In Lieu of Qualification, Just Use a Sharpie

Several weeks ago I spent some time browsing through old sketchbooks, and I posted several images from them on Facebook and Instagram. My dear long-distance friend Angelo Jones A.K.A. pencil fox said in a comment about this dog: “this. THIS. one of my favourite tiger food press drawings….”

It’s one of my favorites as well. It captures a spontaneity that I don’t often allow myself, and which I’m trying to build more into my working life. I drew it during a pretty stressful work situation, during a time when I wasn’t making a lot of work for myself. 

The opportunity came at a time when I couldn’t refuse it.

I remember the circumstances plainly. It was early August. I was in my car headed from the dentist where I’d just had a cavity filled to my day job as studio manager in the Book Arts department of Oregon College of Art and Craft. The left side of my face was numb and I was busy composing the email in my head I’d need to send that night to all of my close business contacts.

“Hi everyone! I hope you’re all well and prospering. I’m writing to ask that if you know of anyone interested in bindery or letterpress services, please send them my way. I’m open to inquiries of all kinds.” I’d left the dentist office with a printout of the proposed treatment plan intended to get my working class teeth in fighting form, at great expense.

The phone call cut right through those thoughts. It was my boss, the head of the department where I worked, saying she’d really like me to teach Combined Print Media. That fall. Starting in three weeks. 

What.

I don’t possess the necessary qualifications on paper to teach a college level art class. I don’t have an MFA. I’ve taught frequently at the Community Programs level - fun classes where non-artists, dabblers, and artists looking to build their skills come together for enjoyable, relaxed learning, crafting, and making. Classes in which I teach technical skills and guide students through processes, in which the goal is that everyone goes home with a thing that they made, and maybe a thirst to investigate further.

I earned my BFA in 2005. Since then I have avoided academia and have, if not intentionally, pretty thoroughly ignored developments in the art world. I am not inclined to research. I pretty much don’t care about who’s doing what. What I make is guided by intuition, and by “what I like.” By the time I graduated with my degree in Book Arts, I had no real interest in books as concept, or of interactive, performative engagement with books, or with becoming a part of the academic world of artists who write grants and teach and create work that goes into institutions. 

But, with less than three weeks to prepare, I held my breath and plunged into a world of catch-up. A mini MFA education in less than a month. I spent hours and hours in the college library speed-reading books filled with theory. I crammed late into the night, trying to make connections between practical lesson plans and relating them to what might be relevant to an emerging artist. I gave my self pep-talks and psyched myself up to the task of teaching a 15-week class in which I’d need to evaluate my students’ work critically and lead them in doing the same of their peers. I’d need to grade work. GRADE WORK. I’d need to learn to diplomatically bring students to task if I felt they weren’t working to their potential. I’d need to encourage them to dig deeper, stretch themselves, to find entry points to personally relate to work they were doing even if they didn’t like the assignment.

I lucked out with the most incredible group of eight students. Their dynamic was such that they pushed each other and inspired each other to do their best. I was so lucky to have this group who made that part of my job easy. On the other hand, I felt barely one-step ahead of them at any given moment. This group, in many ways, was so much more savvy and engaged than I ever was as a student, and they had curiosity and imagination that was in a league that felt miles above where I was capable of rising.

There are many, many examples of where I feel like I failed. I always tried to look at that failure as a measuring stick from which I could improve, but to fail in front of a group of incredibly smart, talented, and engaged students is especially eye-opening.

There was the first day of class in which I suffered technical failings setting up a slide show of work examples. There was the mis-guided readings I produced, and my inability to lead good discussion. There was the field trip in which we left too late, I FORGOT A STUDENT, and then we ended up looking for our meeting place IN THE WRONG BUILDING. That day I was so flustered, focused on leading everyone to the correct building and on time, I remember thinking “this would never have happened to Inge (the instructor who normally taught this class).” But then I looked around and saw everyone laughing, joking, and totally not caring that we were running around in circles trying to get where we were going. They were just enjoying being there.

So, this dog. I drew this dog in a frantic, brief five minutes before class one day, when I needed a graphic visual to demonstrate scanning images to set up files for platemaking. A couple of things I’ll cherish the most about teaching this class is both observing and getting to participate, to a certain extent, in the camaraderie of this group. When I pulled this drawing from my binder and showed it to the class as an example of a black and white line drawing that would be appropriate for a letterpress plate, we all laughed at its ridiculousness, and, tension broken, I was able to proceed with my morning demo, feeling a tiny bit better, feeling a tiny bit more capable.

I often end up tying my writing up into a neat little bow, finding a metaphor in the story somewhere along the line of writing it. I do this with my drawing as well. I get uptight about it. Drawing, although it’s my first love, is still quite a lot of work for me. It’s hard. I spend hours at at, and the longer I spend on it, the tighter and less lively it sometimes becomes.

So this dog. It reminds me of those students, just enjoying being there. Working very hard, but finding the moments of laughter and ridiculousness and running with it.