In the heart of the Seven Corners neighborhood on the West Bank of the U of M campus sat an art supply store called Pad-N-Pallet. With a dilapidated sign that matched its dingy and oft neglected windows, it opened into a cramped and dusty store that smelled like linseed oil, varnish and the early 1900’s. Packed floor to ceiling with art supplies: paper, brushes, rolls of canvas… from the beginner brand of Windsor Newton’s to the more refined and pricey Rembrandt oils, she was idyllic in every way, especially to a newly minted art student such as myself.
Armed with a list of supplies to procure for my Drawing One class I entered the store for the first time. Not only was this the first time I would enter Pad-N-Pallet, it was my first time in a real art supply store and it was my first time buying real art supplies. Vine charcoal, kneaded erasures, newspaper print, shammy cloth and the like, I was an 18-year-old in a candy store for 18-year-olds who fancied themselves a budding artist.
Until this point, my art materials had either been supplied by my high school art teacher or purchased at a local big-box craft store. Pad-N-Pallet was the real deal and although I was just starting my freshman year in college, as I paid the cashier, I felt as if I were already graduating into the real world. As he handed me the receipt, my initiation was complete. While for some, loosing their virginity might be the most pivotal moment in a young mans life, mine came in the form of carrying a real leather portfolio big enough to hold 22 by 30 inch acid free Arches paper and a fully loaded toolbox.
Like Pad-N-Pallet, the fine arts building at the U of M was the real deal. Sadly for recent and current students, I’m not talking about the new building on the East Bank, that modern and, dare I say, sterile excuse for an arts building. While the new building is shiny and probably up to code, I don’t believe I could perform in a space where I would be afraid to spill ink on the floor or allow paint to flop over the washbasins without rushing to get a mop for fear of leaving a permanent mark. To me the new building is cold, uninspiring and lifeless.
In stark contrast however, the old building, the one that sat all alone off to the side of the business school on the West Bank was full of life, quite literally. Mice, squirrels, cats and birds were regular trespassers of the building that wore spills and splatters like they were badges of honor. This building not only accepted your errant paint and ink stains but also asked for them, each one adding to a tapestry that marked the history of inspiration and expression, the building itself becoming a grand opus to the act of creation. Too much? Not if you talk to literally anyone who spent hours upon hours working there. Legendary, iconic, these words were made to describe such buildings with such storied histories. Sadly the same could not be said for the classes which I took in that building, my first drawing class, nor my second, nor my third and last art class I took before switching my major.
My first Professor, a former apprentice to Dali, so he said, over and over and over again, had the daunting task of teaching us newbie’s the basics. How one could make literally almost everyone in the class cry over drawing cones and boxes and balls is still a mystery to me. As most in the class were not even art majors but simply looking for an easy elective to get an A in, the Prof made it a personal mission to take his grudge on life out on the freshmen who hoped to graduate with degrees in economics, philosophy, engineering and the like. All hope of instilling the virtues of light and shade and how their proper use could be understood in a wider context in the world outside of the arts or even the simplest appreciation for the craft of drawing was lost on the non art students as he berated each and every one of us for the smallest of mistakes. No doubt those who did go on to graduate with non art related majors did so with a taste of disdain for the arts, all thanks to our first Prof.
What passion I had for becoming an artist was quickly eroding myself as that first class came to an end. Whatever ego I had built up during high school where I routinely received A’s in honors art was bruised if not broken as I received my first ever D in an art class. While my soul had definitely taken a tumble, it still had further to fall, as I would learn the following semester in Drawing Two.
While the most disappointing aspect of the Drawing One class was that we mastered very little by way of technical skill and suffered greatly in the process, Drawing Two would prove to be a new beast, one that would slay and open a wound that festers to this day where the state of the contemporary art world is concerned.
The new professor couldn’t have been more different than the first by way of style and demeanor. He was casual and laid back. He wore a paint splattered jean jacket and smelled of cigarettes, whiskey and weed. A creation of the 60’s, his curly black hair was always in a state of unkempt, his face unshaven and his love of Bob Dylan completed his credentials as an authentic post hippie artist. The final nail in the coffin of difference between Profs was this ones disdain for any artist that preceded Pollock or exhibited any semblance of technical proficiency… sorry Dali and those who apprenticed for him.
While laissez-faire where anything concerning modern art was concerned, his love of Dylan was not to be taken lightly, made fun of or even challenged. There simply was no greater musician in the history of the universe, a fact that he ingrained in us every class as he somehow worked him into each and every art lecture. To add insult to injury and to cement the fact that non of us would ever listen to a Dylan song so long as we lived after finishing Drawing Two, he played the same two Dylan tapes over and over again on a tape player he brought to class with him as we worked on in-studio assignments. Just as my passion for art was slowly blowing in the wind, he managed to make me despise Dylan too as he reduced him to torturous and monotonous background music for ridiculous assignments that followed ridiculous lectures.
To illustrate just how ridiculous the assignments were, his philosophy on art, his approach to teaching and the level of expertise he wished to bestow on us could easily be summed up by just one of his assignments. “Draw something in brown.” What? I’m all for lessons in opening up creative channels and learning how to let the imagination run wild, but first I want to learn how to draw. This was, after all, only the second drawing class… what happened to fundamentals? How was I ever going to mimic the delicacy of Raphael by drawing something in brown? Not yet having mastered how to draw simple shapes or add value to those shapes, we were now being encouraged to go full bore conceptual, as if the skills our first teacher failed to teach properly were in fact pointless exercises where modern art is concerned.
At this point I went rogue and began to do my own thing. If he said draw something in brown, I used brown pastels as classically as my yet untrained hands could muster, to which he would criticize during group critiques that I was showing off and that I needed to let go of tired approaches to art. Perhaps I should have just drawn a single dot in the corner of the paper and declared it to be “a statement of brute minimalism exemplifying the power of the mark as the negative space adopts the void of our collective unconscious…” No thank you.
I suppose it was no shock when I received my second D in his class and again found myself questioning why I wanted to be an artist. Everywhere I looked the art world was moving more and more conceptual and the less skill someone exhibited the more praise they received. Modern museums boasted prefabricated boxes and fluorescent office light bulbs mounted on the wall as beacons of high art. Some years later I met an artist who had been trained classically and breaking his arm was unable to paint for a number of months with his dominant hand. And so he took to using his non-dominant hand with which he was barely able to scribble out the simplest ideas. It was these scratches that gained him a following and a reputation as a good artist. I couldn’t help but wonder just how much more naked could the emperor get?
Keep in mind, I don’t hate conceptual art, not in the least. Nor do I dislike minimalism as my snarkiness above may have implied… 🙂 I do however have standards, just as I have for any form or genre of art. I will always call foul play when seeing tissue paper crumpled up on the floor protected by little wires as if intended to keep the desirous crowd at bay. Perhaps the wires are intended more so to keep the custodians away… snarky. 🙂
After a third and equally disastrous art class I dropped out of the art program and switched to clothing design and retail merchandising while continuing to paint and draw on my own time, often spending hours in the art building alone at night far from the ridiculous notions of modern art professors or the barely discernible lyrics of Dylan.
It wasn’t until a couple of years after graduating that I stumbled across an artist in NE Minneapolis whose art shocked me. He painted with the skill of the old masters, something I hadn’t seen in contemporary circles. Blown away by his skill I asked where he had studied, it for sure wasn’t at the U of M or even one of our local art colleges as this kind of skill wasn’t popular with them and probably wasn’t even achievable by their teachers. For the first time I heard about the Atelier Lack, a classically academic school that was dedicated to the craft of drawing and painting.
Armed with a new hope and renewed passion I contacted the Atelier and signed up for class. Although I had already graduated from college I was now ready to once again be a beginner student and finally learn how to draw, but for real this time.
It’s been over a decade since I last visited the U of M arts building. My hope is that the new structure has finally begun to show signs of the purpose for which it was constructed and that a bit of the shine has worn off and perhaps a few stains adorn the floors and walls indicating an artist was present. I also hope that the old guard of professors has been replaced by those who place value on fundamentals and craftsmanship before the exploration of conceptualism and hopefully they can see beyond the foolishness of so much of today’s contemporary art. After all, we live in Minnesota and the emperor is getting cold.