This post is another slightly fictitious story from Tales of a Lecturer and Director, where I explain the trials and trammels of ascending the ranks of academia beginning in the 1990s.
It begins as every drawing course does, with a review of the syllabus and detailing supplies needed for class: a portfolio, a Masonite drawing board with clips, a newsprint pad for gesture drawing, a pad of drawing paper with a smooth tooth for final drawings, a sketchbook, 5B pencils, a Pink Pearl eraser, a kneaded eraser and a pencil sharpener. Deadlines for projects and critiques follow along with a discussion about the grading criteria.
“You’ll be graded on participation, projects, sketchbook assignments, critique engagement and improvement. There will be no drawings from photographs and no drawings of stuffed animals permitted. Photographs are the result of a single lens and, therefore, have an innate flatness when translating them into a drawing. We will have music in class, and I will pick someone randomly each class period to have their music of choice played during class. Bring CDs or cassette tapes.”
Someone (name withheld but probably named Mary) speaks out in a combative tone, “Why no stuffed animal drawings? What’s wrong with stuffed animals?” I respond dryly, “If I see another drawing of a stuffed animal, I will lose my mind. I want you to put thought and care into the subject matter of your work.” With an air of smart-assery, she snipes in return, “Well, Mike Kelley does it, and his work is in the Whitney.”
After discussing grading criteria, another student states defensively, “You can’t grade me the same way you grade an art major. I can’t draw.” I retort as calmly as I can muster, “When you take a French class, no one expects you to know French going in. You learn it. Drawing is the same. I expect you to work at it and get better every week. Saying ‘I can’t’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Saying ‘can’t’ shuts you down to listening and learning. You have to believe you can get better. And you will. I guarantee it.” I accept they will fight me on grades. It’s a time-honored tradition.
At about noon every day, I’d look for Beth in her office or the fiber art studio in the basement, where she diligently prepares materials and demonstrations for class. It was a comforting routine. “Do you have time for lunch?” is always answered with, “Yep, let me get my purse.”
The walk to the snack bar across campus found us carefully sidestepping Canadian goose poop that littered nearly every inch of the sidewalk. Our conversation is minimal to ensure a focus on the possibility of errant angry geese; they can be vicious if startled or sense territory infringement. We keep in mind the time a student was attacked and sent to the hospital. Animal Control shot the goose. Students were so mean to the injured student when she returned—they would sneak up behind her, honking like a goose. She would let out a bloodcurdling scream and start running. One time she peed her pants. After that, she dropped out for a semester. It was terrible.
At the snack bar, Beth and I’d order the same thing daily—a Diet Coke, a slice of pepperoni pizza and a Rice Krispies Treat. Then, we’d park at a table and talk about the department, art and the students—who are talented, who is driving us crazy, who is a pain in the ass and whom we are worried about. It’s our therapy session.
Beth reports, “I came to the studio late last night to make sure the pulp was ready for paper making, and I could hear loud music coming from the ceramics studio. You know that Sheryl Crow song that goes” (she sings) “‘All I want to do is have some fun … Until the sun comes up on Santa Monica Boulevard? It was echoing in the hallway. I walked in, and there was (name withheld) and (name withheld) in their bras and jeans, swinging their T-shirts over their head as they danced on spinning ceramics wheels. They’re singing into their beer bottles like they are microphones. I’m yelling, ‘Hey, knock it off!’ and the music is so loud they can’t hear me. I had to go over to the boom box and shut it off. Finally, they see me and stop cold like a couple of raccoons in the headlights, and then they jump off the still-spinning wheels. (Name withheld) stumbles and falls, still gripping the bottle like it was as precious as a newborn.
“I bark, ‘What do you think you’re doing? You could break the wheels that way. Or worse, fall and break a bone. Clean this up, get out of here, or I’ll call the campus police. Jo will be furious when I tell her what you’ve been up to!’ Then, they do their all-pitiful contrition—‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Beth. We’ll clean it up. Don’t call campus police. Please don’t tell Jo.’” I ask, “Did you report them?” She admits, “Yeah, I had to and had to tell Jo so she could make sure they didn’t damage the wheels. She was not amused. But it was pretty funny. I’ll give them that.”
With a laugh, I offer, “That’s hilarious. Nice work. Oh, I’ve got one for you. Today in drawing class, the male model started the long pose, and I walked around the class observing. As usual, there is a conspicuous blank spot where the genitals should be in everyone’s drawings. I’m thinking, Damn it. Am I going to have to give the ‘it’s just a form in space’ lecture to them?
“Then, I notice the dude has a bent penis. I’ve never seen anything like it. It wasn’t erect or anything. At least, I don’t think it was. But just about three-quarters of the way down, his member took a sharp left. I’m like, Huh, that’s a new one. How do I teach this? A room filled with Catholic women with perhaps less life experience than me? Are they going to tell their parents? Will Dean Flannery haul me into her office and ask me what I said about the bent penis? Am I going to get fired? Lord, I didn’t even notice it at first because we were doing gesture drawing, and the poses were moving so fast that his man junk was flopping around all over the place. Who could focus on it?
“Finally, the model grabs his robe and walks out of the classroom. (Name withheld) comes up to me, and she says, ‘Johnson, um. Did you notice something odd about the model?’ And I play dumb, ‘What do you mean?’ She says, ‘Well, um. His penis. Is that normal?’ Casually, I say, ‘Oh, that? That happens from time to time in men. Don’t worry about it.’ Of course, I don’t know what I’m talking about now. Have you ever seen such a thing?”
Beth is laughing so hard now that she can’t eat, saying, “Johnson. Stop. No more. Stop. You’re going to make me choke.” I ignore her. I add, “I had to go home and ask John about it. He said he’d heard of it. Peyronie’s disease. Then, he added that it only is visible when the penis is erect. I screamed, ‘Holy shit. You mean that guy had an erection in class? Oh my god. Oh my god.’ Good thing it was so small. You really couldn’t tell. Poor thing.”
Beth is begging me now, “Stop. Please stop. No more. The English department faculty members over there are staring at us.” I say nonchalantly, “Hmm. I guess the art department is making a scene again. We had better go before someone asks us what we are laughing about.” I scoop up my Rice Krispies Treat. “Let’s go.”
The other class I teach is art appreciation, which is best described as constantly taking a punch in the face. It’s the worst teaching assignment, and the art historians never want to teach it. Why would they? First, students think it’ll be an easy A like the mythological Rocks for Jocks geology class. They don’t even try to learn anything. Second, students think art appreciation is giving their opinion about whether they like a piece or not. It is a continual verbal boxing match, and it feels like wearing them down is the only way to teach that good art isn’t determined by whether you like it. Nevertheless, I give it my best cheery enthusiastic efforts.
I start the class with a Sherlock Holmes–esque parlor trick. I tell them anyone can figure out what a piece of art means just by spending time reading the image. Slide click. “You might think this Jackson Pollock painting is nothing more than spin art.” Slide click. “You might think Duchamp’s sculpture is just a urinal. But you’d be wrong. This class will teach you how to understand and appreciate any piece of art you encounter. Let’s start with an experiment. You there, (name withheld), I bet I can tell you what music you like. You like Siouxsie and the Banshees, right?” Looking shocked, she says, “How do you know that?” “You told me. Combat boots. Dark eyeliner. Black hair. Rubber bracelets. All that equals an affinity for alternative music.” I point to another student. “You over there. You like the Grateful Dead, don’t you?” She is wearing a Mexican poncho and Birkenstocks. I can smell the patchouli oil from across the room. “True,” she admits.
“The point is that everything you see is a visual clue. If you are observant enough, it is possible to understand what almost any work of art is trying to convey. But you must train yourself. For example, how do you know when to stop at an intersection when driving? Because you’ve been taught, a red circular light means stop. How do you know someone is in mourning? Because they are wearing black. Colors. Shapes. Everything has meaning.”
This approach works on the students for a while—at least for a couple of classes, until we get to the section on industrial design. Then, the anger starts to build in the students, who, up until now, have held their tongues but are seething inside because they don’t get what I’m talking about. Or, more accurately, they think I’m full of it. I remember once a student lost her temper in the middle of a lecture about midcentury modern furniture. With the unhinged fury of a premenstrual rage and not unlike Howard Beale in Network, a student (name withheld) loudly seethed, “It’s just a chair. A chair. Just a stupid chair. That’s not art.” I thought her next line would be, I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.
All eyes were darting back and forth from her to me, then back again like a fistfight was about to break out. I’m thinking, Hold my earrings. I’m going in. Instead, I take a deep breath and say, “If it were just a chair, you’d be sitting on a rock right now with no place to put your coat nor a place to lay your notebook while you presumably take some notes about the lecture. No, a chair isn’t just a chair. An armchair is padded and made for resting. There is a chair for sitting up straight and paying attention as with the pews in the chapel.” She just scowled at me. I didn’t blink.
This is another tale I recount with Beth at lunch/therapy. Beth counsels, “You need to be careful, or you’ll get a bad student evaluation.” I say, “Well, who is Joan going to get to teach that class? Besides, I can’t put up with bad behavior in class.” My mind flashes to a scene in Animal House where Professor Jennings desperately whines to the class as they completely ignore him, “I’m not kidding. This is my job.”
Upon our return to the art building, I tell Beth to have a good class and that I’m headed to my office to review exhibition proposals. Once a year, I advertise for artists’ submissions. Send 10-20 slides, an artist’s statement and a résumé to be considered for a solo exhibition. From the submissions, I choose the top 15 or so proposals for the art department faculty to rank in order of preference. It’s time to weed through, choose the best work and hopefully avoid the high-maintenance artists. What will I find in the proposals?
Find out in the next installment of “Tales of a Lecturer and Director.”