Notes on an experiment

This past summer I ran a pilot for a program that I hope will change the way art is taught in American art schools. I know that first sentence sounds grandiose and maybe reveals a deluded sense of self-importance. Allow me to explain the premise of the program. My view of our current students at the Pacific Northwest College of Art where I currently teach is that they are saturated with copious amounts of digital technology. Choices abound. I sense they crave a truly focused program– one that is affordable and gives them experiences they can’t necessarily have on their own. This program gives a student a rigorous experience through an apprenticeship style modeling of studio work. Practice and theory are seamlessly integrated. In short, an experience modeled on the truth of life as a working artist. Built into the curriculum are professional practices, basic living skills and the ability to drive one’s own work. This allows students to get the education done intensively and finish early. The program as I conceive it in its final form flips the current relationship of high tuition for students and low pay for a large disenfranchised faculty. The tuition should be significantly lower and the support and pay for the smaller faculty higher. Fewer choices reduce cost. Out with the 16 week, four class a semester model. This would be a year round, three-year curriculum. It is small-scaled, hands-on, nature-based and humane. The studio is the space through which the student thinks and learns. In place of a menu of classes, there would be regular symposia giving intensive three-day bursts of lectures. Studio and liberal arts faculty would maintain workspaces on campus modeling through their own work. The college would become a true institution of art production. This pilot was the truncated version of the fuller utopian vision.

From July 21st-August 15th 2014 we ran The Ground Beneath Us at PNCA. The college had recently created something called The Ideas Initiative. A pool of money is set aside to run labs and experiments ostensibly to innovate the culture and curriculum of the college. At the moment higher education boards and administrations chant the mantra of “disruption” which generally means devaluing labor and replacing everything with new Silicon Valley gadgets. My proposal grew out of frustration. I have been at PNCA for 13 years and teaching at the college level for 15. I’m at the end of my rope with higher education in general and in particular the misshapen evolution of art schools. In the past five years tuition has gone up 50% while faculty pay has stagnated from an already low plateau. Administrations grow exponentially both in size and salary. Money seems to be present for new buildings and computer equipment but not for shop techs, kilns or any other analog but nonetheless useful equipment that lacks the whiz-bang appeal of the new. I threw down the proposal as a gauntlet. Either I needed to affect some change or return to bartending (which would be an ignominious move but one about as profitable as teaching). To my surprise, the proposal was the first of the batch to pass.

Having leaped over the first hurdle of getting the proposal passed I had a bruising journey through the rancorous labyrinth of academic administration. I chose art historian Joan Handwerg, my colleague, as a partner to deliver the liberal arts component of the pilot. We were tasked with compressing into a month what would eventually be a three-year program. Joan and I went from committee to committee trying to get all the necessaries aligned. We discovered accreditation hinders most innovation. I couldn’t help but note that colleagues who agreed with our premise privately would become academic apparatchiks on committees. One thing the experiment revealed is the prevailing sense of powerlessness that courses through academic institutions. Having secured a space (the sculpture building with individual studios and an extra classroom for our makeshift kitchen) shop techs (I decided to forgo a TA and hired our out-of-work for the summer techs) and the final six students who could commit to the rigorous month we commenced.

The title The Ground Beneath Us gave us a subject to hang on the experimental structure of the class. Both Joan and I share a love of American art. The focus on American art also gave us an excuse to center the bare bones pilot on what can be achieved locally. This local focus contextualized art made in Portland within a larger national and international framework. The class by its nature was media blind. Among our six students we had a woodworker, 3 printmakers (one of whom is branching out into performance), an animator/painter and an animator/zine maker/searcher. If such a class were centered on a single medium such as ceramics cohesion would be easier. I can imagine a classroom situation with this kind of intensity focused on one discipline. The depth of inquiry would be substantial. However, the richest outcomes emerged from cross-pollination of ideas (not to mention openness to experimentation).

The heart of the class came during lunches. I bought local produce from farmer Lacey Riddle who runs a small farm near Portland called Small Heart Farm. With a crockpot and a hot plate we cooked together everyday. Someone would start cooking around 11:30. Sit down was generally 12:30. Each lunch was proceeded by the reading of a poem. Everyone was responsible for cooking and cleaning including Joan and I. We generally broke up and took a break around two o’clock. The lunches leveled the relationship between professor and student. Our conversations had a richness that is rarely achieved in a typical classroom. We also had lunch guests including the novelist Jon Raymond (we all read his novel The Half-Life) and visiting New York artist Marina Zurkow. We did a lunchtime sewing circle at the SE Portland studio of artist Marie Watt.

Each student was given a studio. I also kept a studio next to them. We had the run of the 3D building. The 3D building is the scrappiest of PNCA’s studios. It lacks the sheen and gleam of the design studios. No up-to-date computers, melamine tables or Design Within Reach chairs. Its provisional nature suited us perfectly. The individual studios are back behind the metal shop. Joan delivered her lectures in the air-conditioned classrooms upstairs (the studios in the summer are sweltering). The woodshop, metal and ceramic techs kept hours for tutorials and technical assistance. This insistence on having a studio space is central to my philosophy for the larger program. If students have to wait to earn a studio in the junior and senior years, they miss out on building good studio habits. Plus, how can we expect ambitious work if they have to cart their materials all over the place? The studio is a place to think through a material. Having one’s own space in proximity of others builds camaraderie, competition and osmotic learning. You get skin in the game right off the bat.

Despite the rigor of the 40-hour plus workweeks Joan and I had a hard time getting everything done we wanted to. I needed to balance open studio time with research and reading. The first few days were awkward as we fidgeted to get our stride. The first day I had the students do a site-specific piece in their studios. They literally marked their territory. I had planned to do smaller prompts each day for studio projects, but found the days disappearing fast. As we eased into the second week with feedback from the students I recalibrated the structure a bit. This was an experiment after all and we needed to test as much as we could. We opted for week-long projects with smaller individual critiques. Even then I needed to pull back to give uninterrupted work time.

There is very little day-to-day flow in the current structure of art school.  Each week is like an interrupted anthology, picking up last week’s fragment from among the other ongoing narratives. I can’t help but notice how the affect of accreditation pressures shape class time. We often don’t give art students time to just work. Work time is expected in out of class homework but the bulk of time in a studio course is often taken up with things other than making. Now don’t mistake that last sentiment as an anti-intellectual dig at theory and the humanities. Reading, looking and making are central to the ethos of the pilot.

I would like to see a learning situation closer to the way we learn outside these structures– intensity and immersion followed by reflection. John Cage’s eighth rule for students and teachers is don’t try to analyze and create at the same time. But that’s exactly how art schools are structured. We ask for analysis before an artwork is even made. This structure comes from assessment requirements for accreditation. It has nothing to do with how we really learn. The result is what one of our students called “homework art”.

I should say here that while this was happening, my mother was dying. I found out the diagnosis the Saturday before the start of the program. During the first week I was glued to my phone as reports came in from my brothers in New Hampshire. Each night I spoke with my Mom and heard her voice fading. I thought I might have a couple weeks to get back to New Hampshire to see her. Then in a matter of a day I was to fly east at the end of the week. She died on Friday. She had passed into the final stages the day I was meant to leave. I had just been on the East Coast visiting my parents two weeks before. She had her bladder removed with the idea that would stall the cancer invisibly creeping through her body. The rest of the month was colored by this sadness. That first two weeks I went about as if I had a fish-bowlful of water over my eyes and ears. But working helped me keep even. I had planned a series of work to make alongside my students. I ended up making my mother’s urn for the memorial that would take place the week after the pilot ended. With the death of my mother and the intensity of getting the pilot off the ground, what is and isn’t important sharpened into focus. The urn was no theoretical problem to solve. It was a fact. I was making an object  of great significance for a very real purpose.

Joan and I decided early on that product was less important than process. When I would talk to administration or colleagues about the pilot as it was happening the inevitable question was, “are they making good stuff?” I realized that I didn’t give a fig about “stuff.” But “stuff” would be the only mark of success or failure. A month turns out to be quite short. I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of engaged experimentation with the need for “homework art”. The final project was a photocopy exhibition of an art historical theme presented by Joan in her lectures. Students had to create a line of inquiry, an annotated bibliography and choose a series of images that support the idea. This was all preliminary research. Sketches for a bigger endeavor. The same was true of their studio work. I pushed them to try mediums they hadn’t used before. Things could fall apart and fail. By the end all six students were ready to take all this rich compost and turn it into their studio work. Normally it takes us a full semester of a pre-thesis class to accomplish the same thing.

I sat in on Joan’s lectures. It was so illuminating to sit in a colleague’s class as a student and learn new ways of teaching. Of course Joan would include me in the presentations but I got so much from someone else’s expertise. In a larger program I can see the usefulness of colleagues being each other’s students as well. A college at its best is a brain trust, but because of disciplinary silos and distrust caused by scarce resources faculty rarely get to learn from one another.

Joan and I found that the more agency the students possessed, the more they could be trusted. In a small intimate setting students pushed each other. I also think having no grades and assignments actually motivated them more. Often in my regular classes I feel like a parent. I have to keep reiterating the most basic classroom behavior. There is a sense of entitlement but no agency. In the pilot, we were all in it together. If we had more time, we could have really deepened the connections between each other and our immediate environment. Through the specificity and lack of distraction the students in The Ground Beneath Us gained more openness and freedom than in the usual structure. I think this is the way art should be taught.

My big question underlying this experiment goes beyond art school to the art world. What should an artist know and how should that artist be part of the larger society? The manner in which most art schools teach art is increasingly corporate. Our schools are producing very competent mediocre professionals. There’s no mess and no grit. I took a good deal of my thinking about the program from my background in ceramics. I think of the many craft schools that were started in the mid twentieth century that had very similar goals. All the once radical conceptual art schools now look more like less marketable Silicon Valley startups. What is a student to do?

The question of a client based curriculum versus a studio curriculum dogs many art schools. Because of astronomical tuition, utility rules the day. Whenever I bring up this model as a school wide solution to these questions I am told that accreditation makes it impossible. This answer of “well it’s the system. What can you do?” is unacceptable. Systems are not handed down from deities they represent very human power structures. Those who stand to gain from social inertia and exhausted resignation don’t want to hear about alternatives.

Here’s what I learned this summer– making is thinking. Manipulating materials within an intellectual framework is one of the most complex activities one can do. It cannot always be assessed through rigid metrics. Perhaps it is time to challenge accreditation boards on the delivery of curriculum. It is also time to stop apologizing about the artist’s vocation as something frivolous. If anything at this time in history, we need thinking makers who can reflect on the culture as a whole. Entrepreneurs aren’t really visionary. They’re mercenary and following those corporate pied pipers seems to me be the most frivolous thing we can do. I’ll stake my claim with the slow burn, the reflective and the deep seeking artists of tomorrow any day.