Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Too Arty? Seriously?

I was recently given notice that my Commercial Art Program for the North Olympic Peninsula Skills Center would not be continued in the fall. The reason why was because admin felt that I taught "fine art" too much and was "too arty" and that my students were not going to gain a job from taking my class.

Perhaps I should have explained that this is the equivalent of telling an English or math teacher that they are "too English-y" or "too math-y" because they teach the fundamentals of their disciplines. There seems to be a confusion between learning basic visual skills and fine art. Just as a language arts student needs to learn things like grammar, sentence structure, writing and rewriting, so does an art student need to learn the basics of drawing, composition, color, light, shadow and anatomy. Creating work around these subjects does not mean that a student is creating "Fine Art" any more than it means that a student who is writing a paper is creating a novel. While it's possible for student work to approach and be at professional level work, there's a reason why they are studying it - to learn the process. This means making mistakes. Making work that looks ugly. That isn't professional. This means learning. There are no short cuts.

The average adult draws at about a third grade level. That's when most children stop doing art. The focus on standardized testing is pushing out arts education. Most of my students come to my class with that level of skill. The exceptions are usually self-taught through manga and/or have a family member or friend who is an artist who gave them some training. It's a daunting task to bring their skills up. I'm humbled and awed by how hard many of them will work when given the opportunity and the tools to gain skills. Does this mean that they are making professional work? No. Not yet. They are catching up on years of gap in their training. It's the equivalent of expecting a third grade reader to read at college level within 3 months. I can help a student bring their skills up dramatically in a short time, but hell... it's a steep learning curve!

Once the fundamentals have been mastered - then the sequence is to overlap into the digital media and marketing/entrepreneurship elements. If the fundamentals are skipped, then the work is not going to be of very good quality. Too often people who are not educated in the arts, think that doing graphic arts is "moving clip art around on the computer!" And that you can skip over those fundamentals and just do everything on the computer. Nicole Phillips of Betazed who also serves on the advisory board for Commercial Art says "If people have a job that involves simply moving clip art on the computer, then they do it themselves. They come to me when they want something cool. They come to me for my art skills." They come from Seattle to Port Angeles for the privilege of working with her. Her work is that good.

The computer is a useful and necessary tool for any creative professional, and can be used to create digital work, but understanding how to to use graphic software isn't a substitute to understanding the fundamentals of visual literacy. You can have the fanciest computer and software on the planet, but without those fundamentals, your work will still look like crap.

It's true that most artists don't follow clear career paths. Our careers are often a combination of income streams. We are not easy to be identified by most conventional surveys of employment statistics. I'm a good example - I teach Commercial Art, so I'm identified as an educator. I also have a part-time gig at Nash's creating chalkboard signage and the staff considers me to be their artist in residence. On my pay stub, it just looks like I work at a grocery store. I also sell reproductions of my work on cards, take commissions and sell original work. I'm a working artist, and an artist who teaches. This profile is true for many people in the arts.

The mantra of my program has always been "Art is a medium to learn business skills." Students learn not only how to paint and draw but also how to digitize and market their work. They learn how to work collaboratively and they also work with real clients.

Most of my former students have sold work. One recent grad who went on to Northwest College of Art and Design told me that this class prepared him for art college because it was more like a college class. Another has started her own business and her parent says that what she took from my class gave her the fundamentals for business when she might not have thought of doing so before.  A current student, Autumn Baker is exhibiting in a Port Townsend gallery and was awarded this year the first place for student art by Tidepools Magazine. Autumn says "Before this I never had a style, it was like everyone else's. I had no idea when I signed up it would've given me the opportunities I needed to be successful. My style has defined itself and created a more unique perspective; a perspective that defines me."

I don't expect all of my students to go into the arts field, and yet I do expect students to learn skills that can be applied to any field. Entrepreneurship. Collaboration. Public speaking. Creative expression. A former student, Lilly Eyl who serves on the Port Angeles School District says: "I would just say that being in Commercial Art and through doing business projects, I learned to have better communication skills and more confidence in public speaking. I wouldn't have had the confidence to apply for board rep if it wasn't for finding my voice in this class."

We are entrepreneurs - we create jobs and opportunities. It's a $730 billion dollar industry and accounts for 4.2 percent of America's GDP - more than transportation, tourism and agriculture.

Too Arty?

No such thing.