First Impressions 15 years in the Making

by Lynn Clement


Ah, February.  The month that heralds the final demise of the dreaded January and when I can consider my semester officially off to a successful start.  It occurred to me recently that 2019 marks an important anniversary for me.  It was 15 years ago that I started teaching art history.

A lot has changed in that time: schools, technology, hair-dos, but nothing more than how I approach that first day with my students.

For many of the early years in my career I felt that my main hurdle upon meeting a group of students at the start of the semester was getting through the syllabus without everyone falling asleep, myself included.  However, I now know that addressing the issue of relevancy on that first day is most crucial.  This has become even more urgent as students, and I for that matter, need more from art history.

I begin with a question: “Why does a college require you to take a class such as this?”

In my experience this is a more productive question than those asked of me when I was on the other side of the podium.  Questions like “why are you here?” or “what do art historians do?” or (my most despised) “what is art?” often dead end with answers like “because the college is forcing me to take this class” and “we look at art” and (my most dreaded) silence.  Art history was not required at my university, but I was very lucky to happen upon it completely by accident.  I still feel lucky, but also saddened and a bit angry that it had not been a part of the traditional curriculum at any point of my education.  This is because I immediately saw its worth.  This is what I want my students to consider the moment we meet.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Thus, my class now begins with a discussion of critical thinking.  We talk about what it means to think critically about what we see in the world around us and how we can hone the skills they already have.  I don’t have to search very hard for examples that support how this will help them after they step out of the classroom.  We are bombarded with visual culture at every moment with smartphones, laptops, tablets, television, and on the surfaces of public transportation.  We now also seem to live in this terrible time in which you can see a video or photograph and be told that what you are seeing is NOT actually what you are seeing.  How do we learn to trust our own eyes and our own analysis of what we see?  Hopefully by taking my class.

This discussion leads us to an actual exercise in looking.  Again, I try to pick an image that is relevant, which is why we’ve been spending a lot of time with Napoleon’s portrait in the Tuileries gardens from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.  This image easily shows how power can be conveyed through the visual and heavily contrived, also by those in power.

I also try to speak to relevancy in terms of my assignments. It’s just not a hoop, or torture, I put them through because I’m a terrible person!  Really!  I focus less on the parameters of the assignment and instead on why I feel the assignments are important and what skills they’ll strengthen through their successful completion.

I’m particularly proud of the way my final research paper has shifted over the years.  While traditional research papers are still an option, I’ve found that more and more students are interested in researching and assessing how visual culture is presented to them in their communities.

Taking inspiration from the call to decolonize museums (like those made by Olga Viso), the Museums Are Not Neutral movement spurred by LaTanya Autry, and Uncomfortable Art Tours provided by art historian and independent art guide Alice Proctor, I ask my students to prepare a grant proposal, or marketing/business plan that would help to diversify a museums holdings. To complete the paper they need to research the current state of a museum (either the diversity of their holdings, the diversity of what they show on the walls, or how the information provided in wall text or on the museum website might be hiding hard historical truths.)  They have to state the specific problem to be solved or task to be accomplished and explain how do they propose to solve the problem or what questions they need to ask to solve the problem?

exhibit painting display
Photo by Riccardo Bresciani on Pexels.com

Not surprising, my students have gone above and beyond my expectations for this assignment.  In addition to considering how race is treated in their local museums, they are examining gender, access for the differently abled, and issues with conservation and preservation.  What I like most is that they get what I’m trying to do with this assignment and they have used their experiences and creativity to expand what can be done.  Thus, needless to say, the evolution continues.

I’m not sure if I’ll still be teaching in 15 years.  With the state of the college system who know what it will become (more on that in another post). However, I like that I’ve seen this kind of change and improvement in my own approach to teaching art history and it gives me hope for the future…even in the bleak midwinter.

 

Writing With A Day Job

How do you make time to write when you’ve got a day job?

I think it’s something every working writer struggles with. Most of my friends write, some of them full-time, and others on the side of a full or part-time job, and it looks really different for everyone. Here’s how I found the best way for my current life:

Radical Honesty

First of all, I had to face that I have many more ideas and dreams than I can feasibly turn into reality. But rather than being sad about all the ideas that won’t get written, I try to be excited that I’m in such a position of opportunity. I have the desire and ability to write academic articles, non-fiction trade books, encyclopedia articles, think-pieces, creative non-fiction essays, novels, short stories, screenplays, blog posts, and more. I have ideas for all of these things, and most of them are exciting to me and allow me to examine something I am interested in or passionate about.

That said, my other goals in life- personal, financial, career- mean that most of my time is spoken for, and there’s not really much I can move around or give up. Every piece I chose to write takes time away from a career development opportunity, time with family and friends, or time I could have spent earning money. Radical honesty means being honest about my shifting collection of needs and how they conflict: my needs for creative expression, versus my needs to feel like I’m doing a good job at work, versus my need to pay bills, versus my need to connect with the people I love.  So realistically, I can only give up about an hour a day to writing projects that are not connected to finances or career.

Knowing that means that I have to pick and choose my projects more carefully. I have to be honest about how many hours something will take to complete and how many weeks that will take at the rate of one hour per day. Or actually, less than an hour per day, because most days I use part of that hour to write morning pages.

Morning Pages

And by “writing morning pages,” I mean, I scrawl some stuff longhand into a notebook, just to dump all the miscellaneous thoughts that are taking up valuable brain space. Morning pages (the idea comes from Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, and is discussed on this blog) are a way for me to stay connected to the page and explore how I feel about my writing and the things that get in the way of my writing. I don’t fully understand why they work, or how exactly, but I do know that when I write them, my writing goes more smoothly and I produce more of it, and when I get away from that habit, I start to  be more blocked and writing feels like squeezing blood from a stone, so I avoid it. I’ve lived long enough to know that when something works (and doesn’t hurt anyone), you don’t question it, you just do it.

Routine (maybe)

In order for me to wrest that daily hour away for myself and my writing, it helps me, sometimes, to have a routine. I’m definitely not religious about it, and I don’t always need it, but I find that during the semester especially when my to-do list is a mile long, having a routine helps. I take my writing time as seriously as I take my savings- I pay myself first. First thing in the morning, I don’t get online to check emails, I get straight to the morning pages and then transition into my writing project of choice. After an hour, I feel connected to it, and am much less begrudging of the other tasks I have to do for the day.

Squish Expectations

Since I only have that daily hour to write, I don’t have time to waste on projects that I don’t love. If I’m being paid for a project, I don’t do it in that hour- I count it toward my career and do it during the workday. That daily hour is for my passion project. These projects may never see the light of day or result in a paycheck. I write them for sake of doing it- for the sake of being involved in a creative pursuit, for investigating something that is important to me, and for keeping me tethered to my interests on days when my job or personal life don’t do that as much. It’s a creative, artistic, and spiritual pursuit that I do completely independently of expectations. No matter how successful a writer I become, no matter how many publications I rack up, no matter how much money I get for my writing, I want to always set aside this hour to just do what I feel like doing. If it later ends up becoming a viable project that sells, that’s great, but it’s also ok if it never amounts to anything more than my own enjoyment. Ironically, since I’ve been squishing expectations, a lot of my writing-hour projects have seen publication.

Now it’s disclaimer time- I have the type of job (a postdoc) where writing is built into it. I have set tasks I do in exchange for my salary, and then I have more abstract expectations of what I should be doing with the rest of my work week. This gives me tremendous flexibility in terms of my writing projects. It means that once a project I’m working on in that morning hour becomes a viable project that either will further my career or get me paid, I have the flexibility to incorporate it into my work hours and then use that personal hour of writing time for something else. The way I structure my day makes sense for my day job right now, but this won’t always be my job. Writing, on the other hand, will. I think setting up a habit for daily writing outside of my job hours sets me up for continuing this habit regardless of my day job.

What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?

In honor of  National Novel Writing Month, I’m going to tell you another story about the time I taught a nonfiction writing class titled “Writing Your Family History,” at the Nashville Public Library for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Although everyone reads nonfiction every day, a lot of people think of it as dry, like writing a 5-paragraph essay for school. They often equate nonfiction writing with an encyclopedia article- a collection of well-organized facts that puts you to sleep. (Note: I don’t think that way, I’ve written encyclopedia articles, but I understand the sentiment).

But what about that fascinating personality profile you’ve read about your favorite celebrity’s brush with death as a child?  Or the clever piece that was organized as a series of exotic meals, but was really about the small-town narrator’s growing comfort with an unfamiliar culture? How about the human interest story from the journalist in Syria who reveals to us the histories of the people who are trying to flee? Have you admired the way you can learn about the conflict not through 5 boring paragraphs, but through the eyes of people who live it each day?

That’s the magic, right there.

Seasoned writers know that. Beginning writers always say “yes, but that’s a celebrity, or someone traveling to Cameroon, or a trained journalist in a war zone. What about someone like me who grew up in Monterey, Tennessee and worked in a factory for 40 years? Who wants to read about that?” (This was a real question from class).

I think it’s such an important question. One that set the tone for the entire session. Continue reading “What’s your Creative Nonfiction Really About?”

The Big Draw: Sketching to See the World

by Lynn Clement


I’ve always considered it a great failing in my education that I never had the chance to take drawing classes, or any art making classes for that matter. In middle school and high school art was an elective sacrificed if you were on a college prep track and despite my declared major of art history in undergrad, I went to such a large university that only studio art majors could take the studio classes. Thus, it has been a personal endeavor to learn the techniques used to make art objects in order to gain greater insight into the creative process of those I study. While an important part of my profession, drawing, painting, and photography have also been an important part of my self-care.

close up of hand over white background
Photo by Lum3n.com on Pexels.com

 

After the sage advice posted this month by Angela, Tanya, and Raquelle, I felt overdue for a break in which I could think and act creatively.  I am fortunate to live outside of Washington, DC where the opportunity to pursue these activities at a low cost are readily available, which is why this weekend I found myself at The Big Draw Festival at the National Gallery of Art with my daughter and a good friend.   The Big Draw is a charity that supports visual literacy and celebrates drawing as an important tool for learning and engagement.  Although headquartered in England, every October partners around the globe host their own festivals.  At the National Gallery in Washington, DC live models posed for the enjoyment of amateur and professional artist alike and entire galleries were given over to contemplating the movement of the human body captured by some of the most celebrated sculptors through history.

It wasn’t until the 15th century that drawing was considered an art form in its own right, though it has long been used as a means of studying various fields in a deeper way.  For example, drawing has long been used in scientific fields to heighten observational and communication skills and more recently medical schools have added art classes to their curriculum.  What struck me most about the latter is how art classes have helped doctors to better understand emotional expressions and cues.  Drawing forces you to observe the world in order to replicate it, and observing the world leads to a deeper consideration and understanding.  This is especially true when looking at people.

The friend who drew with me this weekend commented on how the exercise of sketching forced him to look, observe, analyze what might otherwise be overlooked.  It was during this quiet reflection that, unbeknownst to us, shots were fired hundreds of miles away at a Synagogue in Pittsburg.  Mere days earlier, two African Americans were targeted and slain in a grocery store and bombs were delivered by innocent postal carriers to leading political figures.  Afterward, as I tried to digest the violence, I looked over my sketches and considered what my friend had said and remembered what I had seen.  Models who had smiled and laughed when poses changed, who stretched and tended to sore muscles, and were applauded for their noticeable effort.  Docents who had welcomed us with drawing materials and information.  Fellow lovers of art who sat beside us sketching their own visions or who walked through galleries filled with history in visual form.  My own daughter, my favorite muse, who I drew as she played video games after she’d grown bored of sitting still. What had made this such a magical day, such a memorable moment was more than just the action of drawing, but drawing together with people of all walks of life. I had tried to capture these figures of flesh and stone on paper, nameless to me, but so human, and so delicate.  How is that human-ness lost to others?

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The Big Draw’s claim is that “drawing changes lives”.  I don’t know if that’s true, but taking the time to contemplating the world, and especially the people around us, can’t be a bad idea.  While I’d always found creating art as part of taking care of myself, it wasn’t until this weekend that I considered it an important part of how I care for others, or more importantly, how I saw others.

I don’t know if my words are working together to convey what I wanted to in this post as it currently feels like a stream of consciousness.  It’s all become so much to take in, but I can’t stop looking.