Showing the Story Behind the Story of St. Paul Union Depot Murals

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In St. Paul, Minnesota, six enormous paintings adorn the cavernous waiting room of Union Depot. Created by Ralph Gilbert, these majestic works send viewers on a provocative journey evoking the rich history of both the region and of railways. Vibrant colors with intertwined compositions guide one through a visual odyssey as only good murals do.  Each being 16’ tall, it’s hard to decipher how anyone could conceive such a body of work.

Therefore, we are exhibiting the story behind the creation of the story.

In most cases, the creative processes of artists remain hidden. The final product seen by the viewer, interpreted as a sudden euphoric outburst of creative genius. But in the Mary S. Byrd Gallery at Augusta University, we have the rare opportunity to show exactly how such a grandiose project developed. Mr. Gilbert is generously displaying preliminary works to include initial sketches to fully rendered paintings that led to the final masterpieces. Art is work, and it’s apparent from Mr. Gilbert’s process that inspirations is indeed, mostly perspiration. This show is not to be missed.

A Story in Pictures: Studies for the St. Paul Union Depot Murals by Ralph Gilbert will be on display from August 17 – September 16, 2016. Mr. Gilbert will give a presentation on Thursday, September 8 at 5 p.m. A reception will follow.

As we continue to build the creative community in Augusta, we’ll continue telling the story of the creative process and what it’s like to be a practicing creative person. Ralph Gilbert is an excellent story teller. I’d encourage all to attend the lecture.

Bridging the Arts and Sciences

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Creative ideas are the work of collective minds. So our plan is to bring the arts and sciences together.

New concepts can easily be traced to a source—which came from another source. To a degree, nothing is wholly original. Even the theories of a genius loner like Isaac Newton (and he was as reclusive and brilliant as one could be) were influenced by others. His concepts were built on the ideas of those who had come before. In a famous letter to Robert Hooke, he says, “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.”[i] Newton knew very well that he was part of a larger network of knowledge building. It would be nearly impossible to create a way of thinking independent from the influence of others.

In fact, studies have been undertaken to determine if there really are any people who are original in their thinking. I find it hard to believe than one could trace something like that. But from these studies, it appears that there are only three people who were original: “first-century Confucian metaphysicist Wang Chu’ung, 14th-century Zen spiritualist Bassui Tokusho, and 14th-century Arabic philosopher Ibn Khaldun.”[ii] Consider those three in comparison to how many people have lived on the planet—over a hundred billion. Going solo seems nearly impossible.

As the Department of Art at Augusta University grows, we will foster a collective mindset through a series of interactive discussions called LASER Talks.

LASER stands for Leonard Art Science Evening Rendezvous. These are events sponsored by Leonardo the International Society for Arts, Sciences, and Technology (Leonardo/ISAST). They happen all over the world including Zurich, University of San Francisco, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, New York City, London, Tacoma, Toronto, Montreal and Kansas State University.

Last year, we hosted our first LASER and became an affiliate. Thus, add Augusta to the list.

Fortunately for us, the Director of Cultural Programs for the National Academy of Sciences flew in to moderate ours. He was amazing, and the event was a huge success. We packed a large auditorium with a wide range of people from the university’s upper administration to esteemed researchers to high school students. We formed our panel to include art history, studio art, otolaryngology and anaplastology. It’s amazing how quickly the audience drew connections from these seemingly disparate fields. How do we know we succeeded? No one left the room for two hours—not even to use the bathroom. That’s success.

This year, plan to hold more LASER Talks. Plus, we opened it as a collaborative event including the university and region. We are collaborating with areas throughout the university to synthesize ideas from an array of fields. The first talk will be hosted by the College of Education. The second talk will be hosted by Allied Health. The third, will be the Department of Art (us). And the fourth will be a unique hybrid summit hosted by our Office of Leadership Development. Over the next couple of years, we plan to collaborate with all facets of the institution to foster conversation and collaboration between the arts and sciences.

Our first LASER of the year hosted by the College of Education is on September 13. The outstanding lineup includes experts from the local area focused on STEAM initiatives and innovation in teaching and technology. I’ll announce the specifics soon. We’ll also simulcast it so everyone can view.

On a final note, as we expand into the community and improve our offerings to students, we will seek the support of the community. If you would like to help us build a new form of art education, please click here. Where it says designation, toggle to “other” and type “Department of Art 29115.”

Thank you!

[i] (wikiquotes n.d.)

[ii] (Uzzi and Spiro 2005, Volume 111, Number 2, September, 448)

Why Augusta University is the Place for Art

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To say Augusta is the perfect city for art may be a stretch. It’s not a cultural hub, and it doesn’t have a lot of galleries. But Augusta is the perfect city for building a transformative art department. The timing and circumstances are right.

As a city, Augusta is like many others. Geographically, it’s a city between cities. There’s a river running through and a beautiful lake nearby. Suburban areas surrounding it are on an exponential growth curve. What’s unique about this place however, is how it’s changing. The obvious connections to art and the two art festivals in town which are very successful and building the level of interest in arts and culture—“Westobou” and “Arts in the Heart.” My department is involved in both. But the real forces of change are below.

Air Force Cyber Command online for future operations

Capt. Jason Simmons and Staff Sgt. Clinton Tips update anti-virus software for Air Force units to assist in the prevention of cyberspace hackers July 12 at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. The Air Force is setting up the Air Force Cyberspace Command soon and these Airmen will be the operators on the ground floor. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)

 

Fort Gordon is becoming the Cyber Command Headquarters for U.S. Army. Currently, the fort employs around 20,000 people. By 2019, Fort Gordon will be a defensive operation actively protecting networks spanning the globe. This is bringing all kinds of investment and interesting people to the area. Everyone in the area seems to be scrambling to capitalize on cyber something. Thus we are seeing an influx of tech initiatives. Rent is cheap, and tech startups don’t need a lot of infrastructure. Click here to read an article on it.

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Augusta University is a new institution forged from a collision of two unlike colleges. I wasn’t here when it happened, but to hear people talk, it was a collision. And with that, the Board of Regents directed it to be a top tier research institution. We have a new name and a new mission. To lead us in the right direction, we also have a new president, Brooks A. Keel, PhD. He’s an alumni of both institutions that formed Augusta University. He totally understands the future of education, and is working hard to build a leading university known for innovation. I feel very fortunate having him at the helm. To read about his vision click here for a recent article in Augusta Magazine.

As of now, my department is relatively small and local. I looked the other day and we have 94 majors. We offer the regular range of degrees concentrating in ceramics, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, painting, photography and graphic design. Our faculty and staff are talented and active. As we grow, we’ll continue to offer more design oriented degrees until we reach a 50/50 relationship between fine arts and design. What makes us special though, is that we plan to develop an innovative model of contemporary art education with an emphasis on fulfilling creative careers—in a wide spectrum of fields. We’ll be building bridges between the arts and the sciences and demonstrate how universities and communities should be collaborative and complementary. In my next post I’ll let you in on one of our new initiatives.

Please join us on our journey.

Building an Art Department from a Merger

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A year ago I took a position as Chair of an art department in a university existing in a constant state of flux. It’s the product of what I call an extreme merger. In 2012, Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences Universities were combined to make Georgia Regents University. The goal was to create a comprehensive research institution. These institutions had little in common other than geography. In the short term, what happened was chaos. The name even changed once more to be Augusta University. But as the dust is settling the institution is proving to be a bastion of opportunity. As painful as the process was for everyone involved, it has created a wonderful place to work and learn.

During the past year, I’ve been coming up to speed with my new institution and the community surrounding it. A surprising understanding I’ve come to is how my department is far better if we build it as a creative community.

By a community, I mean a layered community extending outside the institution. The first layer resides within the department – we need to work together, communicate and support each other. The second layer includes the remainder of the institution – by working with all other departments on campus we can better utilize the wide an unexpected resources within the university. The third layer extends to the geographic area – there needs to be a fuzzy edge between the institution and the local community where collaboration is the norm. Creativity is a no-brainer because we now exist in an age of innovation where creativity is a must. Everyone institution should be ramping up support for creative initiatives.

Over the next year, I’ll tell the story of our transformation from a small department (80 something art majors) serving the local community to a nationally recognized department building a creative community in Augusta. To get a full read on my vision check out this article, Scott Thorp: Designing the Future, published in the Master’s issue of Augusta Magazine.

As I post, probably once per week, you’ll see how the Department of Art and the university are advancing. We just established a social media presence for the department, so follow us on twitter, Instagram and Facebook as we build our creative community @aug_artdept, #artinaugusta.

Thinking About Thinking

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Do you ever think about how you think? You should; it can help you be more creative.

It’s surprising how we sometimes come to conclusions. Frequently, my conclusions are drawn from mere associations. I’ll witness two events happening in quick succession, like hearing a noise and then seeing a person walk around the corner. And I’ll assume the first caused the second—the person made the noise. You probably do the same. At other times, I overthink situations and get nowhere—the ole paralysis of analysis. I dwell so much on a topic, I never move one. To help us be better thinkers, we should contemplate how our ideas come about.

Thinking about thinking is called metacognition. It’s an empowering higher order of cognition aiding in the learning process. Metacognition is concerned with how we know stuff. By reflecting on how we come about what we know, we gain a better idea of whether or not we really understand our surroundings. Is Johnny a liar, or does he just look like one?

I’m mainly interested in metacognition because it helps with creativity. Creativity starts with a problem. And like many other things, if your starting point isn’t a good one, it’s more difficult to get to a good finishing point. Questioning and revising the initial problem helps to generate a more creative final solution.

Here’s an example:

Back in the year 2001, young people were breaking laws by the thousands. They were sharing MP3 files through an online file sharing service called Napster. Their actions were illegal because they weren’t paying fees to record companies. It was amazing how many people instantly turned criminal. To punish these nefarious people, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began suing them. They even sued a twelve year old girl.

Being a typical corporate organization of the time, the RIAA didn’t reflect much on the larger issues, nor did they look for opportunities within this problem. But someone else did. His name was Steve Jobs.

Jobs thought the whole scenario was messed up, and he saw an opportunity. Instead of thinking those people to be bad, Jobs rethought the problem and decided he could eliminate the wrongdoing by designing a better system. He believed that if people had a better way of doing things, they would stop being criminals. So, instead of saying “how do I catch and punish these thieves.” He decided to improve their listening experience so much they wouldn’t want to steal songs. The first iPod held 1,000 songs and fit in your pocket. It also would easily download songs for 99 cents each. You know the rest of the story. Apple is still making tons of money from Job’s insight.

To solve this problem, Jobs rethought the problem. Therefore, he could create a better solution.

One of the best methods for artists and designers to become better thinkers and build their skills of metacognition is through process books. Process books are idea journals. They show step in the evolution of a project. I urge students to create them in a story-like manner so when they look back on it, it makes sense. They are structured like this.

  • Cover sheet
  • Project goal and problem statement
  • Variations of problem statement
  • A calendar listing all events from start to finish
  • Ideation strategies
  • Research
  • Reflections on research and ideation
  • Preliminary designs
  • Design revisions
  • Variations on a selected design
  • Final design
  • Final reflection on whole project

Process books help students better understand what made the final product possible. Without the documentation of their process, students regularly don’t understand where their ideas came from. But with a process book, it’s very clear that a lot of work took place to bring about a situation where that idea could be generated. Knowledge in this case really is power. It is because once you see what led you to an idea, you can replicate it again and again.

The Most Creative Painting…Ever

Roy Lichtenstein Bananas and Grapefruit

Have you ever thought about which paintings throughout history are most creative? It’s a tough call, unless you are a computer.

Not long ago, a curious colleague of mine started a similar debate among faculty concerning the best work of art, ever. Shortly after considering the matter, it became obvious my decision would be harder than first presumed. It’s tough separating personal interests from overall quality. In general polls, many of my favored paintings wouldn’t even make a top ten list of Twentieth Century paintings. Cy Twombly and Terry Winters are a couple of artists who connect with me. But stacked up against Matisse and Picasso, they are mere drops in a bucket. It’s interesting how my personal preferences can sway my views.

Eventually, I settled on Marcell Duchamp’s toilet which is referred to as Fountain. Much to the annoyance of my colleague. Duchamp signed it “R. Mutt.” My reasoning was Fountain has influenced the direction of art more than any other single work—at least according to me. However, it’s not even a work that interests me. Also, it was rejected for inclusion in the only exhibition in which it was entered. All works in that show were accepted if the artist paid the application fee, which Duchamp did. And it was still rejected.

Objective questions are tough for us because we humans are human; we have many personal biases. But computers don’t. They do what we tell them. And recently a computer was put to the task of determining the most creative paintings in history. Researchers Ahmed Elgammal and Babak Saleh at Rutgers University developed an algorithm defining creativity as “the originality of the product and its influential value.” They applied their algorithm to databases including tens of thousands of paintings. The X axis is a timeline. the Y axis is the creativity rating.  The higher the rating, the more creative the work.

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According to the algorithm, Roy Lichtenstein’s Bananas and Grapefruit #1 is extremely creative. See the article by Mark Wilson at Fast Company, History’s Most Creative Paintings, Determined By Algorithm. The actual study is here.

So, did the computer get it right?

Updates in ArtPulse Magazine

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My essay on Alfredo Jaar is now in the Features section of ArtPulse Magazine. I’d appreciate it if you’d take the time to click over there and check it out. It never hurts to have some numbers when they post my work. He’s a fascinating artist.

Also, the new edition is in newsstands with my interview with Angel Abreu. He’s one of the members of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. He’s got a great story. I thought this one had been printed a while ago, but it just came out.

Can Art Schools Teach Students To Be Artists?

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The other day I saw a post on LinkedIn asking if art schools could teach their students to become artists. I meant to comment on this, but instead viewed a few more posts and lost the original one asking this provocative question. The answer to it is, “yes” they can and do.

The question as to whether someone can be trained as an artist is an old one. It gained a lot of momentum when James Elkins published “Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students.” However, most people who use that book to fuel their argument haven’t actually read it. They just read the title. As Elkins does regularly, he lobs a philosophical grenade into the conversation to get it roiling.  In the end, he never really answers the title of his book. I’ve even heard art professors say “no” to this question. My immediate response to them is, Why do you have a job?

Art is like every other domain; if you learn how to do it better, you can do it better. The myth is that there is some supernatural, mystical ability artists must possess to be classified as real artists. In reality, that mystical ability is determination. As a comparison, kids all over the world learn to play soccer. And we assume that a kid can become a better soccer player if he/she learns the skills related to playing the game. We know they won’t be the next Ronaldo or Messi. But we still consider them soccer players.

The problem with art may come from the fact that we also associate the term artist with exceptional skill: He’s a culinary artist, or with a type of mysticism or deception: She’s an artist with cards. But being an artist means doing art-type things: painting, sculpting, designing, playing an instrument, or any number of other art related activities. The more you work on related skills, the better you’ll get.

Let see how some of the top artists of our time learn to be artists.

  • Jeff Koons: BFA fromMaryland Institute College of Art
  • Brice Marden: MFA from Yale
  • Bruce Nauman: MFA from University of California
  • Cindy Sherman: BA from Buffalo State College

Of course, there are others who didn’t finish their degrees, like Jasper Johns. He did attend art school though. But neither Bill Gates, nor Steve Jobs finished their education.

The main problem with art education is teaching students how to maintain an artistic practice. That’s more about practical skills like networking and maintaining a small business. My institution, SCAD does this very well. I keep in contact with many of my past students and they say SCAD prepared them to succeed. They work hard and work to get art related jobs. When I look at what they are able to do, and the lives they live, I’m amazed. But in the end, a greater portion of those who succeed are the determined ones.

A Preference For The Loss Of “Distance” When Viewing Art

Close up of a Rembrandt

As a painter myself, I choose to view paintings from about six inches. Above is a how I’d view a Rembrandt. If you speak to museum docents, they can tell exactly who the painters are. Painters stick their face right up next to the canvas peering intensely in every direction. What we painters are trying to see is how the paint is applied and layered. We want to steal any secrets our colleagues might be hiding. It’s all very analytical.

Strangely, that process is called distancing. Being so close the painting and looking at the physical properties, I’m not as likely to experience the transcendental properties of the work as a whole. Allan Casebier states there are two types of distancing: attentional and emotional. Attentional distancing has to do with what you are and aren’t paying attention to. Emotional distancing is more about how you are feeling in relation to the work. They seem like they point to detachment, but not really. A viewer can be very honed in, but yet still be distanced.

Historians and theorists tend to believe that distancing is the best way to objectively observe a work of art. That way you can be more critical of its quality and placement in the long history of art movements.

But something gets lost in the distancing. For the longest, I haven’t responded to paintings in the same way I did as a student. Back then, paintings would overwhelm me. I remember seeing Cy Twombly’s retrospective and being in utter awe. I think my jaw actually sat agape. Now however, I’d probably analyze the work for a brief period of time and rush right up to see how he applied his crazy paint. It’s almost like by being an expert in the field (in my own mind) I rob myself of the emotional impact of the work.

So now I’m into installation art. I think I am because I’m not a specialist in that domain. Even though I’m interested in how the work is created, I become much more engaged in the transcendental nature of the work itself—for now.

Big Data Art

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Does art create truth? That’s the question with which Hanneke Grootenboer starts, The Rhetoric of Perspective, a highly philosophical book describing the effects linear perspective on our ability to see. She does so by referencing Martin Heidegger’s statement “that art is the setting-into-work of truth; that art lets’ truth originate.” She then follows with, ‘Does art have an origin to begin with, or is it an origin by nature; a way in which truth comes into being, and becomes historical, as Heidegger indeed suggests?”

 

Any time you reference Heidegger, you lose readers. He’s intentionally abstruse. Plus, Grooternboer isn’t the easiest read either. By virtue of including both in my opening paragraph, I’ve probably lost most everyone by this second paragraph. Oh well. But does art make a new reality or does it just reflect the reality already existing. It’s an interesting concept to think about.

In her book, Grootenboer explains how linear perspective changed the way we view space. Before perspective was discovered,  there was no convergence in space. It just didn’t exist, especially on a flat plane.  But after Filippo Brunelleschi invented perspective, it did. And once someone saw Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, (the first real depiction of perspective in a painting) they saw a new truth. After viewing, Holy Trinity, one would turn to any of Giotto’s works and immediately see the falsehoods not present before.

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Masaccio, Holy Trinity

 

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Giotto, Legend of St. Francis

Art has performed this act of creating truth over and over again with its many movements including Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and many more. This comes to mind for me at this time because the other day I saw an installation by Ryoji Ikeda. It looked like streaming data projected on a wall. There were a bunch of numbers changing quickly and then it would categorize some of these numbers and go on searching again. Honestly, I didn’t really know what to think of it for the first few minutes. I just knew I liked it.

The question I keep asking myself is whether this work is showing me something new, or bringing new insight to something I’ve already known. The work is very Matrix-like. But it bridges a lot of topics dealing with information, to design, to art, to the nature of existence. The one thing I do know is that I hope there is more to come.

If you know of other artists working with this kind of data, please comment on this and post a link to their work. I’d like to learn more.