October 12, 2015

When the Student Is Ready

I started to write this post in July. At that time, I was thinking about my undergraduate education at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Back in the 90s when I was a student, RISD was consistently ranked as one of the top - if not the number one - fine arts programs in the country. That reputation may have been daunting to some, but not me. Why I chose to go there had little to do with reputation and nothing to do with learning a profession. My choice was simple. I had always been a good student, all subjects came easily to me, but photography was the one subject in high school that I loved above all others. I just couldn't get enough of it. My criteria for college were 1) a photography program and 2) the opportunity to study in London. RISD offered both with the added benefit of not being part of a wider university curriculum that would have entailed more time spent fulfilling irrelevant class requirements and less time spent immersed in making art.

I greatly appreciate the depth of my education. RISD required rigorous development within our chosen craft and emphasized mastery of technique, tools, and medium while simultaneously encouraged us to find and express our own unique, inner voices. Through daily practice, I gained a thorough understanding of film photography, cameras, black and white and color film processing as well as darkroom printing, and, consequently, optics and chemistry as specifically related to photography.

Beyond technique, I targeted my art history and humanities requirements to classes in my specific areas of interest to help me to develop my artistic voice. Because of this strategy, I gained understanding of the historical, theoretical, and critical contexts in which to situate my own work.

I'm blathering on about my educational experience for this reason: I thought I had lost my voice as an artist. I was wrong. I never lost my voice, only my language for expressing it. I still don't know if moving away from photography was a conscious choice on my part or only the consequence of losing access to a color darkroom. I've finally come to truly, deeply believe - not just repeatedly tell myself in the hopes that I will eventually believe it - that the reason doesn't matter. The reason I'm no longer a photographer doesn't matter because I am and always will be an artist. I'm currently an artist learning a new language with which to express my voice. Thankfully, I know how to learn a new language on my own. I learned how at RISD.

Which is a long preamble to what I've been up to lately. The following sketchbook page, circa 1993, is a record of all the various times, conditions, and locations where I was shooting the moon along with the specific camera settings (aperture size and shutter speed) of each individual frame. Stumbling across this page reminded me that knowledge is learned through experimentation. I taught myself to capture crystal clear images of the moon, and to deliberately blur the images, through trial and error and good record keeping.
Applying the two-pronged educational approach that served me well as an art student, I am now practicing embroidery technique and experimenting with expressing my ideas in thread. All the while taking copious notes.
While my mind continues to churn around these thoughts on art, learning, and expression, perhaps the most encouraging evidence that I am on the right track are these:
Anatomical drawings of a lactating breast and uterus and fallopian tubes rendered in embroidery. I found these in my box of embroidery supplies while hunting down floss for the Sheela-na-Gig* pictured above. Yes indeedy, my voice has remained strong and my new medium isn't so new after all. I stitched these two mason jar lids in 1992 or 1993. I never could figure out how they fit into my photography, if at all, so I abandoned them. But my interest in debunking the negativity, fear, and misinformation about female sexuality and reproduction remains constant. It feels good to have circled back to a beginning, now with the intent to develop it and see where it leads.

*Sheela-na-Gigs are female figures carved in stone with bent knees and hands reaching to pull open the labia and expose the vagina. In Ireland and Britain, most are found on churches or monastic buildings dating from the 11th to 13th centuries. The Sheela-na-Gig I am translating to cross stitch is based on a corbel on Kilpeck Church in Herefordshire, England, c. 1140.

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