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Education and Teaching

In International Artist magazine issue 149, we talked with a few of our new and returning faculty artists to discuss a range of subjects from mentoring and education to overcoming the most challenging obstacles. The second pair of artists we spoke with was Mary Whyte and Thomas Caleb Goggans, and we asked them these questions:

1. Can you tell us about how you decided to go to art school and what your experience was like?

2. Would you recommend an aspiring artist to go to art school or seek out an alternative educational path?

3. I know you teach on a regular basis; do you find that enhances your own work and how do you fit that in around your painting schedule?

Mary Whyte, Window, watercolor on paper, 38.50x28.25”, WE THE PEOPLE: Portraits of Veterans in America Exhibition, Christian, window washer, Oak Park, Michigan Army, 2007-2011

Here are Mary Whyte’s responses:

1. When I was eighteen, I enrolled at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. It was against my father’s wishes, so I made a compromise with him by agreeing to also get a teaching degree. The best part of art school was living and studying in Rome for a year. The worst part was that my work didn’t fit in with the school’s mission. Most all of the art schools at that time were following New York's trend of abstract expressionism, and my paintings of the people on the subway, my grandmother’s teacups and my aunt in her kitchen were far from that.

2. Regardless of the lack of acceptance of my work in art school, it was an enormous period of growth for me. An artist’s best education will always happen in front of the easel, with his or her time spent earnestly in search of personal and meaningful expression. On the other hand, it is also valuable to seek out an education from teachers and artists that have gone before us—by learning their vision and technique and measuring it against our own experience.

3. I love teaching, though I have to balance it with stretches of time in the studio. I find it satisfying to inspire and instruct young artists, and to see them blossom into the creative person they were meant to be. Having to articulate the mental and physical process of painting to others has made me a better artist as well.

Thomas Caleb Goggans, The Buffalo Soldier, resin and wood, 22x11x12”

Here are Thomas Caleb Goggan’s responses:

1. Like many of my colleagues I knew very young that I wanted to be an artist. Painting, drawing, and playing around in clay consumed my grade school and high school years until I found myself at the end of my teens determined to be an artist but having no clear idea of how to make it happen. I really wanted to move to Europe to study in ateliers, or go to New York and enroll in the Art Students League, or to some other place that had revered art institutions and traditions. But coming from a smaller town and from a family that didn’t have the means to help me financially, all that seemed impossibly daunting and out of reach. Around that time, I was visiting Ed Jonas’ studio for a few days, and he very wisely saw how hungry I was to learn, and how much I wanted to become a skilled and successful artist. On the second day, he practically grilled me all morning about what I wanted, what my goals were, and how I planned to achieve them. He also introduced me to several colleges and art programs I wasn’t aware of, where you could get a solid skill-based art education. That conversation really challenged me and helped me develop a clear practical focus and determination.

The Lyme Academy was one of the art schools that Ed introduced to me, and I was immediately impressed with their program. That winter I drove to Connecticut to visit the school, and I knew as soon as I saw the studios that I was going to make it happen.

My time at Lyme was wonderful, especially my first two years. Two of the driving forces of the school were still alive and teaching then: Elizabeth Gordon Chandler, the founder; and Deane Keller, the founding director of the Drawing Department. I had a voracious appetite to learn, and they along with the rest of the wonderful faculty provided a hearty feast of knowledge and experience. I delved into the fundamentals of drawing, painting, sculpture, linear perspective, color theory, printmaking, materials, anatomy, and so much more. Those founding faculty were deeply invested in helping grow and develop young artists into well rounded, knowledgeable, curious, driven, skilled, and meaningful creators and professionals. The atmosphere and environment then were incredible and permeated the whole school. Sadly, the bureaucratic and practical challenges of becoming an accredited college were often detrimental to the purpose and vision that the Lyme Academy was founded upon. During my years at Lyme both Mrs. Chandler and Dr. Keller passed away, which was a huge blow to the true mission of the school. Things were never the same. I still got an incredible art education, but I had to fight to get what I came there for- what was sold and promised to the students. I learned a lot, good and bad, about how the institution and the world work. Since my time there, the Lyme Academy has transitioned back to an atelier program and is no longer a college.

2. I think at this point, if a young, driven, aspiring artist really wanted to become a traditional or representational artist, I would not recommend getting a college art degree, especially if they will have to take out sizeable loans to do so. I was able to secure three significant scholarships, so even though Lyme was quite expensive, I was able to get my degree only owing a small amount in subsidized federal student loans. With how expensive colleges and universities are now, I don’t think the art degree will serve a working artist. If someone wants an academic career or is interested in working in a creative field of corporate business, media, etc., then perhaps an art degree of one type or another would be the way to go. However, if being a working professional fine artist is what you are passionate about and determined to do, then I think seek out the artists, ateliers, studio programs, and opportunities that will directly support your vision and what you’re after. Get involved with the art organizations like the Portrait Society that will connect you to great artists, galleries, and the community of fellow artists that will help you build relationships and your career. I have been blessed with innumerable relationships with the most incredible, accomplished, skilled, prominent, and generous people in the art world because of my involvement with organizations who seek to better the art world. I think there is enormous value for artists to take classes in business or marketing from affordable community or online colleges- but a university fine art degree? Hard pass.

3. Yes, I find that teaching greatly clarifies and deepens my own understanding and ability. To teach something well, you must truly comprehend it in a way that allows you to communicate what is essential. It forces you to organize and prioritize every aspect of your knowledge and practice, so that you can articulate it in a way that will not just be technically understandable to your students, but that also inspires them, helps them grow, and builds interconnection between everything they are learning. There’s nothing quite so motivating and inspiring as watching what I’ve shared help others in their pursuit and skill. I’ve been blessed enormously by those who invested in me as a developing artist, and I am so thankful for their generosity. It is very important to me to give back out of that gratitude, to share and pass on some of what I’ve been given.

There are many avenues that allow me to share my knowledge, some are more obviously “teaching” while others are much more informal in the course of life; sometimes that’s in conversation when I meet up with groups of fellow artists, or someone calls or texts to ask technical materials questions. Other times it is through exchanges on social media, then there are things like classes, workshops, conferences, and contributions to publications. The last few years it has been difficult to do many classes or workshops, as I have two young children and many other responsibilities outside of my career. There are two big conferences, though, that I make a high priority, the Portrait Society convention and the SKB Wyoming Conference, because I really believe in their missions and what they are doing. My year is somewhat structured around those two big events, and I work everything else around them. But those gatherings are also where I’ve built so many vital and meaningful relationships, and I come away from them motivated, invigorated, and inspired. When you invest that way, it becomes an integral part of life, and the people become family.

With all the other things- writing for a publication, workshops, online sessions, etc., it can provide welcome variety among the more regular day to day routines of studio life. Through it all, I think it’s vital to teach out of a desire to share. If I find myself feeling like the thought of teaching another class is wearisome or bothersome, then it’s time to take a break. I don’t want to feel that way about it, and the person looking to me deserves so much more.


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