Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Summer of Living Leisurely

At the beginning of summer I had a stack of books I needed to read. I eventually worked my way through all of them but I began with what turned out to be the most entertaining and educational of them all.

A.J. Jacobs is a writer and editor for Esquire Magazine and tends to write about his own adventures and experiences. In a previous book called The Know-It-All he wrote about a year of his life he devoted to reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A-Z. His most recent book (and the one I read) is The Year of Living Biblically and it details how his life changed as he sought to follow all the rules of the Bible literally for one year. He’s also a pretty funny guy.

Jacobs considers himself an agnostic though his family comes from a Jewish background and of course that means he went into this project with some preconceived notions about the book the was attempting to follow. One of his reasons for undertaking this project was that he was interested in the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism. He was skeptical of religious zealots and wondered how anyone could engage in a belief system that seemed to leave logic so far behind.

One of the interesting things that happened along the way is that Jacobs became a very disciplined follower of the Bible. In fact, though he never considered himself a “believer” during this process his “biblical life” for that year put to shame the lives of most individuals who say they follow the scriptures. One example of that is in the book when he out-talks and out-lasts a visiting Jehovah’s Witness.

Personally I believe that Jacobs let his cynicism get the best of him in the end. The book is well written and will make you laugh out loud again and again and as far as it details his year long struggle to follow the Bible literally, it accomplishes that goal completely. But in his mostly scientific approach I could almost see him retreat a couple of times in the book. Retreating from what? Maybe you should read it and see what you think.

In the end Jacobs is relieved to be free from all the rules and as what he now calls “a reverent agnostic” he gives short book tour talks about some things he learned from the year long experiment. One of those things is that your behavior influences your thoughts. Stemming from Biblical ideas of giving thanks, Jacobs found that as he was required to be thankful for every tiny thing that went well each day he became more positive and pleasant. Who knew the Bible dealt with cognitive psychology? Another thing he says he learned from the year of rules is the importance of a Sabbath. The Bible forced him to observe the Sabbath day for a year and as a workaholic father and husband he found this quite distressing at first. It was difficult for him to stay away from his computer when he knew he had so many things to do. At first it seemed he was losing a work day each week but soon he began to see the peace and calm this day of forcible rest brought to his life. It caused him to slow down, to enjoy more of the things around him, and I would argue that it also helped him in his creativity and idea development.

I finished the book in May and inspired by this idea of forced rest I decided to slow down and enjoy my summer. Normally this can be one of my busiest times since I can be in the shop more and can usually turn out several new sculptures and drawings. This summer I completed two small drawings and two larger painting/drawings. I did an indoor show, a public art exhibition, and worked on a new sculpture, but still haven’t finished it. I played with legos and rode tricycles. I went to the beach a few times. I ate a lot of ice cream…apparently about five pounds of ice cream and I read that stack of books.

Now that the Summer Sabbath is over, I’m going back to finish up that sculpture I’m still sort of excited about.

I leave you with photos of the last hurrah of summer…from the outermost bands of tropical storm Fay.

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.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


I don’t like your cell phone.
A new semester is edging up and as I prepare projects and syllabi for the new classes, I have to consider how to communicate my intolerance for cell phones. Every student has at least one and they guard them as if the little devices house some sort of life support system. Over the years the phones have slowly migrated from their origins deep inside a purse to a pants pocket and most recently out in full view on a desk or table top. No longer do you have to endure the mysterious ringing of the invisible phone during class while every student looks around wide eyed feigning innocence and hoping it’s not their phone. Now you can see the phone vibrate across the table. You’ll see the student grab it but instead of silencing it and putting it away, they’ll answer it or check the new message, or text a message back.

To fight this total lack of respect for education, I now start each semester by telling students to keep their phones silent and out of sight. Still, they just can’t break the addiction and I’ll either see them sneaking the phone up to their ear shrouded in a pulled up sweatshirt hood or I’ll hear the vibrate function and see them slip out to take a phone break outside. Of course some of these phone conversations contain emergency information that would otherwise not wait until after class. “My roommate just got dumped by her boyfriend”. “My boyfriend is on his way to pick me up”. And my favorite one from last semester was when a father called his daughter to tell her a famous actor had been found dead. Anyone can see how these things trump a quality education.

I spend hours on the road each week and these students are joined by a chorus of drivers who seem to have developed a new high tech appendage. Their tires drift aimlessly from one lane marker to the other. Not content to talk with one hand and drive with the other, they apparently use their knees to steer while holding the phone with their right hand and make wild hand motions with their left. Yes, hand gestures to a person who cannot see them….go figure. Others have some piece of metal or plastic hugging their ear and wander down the interstate appearing to have an animated conversation with an invisible passenger still gesturing but using both hands this time.

Talking on the phone in class is distracting and just plain disrespectful to everyone involved. Talking while driving is dangerous no matter how great you think you drive. But that’s not why I hate your cell phone.

I have one. Since I’m on the road at odd hours it seems like a smart safety item to have nearby. I never turn it on and have not needed to charge it since spring. I don’t know my number and the last time it rang I couldn’t figure out which button to press to answer it and hung up on my wife. I do not reject technology and I realize how helpful it can be to have a portable phone in many life situations. The thing I object to is the mindless wasting of valuable time.

Wait, what does that mean? How can I be wasting time if I’m talking while driving? Isn’t that just multitasking? What about talking in class or during breaks or while I’m eating with family or friends? Couldn’t that be considered using my time wisely? No. Not even close.

Let me explain. I’m talking about the value of time spent inside your own head. Time to think and to work things out. Time to allow your mind to wander and explore. Time to stretch and cultivate new ideas. Time to focus on and enjoy what is happening right here, right now.

With a busy schedule I value any time I can find for myself. These moments can be found anywhere if I pay attention. Waiting on someone to show up for an appointment provides several minutes of quiet. Walking across campus allows the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. Driving to and from school and work creates hours of time to consider projects, develop sculptures, and plan out exhibition schedules. Your friend ducking out to take a call may even allow you to playfully mock their plugged in nature during a meal. For the person paying attention and carefully observing their environment any of these moments would be not only polluted, but destroyed by having to stick a phone in their ear and endure the distraction.

For me these moments of peace provide the perfect opportunity for problem solving. While working on an idea for a sculpture or a drawing there are many times when I just don’t know what to do to a certain area. I’ll have a few images rolling around in my head and in my sketchbook but none of them feel right for the specific piece in question. The artwork needs a certain amount of visual weight in an area yet the image needs to communicate a specific idea to the viewer. A quiet moment may allow me to slip several different ideas into that specific spot and question the line quality, the texture, the color, the possible interpretations involved. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been driving and suddenly realized that something about a new sculpture is all wrong and needed to be excised. I can’t count the number of wonderful and horrible ideas I’ve had while waiting for someone to show up for a meeting. And on good days I may even be able to discern which ones are wonderful and which ones are horrible. Some of my best work has been the result of embracing these moments.

Moments that I refuse to surrender to distraction.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

you only leave traces