One of my favorite art educators died on December 26th, leaving behind a rich and passionately devotional trove of videos and books about art behind.
Sister Wendy was a fascinating and amusing figure in her capacity as a guide and an insightful interpreter of art for millions who were enraptured by her tours through the history of art. She taught boldly and with grace. Below is a typically wry and studied segment, her description and explanation of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
It works. It’s probably faster. But it’s not much materially you couldn’t learn on your own with the help of some books and instructional videos.
But art school, like many degrees, leads to a network of fellow artists. If you’re lucky, a few want to be curators—or publishers—and they like your work. I don’t regret at all the time I spent inside mine. But it should never be a reason not to start doing your thing, nor a reason to disparage where you are. School will almost always have the advantage in keeping your disciplined and on a path, even if that drifts and veers, sometimes along the way.
Lots of artists have done the academic thing, and lots have figured out their own way outside it. What matters is keeping it up, moving forward.
I went to the memorial exhibition of one of my professors tonight. Most of my work was abstract through art school, but he was a figurative painter, and his classes were all working from life. He taught me more about observational painting than anyone else, and I can still hear his curmudgeonly admonitions to me, gently but firmly steering me to better, more confident work.
This is the other gift of art—not the one we give to the world, but the one teachers give to their students. It’s a special kind of gradual magic to watch your abilities grow right in front of you. The best teachers don’t let you tell them your limits, they keep pushing you against them, asking more. The best students trust teachers to show how to seek their own path ever farther along. Slowly but surely, we improve, even if we get worse in the beginning. New paths are like that, at first—it’s the easy road that hardly ever gets you to an end.
The painting above was one where I finally saw my work improving significantly, as my professor gradually limited our color palettes and we figured out how to do more with less. He taught me better than most that there is freedom in working within limits: freedom to show more with less, freedom to get started because my choices were limited.
I was proud of a few things I made in his classes. But I’m more proud of the ‘A’ he marked on the back of that little 8 x 10 oil still life. I miss you already, Domenic.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.