That fact that most adults draw like 5-year-olds always intrigued me. Often people can carry a tune, pull off a line from a famous play or remember a step from their seventh-grade recital, but default into stick figures when it comes to drawing.
Why are we visually illiterate?
A decade ago, the fact that I drew like a 5-year-old actually gave me the courage to walk across the street from The Jung Center, where I was teaching, to MFAH'sGlassell School of Art to sign up for a beginning drawing class. The class was taught by Suzanne Manns, with whom I had worked as a teaching artist, which made it less of an intimidating proposition.
Week after week, when it came time to critique my work, Manns began her remarks with, "Now, Nancy is a dancer," as if to relay to the other more skilled students that I had other talents. Bless that woman.
Through various exercises, I not only learned how to draw in the dark and render perspective with a modicum of accuracy but also something way more important and eminently useful, how to see.
Thus began my art school life, where I dabbled in drawing, design, painting and eventually parking myself in monoprint class for several years. Manns, now faculty chair of the school for over a decade, smiles when I describe myself as an art school dropout.
"We are not in the business for providing studio space; we are trying to move people through these days," she says, during our recent visit. We walk through the impressive student show, which features a record number of certificate students, catching up and trading observations.
"This piece is remarkably resolved for a beginning sculpture student," Manns states, pointing to a delicate wood sculpture. Wandering through the exhibit, Manns shares her thoughts about the students' fine work with her characteristic gentle authority.
Much has changed since I left. The ladies room is painted a buttery Howard Johnson's blue, the faint perfume of paint is gone and there's a slick new parking lot outside the front door.
More importantly, the course catalogue contains a slew of new classes in photography and digital media "Our curriculum is current, and covers the foundations of what it means to be involved in the visual arts," Joseph Havel, Glassell's director, says. "Things change, ideas change. We take our students very seriously. We want them to have the very best education."
"We have to compete in the real world," Manns says.
With approximately 1,000 students, ranging in age from 18 to 70-plus, it's a diverse student body. You will find students with MFAs, who wish to be in the company of other artists or learn something new alongside art knowledge seekers like myself. The partnership with St. Thomas, offering a degree program in Studio Arts, continues to flourish and develop.
"We have added a class on professional development, which is crucial for artists today," Manns adds.
The Core Artist-in-Residence Program has placed many an artist on the national map. Each year, eight artists are selected to participate in a nine-month residency with an option to return the following year.
They are given studio space, a stipend and access to other opportunities. Designed as a bridge between the academic and the professional world, Glassell's Core program is highly competitive. Numerous Core Fellows have been included in the Whitney Biennial, several have joined the faculty, or stayed in Houston, re-populating the visual arts community with fresh talent.
"Today, we get hundreds of applicants and we have fellows from all over the world," Havel says. "One of the great things is that the Core program supplies us with an ever rotating excellent faculty."
Havel is equally proud of Critical Studies fellows. All the Glassell faculty are working artists. Havel, a renown artist himself, is preparing for his first solo show in New York at Yvon Lambert. He was recently named the 2010 Texas Artist of the Year by Art League Houston. His solo show at the Art League runs from Sept. 2 through Oct. 15.
Before I say farewell to Manns, we pop in the printmaking studio, my old home away from home, where she shows me her most recent prints. The geometry of nature — from spider webs to the branching patterns of her backyard cherry tree — continue to inform her work as she prepares for a show at Nau-haus Gallery this fall. Manns continues to experiment and push the boundaries of printmaking, sharing her latest discoveries with her students.
"It's important for me to stay on the technical forefront of my discipline," she says.
Manns' lessons continue to influence my art watching in more ways than I could imagine. Sometimes it seems nothing short of a miracle that I have some idea how a print image is constructed. It also gives me great pleasure to run into the fine work of former classmates, Anna Marie Ottaviano, Michel Letko and Orna Feinstein, who just had two pieces in Lawndale's Big Show.
Brave new students can sign up for classes Aug. 11-12.
Just as I no longer make dances, I no longer make images. (I'm getting quite a reputation as a quitter).
At least I'm an art school dropout who can draw a realistic looking egg.
Still, I cannot think of a more valuable education for anyone professing to know anything about the arts. In the end, the ability to make sense of any art experience comes down to deciphering a visual image. I find staying on top of what's happening in the visual arts hones my vision. And what a relief to look at work that stands still.
Every now and then, when someone asks how I acquired the chops to discuss dance and theater, "It's simple," I say, "art school."