Living Art – V. Answering My Students

A Visual Artist Answers his students

Student: What shaped you as a teacher?

Avron: My personality as a teacher is rooted in my childhood….My father Isaac, mother Sofia and two of my uncles Moses and Raphael were painters.

Isaac, Moses and Raphael were well known. They are characterized as “urban realists,”   “painters of the American scene” and “New York artists.”

I’d bring my little scribble home from second grade. Their beautifully painted accurately representational art was on the wall. It was overwhelming, especially because I was not producing precociously accurate likenesses [Now I often do a series of different images from one model (as though they were of different people each with their own “aura”)].

I saw that my first attempts would not lead to the style of my father and uncles. Yet I loved to paint and my work was lively. I could either reject myself as a potential artist or learn to hear and respect “my own voice.”

My mother never exhibited. Her work is particularistic, yet open to expressionist distortion.

Painting by Sofia Soyer, Mother to Avron Soyer

There is a painting in red and black of a homeless woman in a doorway. Another is of a nude middle-aged woman seen from the back on a gray urban street.

A workingman with a broom stands near a naked mannequin. Two plainly dressed women in winter coats look through a department store window at two female mannequins in evening clothes.

There are three powerful expressive drawings of a woman in a net. No model. All are constructs. One appears representational. In another the woman resembles a maimed doll. None are wide-awake and fiercely struggling. Are they aware of their condition?

There are few paintings, some unfinished…. I was influenced by her work, and also by her “situation.” Her painting offered me an alternative path into art. Yet I sensed that she was not unambiguously on her own side…. I think that if she could have forced herself to paint as she consciously desired it would have been like Raphael (the most famous of the brothers).

My father and his brothers had a perspective on art that supported their work. She was balanced uncomfortably in an intermediate position.… Her “vision” was too strong and authentic to be entirely submerged. Yet her conscious orientation did not adequately support her intuitions.

I wish that my mother had exhibited. I hope that her work will enter “the blood stream of art”… She worked before the emergence of the new feminism when, even among artists, Freda Kahlo was almost unknown, the wife of Diego Rivera who “also painted.”

I am aware of the danger of identifying the potentialities of art with any particular approach. I am on the side of open creative dialogue between person and discipline.

I want to accept and encourage. Yet I also want to help students move closer to art. Thus I cannot uncritically accept everything they draw and paint. This is a basic tension in which I work. …I don’t know whether this comes through.

Student: Yes, yes. This is your style…I felt that I could do what I wanted but that I had to follow the rules.

Avron: Not from my point of view rules.… Art has standards and techniques, but they are predominantly orientations and sensitivities and only secondarily, peripherally, rules.

A young artist recently told me that she is tired of the rules that art teachers insist are essential to art. If one has been in contact with many such teachers one finds their rules contradictory. One says, “You shouldn’t draw. You should construct paintings by juxtaposing areas.” Another says, “Draw the figure in charcoal before painting.” Some insist on detailed “underpainting.” Others demand thick bravura direct paint application. Some insist, “Put in the darks first;” others say, “First do the lights.”

It’s worse than this. I’ve seen student exhibitions in which everyone painted like the teacher. I said in class today that it is fine for everyone to paint like the teacher under one condition. They have to look exactly like the teacher… A whole class of fat old Caucasian men with curly white hair painting the same way is fine. (Well…actually…my own work is quite diverse…I’m thinking of titling my next exhibition “Avron Soyer, A Group Show.”)

My teaching has been influenced by acting…. Actors take for granted that their unique humanity is their instrument, and thus that “technique” is primarily the discovery, opening and education of sensitivity.… The teaching of painting has not yet had it’s Stanislavskian revolution. Sensitive practice exists, but its insights are not publicly articulated. In the absence of theoretical self-knowledge, arbitrary rules and the teacher’s own idiosyncratic way of painting are often confused with disciplinary necessities.

It is crucial to distinguish standards and techniques applicable to a tradition

(e.g., Chinese, Indian or “Western” canons) or a style (e.g., neoclassicism, spontaneous ink play, abstract expressionism, fauvism) from those required by all painting, and/or all art.

All painters should, for example, learn sensitivity to the expressive qualities of line, shape, texture and color [e.g., to the interplay of “sharp” with vague ambiguous areas (as a ship emerges out of fog) and to cool and warm colors (as in Picasso’s blue and pink periods)]. They should learn to draw the “figure” (e.g., person, tree, flower) as an “organic unity” and to explore the relationship between focal image and “background.” They should learn to compose expressively and coherently in space.

To become an artist in any medium one should learn open and sensitive dialogue between spontaneity and tradition, between theory and practice, and perhaps most fundamentally, between inwardness, medium and “creative process.”

Student: How do you understand the difference between your work as an artist and as an art teacher?

Avron: As an artist I try to create the most vital, personal, intense, articulate original images I can. As a teacher I am here in support of you. Your achievement as artists is my fulfillment as a teacher.

Student: How does one know when to leave a painting alone? You always warn against overwork.

Avron: We change. The world changes around us, light and mood. A painting should seize a vital intense image from the flow.

You may begin a painting in summer. You are happy. Full of life. Perhaps newly in love. You may return to it in winter. Lonely…The mind can shift from summer to winter in a moment.

In overwork one weakly compromises incompatible visions that could have inspired fine distinct paintings.

Listen to the work. When hints of a coherent strong personal statement appear on your canvas take it further “ in its own terms”, then stop.

Student: Apparently you insist that in order to be taught “art” has to have an inherent definite meaning and definite standards. Why is this important? Why can’t art be whatever we want it to be? What do you think art is?

Avron: I am very uncomfortable with arbitrary authority. For me to claim that “I am right because I am the duly constituted teacher” is constitutionally impossible. I could sooner spread my nonexistent wings and fly around the room.

Responsible teaching ends where there is no coherent way of distinguishing progress from regression.

Disciplined standards and sensitivities enable art to continue. They enable artist, art teacher and student to struggle against external domination and to escape cliché.

If the term “art” becomes only an infinitely expandable conventional designation then art is dead. People may still be hired to teach “art.” Mass produced toy submarines suspended from the ceiling and plaster casts hung about with ropes on which T.V. sets are attached may still – as in one Whitney Biannual – be exhibited as great American “art.” Yet it will be “a corpse dance.”

Art is the vital intense embodiment of inwardness in an interpersonally accessible medium. It is direct intimate communication between individual and species.

There is a borderline. Yet art isn’t “all or nothing,” Michelangelo or “kitsch.” When I was fourteen I painted a self-portrait. My father and mother took me aside (isolating the moment from the normal flow of life as a special occasion). They said, “This is a work of art. You will do others. You will do better. But this is a work of art.” In this minimal sense every student in the class crossed the border at least once.

In the second stage_ which some students who have been with me two or more terms are beginning to enter _ one struggles for artistic self-knowledge and to produce “a body of work.”

Towards the end of his life I posed for Moses who was a wonderful artist, one of the most fluent draftsmen and colorists in America. At the first session he worked for three hours then wiped it off. I said, “I thought that for you now it is easy.” He replied, “If it ever becomes easy one is no longer an artist.” At every stage difficulties even failures are normal and necessary. They are a sign that one is not “playing it safe”, that one is stretching, growing…reaching out.

Because we are each unique, originality is natural. No tricks or gimmicks are required. You need not be the first person to glue bread on a canvas, or the first to pee on the bread. Nothing external. Only learn to be yourself in paint.

Student: Painting I become aware of what I feel and who I am.

Avron: Wonderful

Student: I am just there. With my brush. My fingers. Minute by minute. Nothing else exists.

Avron: Wonderful

Student: You begin to glow

Student: She always glows: when she paints the wattage rises.

Student: John should teach a class in flirting.

Student: I hesitate to shadow your bright colors…. I want my paintings to be strong and intense. Yet it is painful to summon and experience powerful emotions as I work.… I feel like Hans Christian. Anderson’s mermaid. At every step I bleed.

Avron: If you are comfortable with your process and it works for you that is wonderful. If not lets try to find your natural path.

It is fine to paint close to ones feelings. It is fine to paint at a distance from ones feelings.

It is the painting that embodies inwardness .It isn’t necessary while painting to experience the intensities one captures.

Some artists like to feel excited as they paint. Others paint in a calm focused open inner space.

Reticences and hesitancies are part of inwardness. An art teacher should not try to break down students to extract visual confessions.

We are born communicating.

The visual is soulful.

The visual artist grows increasingly sensitive to the existential resonance of line and color .The artist dances to stylistic languages.

Painting becomes “a way of moving”, natural as walking.

People are infinitely valuable. Each person is an end in him/her self. Do not strip mine yourself.

Student: I am glad you are saying this. I studied acting many years. Sometimes they went pretty far.

Student: You say art is expression. Babies express. Is every doodle art?

Avron: “Express” suggests immediate “gut reaction”. Human emotion is naturally thought saturated…. I prefer “embody inwardness” to “express”.

Student: Express or embody. Feelings or inwardness. Every one does it. Thus it can’t be art.

Avron: Every one thinks logically: they can go from premise to conclusion and from the particular to the universal. Every one counts objects. When you boil water to cook an egg you control and predict nature. There are disciplines of science, mathematics and logic…Every discipline is rooted in human existence and basic human capacities.

Student: Science, logic and mathematics are objective. Art is subjective. One can distinguish more from less logical and more from less scientific. One can’t do this in art.

Avron: You want to improve in art. You want me to help you improve. How can I lead if I am lost?

In seeking a path it helps to know the destination… What is art? I suggest that it is the embodiment of “inwardness” in an interpersonal medium: a direct intimate communication between self and species.

Student: I paint what I care about…I love water…Everything from a shower to the ocean. On our last vacation my husband sat like a plant in the hotel. I wandered the beach alone.

Student: Entirely alone?

Student: Light summer flirting.

Student: Light summer flirting…. Lovely way of speaking.… Brings me back. – In my youth there were courtship rituals, like the birds on animal planet…. Except God willing nothing hatched.

Student: Kissing, Light petting, heavy petting,

Student: Petting until you lose consciousness

Student: I thought kissing was light petting

 Student: Light petting was above the waist

Student: When I was with a boy nothing spoke below the waist. I might have been pure marble.

Student: Slowly I learned what it was I felt. A different body …. The body of night.… My first love told me that my face would change.… I pity the young women now. Thrown into the water sink or swim.

Student: So many years of life together now. First thing in the morning last at night…There was a time there in the middle we felt… repetitive…. stale. _ Avron, you are always saying, “routine is the enemy of art”. It is God damn sure the enemy of love.

Student: “Going through the motions”. Well I know.

Student: Like the story Avron told about being sent to Arthur Murray’s to learn dancing and

being taught “the box step” without music

Student: For us for a while the music stopped. Thank God we got through it. Many of our friends were lost.

One guy actually went crazy: his girl friend aborted and got sick. Usually there were divorces.  We were luckier…. We got “our second wind”.

Avron: I learn from my wife and our life together…

Student: You quote her, “If one doesn’t listen now it doesn’t mean that one will never listen”.

 Student: I enjoy getting to know one another….   Yet its getting late. Please lets get back to art.

 Avron: Students often have a hard time with the idea that art can be learned and taught: that one can dependably recognize progress and regression.

A student in my class at Phoenix House turned towards a gray garbage can. “Until I met you I believed that to be an artist is to copy what you see. If I can copy this accurately then I am an artist.” He later told me that his dreams were full of fantastic visual images (I remember he said flying animals) saturated with color, as though he lived at night within a brighter richer world. Yet this to him had nothing to do with art. I remember saying, “Art is personal. One listens to one’s painting as one creates it, as though it is a person.”

He said, “If art is personal one can’t learn or improve.” I answered, “Learning is not limited to the external and ‘objective.’ We are learning to listen to one another. People learn to be friends. Hopefully one slowly learns to understand oneself. You are working to recover from addiction…Learning to listen, understand and change resembles learning art.”

Student: You mentioned your work at Phoenix House. What is it like? What have you learned?

Avron: Some students in recovery deny their talent. If they are who they think they are they cannot have the wonderful potentiality for art. If I work with them carefully most talented residents slowly, with many doubts and backslidings, move past this denial: recovering talent helps recover hope.

I teach creative writing as well as painting. My students speak about the honesty of the class.

This seemed strange at first. In “program” they talk about the most harrowing experiences. What could they say _ what could they confess _ that they hadn’t said a hundred times before?

Then I saw it. A student was speaking about his ex girl friend. His face was tense. His voice was strained. He meant it. Hearing him in creative writing workshop we urged him to let us see what he saw and feel what he felt. Someone said, “I would like to see her face in front of me.” He spoke again. I was amazed. A door had opened. He was present. She was present… I never imagined who was there behind the monosyllables.
Student: Why can art do this?
Avron: Art is disciplined and naturally joyous… One works personally yet the focus is out side oneself. One is in movement towards an autonomous form

The notion of pathology is foreign to art. Art accepts whatever gifts you bring. Art is in this a fragment of the Garden of Eden and a foretaste of paradise.

Student: Art is “all a matter of taste.” There is no arguing with taste.

Avron: In our class critiques there is general agreement about what paintings are “alive” and therefore art, and about the meaning of this art.

Student: We all live in the same culture… You influence our responses…

Avron: There is denial cut off from the rest of life like a game closed in upon itself. Perhaps nothing can be proved decisively…I am not sure if we can prove that we exist, or that we do not live within a dream.”

This conversation is not within a game. You care enough about art to take a class. I have given it much of my life. As a teacher I am responsible to the ancestors.

We don’t stop living because we can’t prove we exist. The struggle for art must go on…. More than art will be lost if people cannot share, learn and understand inwardness together.

Can you think of anywhere in life outside art class where it is crucial to communicate inwardness and where there is real learning?

Student: I don’t know what you mean.

Student: Hold the thought. Its getting late.

Avron: If one doesn’t listen now it doesn’t mean that one will never listen.

Student: One more question before we go… What is your favorite thing about teaching?

Avron: I especially enjoyed class today. Many of you used “oils” for the first time. We worked with music. I enjoyed moving from Mozart to Burning Spear to Nusrat Ali Kahn to John Lee Hooker to Nina Simone. You all did wonderfully: line, shape, color, texture, and image moved expressively with and against the music as though you were dancing.

Each student focuses on his or her own work. Yet you support one another. Not automatic clichéd praise without looking or listening. You pay attention to each other’s work and hear each other’s comments.

At the first class every term I say, “You’ll be surprised at what you’ll be doing in three months. Your work will be exciting and personal.” First time students look at me as though I’m crazy: perhaps thinking, “Yeah, maybe I’ll be able to draw a straight line.” (How did that cliché get started?)

Year after year within three months most students are doing personal interesting work. For the last three terms everyone entered the realm of art (i.e., did at least one minimal work of art). All returning students continue to progress. Their work is progressively stronger and more consistent. Thus teaching is more exciting to me than ever before.

My experience as an art teacher has changed my life. Every term people “come in off the street” and soon surprise themselves, each other and their teacher with unique vital interesting work. In everyday life I’ve come more and more to look at people with wonder. What exciting thoughts and images fill their world? What might they create if given half a chance?

What I like best about teaching are my students.

The above is the concluding Excerpt from Living Art by Avron Soyer


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Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

Reflections on life, paintings, theory, conversation.

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