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.