Sunday, November 2, 2008

Whitney Stansell

I discovered Whitney Stansell’s work in the most mundane of places – a conference room. While the conference room was in the aggressively hip SCAD-Atlanta complex, it was still a space of utility, not art. Her long canvas, Muscular Dystrophy Fair, simultaneously matched the functional aesthetic of the room and transcended it. An eight-foot horizontal canvas in washed out neutrals depicts a linear narrative of a small neighborhood block party, with notations describing the action – parents wait for children to put on a play while they sell tickets, a man charges admission to listen to his LP of Kennedy speeches, a girl gives an interview to a reporter. It is funny, nostalgic and beguiling. Postmodern in a way, but too sincere and warm to be pure irony

I looked further into her work, and discovered a full exploration of this theme of nostalgia. Her first series, A First Date, A Funeral, and Moments In Between, is structured on family history, “a visual record of how images based on memories are layered and housed within the brain” (quotes drawn from artist’s statement). Muscular Dystrophy Fair is part of a series called An Iconography of an Imagined History, in which she constructs a history of her mother’s childhood growing up in a Catholic household from her own recollections of her mother’s stories. The images have a “1950’s storybook quality … to reflect the fact that these are stories I have heard throughout my life”, with colors chosen to match this aesthetic: pale blues and greens, the light browns of aging paper. Each work has a contour line composed of one continuous thread, sewn into the canvas – a reference to the “woman’s work” of craft, a familiar pastime for her mother, and the tool that mends torn garments. She explores these themes further in her recent series, Garment, a sculptural piece made from painted and stitched dress patterns.

I contacted Whitney this summer, and found her to be friendly and genuine, reinforcing the sincerity of her work. I asked her to answer some questions about her process for my students and she gamely responded with insights about her sketchbooks, use of source images and interest in experimentation. She even sent along photos of her latest work. What follows below is the text of this interview. Please check out her work, at

Why do you paint?

I paint when I think it is the necessary medium in which I want to express my ideas. Sometimes I will draw with a marker, or draw by stitching with a black thread on a piece of raw canvas. I recently made a sculptural installation out of 1950’s women’s dress patterns. I think the medium can help to inform the message. Honestly, painting is a great deal of fun. All the possible colors one can make and the actual application are exciting to be apart of.

How do you know when a piece is working?

A piece is working when I am excited about it, when it is doing things for me visually as well as conceptually that I didn’t expect. I like for my work to surprise me. You can do a hundred thumbnails before beginning a piece, but you can’t figure everything out, and you shouldn’t. Sometimes you should trust yourself, and you ideas, and let it happen.

What do you do when it isn't?

Good question. Not often (I can think of three pieces out of about 35 in the past two years) that I just had to stop working on and start over. Honestly, if the piece is boring to me then I know I need to rework something about it.

Your work is fully realized thematically and visually. How do you develop concepts? How do you unlock the concept visually? Do you ever work in reverse (assigning meaning after completion)?

I think that some of the themes were discovered along the way….once you have a body of work that you are passionate about, the work just begins to build, and then suddenly you have a million possible directions to go in, and you should experiment and find what works best for you, and what you are trying to say. I spent time experimenting with the size and type of my text. (in a recent piece, that I will send you a jpg of) it took me a long time to figure out the size and placement of the text, (which I think was pivotal to the success of the piece) I really don’t think you have to have all the answers when you begin a work, just a few reasons for wanting to do it. Those reasons could be curiosity, a love for the subject, wonderment as to what happened to this or that person, or that event….. or what is going to happen if I do this…. I am not an abstract artist, but I have many friends who are, and there questions come from wondering what will the paint do if I do this? And that is interesting, and keeps them exploring.

To answer your question, how do I develop concepts? I work with things and ideas that mean something to me personally. That is most important to me. I simply then ask myself,,,,,, how can I make this into art.

Do you use source material?

Yes yes yes. I don’t see anything wrong with using source material. In fact, I think that artist imaginations work mimetically, I use my everyday surroundings in all of my work. So the Bakery in my paintings is the Bakery down the street. And the long row of houses in the Muscular Dystrophy Fair, are the houses behind my house. I also take a lot of pictures, and get different poses and body language from friends and family.

Do you let the work of others inspire you, or do you resist outside influence?

I do get inspiration from others. But I find that it is healthy to look at other types of artists, like filmmakers, or writers, or poets. That way you still have some work to do, and you don’t feel like you are simply re-doing something that has been done. It keeps it fresh. I look at a ton of art, because I love art. But I am not looking at art for it to necessarily inform my art.

What's in your sketchbook?

You know my husband, who is a filmmaker, gets onto me for not planning all of my compositions out in my sketchbooks. Like I said earlier, I take a lot of pictures, and spend a lot of time looking at them. I collage images to get a better sense of the way things could interact. So, my sketchbook is filled with lists. Lists of ideas. Lists of things I would like to do, and things I would like to try. I am also a big “imaginer” -meaning that I am always imagining a piece I want to work on. Most likely for two months I will imagine something before I ever begin even sketching. I do make thumbnails and sketches. They are usually very rough. I will only show my book to two people, it is that rough!

What advice would you give to your high school self?

Oh!! In high school I was in the art room A LOT. And I really enjoyed making work. I made A LOT of bad work. But, I just kept telling myself to work hard, and keep it up. Making is so much apart of who I am, that I really didn’t have a choice. J

So, my advice is, pursue your work with your whole heart. And work really really hard. And it is ok to make some cheesy stuff, and silly stuff. You should always be having fun. Its funny, you don’t want to take yourself to seriously, but then, you really want to believe in yourself, and take yourself so seriously. High school, is the time to have fun! And experiment.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Keith Haring

I admire much about Keith Haring’s process, but I am most interested in his stream of consciousness approach. He attributes his style to a moment of inspiration when he discovered his artistic vocabulary: He borrowed a friend’s studio for a day and set large, 4-foot sheets of oak tag on the floor, and began to draw with black sumi ink. Letting his subconscious be his guide, he drew through his then recent abstract style into new and surprising images that would become a complete vocabulary. This kind of stream of consciousness artmaking reminds me of the automatic writing experiments of the Surrealists – experimental and improvisatory, but also fun and playful.

I also respect his conscientious form of activism. Graffiti art is often considered criminal and anti-social, but his take on street art was community-enriching. He created work rich in social and cultural commentary, and he engaged in conversation with the viewer both literally and through his artwork. He made his artwork in the middle of the day, in public. His work did not confront as much as question the viewer. He did not destroy public property, but repurpose empty advertising displays – urban blank canvases. And he was conscious not to emulate the graffiti artists (whom he respected and admired) but to create a new style informed by their aesthetic.

Haring’s images – crawling babies, flying saucers, vibrating dancers – seem to invite a variety of interpretations from social commentary to satire or even a spiritual or universal ideal. Whatever the interpretation, it appears to be rich in meaning, and his images represent a fully-formed iconography that must have been born of some postmodern analysis. Like Mark Tansey, who reappropriated images and themes from art history to comment on critical theory, or Cindy Sherman, who reinterpreted iconic images of women to confront gender issues.

It was surprising to me to discover that this was not the case. He discovered his iconography in an almost spastic burst of the subconscious. His oak tag experiments, which took place in one day, gave birth to his “entire future vocabulary.” “I have no idea why it turned out like that,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t a conscious thing. But after these initial images, everything fell into place.” He would come to use these figures to comment directly on social issues, especially in his placement of images next to (or sometimes on top of) subway ads, but it is astounding to think that such a rich iconography can be traced back to one potent spark of imagination.

My artwork looks nothing like Keith Haring’s, but we do both seek meaning in imagery derived from the subconscious. I like to explore images of dreams and mystery, contrasting images with obscure contexts that invite the viewer to connect the dots, to achieve their own meaning. Giorgio De Chirico has often been an inspiration, and I think the common thread here is a play on the innate human desire to make sense of one’s surroundings, no matter how little help you are given by the artist.

This is where the similarities end. I have to labor to reach that subconscious level, it does not always come naturally to me. Haring’s work was improvisational; I work and rework my compositions in sketches. Using white crayon on a fixed-location surface, he could not edit. I edit furiously. His work was public; mine is private. His work was extroverted; mine turns inward. Though it seems everything about our processes differ, I would like to work the way he worked. I am always looking for that kind of freedom, but perhaps it’s been in the wrong places.

Keith Haring died of AIDS in 1990. He would have been 50 years old this May. A wonderful collection of his images can be found at the Keith Haring Foundation website.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Marcel Dzama

100,000 Years of Revenge, 2004,

There is the peculiar feeling in a Marcel Dzama painting that you’ve woken up into a dream. The places are vaguely familiar and people unthreatening as they go about their business unaware of you. But as you rub your eyes and become more aware of where you are, there is a sense that there are problems here. Something is not right.

Last Winter Here, 2004,

Oh yes, things are very wrong indeed.

Untitled, 2003,

Dzama paints in a straightforward figural style, and his people and animal hybrids are reminiscent of mid-century illustrations or some hand-me-down children's book with yellowed pages. He uses a root beer base for his melancholic browns and khakis, and his figures bundle up in furs and overcoats appropriate for Dzama’s Winnipeg home. They smile, chat and link arms as they point and laugh at aliens, wrestle bears, and threaten to kill each other. And there are tree people.

Fearful Lineup, 2004,

Some of it can be quite dark, but it is often darkly comic. His sketchbooks, recently published by McSweeney’s, reveal a sense of humor behind the surrealism. Hilariously appropriated magazine clippings (the mayor’s head atop a dinosaur with new caption: “Mayor Glen Murrayasaurus, I Love You!”), comic strips (Super Happy Fun Comic: “I wish my mother would stop lighting my bed on fire”), notes, Polaroids and sketches for costume pieces give some insight to the process. These aren't merely clever illustrations, but the work of a true artist with a brilliant (and enviable) imagination.

Untitled, 2007,

His work is quite fashionable these days – celebrities are driving his prices up and his paintings can be found on album covers by Beck and They Might Be Giants – but his work still connects at a deep, perhaps subconscious level. It’s not necessary to share his or his character’s experience (thankfully) because the otherworldly, dreamlike quality is universally beguiling. He is a sort-of modern day De Chirico in the sense that his work is simple, but implies a vaguely disturbing narrative beyond the image. There is also something classic and shopworn about his work that reminds me of the expressionistic, vintage-inspired films of Guy Maddin (also from Winnipeg).

Untitled, 2002,

Dzama formed a group called The Royal Art Lodge with some like-minded artist friends in 1996 as a means to collaborate and share drawings and ideas. Each finished work they produce is sorted into piles of "good", "bad" and "OK", and stamped with a date. They apparently still meet once a week.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Art, Contemporary.

I am often asked by one of my students, usually following a discussion of modern art, “So what is going on in art today? What movement are we in?”

One of the biggest challenges of teaching art is the problem of contemporary art: How do you keep abreast of current trends and movements in contemporary art, and how do you determine which artists are relevant, lasting, or universal? It is too vast an ocean, it seems, and too deep with varieties of approach. Factors that helped create some formal or aesthetic commonality in the past – regional identity, shared faith, academic canon, mutual ideology – just do not exist the same way in our global culture. Is it a massive web of interrelated artists drawing from some collective database of influences, or a sea of individuals making art for a personal experience (a post-postmodernism?)

There are resources to help sift through the diaspora: online resources, local galleries and art magazines all offer some taste of what is currently happening in art. But perhaps the best resource is a series of books, webpages and videos made for PBS called Art: 21. The series focuses on current artists and organizes them according to themes such as romance, power, death, and so on. The artists chosen represent many different approaches, aesthetics, and nationalities, but all share an innate passion for art and creativity (and some degree of professional success). It is a well-presented series that offers a thoughtful and accessible overview of current trends in contemporary art.

So what movement are we in? Haven’t the foggiest.

Instead, I will post a few words about artists I discover here and there. Artists who interest me, or may be interesting to my students. Some come from Art: 21, some come from my own exploration, some… I don’t know where they come from. Perhaps after looking at several posts it will be possible to see a direction that contemporary artists are taking, but this will certainly be too incomplete a list to be indicative of anything more than my own passing fancy.

First up: Marcel Dzama.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

New Art School is back! But different.

Too much has happened since my last post, so I will dispense with the detailed update. Here is what you need to know: I finished my first year at this new school, CH, and to answer my question below, “do the CH pros outweigh the HHS pros”? Yes. It is a wholly different experience, but put simply, yes. This is a destination job. I am teaching ideal classes (drawing and painting, graphic design, art history) in an academic community to students who by-and-large value creativity. I am able to make more meaningful connections with students, and I am still finding new challenges, both professional and personal. It is a very good place to be.

Another good place to be is grad school. I am now enrolled in a masters program at Ohio State University, and the function of this blog is going to change. While I still have funny stories about wacky things students (and sometimes I) say and do, I am going to use this blog in a different way. I will be using this space for some discussion of art education research and reflection on various practices. I invite discussion and feedback, so please do chime in if the spirit moves you.

Let me leave you with one funny story from last year (and the egg is on my face this time):

Art history student: “What was the relationship between van Gogh and Gauguin?”

Me: “Gauguin and van Gogh were close friends and similar artists, but very different personalities. Think of Gauguin as the yin to van Gogh’s wang.”

Class: (erupts in laughter)

Art history student: “Definitely putting that in my top 5 favorite teacher quotes on Facebook!”

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Art, New School

"But you definitely won't have students humping each other in class, that's for sure"

This was the last phrase in a long list of "pros" we brainstormed that ultimately outweighed the "cons" in a dilemma I didn't expect to have this summer: I have decided to leave my current position to take a job at another school.

A little backstory: When we were living in Pittsburgh and finishing our teacher training, we hadn't really considered looking outside the area for jobs, even though the job situation was bleak in southwestern PA. It was on a whim that K (my wife) found a media specialist position open at CH, a renowned and prestigious public high school in the NC college town where she went to undergrad, and a short distance from her home town. Too good to pass up, yes? That's what her interviewing committee thought as well, when they picked her from over 100 applicants.

I got my job at HHS and you only need to skim a few previous posts to see how that went. But to recap: a troubled, resegregated school with strong neighborhood pride and also some strong neighborhood problems. In short, an academic disaster. Look at April/May posts to see the kinds of behavior problems that were customary.

In spite of this environment I was relatively successful in my short tenure. I made some worthwhile connections with students and even had a few breakthroughs along the way. I worked closely with the other performing arts teachers on the musical productions, and I helped to establish a visual art course in the International Baccalaureate program. Plus, it was a thrill to see our National Art Honors Society kids plan and enact an after-school art club for the nearby elementary school.

All of these things outweighed the kid who dropped his pants in class or the girl who cussed me out. Because, in part, I knew that my problems were not as severe as other teachers who were unable or unwilling to make a personal connection with the students. Also, it is often rare that good things outweigh the bad (waiters always remember the 1 bad table, not the 10 good ones), so I knew that these things must have really been true assets. That's why it was not hard to decide to stay at least one more year, even after being emotionally beaten down and exhausted at the end of the first. The next year still looked promising.

So why did I take a job at a different school?

It wasn't because HHS was a difficult school, or because I was unhappy in my placement. Quite the contrary, I told everyone at the end of the year that I had no intention to leave (In fact, teachers and students are reluctant to get to know new teachers because of the high turnover rate). In the back of my mind, however, there were two area schools that could tempt me away from HHS: The district's School for the Arts, and CH.

As it happened, the 30-year veteran art teacher at CH retired without warning this summer. Art teacher jobs are precious and rare commodities, despite the nation-wide teacher shortage, and a job at an academic school with a strong art tradition was impossible to ignore.

So what are the pros and cons, anyway?

Well, the pros are many. It is a school with a strong arts tradition. It has high student participation in visual arts, with students that go on to major in studio art or art history. It is in the process of becoming an arts academy, with which I will be involved (sure to be the subject of future posts). I will be teaching an AP Art History course. And, yes, behavior issues are very different at a school in an academic community. Oh, right, and my wife works there, too! (Indeed a plus - she student taught at my first school)

Cons include a faculty in a state of flux and the fact that this is an affluent community in which students will be successful regardless of who the art teacher is.

Do the CH pros outweigh the HHS pros? It is too soon to say. I hope so. I believe I am making the right decision, because I believe CH is a better fit for me. I did not choose this school because it is where my wife teaches, or because it will be easier (whatever that means) to teach there. I am sure I will find a way to make it hard.

I chose this school because it will challenge, and hopefully reward, everything I love about teaching.

I can say that I leave HHS with great affection, and with the feeling of unfinished business. I am truly disappointed that I did not fulfill my promise to students that I would stay for more than one year. They have become so accustomed to teachers coming and going that new teachers are often greeted with "Hi, I'm ___, are you gonna be here next year?"

I always answered that question "yes".

As it turns out, I am just another teacher who lied to them, who let them down. Art students who will be seniors this year will have had a different art teacher all four years. I am ashamed of this, and am especially sorry to the advanced and IB students with whom I had such a close relationship. But these students will be able to take care of themselves. I feel if I have betrayed anyone it is the student who maybe didn't care about school until my class. To that student, I want to say I'm truly sorry. I am sure they will have another, perhaps better, art teacher but I am sorry that I wasn't true to my word. Ultimately it is a professional decision, and one that I hope is properly reasoned.

My arts partners at HHS will be missed, as will the supportive principal. But I will most miss the great friends and mentors (why is this plural? there is only one Mary Beth) that made the experience so rich. I don't like the air of finality to this post, because I fully intend to raise a happy hour glass with them as often as possible this fall.

Now, who will I root for in HHS homecoming game against CH??

(by the way, CH's colors are black and gold: coincidence?)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Where is New Art School?, Revisited


I realized, thanks to an email suggesting so, that the statement "big changes" next to a postcard from San Francisco would lead one to believe that New Art School is relocating to the Bay area. Not so. Just vacationed there.

More later...