Generations of students and teachers

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The newly renovated Illustration Studies building at RISD

Since I’m teaching in the Illustration department at RISD this semester,  I’ve gotten the chance to reconnect with some of my former professors who I haven’t seen in years. I was an Illustration major at RISD, and many of the professors who taught me are still teaching in the department.

I remember how odd that transition was at first.  When you’re a student, it never crosses your mind that your teacher might become your colleague one day. I started teaching at RISD in 2007, and suddenly, these professors who I had tremendous respect for, who I was always at least slightly intimidated by, who were pivotal figures in my development as a visual artist were sitting next to me in the faculty lounge eating lunch.

A few weeks ago I ran into one of my former Illustration professors who I hadn’t seen in several years.  I always find that my personality and behavior shifts to “fit” the person I’m with. At times it can feel like I’m practically a different person depending on who I’m with. I found talking to this former professor that all of the sudden, I was 19 years old again, and it was wonderful. There are a lot of things I don’t miss about being a student, (roommates, moving every year, having no money, never exercising, etc.) but one thing I do miss is that lovely, reassuring feeling that my professor will be there to catch me when I fall on my face.(even though they’re simultaneously whipping me to do my best work)

As a professor, a lot of my time and energy is devoted to giving my students various forms of support as they push through their creative process.  I’ve been teaching long enough that I feel confident dispensing advice and helping students when they feel anxious or worried. I’m able to suggest concrete actions and tell them that yes, it will be okay. And yet I can’t seem to do this for myself. I have to hear it from someone who is at least a generation above me, who I trust and respect.

Talking to this former professor, I felt this inspirational rush that felt so familiar and almost nostalgic from my time as a student. I had been feeling self-conscious about this project I’m working on (I hope to be able to talk about that publicly soon!) and this professor totally laid down the law and told me point blank “Clara, forget about what other people think!” He gave me some other gems of wisdom like “if you’re bored, it’s time to move on”, and “any time you need a pep talk, give me a call!”  He pumped a vital sense of motivation and enthusiasm back into me, and it felt great.

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One of JooHee Yoon’s recent editorial illustrations

I’ve also now found myself wedged between 2 generations with a milestone of my own:  my former student, JooHee Yoon is now teaching an elective in the RISD Illustration department. JooHee was in my sophomore drawing class in the Illustration department back in 2008 and I remember her student work with great clarity because of her fierce determination and incredible innovation in her work.   She’s now published several books and has had her striking editorial illustrations featured in the New York Times and The New Yorker.  I hadn’t seen her in years, but when I ran into her a few weeks ago, we had a lively conversation about that transition of moving to the other side of the fence to become a professor at your alma mater.

Here’s an ink drawing JooHee did when she was in my sophomore drawing class.

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