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!