Sunday, April 21, 2019


 This is Nick.  Nick is leaned up against his 300 pound public sculpture he recently installed on campus.  Nick is kind of awesome.  Let's talk about Nick.

Nick is graduating in a few weeks.  He has one week of classes left in his final semester of college.  Actually, only a half week of classes left because he's skipping some classes this week to go to a couple of concerts.  I'm not mad.

Well, I'm mad, but not about that.  Here's what I'm mad about...

This is Nick's most recent sculpture.  It's a steel table, a steel chair, a steel sign and an aluminum energy drink can, all polished and shiny.  Formally it's good.  Conceptually it's even better.  But I think I have to give you some background information for it to make sense.

Let's go back to freshman year.  Nick was quiet and wore a lot of black.  I met him as his academic advisor and he was in the Visual Art degree with a Graphic Design emphasis.  Second semester I had him in my 3D Design class.  He mostly suffered in silence.  That class isn't very fun and I do my best to goof around and lighten the situation.  Nick was a tough nut to crack.  Lots of walls.  It was clear he was not interested very much in 3D things.  This was a class he wanted to get through and put behind him.  He did survive and then he had to make it through one more of my classes....Sculpture 1.  It's a class he should have taken the semester after 3D Design.  First semester of his second year.  His advisor told him to do so.  But Nick has a mind of his own and he decided he was going to wait.  The following year his advisor told him to take Sculpture 1 and he decided he was going to wait again.  I happen to understand the mind of a rebel so I didn't yell at him.  Not that it would have done any good.  

First semester of his senior year he enrolled in Sculpture 1.  This was his last chance to take the class and graduate on time.  Honestly, I wasn't very happy about him waiting so long to take the class.  At this point he had taken about 40 photography classes and dropped his Graphic Design emphasis.  He's a great photographer and I'm convinced he'll be in National Geographic someday soon.  But after 3 years of college, in a degree that encourages students to develop a broad range of studio abilities, he was only flexing one muscle.  And time was short.  I was frustrated.

I'll spare you the details but Nick did really, really well in Sculpture 1.  I'll admit that I was surprised he did so well on the first project.  Not because I didn't think he had ability, but because I was familiar with his attitude toward Sculpture in general.  As I watched his attitude change and his work habits develop positively I was less surprised by the second and third project.  And then only mildly surprised when he asked about taking Sculpture 2 this semester.  I know, right?

In January we started the semester and the upper level students spread out in the studio and many of them found "spaces".  Our studio is small so it's tough to provide individual work spaces for students to use exclusively.  Nick and I ended up sharing a table.  It was sort of a joke at first.  The table he started using to store his materials was close to the tool room.  When I needed to repair a tool or sit things down for a couple of days, that was my table.  I kept putting things on his table and he didn't know it was me.  He eventually left a note that said "This is Nick's table.  Please stop leaving things on my table."  So naturally when I walked in the next morning, I grabbed a Sharpie and adjusted the sign to say, "This is Nick's and McAbee's table.  Please stop leaving things on our table."

So we had a table.  And conversations and jokes.  Then he went and made another great sculpture, that one he's leaning against up there at the top of the page.  Nick started to realize he was good at more than just photography.  That confidence was good for him.  

This academic year I've watched Nick grow as a student and as a human.  He's more actively involved in the department and he has a positive attitude.  I mean, he's still likely to just stare at me blankly when I wave at him across the crowded plaza during a class change, but he's just as likely to shout "MCABEEEEEE!" at me in the same situation.  Sculpture did not do this to him.  But the confidence he's gained from his successes has definitely helped him grow.

When Nick was gathering ideas for his Senior Show proposals, many of the projects he proposed to enter were sculptures.  One in particular grabbed my attention.  His proposal was to take the steel table we shared for the semester and strip it and polish it.  He'd do the same with a steel chair.  He'd have to have one of his ever-present energy drink cans (which I really hope he'll give up soon so he doesn't die) along with the infamous sign, recreated in steel, sitting on the table.  Not only was it an epic idea, it was also a nice little high five to him and to me.  

So now he's done.  Graduation is less than a month away.  I'm very happy for him, of course, and I know he'll be very successful.  I just wish he would have discovered his sculpture self a couple of years sooner.  That's what I'm mad about.  

Saturday, April 13, 2019

"don't cross the streams"

I made this ridiculously heavy sculpture in grad school.  I made it in my dad's welding shop an hour and a half away from campus where it was to be installed.  I wondered how I was going to get it there and pick it up to anchor it into the ground and my dad said he'd just throw it on the big trailer along with the fork lift and we'd drive it over.  Then we'd have the fork lift there to lift it up.  Easy.  Or easy if you happen to have access to a big trailer and a fork lift.  (Re-reading that makes me smile realizing just how awesome my dad was.)

We drove up onto the front lawn of the well-manicured university.  We unloaded the fork lift, then the sculpture and had it installed in minutes.  This was all normal.  All my life I had been doing things like this with my dad.  I had been driving a fork lift for many years, just not on my college campus.  So while it was normal activity, it was not the normal setting for the activity.  And when my sculpture professor walked out to see the sculpture, it started to feel weird.  I introduced my dad to my professor.  They shared a couple of words.  I honestly couldn't get out of there fast enough.  

It took several years for me to understand this feeling.  I loved my dad and was proud of him.  I liked and respected my professor.  They both said nice things to each other about me.  But it was weird.  It was like in Ghostbusters when they keep saying all through the movie that you have to make sure you keep the two streams separated.  Never let them cross.  "It would be bad", Venkman said.    

This happened to one of my students recently and in conversation it sort of came up.  This time I was the professor in the equation but I could totally understand the student's perspective.  You move away and you have these two lives.  Your home life with your family and friends and your school life with your school people.  You decide when to leave one and go exist in the other.  It's weird when the two mix.  

As a professor, particularly a professor with a commute, this is still a thing I deal with from time to time.  I have a life at home with my people on nights and weekends.  And a totally separate life with my other people during the school day.  Text messages are pretty much the only way those two mix on a daily basis.  And that's a very controlled mixing. 

This time of each semester, my home family gets the short end of the stick.  On Sculpture Deathmatch day, I was at school from 8am to 11pm on a Saturday.  Blue had to attend the Film Festival that night, and he wanted to attend the workshops during the day as well.  This created an opportunity for the streams to cross.  From 10am until the after party, G, Blue and Violet were on or around campus.  During part of that time, one or all of them were in the studio hanging out.  I'm betting that seemed weird to some of the students.  I got a kick out of Nick showing me a text message from his friend Amber.  Everyone calls me "McAbee" and since they never have to address G in normal life...when the streams cross there's an awkward pause as they try to figure out what to call her.  Nick had respectfully referred to her as "Mrs. McAbee" in the text and Amber's response was laughter.  I get it.  It's weird.  G would have accepted "Mrs. McAbee" but only grudgingly.  She says it makes her feel old and she prefers Georgie.  But then that's weird for students who think the first name doesn't show respect.  

There have been other ways recently when the streams have crossed in one direction or the other.  A student was present recently when Violet and I got out of a car and walked down a street.  Violet's natural movement when walking beside me is to grab my hand and hold it as we walk.  To see the loud, skull-loving sculpture professor holding hands with his adorable daughter must have been a lot to process.  

My sculpture professor mentioned above, my mentor, was a loud, strong British guy.  He had a big presence.  On good days he'd commend you and tell you to get back to work and do even more.  On bad days he'd shout and maybe curse a little and tell you to get back to work and do even more...but he'd do it with that cool accent that made it sound better and worse all at once.  While I was in grad school, he and his wife had a daughter and the first time I saw her toddling around campus with him chasing after her, it was a life altering experience.  His voice was soft.  He was happy.  He was a dad.  It changed how I saw him as a human.  It also changed how I considered the things he said.  He was no longer just a teacher shouting instructions.  He was a human who knew things that I didn't know and he cared about me enough to yell at me so I didn't screw up.  

At the end of Ghostbusters, it turns out that crossing the streams is the solution to a very big, very marshmallowy problem.  It's not comfortable to cross the streams, but nothing worthwhile is ever comfortable, right?  Maybe it's good for teachers to see their students' other lives.  To see where they came from, what produced them.  To let professors tell parents how intelligent and talented their kids are.  And maybe it's good for students to see their teachers as humans with wives and husbands and kids and dogs and fish.  And for families to see the room full of lives their teacher-family member has the opportunity to impact in some small way.  Maybe it helps them understand the investment of time.  Or the sacrifice of time on their part. 

If you're a student, I'd suggest if you find yourself in such a position, that you address the kids, dogs and fish by their first names.  Maybe use a Mr. or Mrs. with the spouse and let them tell you what they're comfortable with.  If you ever run into my wife, she prefers Georgie.  I'm sure she's heard stories about you. 

Sunday, April 7, 2019

let's have fun with plaster!

Plaster pouring day sneaks up on you during the spring semester.  You're busy looking at the weather to see if it's going to be 80 degrees or 20 degrees and all of the sudden you walk into the 3D room and there's plastic all over the floor.

You think you're prepared.  You taped up your mold inside and out.  Even though the professor told you not to tape up the inside.  Maybe you used pink duct tape.  Or unicorn tape.  You're confident.  But the professor has that look on his face that you've seen before.  It's like he knows something is about to happen.  Something he didn't tell you.  You're pretty sure you hate him.

You even volunteer to go first.  Might as well get it out of the way, right?  Now he's smiling.  You really don't like him right now.  He's getting louder.  He "WOOOOOOOO"ed a couple of times really loud.  You're starting to get uneasy.  Is he crazy?  Like actually unhinged?  He's still got that look on his face but now it's bigger somehow.  Crazier.  You start to think about your grade.  Do you really need a college degree?

When he slices the first bag of plaster open it seems almost violent.  Two quick slashes and he's dumping the dry, white powder into a bucket of water.  As the white cloud of dust rises around his face you're now certain he's the Devil.  Not any of the lesser imps or demons, the actual Devil.  His eyes glow red through the plaster dust.  You need to pee.  And you wonder of vomiting would make you feel better.  

The plaster thickens in the bucket as one of your friends mixes with both hands.  Plaster is covering their arms past the elbows.  It's splashed up onto their face and into their hair.  The professor just stands there smiling.  Almost cackling.  You wonder if you'll survive.

A piercing "WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" erupts from the lungs of the professor as he grabs the 5 gallon bucket of plaster and tilts it toward your head.  This is gonna be bad.  The first drops go into the mold.  Your pulse quickens.  At least half a gallon has gone in.  No leaks.  You're feeling good.  You might pass.  You might get a degree.

You're pretty sure that dripping plaster is just from when the professor missed the opening for a second.  It's running down the outside.  Right?  It's not leaking.  Is it leaking?  Why is it still dripping.  Now there's a puddle under you.  Was that there before?  Is it growing?  It's leaking.  It's definitely leaking.  The puddle is growing.  The plaster is leaking out faster than the professor can pour it in.

You're gonna fail for sure.  Is there even any plaster inside your mold?  The other people around you are gonna fail too.  Yours isn't leaking as bad as theirs.  Is everyone's going to leak?  Who is this professor?  Why is he enjoying this?  He's really enjoying this.  You really hate him.  

The plaster hardened.  You can feel that your mold is full.  Maybe.  It's over.  You didn't fail.  You have plaster in your hair.  Some in your eye.  Maybe in your ears.  You're coated in plaster from the waist down.  You look like you were dipped in it.  You catch yourself laughing.  Why are you laughing?  Did you just "WOOOOOOOOOO!"?  What's even happening right now?  Oh man, that dude's whole project just collapsed.  You're laughing hard now.  He's totally gonna fail.  Wait, are you enjoying this?  You're so confused.  But it really is funny.  Even the dude is laughing now.  What's going on?  Is this fun?  

You're pretty sure it was fun.  You may have even enjoyed it.  I mean, who knows if you'll be able to make a project out of this but that process was hilarious.  You'd consider doing it again.  You know you'd do it again.  But wait, calm down, you're not a "3D person".  But did you see the giant hole in that mold where the girl forgot to tape one whole side?  That was great!  You think you even have an idea of how you can make yours better.  The rest of this project might not be so bad.  The rest of this semester might not be so bad.  You wonder if it's ok to enjoy this.  Maybe you are a 3D person?  Or maybe you'll just take some more classes and see what happens.  

That's pretty much how it goes.  Here's some photographic evidence to support...

 mixing that first bucket

 pouring the first mold

 1 minute in.  Disaster




 "Wait, you knew this was going to happen?"

 Yes, Chanel, I knew this was going to happen.

 the after photo.  and a clean Savannah

 clean up

 next class





 last group

 controlled chaos


 using the outdoor shower

trying to recover the studio