At twenty-one (and already a college dropout) I had talked my way into one of the most exclusive art schools in Boston—The School of Museum of Fine Arts—with only a couple of sketchbooks I had filled while traveling across the country by train. My final acceptance into the school depended on the success of a show I would put together at the end of the semester, judged by a group of peers and faculty. The semester-end exhibition is how “grades” work at SMFA and was one of the many things that drew me so passionately there. Everything dripped of art — the walls and surfaces were coated with student art—layered and expanded on over the years.
My first course, Art as a Process, existed to tear down everything you thought you knew about art. We drew five-second stick figures of live models who contorted themselves into positions impossible to capture. We made prints of primary shapes and worked with newsprint endlessly, making our art look like kindergarten projects. One fateful day we carved a sphere out of plaster, that had been molded in cool whip containers, with a random assortment of tools. We were to make a sphere, taking as little material away as possible, sitting silently in a circle for three hours.
“After this exercise, we typically lose about thirty percent of the class,” the professor began, “some of you will get angry or frustrated, some of you will cry and some of you will never come back.”
We looked around at each other, smirking and making jokes. How hard could it be to shape a ball out of plaster? Not long for some. Within minutes a few people had already finished. Sets of eyes shot up from their work, boggled, questioning themselves, “How did they do that?” followed by, “Why haven’t I finished?”.
An hour goes by and I could not get this thing to round outright. I poked my head up, several people had finished and were sitting smug and quietly, but there were many more looking like they were trying to figure out what was going wrong. Two hours in the guy next to me was beating his sphere into shape with a wild look in his eyes and a rasp in his hand, plaster flying off as it became wet and ragged.
People were starting to crack. I got up and went out for a smoke. The group outside on the tiny veranda were venting, gloating or just sobbing. One fellow student says, “I’m not going back in there,” throws her pack over her shoulder and walks into the dark.
I returned to the silent room where the circle of students was now more of a ring with body shaped dashes missing. I sat down to get back to work, my neighbor’s ragged mush of plaster sort of lumped on the floor. He sat, legs pulled to his chest, arms draped over them, head hung low in the safe cave he had created.
In my mind, I knew exactly what to do and yet the odd shape from the contours of the cool whip container had made something that was defying my every move. I had made something that resembled more of an M&M and it seemed no matter what I did, I could only make a smaller M&M. I gave up on the odd-shaped ball before the three hours were up, “It is what it is.” I told myself, “I made an M&M”, owning it as best I could. The entire spectrum of success and failure sat in what barely passed as a circle anymore, the professor’s prediction of losing a third of the class was eerily accurate. The time up, everyone was looking around, judging against the work of the people around us. The professor spoke,
“Some of you will carry this thing around with you for your whole life.”
People laughed, most just got their things and walked out. I scoffed at the time, but smile every time I look over and see it on my bookshelf, 22 years later. It was the single greatest moment of learning I ever experienced and has shaped, to some degree, everything I’ve ever done or tried to do since.
Getting the idea of the perfect “sphere” in our head was the trick the professor pulled. We’re so conditioned to do what we’re told, knowing our actions will be judged, that we don’t allow ourselves to get lost in the expression of the idea in our head, instead, acting the way we think someone else wants or expects us to.
Twenty Years Later
Walking the halls of Stanford Hospital could nearly be confused for walking around an art museum. Art is everywhere, donated or on loan from private collections, from Hokusai block prints to a stunning Lichtenstein behind the reception desk in one of the surgery centers where I have spent too much time. Alongside the fine art are plenty of pieces that will make you think to yourself (or say to whoever may be walking with you), “They call that art?”, or exclaim, “My little brother could have made that!”.
A couple of weeks ago, while walking the halls after having surgery (checking off a box on my nurses “status” whiteboard), I was struck by something that I thought I understood and had been holding on to that goofy plaster ball as a reminder of, for the last twenty years.
Art exists, simply, in being made.
The end product doesn’t make something art, the doing it does. The process of creating is the only place art actually lives — making you as much as you are making the art.
If something is inside you and never comes out, it is merely a theory of what you might make from your imagination. After you create, the product of your art no longer belongs to you, it becomes open to interpretation, criticism, evaluation and often a proxy for others to try and understand the maker.
No amount of explanation or even recording will capture the essence of making art because art happens in real-time between you and the medium, between what’s inside you and the world outside.
One of the few absolutes in this life is no one can duplicate or even come close to understanding your experience. Perhaps your little brother could have made that painting on the wall at Stanford, but he didn’t. Even if that little guy painted precisely the same blue square, it wouldn’t be the same, his art disappeared the moment it was finished — the piece hanging on the wall is only a representation of a time in which art was made. We can only observe art in the halo of the epiphany that created it.
What matters is that you create. Engage with what is inside of you and play with the moment as it comes alive in the material world.
This post was originally published on my blog at Medium