enacting vocation

Flowers in my studio, 25 September 2022.

For the first time in a long time, maybe in my life, September hasn’t been a time of ‘going back to school.’ For a lot of reasons I’ve dropped out of higher education, and it’s unlikely I’ll go back. Perhaps because of my age or perhaps due to their own sense of life’s stages, people seem to want me to say ‘I’ve ‘retired.’ But that isn’t true. Higher education was always a means to an end for me — an institution through which I could enact my vocations. I’ve left behind institutional life, not my vocations. More and more I’m feeling that my career — whatever that might mean — might just be starting.

Even more, I have a sense I might be experiencing a new beginning to my education. I’m hungry to learn, but not on the terms of an institution. It’s a cliche to say that college is wasted on the young, but it’s something I’m feeling acutely right now. I was unprepared at 18 for the opportunities that college presented me. I didn’t have focus, a sense of purpose, or discipline, and consequently skimmed the surface of possibility — which is to say, elided the prospect of deep transformation. This isn’t a failure on my part, it’s a reflection of what’s developmentally possible at that tender transition from youth to adulthood. I learned a lot as a college student. I wish I’d been prepared to learn more.

Having taught in graduate schools for much of my career, every semester I would draw a distinction between undergraduate and graduate eduction for new students. College is exploratory — a process of coming to understand the variety of ways human beings construct knowledge. It’s a process of, hopefully, finding one’s affinities within a web of possibility and — especially in the arts — learning technique. Graduate education is about learning how to construct and advance knowledge. These distinctions are useful to students, but they’re also reductive and in service to institutional economics as much as to learning. When I think about my own sense of trajectory, I want to draw from both of these modalities — I want to revisit technique and also construct new culture.

To the first point, I’ve just joined a figure drawing group. I’m suspicious of ‘drawing from the figure’ the way I’m suspicious of a lot of the rules of art education. I understand the vital importance of observational drawing in any painter’s education, but too often drawing from the figure becomes a fetish rather than a tool — and as a fetish becomes an end in itself rather than a starting place for making art.

I’ve never had an affinity for drawing materials. If pressed about the discipline of drawing, I’ll readily say that I draw with paint — and in art school, my best drawings were always with oil washes. This morning I’ve been reading THE DRAWINGS OF RICHARD DIEBENKORN by John Elderfield and, writing about Diebenkorn’s drawing process, he makes a point that feels particularly relevant to me:

We see in these works, more than in the paintings, how Diebenkorn seems to think aloud in drawing until he discovers his subject, which is his aim. In the case of his representational work, a nominal subject—the observed motif—obviously exists prior to his drawing. However, the process of drawing which represents that nominal subject is also a process of pictorial discovery, whose visible record becomes, in effect, a subject in its own right. This can be seen most noticeably in those representational drawings made from softer mediums, like charcoal, which clearly reveal the record of their making. Here, visible corrections and alterations—which are no more than discarded means insofar as representation of the nominal subject is concerned—are pictorially as important as any final, definitive mark. Some drawing mediums, notably ink drawings, will not allow of alteration in quite the same way.In these, however, the artist will often accumulate definitions— repeating lines or superimposing washes —until he finds the one that he thinks is correct. In either case, alterations and definitions are equally significant in that “chain” of affective parts of which Diebenkorn spoke, and which creates what may be called the “internal” subject of his work, — p.12

Elderfield articulates something that I’ve always intuited from Diebenkorn, and which has influenced my way of making pictures: drawing is a way of thinking on a page — much the way that writing can help us a a mode of discovery or revelation. Unlike writing, which can be neatly edited, drawing (and some forms of painting) reveal the thinking process. This is exciting for a viewer, but can be a point of vulnerability for a maker. 

Most people have a limited art education and rely on a few canards about method and virtuosity. In my regular experience, these include the idea that landscape painting needs to be made in plein air and that real artists can draw anything realistically at the drop of a hat. But the truth is more complex: I can paint plein air, but find it to be a limiting method. I can make realistic drawings, but why not use a camera? I want to make pictures as a way of thinking, exploring and making myself vulnerable — with the hope that vulnerability will open me to discovery. When I think about my schooling in young adulthood and my learning aspirations now, this distinction is really important to underscore. I don’t want to enter my learning with the expectation of performing; I want to stumble into learning with high hopes for learning something new — and perhaps even discovering, in Elderfield’s terms something about the ‘internal subject’ of my work.

At the beginning of the month I was relieved not to be revising syllabi or to be engaged with graduate students in their semester planning. Beyond the obvious fatigue I have for such activities lies something deeper: I’m no longer interested in ‘learning goals’ and ‘outcomes’ — both of which are tools of industrial capitalism intent on squeezing predictable productivity from us. I don’t want to walk toward the predictable or the managed. My learning aspires to the intangible and unparaphrasable. It yearns for the vulnerability necessary to really change.

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