This is the fourth interview of the "Where are we now?" series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. If you would like to suggest someone for me to interview, please leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interview with Tammy Jarratt
at the Master’s Academy of Fine Arts in East Greenville, PA
25 March 2010
IA: I am here with Tammy Jarratt, who is an art teacher at The Master’s Academy of Fine Arts. Thank you very much, Tammy, for talking with me today. Why don’t you start out by telling us a little about the Master’s Academy and what you do here and from there we can go on to discuss other aspects of your work and of the culture in general.
TJ: The Master’s Academy is an arts school for homeschool kids about ages five to eighteen, and it’s a history-based art program. We teach art, music, history, and expression/drama, all based on a certain time period. There are six time periods that we study. We immerse ourselves in that time period. I teach art here. We do art history and we do projects that are based on the styles and techniques of the artists.
IA: In each historical time period, then, you’ll show the students works of art that are from the time period, you’ll discuss the techniques, and then they’ll make imitative pieces? Or their own original pieces that use those methods?
TJ: Imitative, yes, sometimes. Each time period is different. We can’t just do oil painting the whole time for the Baroque period. So we try to zero in on things that were new in that time period, like perspective. So we have to do technique in addition to trying to get a feel for what artists were doing in the time period and learn about what they were painting and why and how that connects with history, music, and literature.
IA: So I imagine that you are giving basic art lessons as well as art history. Let’s take a hypothetical student. Let’s say this hypothetical students comes in at, oh, age ten in the Ancient time period. Would that student be able to learn techniques gradually as he or she went through all the time periods?
TJ: Yes. It’s very much exposure-level. The younger classes will do more basic techniques than the older ones. We’re hoping that the older ones will already know about line and shading and color theory so we can work on getting more in depth with each of those techniques.
IA: So that’s the exposure program. And then you also teach advanced classes, right?
TJ: Yes, I have.
IA: Can you talk about those?
TJ: We have done non-time-period classes, like Oil Painting. So, a student comes to the Master’s Academy and they realize that art is their “thing.” They can take higher-level art classes in Oil Painting, Drawing and Painting.
IA: What is your individual goal for each of these students? Is it just to expose them to art, to get them to like it, or is it to develop them into highly-skilled artists in one field, or to make historians out of them?
TJ: Well, in a class of, say fifteen, you’re going to get the kids who come in the door and say, “I’m not an artist.” They say that to me every year. But I say, “My goal for you is to understand art.” I want them to be able to go to a museum and be able to look at art and try to understand it and try to think deeper about that artist: what time period they would be in, what would influence them. To be able to look at a painting and be able to see technique, design, composition, color. They don’t necessarily have to imitate it or to be artists themselves, but they have to be able to understand it.
[Note by IA: Tammy is being very modest here. She has turned out several students who are excellent artists, and a few who went on to study the fine arts in college.]
And I think by painting it they learn a lot too. They learn that it is not as easy as they think.
IA: Does that get away from “Oh, my five-year-old could do that,” with Modern Art? They actually learn what goes into it?
TJ: Yes. That is our time period now, 1900-1950, so we’ve done Kandinsky, we’ve done Mondrian, we’ve done Matisse. They really thought the Matisse was going to be so easy. We did paper cutting. And they learned that it wasn’t. For all of those, they’re finding that there’s more than just throwing in on canvas.
IA: I heard that you’re doing Pollock next week. He’s probably the biggest case-in-point of the Modern Art that’s unintelligible to the “uninitiated.”
TJ: Yes! The students already want to use more color. I heard them saying that. They think, the more color the better. I know that’s what they’re going to do: they’re going to start throwing color on there, and it’s going to look like a mess because they’re not thinking like he did. It looks like he just threw paint on canvas, but there’s was a lot of thought put into it. And it was hard, hard work.
IA: So the students are going to have a level of appreciation that they didn’t have before. But they’re also going to be able to see, or at least figure out, research, and so on, the philosophies that go into art, as well.
TJ: With the older kids, we try to expose them more—say, with the Modern period—to what was happening in our country at the time, to understand where the artist was coming from.
IA: I want to come back to that; that’s what I want to come back to and maybe end there (we’re going to talk about, How did these periods lead into what’s going on now), but let me go off on another tack for a moment. What about your own work? What’s your own training as an artist and what do you do besides teaching, in the arts?
TJ: I have always loved art. My mom was an artist. I went to Kutztown University. I loved art but I didn’t think I was good enough, technique-wise, to be a fine artist. I went for a graphic design degree called Communication Design. I didn’t really know much about it until I went to Kutztown. Computers weren’t (now I’m showing my age!) part of your life as a graphic designer. What excited me the most was the design element of it. I see type on a page as art. I see it as shapes, color.
IA: I suppose there’s a very practical aspect: it’s art for immediate use. Does that appeal to you as well?
TJ: Yes. Maybe it’s similar to an artist who does decorative art. I feel like it gets a little old sometimes. It doesn’t feel like it means anything. It’s just to advertise. I don’t see it that way, but it gets used that way. I have a friend who’s a folk artist. She wishes she could do less decorative art because it’s immediately being sold and put in people’s homes, so she’ll get, “Do you have it in a green? Do you have it in a blue? That doesn’t match my couch.”
IA: It’s being treated like a piece of furniture or a home accessory. Well, that’s funny because, on the other end of things we have the complaint surrounding the “Art for Art’s Sake” school, that it’s useless, it’s meaningless, it doesn’t connect to real life. And what you’re talking about is on the other extreme: it’s so connected to real life that it gets questioned whether it’s “Art.”
TJ: I have that struggle with my own home. I don’t have a lot of artwork up because I don’t want to match it to my house. I’m thinking of that. I’m thinking of what I would like to put up in my home, but it’s a struggle because it’s not a gallery, it’s a home.
IA: Could you match the home to the piece? Could you acquire one piece and then arrange the wall around it?
TJ: I actually have done that, yes. It’s a process. I just got “The Kiss.”
IA: I can see that fitting into your rooms. Your rooms are very very bright, warm colors, and sharp contrasts.
TJ: Anyway, so, graphic design: sometimes I feel it’s that way too. But I do like to paint in watercolor. I don’t have tons of time to do that. I enjoy helping a student learn watercolor; that’s part of being creative, too.
IA: Now, with the graphic design, have you had to adapt to the computer world? Do you now use the computer in your design?
TJ: Yes, yes. My first job after I graduated had just gotten computers. This is a funny story. It was a graphic design studio. We did graphic design and we handed the copy over to a typesetter who was not an artist. We would have to measure (I know, this is archaic!) the area where you would want the type to be and tell them how to do it. Well, I always tell people that I invented desktop publishing! This was back in ’86 and there were no personal computers. I begged my boss to let me stay after work and learn the typesetting. I said if we could just design on the screen, that would save me so much effort and time! I said I need to see it, I need to see the elements, so I did. I learned typesetting. I’ve kind of fallen in love with type. When I went to college I didn’t know anything about it, but then over the years that developed. I love type just for the design of it. Different typefaces and different things like that.
IA: And you’ve done some book making and book binding.
TJ: Yes. That’s another love of mine.
IA: You’ve taught the students to do that as well. Now, I don’t know if this question applies as much to graphic design, but when you go about making a piece of work, let’s say it’s been commissioned for a very specific purpose. I know you’ve done work for a church and for a theater department. Let’s say you have a specific job that’s been commissioned. Do you have a theory that informs your work? Do you have an ideology? Or do you look at the piece pragmatically? Pick one that you’ve done recently. Did you do the graphic designs for the play that’s coming up, The Velveteen Rabbit?
IA: So when you sat down to do that, what was in your mind?
TJ: Hum. That’s a hard question. It has to be tailored for its use. I like it all to be incorporated together and to be seen as one piece. I think at first as graphic designers we look around and see everything out there that’s so badly designed, because we’re bombarded by stuff constantly. Because of personal computers there are a lot of people who are designing things who shouldn’t be. And companies that think they don’t need to hire a designer because they can do it themselves so easily and make it look so cool with different fonts. They just go font-crazy. So I try to have it be one pleasing-looking piece with everything incorporated together. So if I use art I want it to incorporate with the type. I don’t want it to be: Here’s your type, here’s your picture, here’s your information, but not to be designed. Some people don’t really realize what goes into graphic design. And you’re really controlling other people’s eyes. Similar to a painting: a painting will make your eye go certain places in the composition and make it stay in the painting. It’s a little bit of control.
IA: It’s visual manipulation.
TJ: Yes, visual manipulation. But in a pleasing way. You want them to see the information. You use different colors…
IA: And it conveys a certain attitude and atmosphere as well. There is a psychological component to every color and to certain color combinations. So you’re going to use a different color scheme for The Velveteen Rabbit than you would if, say, you were staging Lord of the Flies. There would be an entirely different psychological response. Now I think I’m hearing, in a subtext to what you’re saying, something that’s hugely relevant for right now. This will tie back in to where we left off, about the time periods and the teaching. I think I hear you saying that in graphic design right now there is vast fragmentation. Do you think that is a cultural phenomenon across the board for all of the arts and for what we call “Western Culture” in general? Do you think that it is fragmented?
TJ: That’s a really good question. I do think so.
IA: We’re teaching the “modern” period right now, 1900 to 1950s or 1960, and then next year we’ll teach what we’re going to call “Postmodern.” That will be 1960 to present. When we boil these things down for our students we kind of simplify them, but we’re definitely talking about fragmentation. We certainly will be talking about that next year. There are different kinds of fragmentation. It’s a very negative word, but the positive way to look at it, I suppose, is that philosophies now are very individualistic. It’s very specific. In the moral world we call it “relativism” or “pluralism.” Every individual story is important. It’s all about the little pieces. It’s not so much about the whole into which they fit. Have you seen that?
TJ: I’m trying to connect it to graphic design, because I’ve seen it in other areas. Just this Modern period, it kind of exciting because that where it started, really, in my opinion, just from studying the other time periods, just with artists like Picasso and Kandinsky: they were very much looking for the Universal. They were out on their own, trying to do this without God. They looked around. I know Mondrian looked at nature and was irritated by it. He’d see things and it was messy to him. And so he tried to create it himself: his own little world of everything being neat. He was a little OCD. That’s where he came up with his extreme color and boxes and things like that. You can see him going from this tree that he did, how it progressed to his extreme. So they were trying to do it on their own. And a lot of them failed, and they knew they failed, and they committed suicide, they had horrible personal lives. We try to look at that kind of thing. Students look at that.
IA: They were searching for a Universal different from the traditional ones that their culture had inherited. They didn’t want to just take, say, the Judeo-Christian God as their Universal, or Divinity being shown through nature: they wanted to create a different one.
TJ: Yes, that’s right.
IA: I can see that in music, certainly. I’m thinking about the school from the 1940s, the Viennese school: Schoenberg, Berg: they wanted to set up a new system of tonality based on twelve-tone music. They were trying to do that Universal. And they claimed—Schoenberg said—that in a generation or so that children would be whistling twelve-tone rows in the streets because he thought that he could totally retrain the ear based on his new system. But what he was denying and getting away from is the idea (that some acoustic scholars claim) that the diatonic system has some basis in nature and so on. So that’s a musical metaphor.
TJ: I’m trying to read a book by Francis Schaeffer called The God Who Is There. He talks about philosophy. I don’t know how many years he said the influence would take, but if you look at what’s happening in the arts right now, you look backwards to philosophy and see what was happening. He feels that it influences first philosophy, then art, then music then pop culture then theology—I think; it might be theology and then pop culture—but anyway, it’s the domino effect of philosophy. I think it’s interesting…
IA: …that the idea comes first and then eventually it goes down through those layers of thought into the general current of common ideology.
TJ: Yes. So he was studying what was happening in philosophy in the late 1800s to see what we have in “Modern Art,” early “Modern Art.”
IA: Do you know when that book was published?
TJ: It was a lecture. I believe it was in 1960.
IA: So we have to look at 40, 50, 60, or even 70 years back to find out where our ideas are coming from. So that would mean that in 2010, we have to look at the 70s, 60s, and 50s at what was being done in philosophy, in “High” Philosophy.
TJ: I don’t understand philosophy a lot, although I’m trying to understand it so I can understand what the influence was on art. He says that the most influential thing that happened in our country to influence where we are now was a modern art show in 1913, the Armory Show, which was the first art show that Picasso and various artists were shown in our country. And not that we would have shunned it or not attended, but just to know what was happening. This idea of truth apart from God. Trying to do the Universal on your own.
IA: And if I’m not mistaken, that was fairly early in Picasso’s search for the Universal.
TJ: Right. I have said to my students: If you don’t understand this progression of truth, you won’t understand the people that you meet out on the street because they are influenced by that too. That’s where they’re coming from. It influences everything. It even influences churches.
IA: Let’s end there, with the church theology. Let me just ask a question: I think that you would agree with me, that we share a philosophy here at the Master’s Academy and in Christian thinking about the arts in general, that the Church must not be afraid of any idea. The Church must not isolate itself from the trends. So if we were to look back and say, OK, what philosophy was developed in 1950, ’60, and ’70—and basically it’s Deconstruction, Poststructuralist thinking, Derrida and those fellows—that even now is having very direct influences that I’ve been looking at. So let’s just end by talking about Where do you think the Church is in all of this and/or Where do you think it should be? You could talk about specifics, like your own church that you’ve been attending.
TJ: I haven’t seen many [churches using the arts]. The church that I did attend did try to at least think about that by using classical art in our worship service. Not that we just tagged it on, like, Oh, here’s a piece of art. But I think connecting the arts in general, whether it’s music done well, even speaking, preaching done well, or drama. And not just drama for entertaining, but drama from an artistic standpoint. We even had a service one time in which an artist painted a painting in front of everyone while someone danced and someone played the violin—Pachelbel’s “Canon.” So that was all happening at the same time and it was done as a worship time to God to be able to understand Him and to worship Him through the arts. I’m not saying that that went well; I had mixed feelings about it, but it’s good even to be thinking about those things and to be not ignoring them. And even decorating. The way you decorate a church. When I was in Rome we sat in a huge cathedral. It was beautiful. We thought, Why can’t we do this today? Why aren’t churches being built like this? Well, it’s the money; we’ve cut corners. We build churches out of steel, because of money.
IA: We rent warehouses.
TJ: We meet in movie theatres! So don’t know how I feel about that kind of thing, but we had a discussion when we were in Rome, saying that it became corrupt. During the Baroque period there were some good things about that: they wanted to create and art to connect it, to create worship and beautiful architecture and art, but it did become corrupt. And I don’t know if we can do it without it becoming corrupt. There was something well done there.
IA: We should look to the “Well done” part of it for our inspiration and ponder how to do it without going down that road to political power, corruption, and bribery.
TJ: Our church met in a movie theatre and during our first service there, the worship leader said, “This is a sacred space.” We’ve done what we can here to embellish it and to encourage worshipful thinking with candles, etc. It does become a sacred space when we are there. There’s that balance between “It’s in your heart, it’s not what you see,” and art that can help create ideas and thinking.
IA: It breaks down the divide between the sacred and the secular. It shows that when we unite our vocations and our avocations.
TJ: Definitely. Because that’s all God-given and God-inspired. He gave us that for that purpose.
IA: I like that: that’s a good quote: “Art can create a sacred space.”