Rachel Rushing

art school

I love all things self-reflective. I love people taking time to appreciate where they’ve been and how it’s brought them to where they are.

Over the past few so-longs, however, more and more articles have been popping up with the same theme: What I Didn’t Learn From Art School. I don’t necessarily have a problem with what these dynamos have written, but the general attitude of “Here’s everything I didn’t learn there.” comes across to me more as “Here’s everything those people failed at.” and seems to short-change an education. I get defensive, in part, because I not only ‘wasted’ 5 years of cash and hard work, I’ve gone back for another 3 (so when I say ‘short-change an education’ I mean my education). Education is something I take personally and though these authors have great insights into the non-ed or post-ed life of getting-to-know-how, I’d like to take a few minutes to share my own thoughts on what art school has contributed to me.

First, a caveat:

Taking up someone else’s time, knowledge, hard work, and resources costs usually costs a lot of green-backs.

This is a double-edged meat-grinder, of course. Education costs are preposterous in America, with students accumulating more debt than they’ll likely be able to work off in their foreseeably jobless future. I’m not happy about it and I don’t know anyone who likes to bathe in a tub of their own student loan bills. However, I think something in our consumerist, ON SALE THIS WEEK ONLY, “gas is 2 cents cheaper 4 miles west of here”, “daily dollar deals” culture has convinced us that we should be able to get a good deal on everything, and a good deal usually means close to free. This seems to be especially true of things that are slightly more intangible, or at least true of things more complex than our experience has given us understanding for (i.e. handmade goods, quality craftsmanship, or expertise beyond wikipedia). If you want to go to an art school, or any school, where you get to pick the brains of multiple experts with years of personal experience making, thinking, tooling, and persevering through everything the world will throw at you, they’d like to get paid for it.

So what exactly did I learn?

To be good at something takes hours and hours and hours and hours of work, and if I spend all those hours by myself, I’ll go insane.

I wanted to go to graduate school for two and a half reasons. Firstly (in no particular order), I’d like to teach. Teaching (the little experience I have) has been an inspiration to me. I get excited about sharing what I love with other people and I get even more excited when they get excited too. Second, I wanted to challenge myself and surround myself with other people who will challenge me, too. I wanted to be challenged to be better. I wanted to be around a group of people who have the same foundational passion as I do, who are willing to tell me that I can do better or I’m not doing it right or I don’t make sense or they don’t like what I’m doing. If I live my life hearing only praise and admiration (or more likely, disinterest) then it wouldn’t take long before I’d get complacent in my work, a big head, and a chip on my shoulder. I love it when people disagree about art and get mad and defensive because that means, in the words of David Rodwin, “… they actually give a shit. It means art matters.” No one can disagree with me if I stay shut away in my apartment. I’ll have more money, but crappy work and a bad attitude.

Personal responsibility isn’t something you can learn in a text-book or from an expert.

Personal responsibility is something you have to be awful at as you miss paying bills or taxes or traffic tickets until you get sick of your own immaturity. You’ll underestimate how much work it takes to do what you do and when you get that concept, you’ll either quit before you’ve gotten started or you’ll get your act together and do what needs to be done. You’ll pay your bills, you’ll figure out how to balance taking on meaningful work that pays crap (or nothing) and taking on work that will pay for your phone. You’ll stumble your way through putting together a professional contract with your clients so that when they decide to back out of a project half-way through, you’ve at least gotten a 50% deposit. You’ll remember to rent the equipment and space you need on time, once you’ve gotten turned down for showing up the day-of and everything has been rented and then you had to be that guy who has to reschedule his clients for his own mistakes.

Networking is a stupid word.

Networking is a word people use when they want something from people, be that information, contacts, gallery shows, resources, whatever. I can’t prove this because I’m still pretty fresh (and plenty of people would probably call me naive), but I have a theory that if you are genuine, excited about what you do, and responsible, people will want to know you, talk to you, and maybe even work with you. Everyone has to promote themselves (no one can be interested in something they’ve never been introduced to), but acting like other people have bumped into your life so you can use them for who they know seems a bit foolish to me.

Critiques have taught me how to listen and look.

Assuming I took 26 undergraduate studio courses (which is how many were listed on my undergrad curriculum) with an average of 5 critiques per class and an average of 3 hours devoted to each critique, that’s almost 400 hours of looking and listening to what people have to say about art, mine and theirs. In that time I learned (and I’m still learning) how to look at a thing I have no connection with and totally commit my brainpower into understanding someone else’s motivations, decisions, desires, ambitions, successes and failures. You can be an ass and a good artist, but you can’t be an ass and really appreciate someone else’s work. That takes empathy earned by shutting up and listening/looking at someone else’s view of the world.

Defending your decisions can make you very articulate.

I would say a lot of people go through their lives saying whatever they want. This tends to cause derision and strife, thanks in large part to miscommunication and a lack of accountability. If, in a critique, I don’t communicate what I mean, I’m held accountable. There is a group of people surrounding me, waiting to understand, but saying whatever I want instead of whatever I mean usually makes them more confused. I’m not communicating what I intend, I’m communicating what they think I intend. This is also expanded to the visual pieces I’m presenting. Everything communicates something. The decisions I made along the way to producing this photograph or print or painting culminate into something meaningful. If I made decisions flippantly then my work communicates that I don’t care about what it communicates, that my work doesn’t matter to me, and that it shouldn’t matter to whoever sees it. Being an artist is, by nature, an act of accountability.

I am not original, but I can be sincere.

Art history does two things very well- 1, it shows me who already had that idea and did it better than I ever could, and 2, it reassures me that there are other crazy people who love this same thing and I’m part of a long line of doers and makers and thinkers. Originality, in my mind, is another word for novelty, and I hope my work is never novel. Novelty is very exciting but interest and meaning fade quickly with the novel. Sincerity is my highest aspiration. If I can spend my efforts making something sincere, then it will always be meaningful to me, and that is something that can transcend culture, language, and time.

I will never ‘arrive’.

I learned early on how much I have yet to learn. A work is never ‘finished’, I will never fully ‘master’ a process (though I might be better at it than the guy next to me, but given time he will get to where I am), there will always be someone else better at what I do than me or with a better idea than mine. The beauty of an art school is that it’s structured to remind you how little you have accomplished, it just comes with a built in timer. You and your professors are given a predetermined number of years (usually 4 or 5) to figure out what exactly you want to do and what you want to say; the rest of your time is spent figuring out what not to do and what not to say. I don’t do this to be perfect- to figure out the formula for art and then stop or to get the biggest award there is and then be the best artist of all time. I love art school and I love being an artist because I love making and thinking and saying and doing. That’s not something you can quantify.

Being an artist is a privilege.

You might have to work at Starbucks or in some kind of cubicle-hell or waiting tables. You might not get the job you want, the residency you want, or the studio space you want, but every second that you spend figuring out how to make it all work is a gift. No one owes you anything (as we’ve discussed, you probably owe the government), so when you feel like complaining about how your old classmate already has 3 international shows on his CV and you’re stuck working at some local dive, remember, Van Gogh wasn’t famous like we know him to be today, until 50 years after his death (which occured after he shot himself… in the chest… and took over a day to die). If you’re in this gig to get shows, you’re doing it wrong.

If you didn’t want to be a fine-artist (whatever that means), then you shouldn’t have gone to art school.

The value of an art school education is not one that can be quantified, monetarily or through a full CV. Art schools exist to teach you about art, not to teach you how to be an entrepreneur or how to get your name out there or how to deal with recession or any other ‘real world’ problems.

There are other ways (maybe more efficient or cost effective) to learn these same things, besides going to art school. I’ve had friends share their thoughts about the supposed value of institutional higher education- that it is a fruitless system, providing no real insight, but exists solely to take your money. I appreciate that discovery and exploration is a life-long journey. Anyone who thinks X-number of years at an institution of learning will teach you everything you need to know has a few surprises waiting for them in Post-education World. However, I get a little uppity the more I hear this ‘Art schools are useless’ attitude. I have learned a lot from art school; it came at a great cost, but I will always value my education.

I’ve been thinking a lot about value lately- in the artistic and intrinsic senses.

On the drive to work (and as much as possible while at work) I really like listening to NPR. I finally found a news outlet that’s enjoyable to listen to! Anyhow, I really enjoyed this interview on the Diane Rehm Show with Eduardo Porter about his book “The Price of Everything” (listen here). He talks about different types of value and a little about the psychology of our relationship to what we buy.

I have really fallen for Public School based in Austin, TX. They’re a top 5 in my Google Reader and I love this video they shared of Massimo Vignelli. Beauty doesn’t necessarily equate to value, especially not in relation to people (beauty is subjective anyway). However I would go so far as to say that beauty in design and art does correlate somehow. Finding where the two come together is the real challenge.

Amazon’s Universal Wish List has become a new favorite tool of mine. Right now I have about 40 books in the queue, including The Elements of Photography: Understanding and Creating Sophisticated Images. I love what the review says about ‘visual literacy’.

The idea of visual literacy–photographers needing both technical and conceptual skills, being informed about their subject matter through interdisciplinary research, and using all of the tools available to make work–that is a distinctive driving concern for all of us engaged in this education.
–Dennie Eagleson Associate Professor of Photography, Antioch College.

An artist’s ability to utilize beauty greatly influences, at the very least, the patron’s perceived value of any work. This gets into sticky territory deliberating between decorative art and intellectual/conceptual art, but either way, beauty is a tool every artist should be aware of.

As the challenge to be self-motivated always follows me around like Marley’s Ghost, I found this little article the other day from The 99% in my twitter feed. Over the past 3 years or so most of the work I’ve produced has driven to motivate people to something- a change of thinking or action or approach.  I like this article for what it says about my own life, but also for how I can better understand motivation in my own work in the future.

If we can imagine an achievement, see ourselves progressing toward that goal, and understand that we are gaining new skills and knowledge, we will be driven to do great work…once the barest amount of brainpower is required, higher financial rewards fail to produce better work. In fact, they actually inspire worse performance.

This is an illustrated video of Daniel Pink’s talk at RSA on the subject:

These are interesting concepts that I’ve lived out but not been able to articulate.

I actually enjoyed this article so much that I asked a few friends to read it and respond!

First is Ashleigh Newberry-Mills, a single mother seeking a degree in Secondary Education with a concentration in History and Fine Arts. She is one of my oldest friends and I always love listening to what she has to say. Ashleigh is a dreamer- always has been- and I think that’s part of why we’ve stayed friends for so long. The woman just doesn’t give up. As the mother to a 3-year-old seeking her degree mostly online, I’d say she’s a pretty motivated individual.

The article mentions autonomy, mastery, & purpose as key motivators. Would you say these played a part in how much you accomplished/ how well you learned anything in your undergrad studies?

I think what helps me personally create and grow is a compilation of all three of the mentioned drives. I always want to better whatever I am working on. It’s the primary drive of everyone that is creating. I, unlike most creative people I know, fail miserably without an assigned task. Most of my creative friends have to develop that skill. They have to learn to reign in their creativity and assign it to something while having the urge to manufacture something completely separate and unrelated. I wish someone would tell me what they wanted to see more of. I wish some person in the world would say “create me ____.”  That being said I have to be autonomous to what I’ve been charged with creating. I have to be able to see it develop on my own time and in my own head. Self-governing is the only way I can effectively create something out of nothing.  I always see myself as a “crafter” and not really an artist, so I am constantly striving for something that is wonderfully magnificent to throw me over the cliff into the land of no return: the land of the talented ARTIST! Mastery is a huge part of why I work so hard when developing an idea. For as long as I can remember my family has always told me that there is a practicality to life, and then there is a side of everyone that is creative. They have also made perfectly clear that practicality is always far more important. In my rebel days I told them to shove it, but now, more than ever I have a huge understanding of why practicality is important. I also feel as if I reach a level of mastery, a place where people look at my creations and “awe”, my family will finally be okay with me being exactly who I want to be…

Which of these 3 are you most aware of as a personal motivator.

The main drive behind all of my studies and work is, by far, purpose. I used to say growing up, that my main goal in life was to change one person’s world. I gave up on that goal until recently. I know now that I have a responsibility to practicality (as much as the rebel in me hates to admit it.)  I also have a responsibility to follow my dreams. I have 38 inches, 33 pounds, a head full of blondish hair with a funky little cowlick, and bluish green eyes to inspire and change the life of. I don’t want my son to grow up thinking that making money and being normal is the life he should strive for.  I want him to see my world as color filled, paint stained, gritty, messy, beautiful, awe inspiring, and dingily delightful. My purpose, while to provide a wonderful and comfortable life for him, is to inspire him and show him that dreams, when  chased & pursued, can and will come true.  His future happiness is my singular most important drive and purpose, and I want him to be okay with following his dreams because he grew up watching me chase mine.

Are you currently using any part of your degree?

Nope…bummer. I will one day though, just have to wait for that day.

If you aren’t in a ‘creative’ field right now, do you think you’ll go back to doing something art-oriented in the future?

I know that one day my job will be creative. I think that teaching will be creative in how I apply information to develop student’s knowledge. The perks of being a teacher to a single mother like me are undeniable and alluring, but as soon as Treyson is grown I know that I will fully throw myself into creativity. I know that eventually, when the time is right, it will become my 100% focus.

What’s your biggest road block to doing what you want to do, now that you are out of school?

My biggest roadblock is also the biggest blessing. It’s awful to say that, but it’s true. If I didn’t have Treyson, I would totally be bumming it, living in some loft with splatter on the walls and strangers coming in and out buying art as they saw fit. Never earning a substantial income, always squeaking by, but rich in happiness and satisfaction. That being said, I look forward to the day when that will be my life. I’m (sometimes) the definition of dramatic dark artist, and one day I’ll get to live that life. I’m just lucky that I have the next fifteen years or so to perfect that in small doses until I can completely submerge myself into it. I think it’s probably best this way though. It will be good for Treyson to see me work diligently towards a goal that I can’t ever really achieve until he’s an adult. Paying your dues and development is always a big part of any life goal.

If you could change something about the current structure of education at any level, what would you change?

I think education should be more of an experience. Not a social experience as most people see it, but a developmental experience. I think that each teacher should give their students a chance to take an idea and baby, nurse, and stumble with it until it’s ready to take its first flight on its own. Dr. Seuss said “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” I think that teachers should allow students to be more individualistic and allow them to express themselves without a judgmental eye, with just pure appreciation of whatever that photograph, speech, paper, painting, sketch, or design that they created did for the world. What it did for the one person whose life it could change. I wish more educators would change and take a little extra time to appreciate the world their students create and live in.

*yes, I have religious beliefs. letting you know now, so no one feels tricked.

Intelligent people are always ready to learn.
Their ears are open for knowledge. (Prov. 18:15)

Wise men know, if you want to be wise, you must keep learning. If you want to keep learning, you must surround yourself with people who are wiser and smarter than you.  This takes an incredible amount of humility and is why I love art, faith, and education.

Art is always about something. Even if it’s about nothing, it’s about something. Artists are this amazing group of people who question and communicate in any language available to them.  Personally, the most interesting art questions & asks viewers to do the same. The Impressionists wanted to question the very nature of paint, of light and all it’s facets. Dada questioned the nature of everything- could anything be art? I suppose their conclusion was that if anything could be studied or questioned, then yes, it could be art. I am an artist because I like being questioned and I like questioning others. I like the possibility in problems, and have difficulty understanding when others are more intimidated by the challenges. I think this is what God asks of us too.

A few days ago I read the vision statement for International Arts Movement. I am extremely interested in the relationship between my art and my faith, and how the two can interact. I love this quote from their statement, “Our programming and resources equip the creative community to generate good, true, and beautiful cultural artifacts: sign-posts pointing toward the “world that ought to be.” Through understanding the culture that is and looking toward what could be, we hope to rehumanize our world.” Their mission statement is music to my ears, “IAM gathers artists and creative catalysts to wrestle with the deep questions of art, faith, and humanity in order to inspire the creative community to engage…”

There are critics of any faith, always with the question of “How can you REALLY know?”. A lot of people say critics always assume anyone with any faith is just ignorant and uneducated (no one’s ever said that to me, personally, so this is here-say), but I tend to disagree. One of my favorite things about God is that he lets us question- he gives us that much freedom!  We can question everything in the universe- he gave us the brains, ingenuity, and curiosity to do so.

One of my hubs’ favorite discoveries about the universe (and part of his logic behind Intelligent Design) is the Golden Ratio.

This amazing pattern/formula is found in every single part of nature. It’s the shape of a human ear, the pattern of a shell, the arrangement of branches in a tree. My personal favorite offshoot of the Golden Ratio is the fractal.

Fractals are natural patterns in which the small parts are copies of the whole (self-similar, which, interestingly enough, is how I think Believers are supposed to reflect Christ who reflects the Father).

Basically that means that if you measured the width of a tree branch, then measured the size of each limb on that branch, then measured the size of each stick on each limb, they would all be proportional to each other. Not only that, but a group of researchers actually went out and measured a forest in South America like this, then they measured the placement of each tree in the forest and tree PLACEMENT was proportional too! A video on fractals, including the study done, can be found here.

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to fore go their use.” -Galileo

“Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish…We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be.” – Pope John Paul II

All this to say that I find art and faith exciting for the same reasons. This love of learning leads to my enjoyment in education.  Sadly our current model of education is rote memorization, not real learning.  If we can teach students to question, rather than memorize, perhaps future generations will actually have a creative and unpredictable future. I watched the following video this morning and just love the challenge in this woman’s message.

I also love Geoffrey Canada in this video:

A few inspiring places to look: Donald Miller, International Arts Movement, GOOD, Bob Goff, BOOOOOOOOM, the world