When I was an innocent freshman at MICA, I was lucky enough to have a teacher who cared enough to blow my little mind. We had a class called Fundamentals of 2-D Design, or something like that, which was supposed to be about concepts and methods of using space and color and form to express ourselves. In actuality it was a calculated mindfuck. We’d all been programmed by our public and private high schools how to use pencils and markers and oil paint (well, not my public high school, we made do with tempera paints) and the fundamentals of what art was supposed to look like. So, we applied that to the first assignment we were given.
Our teacher, a vibrant, boisterous woman named Mary, had us put our stuff up on the wall and present it, and we did, in halting sentences amid shuffling feet. Then, she stood up and started ripping parts of our designs up. Literally ripping sections off and moving them around. “How about doing this?”
I think the first student she did this to almost started crying. The second got mad. The third might actually have cried. And on and on. We had worked hard on this shit, and here she was, tearing bits and pieces off, moving things around, questioning us. I was shocked–and intrigued. Because she was right. Her suggestions were spot-on, of course. She was fearless. And she scared the shit out of all of us.
Next week, we got into the gouache. Gouache is a painting medium somewhere between tempera, watercolor and Satan’s ballsweat, deviously simple and devilish to control. It mixes quickly and dries out in seconds, so skill and patience is required to work with it. We had to color-match squares of specially-purchased colored paper, a package of which was expensive and irreplaceable. We had to cut out squares of the colored paper, glue them to bristol board, and then draw a square next to it the same size and shape. Then we had to mix gouache to match the size and color exactly. Points were given for accuracy of color, execution, and cleanliness. Doing this exercise perfectly was next to impossible because the fucking gouache was, well, gouache. It was like smearing poop around on the wall: it’s only ever going to look like poop. We all tried, lord above, did we try.
More assignments like this followed, and students began dropping out. Not because they weren’t doing the work, but because they didn’t get it. They argued with her, they reasoned with her, they spent hours after class trying to make her happy. And she tried to get them to open their minds. They didn’t understand.
The first lesson taught us: Nothing is precious. Everything is game, and be prepared to give it up for something better. The second lesson was that sloppy work wasn’t acceptable. We needed to strive for perfection. Further projects taught us that it wasn’t about what the finished products looked like, really; it was about how we approached the solutions and what we learned getting there. The dropouts had been conditioned to do the assignments but not to question the ideas or develop a concept or think about what any of it meant. They couldn’t process this, and gave up.
For those of us that got it, it was like a door had been kicked open, and we started thinking with our own brains. It led me to consider unconventional ways to solve problems that I still use to this day. None of the assignments we completed were portfolio pieces, but they made the few of us that understood better artists, designers, and communicators.
In the class I’m teaching, I’ve been reaching for that same kind of impact. I’m winging it this first semester because I’m not familiar with the syllabus or the organization of the department or the grading standards, but I’m getting the hang of running the class and offering input and guidance without solving problems for the students–I’ve got to know exactly what to say to get them to think of things differently without giving them the answers. I’ve got students who do not understand conceptual thinking: They just want me to tell them what to do instead of thinking for themselves. I’ve also got students who are killing it, coming up with brilliant, elegant concepts and layouts that make me smile to myself. I can’t take credit for that, as the hard work was done by someone else before me, but I can at least help them get ready for the real world.