Does an artistic education ever end?

I started my college education majoring in architecture. This made perfect sense, really. I’d been spending hours upon hours, of my own accord, after school and during the summers drafting floor plans for houses since the sixth or seventh grade. While my friends went to parties or played ball (granted, I loved to play football or tennis or ride bikes with them too), I was often in my room, at my desk, putting to paper some sort of ingenious home design.

After two years pursuing architecture formally, I ended up changing majors for tangential reasons — reasons not related to my love for architecture, which had only grown. I switched to fine art, largely because it seemed like a logical step at that point in time (as much as college students are able to deduce such a thing).

I started studying graphic design, since it was the practical course within the fine arts degree and since my father, like many others before him, asked regularly how I was going to make a living in life. However, the graphic design professors at my university were positively awful teachers. One fell asleep in the middle of class on multiple occasions while beaming Wolfenstein onto the screen in front of the class, another had a fetish for magenta (among other things, reportedly) and a third took an independent study approach to teaching and our class only met about four times during the course of a semester. Needless to say I didn’t feel as though I was going to learn all that much more from them in the upper level classes.

Since I was pursuing a fine art degree (BFA), not specifically a graphic design degree, I had the freedom to deviate from my chosen emphasis within the college and still graduate on schedule as long as I had the required number of upper level classes. The degree did require, also, that we take at least one course in each discipline: Drawing, sculpture, ceramics, photography, painting and graphic design.

As such, we were exposed to each department within the college as fine art students. After realizing that the graphic design classes weren’t worth paying for, I began taking ceramics courses in earnest. The ceramics department had far and away the best faculty, both artistically and technically. In fact, the two faculty members I took classes from remain at the university 15 years later and I still recommend that ceramics department to anyone wanting to play with clay as a profession.

So I graduated, having studied equally graphic design and ceramics and mastering (in terms of what a student can actually do in a classroom anyway) neither one of them. What I had learned, however, is that I wanted to continue studying ceramics and creating fine art and craft, and also that graphic design was in fact more likely to be my — at least short-term — meal ticket.

I did what I could after graduating to keep my hands muddy with clay living in Lincoln, a town of about 250,000 at the time, but after securing a design-related job at a missions mobilizer a year or so later my wife and I moved to a small Arkansas town where communal creative space for a ceramic artist was nonexistent. Living in an apartment made setting up my own studio difficult, besides that fact that we were effectively broke for two years after moving. Buying even a small used kiln was out of the question at the time.

Despite losing access to a clay studio, I still felt the driving need to create with my hands and I did what I could in an apartment with no money, using up all of the leftover supplies from my college classes, creating some oil paintings here, some collages there. Building a cabinet for my wife’s growing yarn stash from some salvaged doors (I was working for a home remodeling company at the time while trying to raise money for the ministry).

After those first two years we were able to purchase a small house with some extra space to set up a small studio. We were making enough money that both my wife and I felt like we could start spending some on our crafts again, so I began looking for used kilns on Ebay. In the meantime, I kept my creative itch occupied by teaching myself some woodcarving basics, which was interesting to me because it is part of my family heritage and because I could create sculpture without a kiln.

It was about 18 months before I found a used kiln I could afford in a location I could get too — since no one on Ebay was shipping kilns, understandably. And after that, it was probably another six months before I had picked it up and the electrician had wired the garage so I could plug it in.

At this point, it had been more than four years since I’d touched a ball of clay.

I jumped right back in where I’d left off though, pursuing a concept that I hadn’t had the chance to flesh out entirely at the university or the short time thereafter when I still had access to a ceramics studio. It’s a concept that has been with me almost from the time that I switched from architecture to studying art. I dedicated a couple hours a day to the pursuit, which went pretty well until the job situation forced us to move. The move interrupted the process, but the long and short of it is that I’ve now had the past five years to continue — albeit on very much a part-time basis — working on this concept.

Interestingly, almost at the same time I finally had a working kiln again I was introduced to an artist working in a medium I hadn’t heard of, nihonga. I was intrigued, by the artist more than the medium, but at that point in time didn’t think too much more of it.

Now, I’m thinking more of it.

After these past five years, I’ve started to realize that clay is probably not a very good way to convey this concept I’m working on. In fact, nihonga seems almost perfectly suited to it. And curiously I’m also becoming more interested in wood sculpture again, particularly after being recently introduced to Bruno Walpoth’s magnificent figures.

In college I wholeheartedly adopted a da Vinci-esque process-over-product mentality, which made sense as I learned so many different mediums and this recurring concept was so fledgling. Now that the concept has so passionately stuck with me for years, it seems time to actually make it happen.

And therein the question now arises as to whether or not I am willing to move away from ceramics, the medium that I have put most of my artistic effort into for the past ten-plus years. I don’t plan to abandon clay completely (I would love to have a soda kiln or wood-fired kiln some day), but I do believe that the concept is worth pursuing more than a particular medium, something I wouldn’t have believed 10 years ago.

Perhaps the key that turned in order to foster such a willingness was becoming a parent, and reading an article about parenting that my wife shared earlier this week. The point of the article, titled New Things Do Things, was that it is worthwhile to engage in new activities in order to discover your gift. The author points out that, along the way, there were some purchases that went unused, some time that was spent learning a craft that their children sooner or later abandoned. But in the long run, these were still very worthy investments. And it seems to me this lesson for parents can be the same for me as an artist.

My investments in both architecture and ceramics will prove to be worthwhile even if I’m not designing houses or throwing pots for a living.

Life circumstances being what they have been, my artistic education has continued long past my college graduation. It’s taken all of these years, part-time of course, to figure out how (I think) I should be working artistically, and that direction happens to utilize crafts that I have not spent much if any time pursuing up to now. Of course, education is a life-long thing, and an artist’s interests and concepts that he or she pursues will undoubtedly change over time. The concept that I keep referring to — admittedly in a covert manner — in this writing is one that I feel the need to work through before dedicating significant energy to another.

Am I willing? The time, the money spent on ceramics over the years, the days of my life that I can’t get back (Do I feel the need to get them back? Not really.). I have to remind myself that they are part of the learning, that they are a worthwhile investment. That they will contribute in some way to the execution of crafts and concepts to come.

And then press on.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

2 Responses to Does an artistic education ever end?

  1. A. Julie says:

    Hi Paul – I’m glad you’re considering other media for your concept. That’s how I moved away from clay, too… although there are still things that I explored in clay that I’d like to go back to, my ceramic work would be more about the craft of making things, and exploration of the medium, and maybe a bit about fragility, but mostly about styles and utility (which is all ceramics really is, anyway, though decoration can have personal connotations too). Clay teaches people about material and process, and that you can’t go straight to the end product, and that it takes time and experimentation and iteration to develop an idea. So you learn not to settle too easily, that it’s easy to make another, that it’s okay to trash the disasters.

    The article points to my qualms about buying new equipment (a DSLR, and a sound recorder) – I know that if I have them, I’ll start seeing opportunities to use them. (There are plenty of things I’ve thought of doing, with sound in particular and less so with video, that I haven’t pursued because I didn’t know how to use editing software. Le sigh. Plenty of time for that after the thesis is out of the way.)

    • pcNielsen says:

      If you’re thinking of video with the DSLR, iMovie is really easy to use and fairly powerful as well. I’m doing more and more video, though not artistically (for my job). I enjoy it quite a bit. In my mind I’ve likened it to my interest in the architectural process since you’re dealing with various factors simultaneously (unlike other graphic design such as print). Maybe I mentioned that in a Facebook conversation recently, can’t remember for sure.

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