studioNOTES: support for artists/ideas and information

Number 24

March - May 1999

What's the most important thing you've learned from a teacher, mentor or anyone else? It could be life guidance, advice about handling a specific situation, or even something said or done in passing that nevertheless had a profound effect on you. It could even come from a book, a sculpture, a leaf, a tree, a cloud. And if you can't limit it to just one, that's OK.

That's what we asked readers this time. The responses were interesting and thought-provoking. Some were even startling. Without further ado, here's a representative sampling of them, some of which have been edited to save space:

When unable to resolve the problem in a work of one's own, remove the area that pleases you the most.

-Anne Wienholt, Larkspur CA

Making art is work and sometimes you don't feel like doing it, but you still do it. I'm reminded of a Ghandi quote, "Almost everything you will do is meaningless, but it is still important you do it." I remember my mentor's arrival at the studio on occasion. He would open the door, walk directly to the loom, swing his legs over the bench and, without a word, pick up the bobbin and start weaving. At first I wondered if he was in a bad mood, but soon I realized that it was one of those days where thinking about it would mean never getting it done. It was a magnificent lesson in Life.

-Nancy Jackson, Vallejo CA

My instructor Lyle Gomes taught me a lot of things about the life of an artist. I could probably write several pages from what he said, but for now, I'll just mention one important piece of advice: Be prepared, well prepared, before opportunity presents itself. That means always having an updated statement and resume, labeled slides, publicity prints, a portfolio ready to show, etc. Not only has heeding this advice made my life as an exhibiting artist a lot easier, it has enabled me to take advantage of unexpected offers and inquiries, which often occur at inconvenient times.

-Beth Yarnelle Edwards, San Carlos CA

As a grad student at U-Wisconsin at Madison my prof said "just paint."
I said, "but I like to draw."
He said, "What's the difference?"

-Biganess Livingstone, Benicia CA

I remember Tom Holland at the San Francisco Art Institute telling me to be free with materials and not to worry about how they would all work together. He said there was someone at NYMOMA who picked up the little pieces on (I think) Jackson Pollock's work and reattached them every day. When I freeze up and think, "Well should I do this?" I think of those words and just "Do It." As a mixed-media artist this has been very freeing for me.

-Judith Juntura Miller, Palo Alto CA

RTP. It's about the only thing I remember from engineering school. I'm not sure it helps in making art, but it does save time and trouble when I'm applying for grants, sending out slides, and all the other periphera of art and life. It means Read The Problem.

-Kim E. Slettiw, Akron OH

I can't remember who told me this one. Whoever it was said that those of us with day jobs needed to do at least one thing every day that we were at our jobs for our art. It could be making a phone call, making copies of statements or sending slides out. Unethical? Perhaps. She saw it as a way for our society to support its artists.

-Michelle Echenique, Berkeley CA

Breakthroughs take years.

-Nat Friedman, Albany NY

I took my first art courses as a sophomore in college. A painting class and an art appreciation class. I remember painting as enjoyable, but not particularly stimulating. The appreciation class though was a real awakening. I was amazed that there was so much wonderful stuff out there. Magnificent architecture, paintings, and sculpture, which for me became the visual record of human development. I'd had many courses where that record was marked by wars and political victories and subjugation. This new perspective on things was so much more engaging. I thank Fern Smith, that lovely, sweet little white-haired lady, who had gone to and seen so many of those places, and spoke of them with such passion, for my liberation 39 years ago.

-Dennis L. Dykema, Storm Lake IA

One day my high school science teacher Maryann Pierce explained about A, B, C, and D levels. Each grade came with a list of requirements. We contracted for a mark, no excuses. Just like Katherine Hepburn says, "Don't complain, don't explain." Something clicked in me about where the buck stopped.

-Elida Scola, Oakland CA

One important thing I've learned was because of the puzzle below. You are supposed to connect all nine dots using just four straight lines, and without lifting your pencil from the paper.

-Benny Shaboy, Benicia CA

o     o     o

o     o     o

o     o     o

My art teacher Ann Rinehart taught me several important things; for instance, each piece of art is just a study, not necessarily meant to be a great painting. Van Gogh taught her this. And, I don't know where this came from but "love of process is essential to continue painting, writing, playing music. If you're after fame or fortune, forget it."

-Maryln Mori, Saratoga CA

I used to dream about finding a mentor. I imagined studying with a wise, kind, supportive teacher who really cared about helping me find my own creative voice. What I usually found were teachers who were burned out from trying to balance their own art making time with teaching. Many of them took a very superior attitude towards the students. Some of them seemed to feel threatened by young, up-and-coming artists (i.e., their own students). Others would chose one or two students to help (and/or have affairs with) and leave the rest of us floundering. Most difficult to take was teachers who were too rigid in their own aesthetic to allow for appreciation of work that differed from their own. What all of this taught me was to totally trust myself and to NEVER give up trying to become an artist. My eye is the only one I work to please. My style, my techniques, and what I, as an artist, have to say is completely up to me. I know these are the lessons every artist must learn but I sure would have appreciated learning these difficult lessons with some support.

-Emily Duffy, El Cerrito CA

Joseph Albers said: "When you realize that each color is changed by a changed environment, you eventually find that you have learned about life as well as color." Also, a professor at Queens College in New York City (Herb Aach) taught me that there is no difference between abstract art and representational art, as they are both made up of the same elements.

-Gloria Rabinowitz, NY NY

When I was young, I was always trying to figure out what the answer was. I thought there was one answer that everybody knew. I would get paralyzed trying to figure it out. One day my friend Phil Foley said, "The answer is: What is the question?" As soon as he said that, a light bulb went on. Now, if I get really stuck, I know I have to figure out what the question is.

-Katie Hancock, Benicia CA

The thing that had a profound effect on my artistic thinking was reading about Homer's wonderful watercolors, that when he made a mistake he would scrub at it even to making a hole in the paper, which he would then patch. That was my first exposure to artistic fallibility . . . sure let me move forward.

-Joanne Corbaley, Benicia CA

The architect-turned-carpenter Jim Syvanen wrote that a mistake is just another way of doing something. When things go "wrong," I try to stop to consider whether what has happened will actually lead me to a better solution. Sometimes the original plan turns out to be best, of course, and sometimes the mistake does, but often a whole new vista will open.

-Vic Michaels, Englewood CO

"If it is worth doing, it is worth over doing." . . . Or is that "doing over?" "Do something . . . even if its wrong." Two quotes from my favorite college art instructor.

-Nina Hays, Houston TX

My name is Kathryn and I'm a recovering perfectionist. To help me keep my priorities straight I have this quote from the late columnist Sidney Harris pinned up over my desk :"If something is not worth doing, it's not worth doing well."

- Kathryn Beasley, Hartford CT

During my first art class at the University of Alabama in Birmingham in l967, my teacher Martha Johnston played various styles of music and suggested the students draw to the beat. Suddenly another female student started dancing-whirling around the room. It took everyone by surprise and really helped the class relax. After the dance, she and I walked out of the class, went to the rest room and talked for the next few hours. Jessica Phrogus became my lifelong friend and fellow creative traveler. At the time she was the only person in my life who even knew what art meant to me. Over the years I have developed friendships with other artists but she was the first who had any idea what it meant to see life in different terms without society's approval of what she saw. That one act helped give me the courage to cherish my own vision on all levels of life.

-Rita Ayral, Alameda CA

My best advice was when people tell you you can't make it as an artist he said "Get out of my way!"

-Mattison Fitzgerald, San Jose CA

From my wife Maureen I learned that to make what you want happen you first have to believe in yourself before you can believe in what you want.

-Peter Sheremeta, San Jose CA

I would like to thank my high school art teacher Mary Jane Casey-Slike for talking to us many years ago about learning how to "teach yourself." She talked at length about being sensitive, and paying careful attention, and trying things out to see what happens, what works and what doesn't, and learning from your mistakes. She was the first and the best to talk to me about that.

-Tamara Bower, NY NY

Around the time I started seriously exhibiting, my good friend the artist Lee Roy Champagne gave me these special words. It's all in the presentation and Don't leave till the magic happens. Prior to this I was operating on the motto If you can't dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit. He turned me from the dark side. In truth it really made a difference, I forced myself to be more focused and to stand in there in uncomfortable situations (openings, receptions and such).

-Mike Kendall, Benicia CA

In high school I learned the importance of how to correctly hold the pencil while drawing and the brush while painting. . . . Later I had an art teacher/mentor who I still value and respect who taught me some very important things about drawing, including seeing the essence of the thing, seeing through to the underlying structure, knowing how to consolidate areas, beginning with a simple organizing structure (balance) underneath. Very important also was to stretch, to go to the edge of my vision.

-Flora Davis, SF CA

Janet Marie Callow, my "big sister," taught me one of the most important things I've ever learned: When it's time to go, LEAVE (and don't look back). She would just take off and go do something more important to her than whatever it was she was leaving. About four years ago, I put Jan's philosophy on the line. I left a 12-year gig at a financial institution to seriously pursue my photography. I went traveling for a couple of years with two Canon AE1's, lots of film and a journal. To pay for living after my travels, I enlisted the help of temp agencies. Last year I was in two corporately sponsored solo shows and coordinated a group show which included eleven other photographers and myself.

-Ethel Mays SF CA

Pay attention. Don't think too hard; use your imagination. Be patient, curious, and flexible. Give yourself time and space. I go to school because I learn from people each day. Find the right livelihood. Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from the gods/goddesses, muses, etc. (Kurt Vonnegut in "Cats Cradle.")

-Tobey Kaplan, Oakland CA

One of the most memorable things a teacher said to me in a long ago life drawing class was that in order for the drawing to live it had to keep getting bigger and bigger until it filled the paper and beyond. Any drawing that became tighter and smaller was not growing, therefore was dying. I've found this to be a good observation for living, too; to grow one must be expansive, open and adventuresome; to be contracting or closed and fearful is to be dying.

-Nikki Ausschnitt, SF CA

An early tip from Howard Warshaw helped me get along over the years, when work or time would come with difficulty. Giving me farewell advice for the long run in 1977, he said: "Keep going on. Sometimes it will be hard, things get in the way, but just keep going."

-Diane Roby, SF CA

Thanks, too, to James S. Lane, Gene Impey, Linda Kemp, Pamela Pollock, Kim Anno, Connie Spencer, and all the others whose replies we didn't have space to print this time.

Note: If you have a response to this question, send it in-snail- or e-mail. We'll publish as many replies as we can as a separate anthology. Until then, keep your eye on the ball, your nose to the grindstone, and your chin up.

Copyright © 1999 by studioNOTES

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