Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Art Dad*

"Ninety percent of Americans are incredibly stupid. Incredibly stupid. But the other ten percent are smart. Bloody smart. That's why they rule the world." I once overheard this from a Pakistani acquaintance. He didn't realise I was listening in. He didn't see me, but I nodded my head in silent agreement.

He was spot on. Of course, I've always gone with the 90% Rule. It's not just Americans. It applies to our entire species.

And one wonders, "Why not just slag 'em off? Let's rid ourselves of this or that ball and chain, so we can really get moving, make some progress!"

(You are wondering, perhaps, if the person who wonders this really belongs to the 10%, or should belong. And you are right to wonder, for this type of wondering sounds short-sighted, narrowly-planned, small, brittle, and not at all the type of thinking one would expect to hear from a true 10-percenter. In fact, if you do hear this, I can personally guarantee the person doing the wondering is not, in fact, a 10-percenter).

It's certainly not what a Dad would say. I say this because, like it or not, I am a Dad. Not that I have children of my own. Not my own biological progeny. I do, like it or not, currently have sixty of them. They range in age from seventeen to eighty-seven.

My primary responsibility, as the studio technician for the three-dimensional section of the art department  here at the college, is to keep them out of harm's way. That's job number one. For Art Dad.

You wouldn't think that there'd be much call to protect them. But there are machines and devices conditions and situations where my charges could get mangled up pretty regularly. There's the obvious power tools and work stations in the wood and metal shops. The less obvious gas and electrically powered kilns and pottery wheels in the ceramics studio. Not to mention all those powders, potions, and noxious chemicals floating about in all areas. So, Art Dad is on his toes a lot.

Art Dad has to yell occasionally.

Art Dad is really more gunnery sergeant than Bob "Happy Trees" Ross.

Art Dad is more the "That 70s Show" Red Forman, or "Everybody Loves Raymond" Frank Barone type of dad than  "The Cosby Show" Cliff Huxtable dad. It's interesting, though, how many of them seem to think that Gunny Kurman, rough, gruff, grim, always barking orders, misanthropic, cynical, is such a softie.

So be it. Since that's my style, and I came by it honestly, that's what you get.

Of course, it goes beyond safety issues. It applies to creative assistance as well. Not all art students are created equal. Some have a technical proficiency, others an genuine vision, and very, very few, both. The professors will typically take the"normals", the technically proficient, the confident, the arrogant ones, under their wings, and cultivate their talents. These people are known among the faculty as the "art stars" (yes, puke), and can produce near flawless works, but they are inevitably boring. True to form for primadonnas, they make very pretty, and very dull,  hotel art.

If Talent was Cherenkov Radiation...
I get to deal with the oddballs. I've found that the oddballs, awkward, halting, unsure of themselves, weird, even goofy, possess a fucking fantastic vision within them, a weird, intense, actinic blue bug plasma of a talent. They may not be able to adequately express it in a graceful line or a subtle surface, but, you know... technique is cheap. That stuff, with practice, can be learned. You can't teach vision.

So, part of being Art Dad is, in my gruff gunny style, building them up, and yes, being tolerant and experimental, and... gentle with them, but, you know, like the way a tyrannosaur is gentle, so they don't get ideas.

When I teach my metals casting class, almost at least in every session, I'm known to say:

"I don't know. Let's try it out. See what happens!"
"What have you got to lose?"
"The worst that can happen is that it sucks."
"You can always make another one!"
"Don't be afraid to fuck it up".

Stuff like that. You know, it's not just this particular field where people do this. Lots of people's professional lives involve being Dad. And it is tiring. But it's also worth it. Because you occasionally run into a 10-percenter who thinks they are a 90-percenter, and its a genuine pleasure to show them they are wrong.

*This essay is in response to two essays posted by uglyblackjohn, which can be found here, and here.


  1. oh yeah. PAS. My brother's guiding principal. People Are Stupid.

  2. I hear you on the technique-vs-spark distinction.

    On the Dad thing, I'm interested in chess, and recently got dragged to a tournament. And but so the opponents around my own level were mostly 7-10 year olds. And while I did try and everything, I secretly felt better to lose. The college kid who took me to the tournament couldn't believe that. He was shaking his head.

    But little kids who are better at chess at age 7 than I am at 44 are the future. Whaddaya, crush 'em?

    (In chess I think perfection of technique swamps spark except possibly at very high levels. IOW chess sucks.)

  3. I agree with you, Tom. It has been documented that mutual exploration is a much more promising teaching technique than direct instruction. I will often play stupid to help students figure things out. (Sometimes it's not an act).