I manipulate metals and minerals and bonding solutions in order to provoke emotional responses from people I will usually never meet. That which happens in the process some people call art. My talent for creating icons and illusions turned into a lifetime of manipulations... in various pigments, bronze and steel, some quite large, which loom in museums, schools, collections and public places all over Texas. Here on this blog you can watch my creative actions and insights unfold...

Saturday, March 21, 2015

My Culture Clash at TCU and North Texas State - 1974 - 1975

When I enrolled to study art at Texas Christian University in 1973, I never dreamed of the formidable forces of opposition I would soon face from my various art professors. Fresh out of High School, I had studied art privately for almost seven years, and was already consigning my work at 2719 Gallery in Dallas. They had sold one of my large canvases to the Mars Candy Company in Waco. I was a budding professional artist, or so I thought. The only male in most of my college art classes, I made good grades, and my instructors could not deny that I did my work and turned it in on time. And I did it well. But I represented something repugnant to them and my instructors seemed eager to find every way they could to challenge and humiliate me. 
After forty years, I still am amazed at the wall I ran into just trying to study art.

I had old-fashioned values, but I drew and painted well, and leaned towards representational art. This was opposite of everything college art professors of that era were trying to achieve in modern art. In some ways, their success depended on effectively discrediting the art of the past... and me. This persistent challenging on such an intellectual level made me a little arrogant, as I stood my ground, and eventually I became tired of it and disillusioned, and so by the end of my first year of study I began to look for someplace else to get my education.

I transferred out, walking away from the Dean’s List at TCU and a sweet financial aid package, hoping to find a more tolerant atmosphere at a state supported college; North Texas State University in Denton. This only shows how little I understood my plight.

North Texas had a “state of the art” art department. I soon naively relished in my art history and figure drawing classes, and looking around at my peers whom were considerably more serious than at TCU, I still felt my talent could win me an art scholarship. Since Linda my sweetheart (and future wife!) had moved to Denton that year and I was in my element, my happiness quotient may have been at an all-time high. 
At the end of my Sophomore year, I was required like everyone else to go through a “Sophomore portfolio review” before I could take Junior level courses. I considered this something perfunctory, in my case, and to be a mere formality. I was agreeable that North Texas State planned to tell any art student who lacked the stuff to be an artist, that they were wasting their time, to give them time to change their major to something else. I went into my portfolio review with three NTSU faculty members expecting a warm and collegiate reception.

But this was the day that I learned the ruthless and ferocious temperament of Academia.

Quickly I realized that I had come way under-prepared to face what was an adversarial confrontation. The professors barely looked at my work or did so with blank expressions. Time seemed to drag as they made small talk among themselves, rarely engaging with me, but looking at each other, as if to ask, who is going to tell him? There was only one professor whom I knew, and he was my figure drawing instructor, Mike Cunningham. This made me feel some comfort, because he usually gave me good grades, and we had very little conversation during the semester, good or bad, because he was rarely present in the class. He took the back seat however and bowed in deference to the haughty young woman on the team, who began to grill me, as if I was somehow a thorn in her side…

 “Why are you here?” she asked. When I looked at her incredulously, and explained I wanted to earn an art degree, she got more specific.
You know, why do you create art… why do you paint?” She wore a pained and condescending smile, like she had just gotten a mouthful of bad fish.

Suddenly I knew what this inquisition was all about. I was “straight,” a wholesome, all- American kid with short hair, and drew things you could recognize… and did it pretty well. I rarely missed a class. I made A’s and B’s in my art classes. My developed talent was respected by my peers. But I did not fit in. I was ... CONSERVATIVE.  

It was like that Twilight Zone segment when the beautiful girl has to have plastic surgery to make her distorted and ugly so as to conform to the others... or else.

I was Opie Taylor all grown up, I was the epitome of the bright and shining conservative adversary they wanted to rub out of existence. My skills only enhanced the fact that engaging, beautiful art was possible. My approach and style might be attractive, even seductive to the other students, and if allowed to continue, would certainly ruin their designs to reinvent art. Her question was a loaded one, and I gave her the loaded answer. But I unflinchingly told her the truth:

Ever since I was around 11 years old,” I waxed, “I have painted to glorify God and His creation.” When I became a Christian at age 11, I promised God that if He would rescue me from my miserable life, one that I had wanted to end, I would, in trade, paint to glorify Him and His creation for the rest of my life. Now my female interrogator was incredulous.

That’s why you paint?”

The three professors looked at one another with veiled contempt. It seems that about right now was when one of them, the Dean I think, excused himself. Perhaps he did not have the stomach for the dirty work of cleaning up the art department... That was fine with me. The female interrogator continued. My answers did not satisfy her. I was beginning to realize that this was no friendly intellectual debate. In this 1970’s college art department, it was not America, with every person free to believe and create what he wanted, with reasons of his own choosing. 
We have discussed this, and we are sure... you will not be happy here. 

You are an anachronism. You and your style are part of the past. You are not part of what we are doing here. And your mindset here tells us you are not going to change.”

Are you telling me that I am not welcome to study here? That I cannot major in art at North Texas?” There was silence.

We are telling you that you will not be happy here, and you need to go someplace else to study what you do, which is illustration.”

I argued that I thought illustration, if that was indeed what I did, was certainly as valid an art form as the pornographic ceramics I saw produced in the sculpture department, as honorable as stained glass or pottery or any high craft taught in the art school.

They made it clear that my arguments were pointless and they did not want me there. I was stupefied. I tried to reason with them. “This is all backwards. I am your customer. I am here to earn a degree. I need it and you need me to pay your salary. It’s your job to educate me, even if you don’t like me!” This did not go over well. So I begged for sympathy…

So I’ve been painting all of my life, all I ever wanted to be was an artist. I’ve sold professionally since I was twelve or thirteen. Now you tell me I am not an artist! Where am I supposed to go? What am I supposed to study?” I finally had changed gears to indignation.

It has been forty years since that day, and I could be imagining this, But I seem to remember her saying flatly, "We don't care!"

They coldly recommended that I find another school, any school, or change my major… to perhaps advertising, where my gift of illustration might be of some use. I looked at Professor Cunningham to see if this was all a joke, or that the female faculty member was overstating it a bit. He did not crack a smile.

I had never given these people an ounce of trouble. But Professor Cunningham had once reprimanded me for naively helping other students when they were struggling with their drawings when he was not present. They had come to me more than once and asked for help, as he was often not present in the class. And he rarely taught anything when he was there. I had never suspected how jealous or threatened he must have been, or how expendable I was. 
After a brutal, heated discussion, I felt their resolve, and I knew that they were right. I was NEVER going to be happy there, because I made them unhappy. By the end of the “perfunctory” sophomore portfolio review, I was nearly in tears. Rejection, especially from your peers and especially your mentors, is HELL. I picked up my stuff and walked out of the building in a daze. I could not believe what I had just heard. It had been a grueling, life-changing half hour.

And supposedly, according to my mentors, I was no longer an artist. I went home to look up the word anachronism.

So you say, Russ, you seem to be having a pity party. Maybe I am. Injustice has always pissed me off, and especially when it changed the course of my life. 
I thought it would be amusing, with an art career now firmly established under my belt… to revisit North Texas State of Yesteryear… (now University of North Texas) And I did so, a few years ago, and I was in the area and went and asked to visit with the Dean of the Art Department. Poor guy. He was an acting Dean… it was a quiet summer day, he had obviously not prepared for anyone like me to walk in the door.

I told him who and what I was. I briefed him on a few of my accomplishments. He was polite and listened, I’m sure wondering what he was supposed to do. So he finally asked me what brought me there today, the point of my visit. I just had one question… as I have had many young people over the years look to me for guidance in pursuing an art career.

Would you do the same thing to them today, that you did to me then?” 
The gracious acting Dean was quick to say… 
You have to understand, that was the 70’s… there were a lot of standards being challenged then. Everybody was reinventing something. The pendulum has shifted somewhat. We’ve since realized that our primary job is to educate, regardless of a person’s color or creed.”

The dean made all of the right reactions and said all the right words to make me feel appeased, and I walked out with a tiny sense of vindication… I wondered what ever happened to those art instructors who so effectively booted me out of art school, and what kind of artists they turned out to be…

I'm sure even now, they would  not be proud of my legacy in the Brazos Valley. And I wonder what theirs is, in the final analysis of things. But I am sure that they were the big losers then and now. As were the thousands of students under their prejudiced influence.

 Amazingly, we are still insisting that kids get a college education as a prerequisite for success... We are the living illustration for insanity.