05 October 2011

Interview with Bruce Herman part 3

Please read parts 1 and 2, which are available in the sidebar of previous posts. Your comments are welcome.

Interview with Bruce Herman
Part 3: Teaching Art

IA: As a teacher, as a professor, what do you think are the most important lessons for student artists to learn, or areas of mental growth for young artists, either conceptually, spiritually, or technically?

BH: I actually started the art program at Gordon College almost 30 years ago now; there was no real formal art program at Gordon before I got there. When I drew up the first art major curriculum at the college, it was very much based on observation. It was kind of a traditional approach to learning drawing, painting, and sculpting from life—from direct observation—rather than working strictly from the imagination or working abstractly or strictly approaching it from the point of view of design. It was very much based on observation. I am still very committed to that kind of curriculum. One way of saying it succinctly would be to say I tell my students that looking comes first. Visual art starts—I believe it should start, anyway—with looking at the beauty and the complexity and the mystery of the visual world, the actual physical world around us.

There is a corollary to that in writing. The poet William Carlos Williams once said “No ideas, but in things.” I love that. I love the idea that you ground your knowledge, you ground your craft, in actuality, in the way things actually are. Another way of saying it for writers is, “Write what you know.” I tell students, you can't become a visual artist unless you spend a long time studying the world around you and trying to record it somehow faithfully. That being said, I don't think there's one style of art that is superior to others, like realism vs. abstraction. But as a starting point for any student, they need to learn to observe carefully because the best lessons about color, the best lessons about light, about form and space, about texture: the best lessons about those things can be had by looking at the Creation that God has made and responding to that! I think later on as you get older and more mature as an artist, you can take liberties and play with that. Not only when you get older – I always gave my students plenty of latitude to play and experiment.

In some ways, in the 20th century, modern art was a long long experiment, trying to see what can be done, what the possibilities are. A lot of great stuff has come out of that experimentation. But you can't experiment only, forever. At some point you have to settle into a pictorial language of some sort, and then communicate. I gave away my prejudice earlier: I believe that art is a form of communication. Communication is a bedrock of what we do in order to be in community and make things that mean something to other people. It's not enough just to express yourself, in other words: you've got make something that means something to someone else.

IA: It's not just an internal discussion; it has to be an external dialogue as well.

BH: Dialogue, not monologue, I guess is another way to say it.

IA: In connection with that comes your commitment to working from live models as well, right?

BH: Yes. You can't draw what you can't see.

"Persistence of Vision," 2005

Otherwise you're just responding to your own drawing, the marks you're making on the page, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do from time to time. Some painters, sculptors, and other kinds of artists who work abstractly, in some ways that's what they are doing: responding to their own work. But ultimately you run out of gas as an artist if all you're doing is responding to your own work, the marks that you're making on the page, the splashes of color that you're moving around on the canvas. At some point you have to look at something else in order to refresh your visual memory and stoke your imagination.

There are spiritual and psychological components to all of that. If you're just in monologue mode, you really don't learn a whole lot. George MacDonald once said that the only religion that the better you practice it, the fewer the converts, is self-worship. I think there's a corollary to that in art. If the art is only about your own art, and it's not in communication with anything else or anyone else, eventually it becomes so stale and formulaic that it is virtually meaningless.

An elegy for St. Sebastian

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