Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Interview with an Art Teacher. By Merge Divide

Living in Pittsburgh, and trying to continue doing artwork can be a tricky proposition. On one hand, you have the advantage of a very low cost of living. Conceivably you can work part time in the service industry, or do another kind of piecework, and be able to meet some basic costs... while continuing to do the work that sustains you. That can work for awhile, but as you get older and start to make more commitments, you may be drawn to a lifestyle that requires more in the way of financial reources. So what do you do when you need health insurance and a retirement account? For many, the idea of teaching art becomes an attractive proposition. Today I decided to talk to a friend who has successfully explored that option, and present that conversation in interview form. For reasons that may or may not become evident, we have decided to protect his identity. He will be assuming the initials "cv" for this purpose.

MD: You gotta bear wiith me here, c, this is as new to me as it is to you. Why don't we start out with the artwork you do... what medium do you work in, and how was your involvement in the arts developed?

CV: I'll begin with how I got started painting, which was with my mom at a young age. She did the whole art school thing in the late 60's and failed at making any attempt in the money department post graduation, so became a stay at home mom until I was about 10 when she began selling real estate. She inspired in me to work in watercolor which is one of my prefered method of color applications. I told you about my mom because when I began drawing skulls and was into the whole skateboard culture of my early teens she decided to "squash every artistic bone in my body" (she told me this in a heart to heart shortly after I graduated from college). Well as with most efforts to dissuade a persons thinking in using negative influences it failed miserably for her and I was a sort of terror to her during my adolescence, getting tattooed at 16 and still drawing lots of dark angry stuff.
Sorry for the tirade there, I suppose its a bit of a sore spot still.... anyhow I like working with portraits of people not necessarily idealized as the "a-typical artists model" , homeless people, homo-erotic, beer can cowboys, modern religious mystics, etc..

MD: So you went ahead anyway and got a formal arts education?

CV:Actually, I got a degree in Environmental studies/Eco-psychology due to meeting influental people on a student exchange in N. California, namely Judi Bari who was one of the main anti-old growth logging organizers of the 21st century. But thats a whole other bag. After I was working mostly with troubled teens in alternative to jail programs and group homes for about 5 years after college I decided to go back to school for art education. I origally went to I.U.P for art education, but fucking hated Indiana, hence student exchange in N. cali and change of directions. I did a post bachelorate program at Carlow College here in Pittsburgh to get certified in Art Ed.

MD: That's a fairly radical transition- from eco-politics to arts education. Did you reach some defining moment when you realized you'd try to be an arts teacher? What specifically inspired that decision?

CV: Dana, my friend and partner in a wilderness trip for at risk teens and I did a project where we took Eric Drooker images that had to do with environmental and social degredation and presented them to the kids and had them talk about what they meant and how they made them feel. It was actually pretty amazing the responses and life experiences these mostly city kids had with these images and also with scenes from their own lives. I guess I always sort of had idealistic visions of my perfect job and it had to do with art and teaching and kids. Am I now living this as an arts educator in public schools.... ? Absolutely not. Beauracracy is slippery little worm that likes to weasel its way into nice ripe fruit.

MD: Is that a simile or a metaphor? I like it. So let's get into the nitty gritty then. It's obviously not what you thought it would be. Can you narrow whatever your dissatisfaction is into a few points?

CV: Metaphor. Due to the basic assumption that school is meant to be broken down into conveinent little compartments (subjects) and organized systmatically (40 minute periods) it is a challenge to say the least to incorporate a deeper meaningful experience while shuffling the student body as a whole down the conveyor belt of assimilation. Basically, its really hard to gain any sort of balance while seeing 600+ children a week. I teach elementary art so alot of my time is eaten up preparing examples and assisting students who are having trouble, re-introducing the lessons, and re-teaching steps involved in the making of whatever project it is we're working on. Now I teach in two schools, one has 5 minutes of prep time between specials (art/gym/music) the other has 0, thats right zero. Once one class is over, the next class is waiting lined up in the hall and shuffles in without a chance for me to breath. This creates a very hectic situation and I'm currently trying to "slow things down" , but the nature of the child is that they are sponges and work very fast/ pick up new ideas and so I also am trying not to stifle this beginners knowledge enthusiasm. On top of this the leadership of some administrators is lacking thereof. Meaning that they don't like their job or their life or both and basically are not such a supportive rung in the heirarchical ladder of leadership. Also, public education is becoming more and more of a hoop to jump through with teachers needing to be more educated (which I support as long as theres tuition reimbursement from the schools) and national standarized testing which soon art too will have to participate in if they have their way (which I do not support).

MD: Hold on there... do you really anticipate nation or statewide standards for arts education? I kinda think that they won't be able to find the funds to even develop them. But if they did... what would be the process? Who would be writing those standards, and how would they be assessed? The very subjectivity in the nature of art would seem to prohibit it, don't you think?

CV: Not really, I think its too open ended as a subject, but I've heard that to authenticate the art education experience they would be justified to incorporate art related vocabulary and history as part of the test for "art". Now standarized tests are primarily coming out of Princeton where they supposedly have hand picked "top" educators from diverse backgrounds, but in reality these tests are classist in therir scope from the terminology and wording of the very questions that they build these tests upon. It is proven that students score exeptionally higher after taking test prep classes which in most situations clue the students in on the thinking put in the the questions at hand and the answers they are looking for. Many of the questions are worded in a way that multiple answers could be right, but one is extra right. Or terminology that students from the suburbs or countryside might understand, but city dwelling ones would get thrown for a loop just in the vocabulary used within the context of the question. Its all about trickery and learning "their" way of thinking, which is a bunch of classist bullshit. And yes, MD, the subjectivity of art is lost when you try to pin it down in a bunch of historical facts and personalized ideas. History is written by the ones who win the wars, whether it be in the arts realm or weaponry. What would a history book look like if Native Americans had a say in our "heroes of the past" or look at the times of Van Gogh, he wasn't "realized" until long after his death.

MD: That is horrifying. It completely contradicts the purposes of art. The idea works counter to the history of the development of art. And there is a tie-in too, with the accepted structure and paradigms that seem to be pushed in MFA programs... that's bad enough, but now it's gonna be integrated into arts education for children? Talk about stifling possibility.

CV: And Bingo was his name-o... From my perspective as an art educator dealing with young children it is my sole responsibilty to make that 40 minutes some of the most exciting moments they will experience in the school setting. I'm constantly preoccupied with working out how to inspire atounding creativity and personal decision making/critical thinking within my classes. I want them to follow directions, but also I encourage twists to my lesson plans and their own influx of ideas into whatever we are doing. Thats fine that you followed directions, but how is it YOURS. I want all the projects to look different and I constantly tell them that if adults could recapture the magic of childhood they would, but we rarely can and therefore there is a reason kid art looks like kid art and when adults try to capture that whether its Basquiat or our own Kellstadt their is something magical within it. Something we automatically gravitate towards and want to try to interpret.
I am lucky in the fact that for the most part administrators leave me alone because kids like my classes and we produce good looking art.

MD: Being involved in education, but not arts education... I have always had this idealized vision of the arts teaching position. Those guys always seem to be chillin' in their own private neverland. At least in the high school, art is an elective course. The kids in that room chose to be there. And so they seem much more in their own element. And the art teacher is there with, like, Joy Division quietly streaming through their computer speakers. And they get to come to school in casual wear. Ya know, administrators don't have a freakin' clue what "art is". Generally (I would assume), they'd be keeping their paws off of your instruction. Of course that is what makes the whole "standards debacle" so problematic. The idea that we've come so far in that dirtection is scary. Anyway... I have another question I'm curious about. How does having the position you have in a particular community affect the decisions you make in displaying your personal art? What kind of considerations predominate?

CV: Well... Alot of sexually oriented or graphically dark artwork I've been straying away from not because I don't want to make it, but because I don't want to be associated with it in this small community. For the most part I make whatever I want and am not too concerned with having shows and so forth, so some may say i'm not much of a "real" artist. I don't really feel like I need to make art for any other reason than that I want to frickin' make something, whatever that may be. As an adult (shudder) I feel as though I have to watch my back and not get fired for something avoidable, ie. I wear long sleeves to cover my tats and don't really clue anyone in at work when I may show artwork or have something else going on. I'd like to keep my professional and personal life seperate, but in Pittsburgh is hard. I'm running into kids I teach more and more, but I suppose the kids I may run into at such functions would have pretty cool parents, and maybe not...

MD: Well... not to end the interview on an ominous note, but I read recently about an art teacher who was fired because she posed top-less for a fine art photographer. Of course the administration said she was let go "for performance reasons". Yeah, yeah... you and I know that's not the case. Anyways, thanks for taking the time to do this with me, and maybe we'll continue this conversations some other time.

CV: A real pleasure my friend. Thanks.


Elmo_Lincoln said...

Interesting interview. I can see having art testing standards as having a purpose in a way. I've seen some art teachers that don't really have a clue about art in a professional sense or in a personal sense. They have no real drive to create art on their own. It's not so much as whether they have names as artist. They just don't act as though they want to be artist. There's plenty of coach types that like art teaching as a cushy job. Why these guys teach art instead of gym is beyond me.

On the flip side, it does sound like it is oversimplifying the subject of art. It sounds like it's making it a rigid concept or that there's a strict template to follow. You can almost see this trend building up in the art world. It almost seems like there's been a bit of a rejection of all the experimentation of past years. Or at least many people have had their fill of it or that it is something has been done and there's nothing to explore in those previous tracks. There's been a resurgence of art as a technical field since computers having taken hold. Eventually there will be a backlash. It might take a long while. People get tired of the way things are. A new revolution comes around.

Merge Divide said...

I don't think either of us (meaning "cv" and I) are against standards for art educators. That's completely appropriate.

At the risk of misrepresenting "cv", I would say that what we have a problem with are standards-based tests to evaluate student progress. It is one thing to construct state standards for testing students in science or math or grammar (all these lend themselves to a greater degree of objectivity)... but who is going to be vested with the responsability of coming up with "objective" art standards?? Surely not some government-appointed committee? That would be an anathema.

DonLobania said...

Hi I'm a design student from U.K. and rad this (lenghthy blog)

I agree with the above comments but would add that opinionated marking of art cannot/should not take place as the marker has a view different to the overwhelming public for instance. I would say a better way of marking to get a a range of marks and take the mean from the marks. This could be done by more than one teacher, in different instituations with varying levels of opinion.

Check out my blog's at Good summary of the lectures...makes my job harder now cos i have to do one about it. I'll try not to repeat your's in anyway but if i do please forgive me.

But you hav't included a point whereby a can put up a comment i.e. no question no feedback is needed. In your next blog try and finish with a point where people reading can reply and therefore give you decent comments.

Check mine out (2 Blogs maybe 3) at http://imdipd.blogspot.com/
it's new and everyweek a blog is put on about our design history lecture...hope to hear from you soon.