Burning Brightly

Nov 26th, 2012

When I was a teenager I went to a rural public high school that offered one drawing class… taught by the wrestling coach.

I recently had the opportunity to witness a very different kind of arts education. I spent the later half of this October as the Artist in Residence at The Oxbow School in Napa, CA. I was invited to this renowned boarding school to teach a 10-day workshop to 40 high school students who come from all over the country to spend a semester immersed in the arts. Founded in 1998, The Oxbow School uses an innovative art-centered curriculum. It’s a really interesting model – one the teachers openly say is a constantly shifting experiment. Walking around the Oxbow campus, it feels a bit like a utopian art-school dream, a parallel universe where arts are foregrounded in education. Certainly, it’s light years away from my own high school experience.

The workshop I was teaching focused on “camera-less photography”, specifically we were making images using photogram and cyanotype methods that required that we worked both in the darkroom as well as outdoors, capturing shadows cast throughout the campus and gardens. I don’t spend much time with teenagers, so being with them all day long, eating meals with them, hearing their thoughts and ideas really brought me back. There was one moment in particular, while helping a few girls construct their image – a laundry line strung with clothing and wilted flowers – that I had a sort of flashback to my best friend and I at age 15 and the earnest naiveté of our self-assigned art projects. I was bemused to encounter the very same brand of romantic-teenage-girl-melancholy in these girls who seem so much more savvy, and frankly so much better educated than I was.

The recollection of this long-forgotten aesthetic phase made me consider how much of our sensibility is innately ours and how much is just a stage we are passing through, possibly one that so many others have passed through as well –a fleeting moment in our aesthetic development? I remember, at that age, identifying with each aesthetic phase as though it was intrinsic to who I was, not realizing how temporary they would end up being. Teenagers change with a speed and urgency that is riveting to witness– like watching those sped-up films of plants growing and flowers blooming. And in some ways artists do this too, we each feel uniquely committed to the moment, method, or project we are immersed in and then shed it to move on to the next. The challenge is in discerning what part we carry with us, and what part is just circumstance, like transitory scenery blurring past a car window.

When Nikki and I visit artists we occasionally encounter someone who seems to have completely (even obsessively) embraced that singular, most central interest, the thing that drives their work, and has let the rest – the trends, phases and tangents – fall away. They’ve found the chord that rings true for them and they just keep playing it over and over again, not in a way that becomes redundant, but in a way that gets deeper every time. Conversations with these artists are very different from conversations with artists who are still searching, skirting around that core fixation, or addressing it obliquely rather than diving right in. I think of this core fixation as a flame, a sort of internal source that illuminates an artist’s work. In many cases this comes from personal history: a moment, trauma or fascination that (however small, obscure or odd) fuels their work. To have identified this driving force and be able to articulate it is entirely different than being able to make work that taps into it – that’s another challenge. And the presence of this core fixation does not necessarily predict the quality of an artist’s work, but the artists who embrace it, who really let their obsessions burn brightly, do seem more satisfied, more sustained by their own practice – and in our experience it lends their work an emotional resonance that would otherwise be absent.

It was fascinating to observe these students in this incredibly volatile moment of artistic and personal discovery. There is a sort of manic fluidity of identity that is unique to the teenage years – your persona can change over the course of a single day. I don’t envy them – I survived those teenage years and I wouldn’t ask to live through that again – but witnessing it now is inspiring (and exhausting). It made me remember that the core, that central flame (no matter how silly or ugly it is) is the real deal – find it, embrace it, stop skirting around it. Admit what you are hung-up on and make art about it. Everything else is just a phase you’re moving through. – KM

Installation view of “Hunting for Shadows”, a collaborative project created by the Fall 2012 students of The Oxbow School.