June 23, 2000
I'm frequently asked whether it's best to go back to school or back
to work. I've been on the board of directors of a prominent art
college, and I've also been an advocate of do-it-yourself for life--so
I'm coming from both sides of the fence. Fact is, even if you attend
what you think is the best art school in the world (like I did-Art
Center) it doesn't make you into an artist. You're the one who has
to do that.
Learning a skill or a trade is a hands-on game. As well as the instinct
it requires a commitment to the materials and an attention to detail.
It's called passion. It's mostly self-taught. It's got more to do
with character than with conversation.
Contrary to popular wisdom, the principal currency in the world
of art is work. The idea is to get joy from your hands. When that
happens everything else falls into place. What you have to figure
out is how to best make this happen. If you are in need of a look-see
into a lot of media, variety of approach, opinion, attitude, life-style,
then perhaps a school is for you. But if you have a need to get
passionate--perhaps you ought to go to your room.
No other generation has been blessed with so many brilliant books.
There have never been so many professionals who are willing to share.
There have never been so many opportunities for creative people.
There has never been so much variety, specialty, information, and
wonder. It's a shame, but we ought to be granted many lives.
PS: "The artist who gives up an hour of work for a conversation
with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something
that does not exist." (Marcel Proust)
Esoterica: Epiphany. There's a feeling you get when you see for
yourself for the first time an effect, a technique, a creative event.
I often think of the day when I saw what burnt sienna did when propitiously
flooded with ultramarine blue on rough watercolor paper. I was eleven.
I was by myself in the basement.
The following are
selected correspondence relating to the above
letter. If you find value in any of this please
feel free to copy to a friend or fellow artist.
We have no other motivation than to give creative
people an opportunity to share ideas and possibly
broaden their capabilities. Thank you for writing
I arranged a meeting with the head of the art
department of Carnegie Mellon University, one of
the best schools in the country and you know what
they told me? They said to come to the portfolio
review and thats it, they didnt make
me fill out an application or anything and I took
that as a confidence booster. After that I walked
outta there with my little portfolio and smiled
all the way home. I never went back to CMU or
tried, maybe I should have but I got something
from it. I thought that they must have seen
something in my art, in what I do put on that
canvas that they thought was quality, in the
product or the person and his ability. That was
all I needed. It gave me that inspiration to say
that I dont need school, just do what I
love and everything will follow.
How do I?
Art school? You may as well ask a stranger to
teach you how to weep or laugh!
I had an epiphany while attending a working seminar last week. I
thought it was time to get off by myself and indulge in deep thought
and work. It came to me like a bolt out of the blue. A floating
shape that just appeared on the canvas. Expanded, it became a whole.
I feel like I have been given my "life" back.
Shirley Erskine, Mississauga, Ontario
You've missed what might be the whole point of Art Schools - it's
not really to learn how to do it. I agree that can be obtained from
books but it's the opportunity to meet artists one might admire.
The chance to talk with them as well as meeting other students with
similar interests, hopes and goals. The old fashioned art schools
which I attended (the Montreal Museum's School of Art and Design)
provided this ambience as did The Central School of Arts and Crafts
in London, UK. The art schools in the UK still provide the right
Louise Cass, Ontario
If my parents knew what I was doing all day in
BFA theyd freak.
Art remains in the
The current letter includes a quote by Marcel
Proust that peeked my notice and sent thoughts
flying off in many directions: What does this
means? What is implied here? Heres another
way of looking at things: "Art is nothing
tangible. We cannot call a painting
"art" as the words "artifact"
and "artificial" imply. The thing made
is a work of art made BY art, but not itself art.
The art remains in the artist and is the
knowledge by which things are made."
(RG note) The balance of the quote by Proust goes
like this: "Our friends, being friends only
in the light of an agreeable folly which travels
with us through life and to which we readily
accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of
our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than
the delusion of the man who talks to the
furniture because he believes that it is
I attended one of those really wonderful art schools and here I'm
almost thirty years later wondering what is wrong my painting. I
even asked a very prominent painter to take a look to see if he
could help me. His response was "you're talented, but I don't
see any passion." Ouch! I guess I needed to hear it, but had
actually known it for awhile. What passion there was had died and
everything I attempted turned into another problem until it became
incredibly difficult to enter my studio. Recently, I was asked to
do a piece of sculpture... being a painter with minimum experience
in sculpting I found myself reading up on materials, buying tools,
researching the historical subject, etc. Suddenly I'm pumped. What
happened? Now I can't stay out of my studio. I'm finding it hard
to break for dinner... and of course there is no lunch. This kind
of enthusiasm is wonder filled. I'm discovering, creating... my
hands are happy. Will someone please tell me what happened? Have
I been working in the wrong media all these years or do I just love
a new challenge?
Dolores Dux, Arizona
On my own
At age 45 I returned to University to obtain a
degree. I was in an honours program and was on
the Dean's honour roll. In the end the most
valuable lesson was that I learned more on my
own, in any one year while I was not in school,
than I learned in any one year of "higher
education". Often when I am struggling to
learn on my own, I think how much easier it would
be to be taught, rather than reinventing the
wheel. But if I were taught, I would only learn
one item, like the tip of the iceberg. All the
base knowledge that comes with experimenting,
thinking, trying, failing, trying again,
dreaming, analyzing, reading, looking and trying
again, might not be obtained.
Bonnie H., Manitoba,
You dont seem to think art can be taught
and yet you seem to demand that university art
departments turn out artists. In my 10 years
teaching art at the university level I have never
thought it necessary to turn out artists.
Probably less than ten percent of graduates make
a vocation, (other than teaching the subject)
from their art. Graduates of law schools
practically all, by contrast, give that
profession a try. While people may paint, sculpt,
and make prints for four years the object is to
help them to become artistically literate.
Theres a big difference between art school
and courses on technique and the creative
process. Art school is a shrine to conventional
wisdom cooked up by the esoteric and impractical
afterall, those professors all have a
Tim, San Jose,
Schools the thing
As a late starter at art school I'm all in favor
of going back to school. True it won't make you
an artist, but it will give you the camaraderie
of like-minded souls, usually a supportive
environment, lots of contacts and opportunities
and, most importantly, access to good
constructive analysis, feedback and criticism.
This is the hardest thing to come by in the art
world, in my experience.
Artists as a group seem
to be reticent to engage in on-going training or
formal professional development. After all we all
know everything when we leave art school. I don't
think we necessarily need ever-higher academic
qualifications in art, but occasionally being
back in a course as a pupil can be useful. With
someone looking over our shoulders with fresh
eyes and pushing us in directions that we
wouldn't otherwise think to go we can open up new
vistas in our work and see what we are doing more
objectively. This mentoring relationship may have
been the positive aspect of the old
master/apprentice form of art education.
Gerald Soworka, Sydney,
I know of technical masters that are not inspired
artists. I know of a few inspired artists with
not enough or too radical a technique. Many
photographers in the fashion, journalistic, and
documentary business that work profitably may
ultimately fall into this. A few of these may
transcend into artistic mastery as well. Many
students of various painterly schools fall into
the trap of learning the school but not pushing
the art as well. The trick is to have people love
your work, want to live with it, the galleries
believe it is not risky to display and sell and
art lovers with money believe all of the above
and buy, and break the rules and inspire others
to be better than they might have otherwise been.
Horns of a dilemma
Your last letter contained much wisdom for me and
hit right at the core of a quandary that I've
been thinking about for a few years. My
background is: at the age of 48, I took my first
watercolor class, and then a year later, took
another class and since then over the next 4
years have taken individual lessons here and
there as well as a workshop or two a year. I have
enjoyed learning this way, but also realize that
I really don't know how to draw very well. I have
been thinking about going to a local college
(which would require driving some distance) and
taking courses towards a degree. On the other
hand, some friends and family have warned me that
I might end up losing some of the spontaneity and
freshness of my work.
I read with interest and pleasure your letter. I
also feel art is a very intimate experience and
relies on work, passion and a strange search for
some unreachable state of accomplishment. It
offers you sometimes exquisite moments of peace,
of intense pleasure, even the wired and divine
sensation of being in harmony with the whole
world, almost light as a bird and wise as an old
shaman. But how rare are these moments and how
demanding! This is how I feel about art, and it
gives me humility and strength, because I know
that no matter how hard we work, it doesn't just
come from us.
E. Lassiat, Paris,