Artist Masterclass: Intersections

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Artist Masterclass is a series of conversations between myself and visual artist Sara Bloem.

SB:  I really liked the article you posted the other day, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot too lately! Recently I actually redesigned my blog to have less information on it. I was culling some old posts, including a few from our independent study days at RISD where I wrote more freely about my process. I almost hid the old posts, because I thought how direct I was being made me sound like a simpleton. But then I thought, maybe someone will find them useful, and I left them up.  I thought it was funny that I even had that thought, that explaining my process was an unsophisticated move on my part.   I think your post addressed something really important.

CL: If you look at the artists at the top of the art world who have websites, like Sarah Sze and Shahzia Sikander, their websites are designed to be very sparse, which I’m sure is no accident.  I think somehow that minimalism makes the work look more “elevated.” Then there are some artists, like Kara Walker and John Currin, who are so established that they don’t even bother having a website.

SB: It’s like their websites are mimicking the white cube.

CL: By comparison I sometimes feel like my website makes me look like a social media circus.

SB: I think your website has more in common with other fine art websites than it has with non-art websites. In other words, I think your website looks professional, but I see what you’re talking about.

CL:  I think what I’m coming to realize is that I will likely never belong to that elite art world. As a reaction to that, I’ve had to take the initiative to make my own world.

SB:  You know, that sounds great.  In my opinion, the greatest things happen at the intersections of disciplines. That’s where I see your practice, it’s drawing from a lot of different fields of knowledge.

CL: I’m sort of a weird hybrid in that I am in academia, but I have made myself accessible through my blog and social media in a way that most artists in academia do not. I worry all the time that my colleagues will think that I’ve totally sold out. I haven’t found anyone else online doing quite what I’m doing.  In that sense I’ve been able to create a unique niche for myself.

By the way, I was thinking of you today.  I’ve been working on a blog post for my “Ask the Art Professor” column titled  “How to be a great art school teaching assistant (TA).” The article will discuss various qualities that make a strong TA.  Naturally, I thought of you, especially since you were my TA for several semesters. There is also the opposite end of the spectrum: when I was a student, I definitely saw my share of TAs in my classes whose helpfulness was about equivalent to that of a paper weight. So now I’m curious, how do you think being a TA influenced your experience as a student? Did being a TA change your point of view on teaching?

SB: Being a TA made me more thoughtful about how I phrased critiques. I think as a student, you can say pretty much whatever you want without a filter.  But as a TA, I realized that being extremely blunt was sometimes counterproductive, and that there were more subtle ways to guide a student into trying new things.

CL: Yes, the risk with being too harsh is that students can completely shut down, and then you’ve lost them for good.

SB: I also noticed you have to make an effort to divide your time equally.  Some students are very outgoing and will naturally establish a rapport with you, but the quiet ones need time too.  I feel like it’s challenging to establish a genuine relationship with all 20 members of the class, but as a teacher, that’s what you have to do.  I mean, how often do you normally get thrown into a room with 20 strangers you’re supposed to make a difference with?

CL:  You have to invest so much effort and time into developing a relationship with every single student.  As hard as it can be, I really enjoy it. It sounds very corny, but I’ve learned so much about people by getting to know my students. One thing that I’ve learned is that everyone struggles.  We all have something difficult in our lives that we have to deal with, whether it’s our own personal issue, a family member, a traumatic experience, etc.   In fact, the students who appear the most together and successful on the outside are frequently the ones who are on the verge of falling apart on the inside.  I know this because I’ve had many students break down in front of me when no one else was around.

SB: That’s really special, to be able to be there for your students at that time.  I think a lot of the really high-achieving students are very sensitive.  It’s kind of the source of their talent and also a challenge.

CL: I also think teaching at the freshman level is especially delicate. When you teach first year students, you have an enormous responsibility. The other day I asked my husband, who teaches an elective for upperclass students in the RISD film/animation/video department, whether people emotionally melt down in his class. He said that it almost never happens.  For me, it’s like every week at least one student cries.

SB: You definitely ask people to probe deep.

CL: My classes can get pretty dramatic, especially during group critiques. One of my TAs once told me “Clara, it’s not your class if no one cries.”  Then this week one of my former students told me that being in my class is like having Stockholm syndrome. I haven’t laughed that hard in a while!

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3 thoughts on “Artist Masterclass: Intersections

  1. CL: I think what I’m coming to realize is that I will likely never belong to that elite art world. As a reaction to that, I’ve had to take the initiative to make my own world.

    Thanks for this post; I’ve really been enjoying the Artist Masterclass series. As an outsider, and someone who is just kind of beginning my own journey in the art world, there is one thing that stands out to me in the art world: accessibility, or the lack thereof. The websites you’ve both mentioned, the ones that are very spare and don’t give much (if any) information about the artist or their process, are quite popular. I like going on them and looking at the art, but I get bored quickly. They don’t hold my attention. As an artist, when I look at stuff like that, I definitely see talent and technical capability. But there’s a level of accessibility that’s just not there. It’s interesting, Clara, that you mention the ‘elite art world’. The very thing that has me waffling on whether or not to just go all in and pursue visual art as a livelihood is that, because of the propensity of artists to market themselves and their work in such a cold fashion, I have developed the assumption that that is all anyone wants to see. And I am not like that.

    One of the things that I like about this blog is that you show the bones of things. You show that there is a process to achieving a great piece of work, and that it’s not something a person just dreams into existence and presto, it’s finished. What a sigh of relief your website is for me, and many other artists as well, I have noticed, by the amount and variety of questions you receive for your ‘Ask the Art Professor’ series, and the response you get to the updates you post about your own artistic process. Your blog helps so many people. I’m not exactly sure what’s happening in the art world. I mean, first of all, fine arts programs are phenomenally expensive to begin with, stacking the odds against would-be artists from the start. And then on top of it, there is little (if any) support along the way because it’s all just assumed that we’re supposed to be the epitome of greatness without actually seeing how it’s done, without being allowed to show our vulnerability and admit that it’s scary out there as an artist.

    Blogs like yours allow artist to connect and to support each other. I already know I’m an artist; I have been making art my entire life. But up until a few years ago, sometime after the age of 30, I never considered myself an ‘artist’ because I assumed that to have that title, I had to be a rich snob in some thriving urban centre where no one except the upper echelons of society could touch me, and I had to know all the right people, and my art had to be so obscure that it was unrecognizable, because that’s a lot of the stuff that I was seeing that was successful in the ‘art world’. But you have shown me that there is another way to be an artist, and through this I am seeing that there are, in fact, many ways to be an artist. I hope you continue with this website, and everything you offer on it, as long as you are able. If the visual arts are to survive, a dose of reality and a network of support is needed. Thanks for offering your time, effort, and experience to make this possible.

    • Thank you so much for your lovely, thoughtful comments. The points you make remind me of the time that I got to hear Sarah Sze lecture at Harvard many years ago. I absolutely love her work and was so thrilled to have the opportunity to hear her speak in person. She also happens to be an excellent public speaker, which is not always the case with all artists. The content of her lecture was complex, layered, intelligent, and fascinating. On the other hand, upon further reflection, one of the things that struck me about hearing her lecture was how completely inaccessible her experience was to my own. During her lecture you heard her say things like “So when the Whitney Museum asked me to create this installation…” All I could think to myself was, that’s wonderful that she got to show at the Whitney museum, but how the hell did she get there?!? When I started to think about it, I realized that the majority of lectures I’ve attended by renowned contemporary artists have gone that way. Most artists are so busy trying to look polished, perfect, and invincible. What I do with my blog and advice column is not very glamorous, but I do know that what I write about is real and has the ability to affect people in a unique way.

      • Exactly. When I came upon your blog it was through a Google search, likely on something to do with ‘What can I do with a fine arts degree?’ because for several months now I’ve been entertaining the idea of undertaking a BFA but everything out there – in the media (newspapers, magazines, etc.), from friends, parents, and even other teachers, pretty much from most sources – warns against studying humanities or fine art because they are considered ‘useless degrees’; in other words, they are not ‘marketable’. I didn’t want to just take that at face value so I was searching for information about what I COULD do with a BFA. The enormous pressure to do something ‘job-oriented’ (like a business degree, or something in social sciences or hard science) was one thing, but on the other end of it was the pressure of, well, I make a certain type of art, and my process is pretty much an open book, and I don’t see that mirrored anywhere else. I don’t see anyone being ‘real’. I just see a bunch of polished, finished products a great distance from me who can be idolized or puzzled over at best. I respect all artists but at this point I’m looking for accessibility. And you are right also about how everyone has stuff going on in their lives, and that is another part of your blog that has given me immense relief. I deal with all kinds of issues in my life that may or may not be a barrier to my fine arts education (I begin next week) and up until recently I thought that I had to be the perfect fine arts student: endlessly motivated, full of readily-accessible fantastic ideas that will floor all of my teachers, basically know all of the techniques before I even walk into class so I will never get criticized, ever. I think it’s important to have the reminders that none of us are perfect, and that we can be very talented and dedicated artists and not everyone (including teachers and others we’ll be working to impress or affect) will agree with our process or our finished product, and that none of that means I have to stop being an artist or give up on the idea of going to art school.

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