Further Providence

Jack and I are just back from our first post-acceptance trip to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) where Jack will be spending the next four years. We ate in the dining hall, prowled the dorms and had in-depth tours of the department Jack and another prospective freshman are considering.

First of all, I am consumed with jealousy. I want to spend ten hours a day in drawing class, I want to build furniture prototypes, I want to work in the lithography studio, I want to learn to set type and study art history and read novels. I want to be eighteen again!

Instead, I’ll have to be happy with the fact that my boy will get to do all those things and more.

I was impressed by the dynamic between teachers and students. We sat in on several classes and they weren’t big droning lectures or didactic prescriptions. The teachers seemed genuinely interested in working with each creative person, discussing their work one-on-one, giving specific pointers and encouragement, bringing in other opinions from the class, cajoling, inspiring, illuminating.

One of the teachers in the furniture design department took us on a tour of the work that the graduate students are doing — so imaginative and gorgeously crafted. Then we talked about the overall perspective of the school and what it hopes to accomplish for the people who graduate from RISD. Of course, the type of focus of the students and the school on professionalism and post-graduate career opportunities varies with the economic cycle, but he said that the goal is not on getting graduates a job but making sure that they can earn a living doing the things they love. That takes many forms, many directions. Sure, some may end up as baristas but most have creatively constructed creative careers, solving problems, making things.

Our day at RISD opened my eyes to the  real purpose of a great art school and of pursuing life as an artist. I guess I hadn’t thought about it enough or in my most cynical moments had settled on a vague and not very convinced view of the purpose of art school: a sort of self-indulgent playground, filing students with jargon, pomposity, and convoluted rationales for abstract art forms, a mill for perpetuating the institution of the gallery establishment and validating the views of artists who couldn’t make it as such and so had become art teachers.*

Here’s the revelation I had: RISD’s purpose is to give students the skills to discover and distill their creative viewpoint, to give them the confidence and ability to communicate it clearly to others, to develop their creative problem-solving skills, to find where they fit in the world and how to apply their skills to be useful.

That’s true whether you are a painting major or a printmaker, photographer or industrial designer. In fact, by declaring a major you are not just embarking on the road to developing the skills that will make you a better designer or sculptor. No, you are picking a passion. When you are passionate about drawing or painting or carving, you will hang in there to develop the commitment, focus, and perseverance  to learn the larger life lessons about how to be a fully-formed creative person. They take lots of time and hard work and tough setbacks to acquire and you will only stick to it through this discomfort if you are in love with what you are doing. You will learn how to take criticism and use it to make your art better, or stay up all night to polish your idea, or scrape your canvas after weeks of work and start again, because you passionately want to make great furniture or fashion or photography. Passion +  perseverance = greatness. As Milton Glaser says, “Art is Work”.

All RISD freshmen spend their first year doing the same thing: Foundation studies. Each week they spend a full day each (from 8 a.m. till 6 p.m. plus a night’s worth of homework) on drawing, 2D design and 3D design. They also get a taste of all the other disciplines so by sophomore year they are ready to choose a direction to specialize built on this solid layer of disciplined hard work.

Our visit confirmed what I have learned over the past decade and a half of illustrated journaling.  From the get-go, I chose to draw things that interested me, not just bowls of fruit and naked strangers. This subject kept me engaged so I could develop the skills of drawing. I didn’t get bored before I established the habit because I wanted to record the things of my life and everydays. Nothing is more interesting to me than me and so I could carry on past all the lousy drawings and ink blots until I achieved facility. This is the principle behind a great art education; I’m fortunate to have stumbled upon it on my own.

Jack already knows it — witness the dozens and dozens of sketchbooks he’s already filled. But now he will learn to make art as if it mattered, to fall in love with it on a professional level, and  to reach amazing new heights. I’m so proud of him and lucky I get  a front row seat to what he does next.