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.


15 thoughts on “Further Providence”

  1. Jack is so lucky to have you as his dad. I think he will appreciate his opportunity at RISD because of all you have shared with him and the support he will continue to get. In the meantime, you are still in school-teaching and learning and sharing with all us web folks. Thanks for that.


  2. You sound like such a good dad… think of everything you’re going to learn from Jack now! How fun is THAT?! After all you’ve taught him, it’s his turn to teach you now. The joy of having children & watching them grow in their own passion. Best of luck to him… and to you & your jealous bone. 😉


  3. I’m so happy for him (and for you too) but, just like you, a bit jealous too. Thank god, or perhaps even more thanks to you, he has the opportunity and the good sense to do so. I wish he finds his star. 🙂


  4. I agree Jack is lucky to have you as a father. So many young people face a struggle to convince their parents that the choice they wish to make is a good one, and no, they don’t wish to make a safer choice such as studying law. My daughter has another year in highschool then she will take a Foundation Course in Art at a nearby college to try all the different mediums when she is 18 years old. She has set her sights on getting into Goldsmiths in London to specialise, http://www.gold.ac.uk/art/ . It will be amazing if she gets accepted. She took part in an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London when she was 14 years old. I love her enthusiasm, it is so infectious.


  5. As an educator in the graphic field, all I can do is help prepare students. But when I meet a student who demonstrates a passion for what they do, there’s no questioning it. It can take them wherever they want to go because all I can do is demonstrate what is possible, they have to make it happen themselves. I like what you’ve said here!


  6. I hear the poignant ‘oh’ in your piece just there. And feel it, and know it…
    Its funny, we can be unnerved by the possibilities for others and it can be hard as we look at our own experiences.
    There is possibility and choice and deliciousness in all of our lives, I feel. ..Its always a challenge I think, when you see someone – maybe younger, seeing that new thing opening up, and wondering about your own life. The lost / lack of opportunity, the roads not able to be taken… or just a long way back… I started Art school here at 17, bit younger than Jack, but couldnt stay the course at that time. Too young, not confident or mature enough, not well resourced enough on many levels… fearful of myself in that place, as well perhaps? a bit overwhelmed in an era of Rothko and Whitely and so much else … and felt that I’d lost out for a while there.
    It came out anyway, my love of art, the chance to be making art in many places. To see it not as this or that thing, but as part of the whole of my life, has been the way I’ve made sense of that great hunger. In the drawings and journals and writing I did, the simplest clay/paint/dough making with my first child, the theatre and dance performances I shared in, gardens created… the lives we lead, if we experience them fully, knowing and appreciating the heart/of art as well as the ‘big end of town Art’, are visited by delicious gifts of awakening and wonder, as well. Keep on doing it man, everywhere, within and without the academy!


  7. What a proud dad you are. How insightful and thoughtful in helping your son toward this wonderful endeavor/education. I hope we’ll get to have back seats here too and peeks in along the way. I hope Jack won’t feel too WATCHED…but I’d sure like to know more as time goes on. I am getting off on this vicariously. How fortunate he is. And it sounds like he will really appreciate it all.


  8. What a beautiful, hopeful, tantalizing preview of your son’s future. He’s a lucky kid, and you are a fortunate parent. How wonderful to share this interest and to get to see this experience through his eyes. My 10 year old son (artist, musician, athlete, all around awesome kid) figuring out what he loves) was drawing in bed this morning before school, intent upon his pencil and sketchbook. He wouldn’t let me see his work, but even when I’m not permitted to see the result, I love watching him lose himself in creating something with private meaning to him. Sometimes I feel (one of) my job(s) as his parent is to make sure he holds onto an understanding of how important this kind of work is…the other, of course, is to help him find the perseverance to accompany the passion (something I continue to struggle with.) Thanks for the reminder, and the hopeful view of one possible creative path.


  9. Mazel Tov to Jack on his new adventure! and to you as Dad – a great one – who respects your son as a person and really listens to him – your words and your drawings have inspired me as a “late to the party” artist – reminding me that I can pursue the dreams of my heart – thank you for that – and enjoy this next part of your (and Jack’s) life journey!


  10. I so love reading of your family and art adventures. I don’t often comment, but I really enjoy living vicariously through your posts. I’m jealous, too, but also inspired!


  11. I loved reading this. I studied textiles at RISD and am doing what I love as a surface pattern designer. RISD was an amazing experience I am so glad your son gets to experience it…Hope my girls choose a similar path.


  12. What an exciting adventure. I too went to RISD (textiles) and loved the experience, he’ll have fun on college hill. I hope my teens find their passion too. Thank you for your wonderful books and art.


  13. RISD is a fantastic school. I teach at another art/design college and agree with so much of what you wrote. Learn to create, Influence change. Best wishes to you both!


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