I had a professor for Painting 2 when I was in college at the defunct Atlanta College of Art (now SCAD Atlanta) named Corrine Colarusso.
She and I had a, well, ‘difficult’ relationship; she once yelled at me in the High Museum that I was ‘unteachable’! It wasn’t really her fault, not entirely anyway, the college and I as a student had some issues back then. The College had a more or less conceptual thrust in its academics, so there was generally very little structure, and disappointingly, even less technical instruction. I know this may seem strange to the novice, and even to my fellows, but for the time (early 90’s) it was not uncommon. The overall idea was that art was to be explored and materials ‘played’ with until inspiration met some sort of skill, and was applied to the principles of design, for an outcome. The school had an application and portfolio review process for entry so for the most part if you were a student there then you already had a pretty good grasp of the basics of drawing and design to build upon. But it took some years of struggle following the experience to teach me that there were some serious deficits in the philosophy in that skills I now know to be the basics of a professional artist just weren’t taught in a manner that set the student on a good footing for future investigation. I recall asking one professor in Painting 1 about the process of ‘glazing’. I had heard of it in Art History of course, relating to Renaissance art, but the technique itself was a mystery to me. His reply was, ‘Well, I don’t really know, you just have to sort of play with it.” Considering the enormous debt I was incurring for my instruction, one can imagine how disappointing this answer was. What was I paying for if not to be specifically guided and instructed to particular techniques, germane to my area of study? I have turned these lemons into limoncello in my own teaching today, making sure that no technique is without some sort of guide for my students, allowing time for practice before grading their efforts, keeping in mind that these are students and not proto-masters. Colarusso was anomalous in the department in that she did offer specific techniques (many I still use today), and some pretty harsh critiques, that I now know set her in opposition to much of the other teachers. But at the time, though it was a great class for my growth, I was simply a mess of out of control desire to learn and do more and more without worrying over the results. In any given week I would visit the library 3 or 4 times (no internet to rely on then, imagine that!) and pour over the stacks and the magazines searching for that magical inspiration from some artist or movement to set me on my genius path of painting that would surely land me in the High Museum before I was 30.
I never found it!
But what I did find was an ever changing list of ideas and forms that I would try to emulate in my own work, like a shopper trying on 1000 dresses searching for the one that made them look like a celebrity. I can look around my studio today at work from decades back to yesterday and sometimes it looks like a flea market for all the variety of media and ideas. But this was not wasted effort, and was in line with the college’s philosophy really, so I was not in danger of failure, and did a lot of growing through the process. But one day, I showed up to class and was having one of my ‘manic’ days when I was suddenly super excited by some new idea or process and made some sort of facsimile in my work that I was keen to show Colarusso. This example differed radically from my previous works in the class and was built on some bold, gestural brushwork, which didn’t jive with the layering process Colarusso was teaching us, so she simply looked at my work and my buzzing excitement and said ‘Don’t be so easily seduced.’
My first reaction was to buck this criticism, a common reaction in young students, but it got me thinking. I realized that what she was saying was that the material had endless possibilities with just the slightest nudge in any direction, and without some sort of predetermined direction from the artist could easily distract the painter from their long-worn path. For a student therefore, such distraction was destructive because learning is like a brick wall that must be constructed slowly, brick upon brick, if it is to be sound. It was and is a lesson that I still contend with today as I look through the now online versions of magazines and blogs for the work of other artists that excite me and give me ideas. It’s so easy to be seduced as one sees some innovation or concept and thinks ‘why didn’t I think of that?!’. But the quagmire of interrupting production and interrupting one’s studio ‘flow’ is a real and dangerous problem to be avoided. For those of us who are immersed in beauty and the visual tools to create it, it’s hard not to be the bad boyfriend leering at the pretty girl passing by while walking along with the long-time companion on the other side. But if we are to be professionals, and we are to achieve anything lasting in our efforts at that lonely easel, then turn away we must, returning to our own road, and learning to love most the one who brought us there.
The Blue Door Gallery has become a sort of library unto itself in many ways, not unlike those days I spent in the library, looking at everyone’s interpretations and wondering ‘can that be useful to me?” Alice has gotten me curious about trying some plein air landscape work, and Wanda makes me want to try watercolor again. I envy John’s time spent manipulating metal and welding, which I recall enjoying when I was in school, and every time I see Debra’s jewelry I dream of cabochons and silver and delicate forms for the body. Marcella’s enigmatic vessels made me buy a box of clay, and it sits under my painting table like a secret waiting for the moment to drag me away from the easel! As time passes, I hope more artists join so as to expand this lexicon of distractions, and who knows, maybe some peer to peer learning will result in some exciting changes. Drop by sometime if you haven’t or haven’t in a while and let us see if we can distract you as well! After all, in a world so full of issues and energies pulling us in all directions, it’s nice to choose your seducer once in a while, and enjoy a romantic interlude!