy and he continued.
"Like, we're on this planet right now and while it feels like we're sitting still, we're really flying through space at 66,000 miles per hour around a big flaming star we call the Sun. And then if you think about it, that's just in our solar system. We're also traveling through the universe at an even higher speed."
Again, I looked to John who raised his eyebrows and slightly nodded that this could be scientifically close to true. I turned back to the sparkling eyes.
"And in a universe so vast and intricate and on a planet so large and full of billions of people, we stopped here tonight for a cup of coffee to keep us awake for the drive and we meet two beautiful souls like you. It's just crazy, man. Crazy."
You wanna know what's crazy? In those early days of the interwebs, we took the time to look it up in actual books and the hippie guy was right. Right now while you're reading this you're moving 30 kilometers per second or roughly 67,000 miles per hour. He was off 1,000 miles per hour but come on, that's pretty spot on for a traveling hippie guitar player. If you're into that sort of fact checking, the solar system is also moving at about 514,000 miles per hour. He didn't have a number for that but he was still correct.
He was also correct about the last part. It seemed like a spur of the moment decision to sit at the slow side of the counter. The Krispy Kreme sits a good ways from any interstate so I'm not sure how the hippie couple found their way there. The odds of the four of us meeting had to be something very lottery-esque. If you're the kind of person who believes in coincidence, that's a decent coincidence. I'm the kind of person who believes things happen for a reason. When people meet, there's something to be learned or exchanged. There's a chance for someone to help or be helped. Maybe the people on the slow turnover stools understood this about life.
I have moments where I realize I'm lucky to have young humans rolling into my life for 4 year periods of time in my classes. In those moments I think about the things I say and do and how those things may be remembered by that one individual for the rest of their life. I realize that 20 years from now I'll be the weird hippie guy in someone else's story. Crazy man, crazy.
Hey Krispy Kreme, that original building is in good shape. The coffee maker looks like it still works. Your doughnuts are great but your new building doesn't foster stranger conversations. The old sign still works, open that register back up and I bet the hipsters would stand in line to sit at the old countertop. And Mr. Starbucks, maybe consider putting in some formica countertops and stools and tossing those tables out. Maybe take out the plug ins and charging stations as well. Turn off the wifi. What if all those frappe-whatever drinkers actually started making eye contact and socializing with people they've never met? If you do it, I'll buy an old captain's hat and meet you there.
Monday, April 2, 2018
Another semester running away means it's time for another art hike. Once each semester I go on a hike by myself (or with my kids or with my dogs) and I let the art department know that they are welcome to tag along. It's not an official event in any way, but the ones who want to go are welcome. I have but one rule: no climbing on the waterfalls. People who climb on waterfalls die. I'd prefer to stay off the news.
Last Saturday we may have had one of our largest art hikes ever with 18 people and two dogs. This still kind of amazes me that almost 20% of the department would choose to spend a Saturday with school people.
I picked one of my favorite waterfalls for this one and we almost didn't get to hike it. This is an out of the way hike, just outside of a popular state park. When I've hiked it before I only saw a couple of other humans the whole day. Parking is very limited so we carpooled and then sardined even more to have only 3 cars to park. We arrived to find the parking area overfull and we struggled to find roadside parking a little walk away.
The hike starts out on a steep old logging road and for a half mile it goes straight up. Several steps in and everyone was huffing and puffing. The middle flattens out pretty good and then it really gets steep. Zeke The Wonderdog was having to do some serious rock climbing.
We took our time so as not to kill anyone and since we were a group of art majors, most everyone had cameras and there was plenty of beauty all around to take in.
The thing I love most about my iphone is having a tiny camera with me at all times. And the thing I love most about not using any kind of case with my iphone is that I take an unusually large number of accidental photos. My big goofy fingers hit buttons or I think I've turned it off and it continues to click away. It's always great to look at the photos I think I took later and find the hidden gems. This one cracked me up. Upon arriving at the base of the waterfall I stopped to take a photo through the trees. The descent to the base was steep and Katherine appeared only in one of a series of 3 photos. It was like magic. This is one of the only times I've ever seen Katherine not smiling.
The waterfall was Falls Creek Falls in SC just outside of Jones Gap State Park. It's a little over 150 feet and it actually continues down a little below what everyone calls the base.
Our custom is to hike to the waterfall or whatever other destination we may have and then stop to eat and take it in. There's another viewing area just above the the first ledge and everyone grabbed a spot there to relax and eat.
This was Bolt's first hike with us. I was super excited that she joined us.
If the blog still lets you click on a photo to zoom in, please examine this one closely. Jamea is demonstrating some exceptional waterfall selfie skills.
This one is also worth a zoom. Sabrina was laughing hysterically at something. She was also stuck out on that rock and had to be rescued by her friends.
The all important group photo to prove we made it. Because if there's no photo, it didn't really happen.
And then another to include Zeke and me. From left-ish that's Drayton, Smoak, JJJamea, Ashley, Spencer, Uncle Ricky, Jocelyn, Quattlebaum, Justin, Katherine, Bolt, Slagle, Caleb, Sabrina, Seth and Grace the Cat Lady.
As I mentioned at the end of the previous post, part of my Lent duties was to try to take the dogs somewhere each week to help better socialize them. Zeke is my go-to hiking partner so I decided to really give him some immersion therapy by forcing him to interact with humans.
We got him from a rescue situation and whatever the poor dude experienced in the first month of his life, it still haunts him. Loud noises make him cower. Sudden moves freak him out. Humans not named McAbee make him want to run in the opposite direction. But if you knock on our door or appear to be threatening McAbees in any way, he turns into a werewolf and will absolutely eat you whole. He's also not a fan of other dogs.
He's basically antisocial and hates people unless he's related to them or he chooses to be around them. Or as my students put it on this hike, he's the dog version of me. But we both behaved and we didn't eat anyone. He may have almost pulled me to my death at the waterfall but only almost.
Slagle brought the slack line and on the way back down we stopped at a good spot and set it up. That's Jocelyn focusing and making it all the way across. I tried it just so Spencer would try it and I ended up making about 2 steps before almost taking Quattlebaum down the cliff with me when I fell. Spencer, however, made it all the way across like a pro.
But no one was a skilled as the Slagle. He's part monkey, part robot.
We packed the sardines again at the trailhead and threw in a piece of wood Sabrina made me save and an old metal oil can to take back to the sculpture studio. Then we made our way to Travelers Rest for a rooftop meal at The Whistlestop Cafe by the Swamp Rabbit Trail. They allow dogs up to 20 pounds so we had Zeke think very light thoughts and we pretended he was a lap dog. The food was great but it's always great after a good hike. But that peanut butter and chocolate milkshake for dessert.....that was really the good stuff. We walked over to the Pink ice cream place for the non-milkshake eaters before breaking camp and heading back home.
My people are the best people. Everyone had a great time and no one broke my rule. I'll invite them again next time.
Sunday, April 1, 2018
Josie and I were awkwardly attending a gallery thing talking about how awkward we were. She teaches math at Lander but she's an honorary art person. She shares my disdain for socializing so we always end up standing around looking at other people socializing in the gallery. It's funny that we always end up chatting about random things and actually enjoying socializing together. This night was a few days before the start of Lent and we asked each other what we were doing for the 40 days of Lent. She told me a few of the things she had done on the past and I shared some funny Lent stories with her. We agreed it was sometimes more helpful to take up things rather than giving them up. We were both looking for something that would be helpful to other people.
Sabrina had an idea for a sculpture class performance art project last semester. She wanted to make loads of really small, quick objects and record an event where she would give the objects to strangers as gifts. We both researched ideas for this and found some cool internet videos of people doing nice things for strangers. She ran out of time because of her outdoor sculpture project but the idea was too good to let go. So with permission, I stole it for Lent.
I found a quick and easy heart file for the 3D printer and took a couple of days to print enough for each day of Lent. My plan was to give away one small plastic heart each day for 40 days. The loose rule was that it needed to be given to a stranger and that I would try to say something un-creepy and smile.
The first day was hard. Most of my days are spent on campus and there's no shortage of strangers there, but when I left my office that first day I became immediately aware that I looked like a "haggard old mountain man" and that I was about to walk up to a stranger and try to put something in their hand. It felt really weird. I walked out into the commons and saw tons of potential targets. Choosing was going to be difficult. I saw a young lady sitting down by herself looking stressed with her head over a book and I gathered my courage. I walked toward her and when I reached the "uncomfortably close for a stranger" barrier she looked up with a startled look. I smiled, placed the heart on her book and told her to have a nice day. She smiled with what had to be relief and I went to class.
With the hardest one behind me, I set about doing this every day. Each day I tried to find the right person and I tried to approach the in the least threatening way possible. One day Smoak was in the sculpture studio and she said that her friend told her that one of the art professors had randomly walked up to her and given her a plastic heart. She said it was the bald one with the beard. I checked to make sure it wasn't threatening and that she didn't think I was hitting on her. All was clear.
Some people responded with complete confusion. Most of them responded with a smile and a "thank you". One of them tried to avoid me like I was passing out religious paraphernalia. I stuck with it and kept holding the heart near her until she finally took it. If it was going to be a battle of wills, I was going to win.
When I'm not at school, I don't see a lot of humans. At least, not unless the humans are related to me. So finding strangers on the weekends was a little tougher. I found a few walking in public and in a couple in restaurants. They were really nice. I also felt like I needed to give a few to people who were not complete strangers. The brand new cleaning friend in the sculpture studio started her job with us right before we started the plaster project. On plaster pouring day I saw her struggling to understand what kind of disaster she was having to try to clean up after and I felt like I needed to give her a heart. I happened by my favorite LUPD officer on one of my missions and decided I needed to hand him one. Oh, also the super cool Starbucks lady who is so nice to everyone...she totally needed to know how much people appreciate her kindness. She's great.
The point of this was pretty simple. I'm convinced that we as humans are not doing a good job of loving each other the way we should. We are self centered and we walk around every day with our "me first" attitudes and we push everyone else to the sides. If people don't immediately seem to have anything to offer our egos, we ignore them. This has not been working out for us but we appear to be too self-centered to notice. I wanted to find a way to make myself notice other people and I wanted to create a habit of doing little nice things for them. It's easy to make someone smile. Like, really easy. It takes zero extra time and costs nothing.
I have a hunch that something that takes so little effort can make huge ripples. What if one of those morning hearts changed someone's mood for the whole day? What if it rippled through the day and made that person want to be nice to someone else? What if the little smiles were multiplied? I'm gonna tell myself that's what happened. Or at least that it's possible. And really, wouldn't that be a better world to live in? Can you imagine driving on the interstate and people looking out for you and making sure you got around them when you needed to? Or if people waited an extra two seconds for you to pass their intersection before they pulled out in front of you? Or if they said "good morning" to you with a smile when they walked past you?
I figure if that's the kind of world I want to live in, then I have to stop being so self centered. I hope this is a start in that direction.
Two important end notes for this one:
1. This isn't about me. Please do not read this and think "Oh he's so nice and thoughtful". Exactly the opposite of that is true. This was an effort to correct my self-centered nature in a very small way. It literally cost me nothing to do this and the effort I was forced to put out into the universe was as minimal as walking a few extra steps. If you take anything from this story, let it be that you can do something small and find your own way to put other people first.
2. As a family, we also decided to try to socialize our dogs once a week for Lent. This was a much bigger challenge and I'm not sure if we succeeded at all. Basically our dogs are stuck in an antisocial family out in the country and they see other humans about once a year at the studio sale. We saw a dude in Charleston after Christmas who went into a tiny restaurant after telling his lab to sit outside the door and stay. He went in and stood in line for a long time before returning to the door to wait on his order. The whole time he had a little chihuahua in his backpack. The lab was better behaved than my kids. Heck, so was the chihuahua. He never made a sound and was content to sit in his little backpack house and look around. We were inspired. So once each week we found some kind of reason to toss the dogs in the truck and go somewhere with them. Mostly this was a hike or a walk of some sort. Once we ended up just driving around. This too is something we'll have to continue to work on with them but it did seem to help.