Art for the Inartful
Before I was an art major, I was a music major, and before I was a music major I was a math major.
In addition to going through three majors on a way to my degree, I also went through three school: Southern Oregon State, which was just across the boulevard from my high school, The School of Visual Arts in New York City, which I hated, stayed only one term culminating with an appendicitis attack and emergency surgery (see my triumphant return as a panelist on film censorship here), and finally the University of Oregon (Actually, when I arrived at the U of O I was so disgusted with my art-school/art experience I had intended to enroll in their J-School. But the entrance-exam requirement of producing 500 cogent words with no copy errors was simply impossible for me, so back to art.)
The U of O School of Architecture and Allied Arts proved to be a good home for me. What I lacked in elegance as an artist I made up for in sheer output; an endearing quality for a student, so I enjoyed good relations with my professors, three in particular: Bob Wenger, who taught design; Paul Tetzner, who also taught design, and Craig Hickman, who taught photography and was also a very early advocate using computers in art-making.
Today I want to tell you a little more about Bob.
Bob’s class was the very first class I ever took on the U of O campus. Very first as in 9AM, Monday morning, Fall term of my first year. It was basic design, a requirement for all art majors, and Bob’s classroom and his adjoining office were in the old physical plant, a brick building that looked like something out of Myst, only Myst was still 10 years away.
First year art students are, by and large, knuckleheads. Most kids (in my estimation, at least) pursue art because they are (in relation to scholarship) lazy, stupid, and/or afraid. I can’t imagine teaching to this sort of student body is especially gratifying. But none the less, Bob was cheerful, patient, and available (if you could bear the cloud of smoke from the humpies he chain-smoked in his office.)
What I’m remembering this morning is that Bob taught us that once upon a time drawing was considered part of the “core-curriculumn” of a liberal arts education*; that to be considered an educated person, you needed to be able to make passible renderings of the natural world; and certainly in a pre-photographic world you can see why this would make sense. Darwin had no camera to record his observations, and even after the advent of photography, the world does not always present itself in a way that a photograph can best convey the important details. Even today, a illustration is still sometimes best.
Bob also dreamed of a day when basic design would be considered a basic requirement on university campus, like expository writing, or calculus.
His reasoning was very simply that there are many instances when non-linguistic symbols, used alone or in combination with words, are a much better way of communicating than words alone, and that the systematized study of design is helpful in deciding when and how to make (for example) a map verse a left/right/distance narrative; or a diagram of a process vs a description; or a schematic vs. a pictograph.
I was and am a terrible draftsman. It was only because my drawing professor refused to give anyone who showed up for class and did the assignments any grade other than a B that I was able to pass the two sections of drawing that the U of O art department required. I envy people who can render, or even cartoon.
But I’m a pretty good diagramer (diagramatist?), and Bob gave me a way to understand diagraming and other things that weren’t drawing as a expressive, communicative tools. In fact, not too many years later, when I was producing my first film score and needed to explain to the composer what I wanted, I drew a diagram.
And of course diagrams come in handy in the boat-shop too!
*A few months ago I got in touch with a librarian at Yale and asked if they could confirm this, at least on at Yale. A few weeks later someone got back to me. He had pulled catalogs going back to the mid 19th century and could not find a drawing requirement. Not sure if Yale is requiring calculus anymore either.