Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tell Me About Your Teachers

If we are lucky, we get a few good teachers in our lives. They give us priceless gifts, and we cherish them long after they've forgotten us. I'm doing research on teaching methods and styles. Teaching personalities. I'll offer some stories of my own first, then I'd like to ask for yours at the bottom of this post. 

Henry Pearson, Composition, 1982

Mr. Pearson taught realistic painting surprisingly well. So far as I know, he never painted that way himself. He was famous for Op-Art Pictures he'd done in the 1960s, those fields of wavy lines that make your eyes vibrate. He moved slowly, carried himself in a dignified way and spoke with a Southern accent. Born in 1914, he was already advanced in age. He died in 2006 at age 92.

He was the first artist I met who lived in Manhattan. Fascinated, I asked him right away if I could stop by his apartment on my next trip to New York. He reluctantly assented, and I visited him one afternoon with a friend. Mr. Pearson had a long studio apartment right in mid-town, in the heart of the giant machine. Mr. Pearson's apartment displayed a curious a New York asthetic, based on extremely limited space. His sofa and table were of high quality, and there was almost nothing else in the room. He hung one small painting by his most famous student, James Rosenquist. On the opposite wall was a miniature box of shelves, holding about twelve sake cups. Mr. Pearson held up one of these and showed us how the ceramic glaze had melted away from the clay; the cup was from Hiroshima.

He told me to draw every single day, whether from life or a Sears catalog. The point was to keep doing it over and over and build perceptive and technical muscle. It was great advice. That's the main benefit from my time at the Academy; I could continue painting all these years, in less-than-perfect circumstances.

Oliver Grimley, Cast Drawing, 1980

Oliver Grimley taught me cast drawing, copying the casts of classical sculpture in the Academy’s collection. Grimley was already sixty years old, but he was fit, with a thick shock of gray hair and pointed goatee. Grimley was patient but meticulous in his criticism. He forced us to physically measure every mark we put on the paper. Typically he came to my easel and told me exactly how each line was wrong, then said, “I think the best thing you can do is to start over.” I did start over, and I kept the same view of the same cast. I never finished a drawing in that class, but Mr. Grimley strengthened my vision enormously. 

In early 2008, after working on four big canvases for six months, I realized I needed to scrap what I had done and start over. Thanks to Mr. Grimley's strong training, I had the courage to follow through. Twenty-eight years later, he was still dead-on; “I think the best thing you can do is to start over.”

Should I include a bad teacher? Oh why not? He was funny, in a strange way.

Bad Teacher Who Will Remain Nameless [and faceless], Figure Drawing, 1978

BT taught art at an expensive private university in Dallas, Texas. He was a short, plump man whose mouth locked in a smirk. He painted in an impressionistic style, mostly from photographs. His work was in the Dallas Museum of Art and the important local collections. BT spoke softly, as if from a great distance. He did not want to be there; he wanted to be in New York living the art life. He only liked messy drawings. Any picture that nailed the form down was “stiff.” Trying to satisfy his action-drawing aesthetic, I lunged at my paper, trying to clear it with movement, like a hurdler. [This method, lunging at a drawing and tossing it, off is still popular. Many drawing groups in San Francisco do endless “warm up” drawings. I have no idea why.] 

BT knew how to set up a pictorial space, and to lead the eye around in it. That’s the main value I took away. His drawing class was crowded. Everyone used a 24 x 36” newsprint pad and ripped the pages off after each short pose in unison, as in a dance. I still hear the dry paper ripping and landing on the floor. 

Toward the end of the semester, BT came through the studio and picked out several of the classroom model drawings, setting them against the wall, while we all watched. He took mine, and I was excited to hear what he’d say about it. He walked down the line of drawings, then turned to us.

“What I’ve done here,” he said, “is to pick out what I see as the worst drawings in the class. He then proceeded to tell each of us what we’d done wrong. The hurt and embarrassment showed on my face. A tall, skinny girl whispered to me.

“Don’t listen to him. I’ve been in college a long time, and your work is some of the best I’ve seen. He’s just being an asshole.” I liked that girl. I should have asked her to go for coffee and let her comfort me further, but I didn’t. 

Please comment or email me: artist (at) . I'm especially interested in art instruction, but if you were taught something else that ended up being important in your life (think about it), I'm interested in that educational experience, also.


What was being taught? 

Who was a good teacher? 

How were they effective? 

How did they handle you / the subject / other stuff?

Who was a bad teacher? 

What did they do that was bad?

How could they have been better?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The 50th Law: I read, so you don't have to.

If you read more than a few biographies, you may notice a disturbing pattern: Almost every famous person practices intentional badness. At a critical point in their lives, they gain influence by deception, manipulation, theft and/or violence.

I'd love to find an exception, but after several hundred books, I'm giving up hope. Some historical figures, like Saint Francis, appear to be good most of the time, but I fear this is the result of favorable editing. If the little guy had been born in the 20th century instead of the 12th, we'd be reading a book-long indictment of his crimes from Christopher Hitchens, like the one he wrote on Mother Teresa.

This observation confused me. If pure niceness makes one powerless, it does not follow that pure nastiness creates power. Powerful people can't be nasty all the time, or no one would follow them. There must be a payoff, after all.

Robert Greene studied powerful people just as I did, but he broke through and understood their power. As it turns out, unpleasant behavior is a tool, not an end in itself. This is true even in warfare, which is surprising. Many battles were lost, because a general used his resources up in a ritual of violence, losing sight of the goal he hoped to accomplish in the campaign.

I discovered Greene's writing in 2007. At the time, I was forced into a fight I had to win, against an enemy that outnumbered me. I consulted my friends, as well as professionals and experts. Almost all of them told me to give up; I hadn't a chance. During the campaign, I read The 33 Strategies of War, and applied every strategy I could. I kept looking for help until I found it. Together, we won. The strategies in the book greatly clarified my thinking, allowing me to plan effectively. A book with really useful information is hard to come by; I was impressed. 

Since discovering the first three books by Robert Greene, I have read each three times, listened to them on audio for many hours, and explored their bibliographies. This study improved my life and work. I'll write more about that in future posts.

Robert Greene's new book was inspired by rap musician Curtis Jackson, stage named 50 Cent. Jackson was orphaned young, after which he pursued a career as a drug dealer in Queens, New York. He saved his money and parlayed his experiences into tough-guy hip-hop chants. When his music began to pay off, Curtis invested his money wisely, so that today he has several business ventures outside music. At every critical juncture, he acted to expand his control and independence, in exactly the same way a medieval pope would calculate his next move.

I have no interest in drug dealing or "hip-hop," but Curtis's life is instructive. He was forced to act strategically, because of the harshness of his environment and his dire poverty. The aggression in his world was naked, but the aggression in mine is more often concealed, or indirect. Robert Greene writes:

You might imagine the streets that molded Fifty and the code he created for himself have little to do with your circumstances, but that is merely a symptom of your dreaming, of how deeply you are infected with fantasies and how afraid you are to face reality. The world has become as grimy and dangerous as the streets of Southside Queens—a global, competitive environment in which everyone is a ruthless hustler, out for him- or herself. 

The theme of The 50th Law is controlling fear. We must look at our lives clearly, and act on our long-term goals. If we give in to fear, it will cloud our vision and confuse our actions. We will waste our days and energy, chasing pleasant distractions, but getting nowhere. In the final chapter, Greene writes beautifully about overcoming our fear of death, by throwing all our energy into life:

When you choose to affirm life by confronting your mortality, everything changes. What matters to you now is to live your days well, as fully as possible. You could choose to do this by pursuing endless pleasures, but nothing becomes boring more quickly than having to always search for new distractions. If attaining certain goals becomes your greatest source of pleasure, then your days are filled with purpose and direction, and whenever death comes, you have no regrets. You do not fall into nihilistic thinking about the futility of it all, because that is a supreme waste of the brief time you have been given. You now have a way of measuring what matters in life—compared to the shortness of your days, petty battles and anxieties have no weight. You have a sense of urgency and commitment—what you do you must do well, with all of your energy, not with a mind shooting off in a hundred directions.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New Film: My San Francisco

This is my tribute to the city I live in. Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Niccolo Machiavelli - I Read, So You Don't Have To

Imagine these events: You go back to work tomorrow and find out you have a new manager. He calls you into his office and says, "You were an excellent, supportive employee under the old management. Because of this, you are an enemy of the new management team." Two large assistants escort you out, and show you your new cubicle:

You are held in the new cubicle for three weeks, tortured six times, then fired, with no severance package. Now you have some time to consider your next move. Do you:

A. Flee the district, and pretend your old life never happened?

B. Plot against the new management and try to revenge yourself? Or . . . 

C. Write a long letter to the new Chief Executive Officer, praise his excellent abilities, recommend that he run for governor of your state, and humbly offer your assistance to him?

These events did happen to Niccolo Machiavelli, and he chose Action C.

Niccolo sounds like a very flexible, forgiving employee, doesn't he? His was a triumph of intellect over emotion.

Niccolo wrote about how a prince could get control of a city-state, and how he could keep it. In my opinion, he was the first—and perhaps the last—scientific philosopher. Other philosophers cooked up ideas of how the world ought to be. Niccolo studied how people acted, without projecting his own ideals on them. His guiding attitude was, "Let's find out." He drew on his own experiences as a diplomat. He also studied Titus Livy's history of the Roman Empire. In every historical event, he looked for patterns of behavior. For example, when unarmed people give orders to an army, they tend to be disobeyed.

Machiavelli helps me think clearly about difficult decisions. One decision I've struggled with is when to fight and when to abstain from fighting. Toward the end of The Discourses, Niccolo weighs this question and concludes:

Skirmishes are, as a rule, to be avoided, and only to be allowed where you fight to great advantage and with a certainty of victory. In like manner, no attempt should be made to defend the passes leading into your country unless your whole army can co-operate; nor are any towns to be defended save those whose loss necessarily involves your ruin. 

Abraham Lincoln employed a similar strategy, during his career as a trial lawyer. Michael Burlingame writes that Lincoln often opened his case by agreeing, point by point, with his opposition. In this way, Lincoln disarmed his opponent and impressed the jury as a reasonable man. But Lincoln had determined in advance the one or two key issues that would decide the case. When he got to those, he conceded nothing. Having listened to him give over so much, the jury often trusted him on these pivotal points, and ruled in favor of Lincoln's client.

We're often tempted to threaten our enemies with retaliation. Machiavelli advises us to keep silent. Action can help our cause, but words will only hurt it:

I hold it to be a proof of great prudence for men to abstain from threats and insulting words towards any one, for neither the one or the other in any way diminishes the strength of the enemy; but the one makes him more cautious, and the other increases his hatred of you, and makes him more persevering in his efforts to injure you. 

In his book, The Way of the World, Ron Suskind quotes Benazir Bhutto, recommending a similar strategy in disarming her enemies. Toward the end of her struggle, Bhutto wanted the American government to freeze her enemies' bank accounts in their country. She said:   The key is 'no warning,' which the Americans are always doing too much of, always threatening this and that. People will hide their money! Freeze it, and say it will be unfrozen, if certain things happen.

Reading Machiavelli is especially profitable today, because many people think they know him, but never read him. His work is hidden behind the bland adjective, "Machiavellian," which has devolved into a high-sounding synonym for "mean." Ultimately, his value is not in a set of rules, but in his spirit. Through disappointment and deprivation he maintained his playful curiosity. After his unfortunate dismissal, Niccolo was not allowed to return to his cherished career as a diplomat, but through his writing, he achieved far greater influence. 

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.