Friday, February 18, 2011

Art School Part IV: Walls, and How Best To Climb Them.

As I mentioned in part I of this blog series, there’s always something that stands in the way of a person and their goals in life. I refer to these things as walls. Walls come in many forms - physical, mental, and emotional - and the long, winding path through art school is rife with them. Most walls are built to keep you from getting somewhere you’d like to go, or to keep you out of a place you’d like to be. People build walls around their property to keep their neighbors out and their pets in. People build walls around themselves to keep other people from getting too close or to keep themselves from getting too close to others. In art school, most of the walls are built to keep those who would weaken the program from moving forward successfully. One such wall is the foundations program – a topic I covered in depth in part II. But there are many more along the path to successful completion of art school, and each of these has to be dealt with in one way or another. To be successful, it’s best to know how to climb these walls, find secret passages through, under, or around them, or in some cases, tear them down with a bulldozer.

Each course you take in college can be seen as a series of miniature walls. In most cases, the door to your eventual graduation will be hinged on your successful completion of these courses, and if you’re not careful, you could find yourself unable to move forward because you need to complete a course. At a public university like ECU, some of these required courses seem completely irrelevant at first (such as the need to have 12 hours of Fine Arts credit for which your Art classes don’t count), but the key to climbing these walls is to accept the importance of a broad education in your life. By studying Music, History, Math, Science, English, and yes, even Exercise, you are only building upon your life experience, something which every artist draws from in order to create their work. If you see these things as obstacles in your path, climbing the wall will be a daunting task. But if you learn to appreciate them as experiences along your path, and put forth the effort to truly allow yourself to grow in knowledge, passing right through them will come naturally. Find a way to game the system – pick classes that count towards whatever credits you need that will interest you and enrich your life, and which you feel can apply to your art. You don’t have to be stuck taking classes that don’t matter to you in any meaningful way, and this is something a lot of people don’t seem to understand. For English lit, I took a Film Studies class. We watched and analyzed movies, and the class bettered my understanding of composition. For my exercise class, I took rock climbing.  I work with stone and my work is inspired by nature – a no brainer – but this also helped me understand the importance of goal setting. I would pick a difficult route and practice it repeatedly until my skills and strength had reached a point where I could complete it. This was something that I could apply to just about anything in life.  I appreciated every class I took as an opportunity for me to grow and learn, and even when I couldn’t always put forth a solid effort in a class because I was stuck in the studio all the time, I still enjoyed it as a welcome escape.

In the School of Art and Design at ECU, the next huge wall that you will approach after foundations is the portfolio submission. Each person must submit a portfolio to a chosen area in order to declare a concentration. This is a bigger deal in some of the more competitive concentrations, but still a very important wall that must be dealt with. If you’re denied admission into that concentration, you’ve now spent at least two years of your life in art school only to be stopped dead in your tracks. This is probably the most important piece of advice I can give you – learn the value of communication. Talk to your professors. Have them critique your work prior to submission and get advice on what to include in your portfolio. Figure out areas where they think you should try to improve your work, and USE THAT ADVICE.  Sometimes just the fact that you showed the initiative to do this will be enough to separate you from the competition. And if it doesn’t open that secret passage through the wall for you, at the very least you’ve been shown the route you need to take to climb it.  

I want to reiterate that last point of advice. Communication is key in everything you will do for the rest of your life. 95% of the walls that will stand between you and your goals are in the form of other people. Learning how to communicate effectively with them is the easiest and most effective way to climb these walls. If you’re struggling in a class, for whatever reason, go talk to your professor. If you’re struggling to keep up with your workload, and know you’re going to miss a deadline, go talk to your professor. If you’re just having a rough time with life in general, and it’s affecting your work for a class, go talk to your professor. If you need help with something, ask for it.  Don’t be afraid of sounding like that whiny student who’s just coming up with excuses. You might, but so what? You have nothing to lose but your pride, and if you’re in art school, you might need a good ego-bashing anyway. It might just earn you those extra few days you need to get your head straight and get your work done. I actually received a couple of incompletes in my time at ECU simply because I asked for them.  It’s a very humbling thing to admit that you’ve failed yourself to your professor, but that humbling experience was something I needed in order to complete my work and avoid a low or failing grade in a class. Once you understand the value of communication, and learn to utilize it, things will become much easier for you. Remember: If you never ask, you’ll never receive.

The final wall I’m going to talk about is one of the most annoying, obnoxious things you’ll ever have to deal with, and that is the bureaucracy of higher education. I firmly believe that going at this wall with a bulldozer is probably the most effective method of clearing it from your path. My experiences with the administration of ECU have been less than pleasant, to say the least, but this is not just a personal thing – many of my peers have also had very unfortunate run-ins with the bureaucracy of ECU. I’m a firm believer that secretly, institutions of higher education do not actually want you to graduate. If you graduate, then they can no longer take your money (and in the case of a public institution, receive money from the government because of you), and thus it’s just a simple matter of economics. The longer they can keep a student in school, the longer they can milk the cash cow. The only real way to deal with this is to tackle it head-on early, and never stop pushing until you’ve made it through.  Lost paperwork, missing files, miscommunication, and incompetence are just a few problems you’ll run into when dealing with administration. You have to anticipate this, prepare for it, and do everything in your power to make sure that the wheels are turning in your favor, or they won’t. A good friend of mine found out 3 weeks before graduation that, even though he had sat down with his advisor and discussed his graduation requirements and registration on multiple occasions and everything was good to go, there were somehow still 3 credits that they “missed.” One class that he still needed to take in order to graduate. In my case, the bureaucracy tried to keep me from getting my job by somehow deciding that I wasn’t actually graduating when I was supposed to be. For no reason at all, really – I had applied for graduation, signed my senior summaries, all of my degree requirements were met, and I had walked across the stage. They just arbitrarily decided my graduation date should be something other than what it was, and proceeded to tell the school board trying to hire me that they couldn’t actually hire me. After 2 weeks and dozens of phone calls and emails, the issue was resolved – they just had the wrong date on my graduation paperwork. But had I not been proactive, I’d be stuck without a job and a degree right now because of a clerical error. Be prepared, triple check every requirement, anticipate any possible problem that the administration could throw your way, and have your bulldozer gassed up and ready to go when something inevitably goes wrong. If you don’t, this wall could be one that shows up out of nowhere and diverts you away from reaching your goals for quite some time.

When you reach the inevitable walls along your path, don’t let them stop you. Remember that there’s always a way to get over them - it just takes a little perseverance and planning to figure out how.

Check back next week for the final installment of this blog series, Art School Part V: How To Be An Artist – Something They Don’t Teach You In Art School

Friday, February 11, 2011

Art School Part III: And Now The Fun Begins

If you can make it past the first year of art school without cracking under all the pressure or losing your mind entirely from sleep deprivation, there are actually some extremely good times to be had – the problem lies in finding time to actually experience and enjoy them. But at this point, your body is already accustomed to functioning on little to no sleep, so you find your days are much longer than most other people’s. You still have tons of work to do – arguably more now than you did in foundations – but if you’ve stuck it out this long you’re now taking survey and studio classes in your choice program areas, which makes the work feel less like work. As I mentioned before, art school pretty much destroys any sort of social life you may have had, but your old friends have been replaced by, well, everyone else in the art department.

When you work and live in the same building with the same people for so long, you undoubtedly befriend a lot of them, and at the very least you know the majority of them on a first name basis. You find ways to break the monotony of working on a piece for endless hours by engaging in impromptu activities with your studio mates – from 4 am rolly chair races down the ramps to huge building-wide hide and seek matches. Most of you have all pretty much lost your minds from sleep deprivation at this point anyway, so you can’t help but find enjoyment in the simplest of distractions.
Extreme bathroom biking - a sport only witnessed in art school.

One of the fondest memories I have of art school is one such occurrence. A fellow sculpture major and I were tasked with watching a plaster investment kiln overnight – checking it every hour to make sure that it was reaching a high enough temperature and staying there long enough to burn out the molds without getting too hot that it cooked them to death and destroyed them. A certain wood design major chose to stick it out with us. When you’ve got 12 hours to stand around in the cold on a Friday night and make sure something doesn’t catch on fire, what else is there to do but start a fire? So that’s what we did. In an old rusted steel barrel, bum style.  You learn a lot while standing around a bum fire. I learned that when you douse a sculpture in linseed oil and toss it in a fire, you can actually get a pretty nice patina. I learned that a wood fire CAN actually get hot enough to melt aluminum. I learned that, after an extremely long-winded monologue about the fleeting nature of love (and after what may or may not have been several adult sodas), two grown men will simultaneously step away from the fire and call their ex-girlfriends that they haven’t spoken to in years. At 6 o’clock in the morning. Those voicemails must have been priceless. And at the end of it all, I learned there’s nothing better than waking up sprawled out on the hard, cold concrete floor of your studio, putting on your leathers, and pouring molten metal on a Saturday morning with your sculpture professor. That was the smoothest pour I ever participated in, and a lasting memory I will look back on with fondness for years to come.

You see, being cooped up in the same building slaving over your artwork for hours at a time might make you go insane, but the bond created with the people that are right there beside you the entire way is something that can never be reproduced. They become more than friends – they become family.

Check back next week for Art School Part IV: Walls, and How Best to Climb Them.