From January 2015

USF Drawing

Just finished teaching a 3-week “Drawing for Non-Majors” winter intensive at USF: an assignment that I sometimes give students is to do a plein air charcoal drawing of some corner of campus, and to then bring this back in to the studio to heighten with ink and other media.

My class was tiny this term, so I had a little bit more down-time to actually take on the assignment myself. This, a fairly quick 19 x 24 study of the corner of Fromm Hall, as seen from the cafe tables in the main plaza:

fromm USF

Since I was still on duty as instructor, I didn’t have a huge amount of time to spend on it, but it was still good fun: the problem with getting too set in one’s way as an artist, or to feel constantly obligated to one’s agenda or artist statement, is that it’s surprisingly easy to forget the simple joy of just sitting down to do a dumb observational drawing. Big reminder to just draw for sheer pleasure. Hello.

Hilo print

Last week, I received a mysterious, large, foam-core-padded package in the mail. Upon unwrapping it, I was reunited with a print edition I had been part of while working at UH Hilo in summer 2013. With the full print set now completed by Jon Goebel and Liv Johnson, all I have to do is sign and return most of them.

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It was a strange, slightly melancholic feeling, opening that package and reading Jon’s and Liv’s lovely notes included in the package: that summer in Hawai’i was such an extraordinary, dream-like experience I don’t think I’ll ever have again, and brought me back to a place that I dearly miss.

I ended up in Hilo after the wonderful Michael Marshall invited me, as well as my old friend David A.M. Goldberg, plus artists Khalid Kodi and Wendy Yothers, to be artist-in-residence/visiting instructors in the university’s inaugural Summer Art Institute. For me, it was 6 weeks of pure magic and a decent amount of grieving, because this was only a few months after Carlos Villa had passed. And of course, as with so many good things in my life, this residency only happened because OF Carlos: I’d made Michael’s acquaintance through Carlos some time earlier.

My print image:
A durian bomb in the midst of volcano plumes, naturally.
In a really soft, green-black ink.

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One of the big blank spots in my art education is printmaking: despite how naturally my style might seem to lend itself to the process, I never quite wrapped my head around it as an undergrad: photography and darkrooms were my preference, as far as reproducible media were concerned. Later, the advent of digital archival printing suited my patience levels far better, so when prints were needed, this was and is typically the route I’ve gone.

Still, the experience of actually drawing on a copper plate, and being led through the stages of print development by the masterful Liv Johnson, was wonderful, and gives me hope that I may yet engage in this ritual again, and with more of my own expertise. (Preferably, in Hilo.)

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Syllabus

I’ve been crafting syllabi for over 15 years now. Perhaps “crafting” is not quite the right word for my earliest ham-fisted attempts at stumbling my way through, but these days I’m reasonably pleased at how my syllabi look.

With something one’s been doing this long, you’d think the process would be reasonably easy at this point, right? Yes, but: in thinking more like an artist and less like an administrator, that restless “must make it look/feel better” feeling still pops up periodically.

About a year ago, I read an article on how to create a more engaging syllabus. The overall philosophy was great; the linked examples, not so much. The design-nerd in me was appalled by some of their clutter-y visual decisions and fatal font choices. Still, my big realizations in being challenged to re-think my syllabi were these:

1. KISS. I have a tendency to be wordy. My syllabi were unnecessarily complicated, and I needed to simplify. In certain classes, I often had ELLs, so this wasn’t doing them any favors, either. Language is cleaner and simpler now.

2. Lack of visuals or other engaging emphatics, like interesting quotes. Hello: I teach visual arts courses. It’s not that hard to lead with an image. I took on an additional personal challenge to always employ primary images by artists of color, usually female, since there’s still a painful dearth of these points of reference as anything other than an afterthought.

3. Lifelessness. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve got personality to spare, but this hasn’t been as evident in my syllabi. Some of this might be called “professionalism,” of course, but if the purpose of teaching (and by extension the syllabus) is to engage, challenge and inspire, then a syllabus should let students know both what they’re getting into AND why they should be excited/nervous about it. I’m still working on this one: it’s a challenge to balance the necessary formalities with a little more personalization.

I’ve got a pretty good handle on how to organize the basics–course description, expectations, grading, assignments, calendar. Depending on the school, there’s often other mandatory information to include such as disability resources, academic integrity policy, course outcomes, lab fees, etc.  (The past couple of years, I’ve been compelled to include a depressing number of warnings and consequences regarding smartphone abuse, given student addictions.)

I’m musing on this now because the spring semester is starting soon, and I’m working on a new batch of syllabi. Some of this was spurred on by Carlos Villa’s old syllabi-as-artworks, two of which hang on the walls of my apartment, reminding me every day how to think differently about teaching and learning as a creative enterprise. The newer “some-of-this” is because I just read Lynda Barry‘s “Syllabus,” which is an extraordinary, generous, cockamamie book showing how she sees and employs her wonderfully screwy-but-structured syllabi. Here are a couple of examples:

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I’m not sure I can overstate how much joy it’s given me reading and looking at these. Granted, there are somewhat special conditions governing Barry’s ability to do things her own way, but there are still some very basic things at work in these examples that can inspire more creative possibilities for many of us. Imagination and exuberance are everywhere on these pages, and I love it.

Still, much as I’d love to hand-draw myself as Professor Chewbacca, I don’t think that my ever-perilous adjunct status confers upon me quite the same level of carte blanche that Barry has. A woman can still dream. Here, a couple of examples of the tidier state of some recent syllabi of my own:

Spanner

There are a few nice things about keeping an independent blog again, such as: it’s not Facebook. It’s not Tumblr. It’s not Instagram. It’s not Twitter. Not that these are inherently evil, but it does feel good to put a slight wall in place between them and me.

When I had my previous blog way back in the Jurassic* era, we weren’t as absolutely consumed by social media and mindless link-swapping, nor were we speed-swiping past everything on smartphones en masse yet. Yeeessss, I got sucked into some of that for a while too, but in the past year or so have become increasingly weary of it, particularly of sharing anything too personal. Posting here may not be markedly better, but at least it operates according to my own logic and interests, and doesn’t pop up in an endless newsfeed of disposable amusements.

Also, it’s nice to have somewhere to post things that don’t really fit elsewhere on the new website. Case in point, this little painting I just made for my sister, which doesn’t quite qualify for the lofty “Projects” page.

sffd spanner

I’m kind of pleased with it for a few reasons.

1. It only exists because my sister is incredible: the thing in the painting is her fire academy spanner, a very weird and specific tool. She and the other candidates each had their own numbered spanner that they were responsible for during the duration of their training, so it has a real symbolic power. She was one of only 4 women that made it through an incredibly arduous academy into the fire department. Having now successfully completed her probationary year, she is officially a real, permanent SFFD firefighter, which is 5 thousand kinds of amazing.

2. It’s a really weird object, and it was fun to attempt to paint something I’ve never seen before in a style I rarely employ.

3. It’s nice to make things because you love someone.

*: 2007-2011

8 Forms of Utang (for Carlos Villa)

As part of various new-year initiatives, I updated some of my writing recently. In adapting my artist statement for something I was applying for, I realized that I really needed to include something about Carlos Villa, and how much he shaped me as an artist. It’s implicit in my practice, but I needed to clarify it for those not crawling around in my head.

With this in mind, I dredged up something I wrote when I was invited to be one of the speakers at his SFAI memorial in 2013. I hadn’t read it since it was written: in re-encountering it, it seems like a piece of writing that I should probably revisit from time to time, to keep myself on target.

I miss him every damn day.
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8 Forms of Utang (for Carlos Villa)
SFAI
April 25, 2013

This past weekend, I went out to my storage unit in search of stuff Carlos had given me: like many of us, just longing to find something that still had some whiff of him. I’d inherited a bunch of office boxes filled with resource material related to Filipino American Arts a few years back.

Inside one of the boxes, I came across a text Carlos had written called “60 Forms of Utang”. It’s a gorgeous, meandering essay in the form of 60 numbered paragraphs, discussing a number of critical moments and individuals in Asian American Art, gently calling out some art institutions for their racist or sexist policies, and talking about his own journey as a Filipino American artist.

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60 Forms of Utang, Carlos Villa

“Utang”, or “utang na loob”, is a Filipino term meaning your debt of gratitude. It’s like an obligation, but a loving one—it’s the desire to repay someone’s kindness, to pay it forward in some profound way. It’s a phrase that perfectly encapsulates Carlos’ actions, and also his legacy: it’s what a number of us have been feeling, since we first met him and since he’s moved on now.

Here’s a small excerpt from Carlos’ essay, in his own words:

#14. Utang is the Filipino word for “tribute” or “what you owe”. “Utang”, the way my parents used the term, particularly when a member of the family died, took on a ceremonial aura. When it was used otherwise, there was a tone to it that carried an urgency; not to be taken lightly.

So with that “ceremonial aura” in mind, but with respect for the limited amount of time we all have to speak, here is a very short list of 8 of my own many, many forms of utang for Carlos.

1. For the first class of the morning of my first day of school at SFAI, 20 years ago, this September. The McMillen Conference room, Jay DeFeo’s “The Rose” still sealed into the wall, but peeking out, looming. The class was Worlds In Collision, and it changed everything for me. Between Carlos in front of me and Jay in the wall, I learned so much that semester.

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Worlds In Collision syllabus-as-artwork, Carlos Villa

2. For the Worlds In Collision project. For Other Sources. For Rehistoricizing. For Filipino everything. For marginal/diversity/feminist anything. For being an instructor who saw validity in making art about a Filipino American experience. For acknowledging that identity, activism and politics were valid topics for creative expression.

3. For being one hell of a teacher. For breaking down the boundaries between one’s personal art practice and one’s pedagogy. For making a syllabus a call to action and a work of art, all at once.

4. For teaching so many of us what participating in, and making, a creative community really means. For modeling a more intimate, connected, alternative to this nebulous, network-y place called the “art world”.

5. For so many of my deepest friendships, collaborators and cronies. For the fact that I am connected to many of the people speaking here today because Carlos had an uncanny knack for match-making. For this knowing acknowledgment, this unstated thing that immediately somehow binds us together.

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Carlos guest lecturing in my Filipino American Arts course at USF.

6. For being the world’s cutest bully. For managing to guide so many uncertain young people in their work, for twisting all manner of folks around his finger and getting us to do whatever he wanted to, through pure charm and mellow grace.

7. For being the only artist I know who was such an insidious morning owl, calling all of us at 7 am, and gently insisting on morning meetings, despite knowing full well that the average 20something operates at diminished capacity until at least noon.

8. For giving me my own path as an artist and educator. For inspiring me to teach to diversity and to stories and artists often still relegated to the margins, to question the western Canon and its terms and conditions.

For all of these things and so many more many of us have utang: a deep gratitude, and a deep desire to repay Carlos, and to keep manifesting this work.

The last line in Carlos’ essay, #60, was this:

Everyday that I think of my parents, I feel warmed all inside from my Utang.

In that spirit of utang, I hope that any of us who think of Carlos carry that same warmth forward as well. I think he’d love that.

Carlos at Grove St Studio
Carlos in his Grove Street studio, circa 1985.