The more time that has passed since I entered into the ranks of professional adjunct faculty, the more I have acknowledged just how emotionally battered I left graduate school. After years of apparent friendship I felt betrayed by those who had challenged me, supported my development, assisted with financial aid opportunities and gave me space to grow my ideas about art and painting. They graciously shared advice and their own personal experiences which I cherished.
Over a period of 8 years the faculty and a select group of us grad students shared meals together, attended events and shows, had art-making jams for hours on end at the school and off campus. Art Hop was real back then. It was clique; I had finally found a tribe. There were amazing philosophical conversations and technical insights; everything graduate school was supposed to be including some unspoken, and at times, fierce competition among "the realists."
I was sadly naive. This academic and social euphoria began to wain as I began to ask harder questions about the curriculum; I got fewer invitations and harsher criticisms. I wasn't called and got stood up for dinners and was told to leave at group meetings. I was left with a traumatic dichromatic experience.
In school, I was constantly worried about my drafting and painting skills; the traditional painting style I cherished was so mechanically difficult to produce (my insecurities were legion) it seemed impossible to master them with any certainty. It was only later when I visited the Musée d'Orsay in Paris did I realize I had some super genuine skills. But back then at Fresno State it was easy enough for faculty to praise others who dripped and squeegeed paint on metal panels while criticizing us on a badly drawn hand or an idea that was "antiquated." There was a palpable double-standard. It was almost as if the instructors themselves were worried if their students got too good their job was threatened. It didn't make sense then and certainly doesn't now.
I lost my long-term drafting job in those last two graduate years and my wife and I had three little-ones at home. I was thankful to have a spouse who helped me source models, was my constant emotional champion and did the heavy financial lifting while I was unemployed and in school. My wife was a superstar, the breadwinner, pulling my parenting slack while I was furiously painting in the heat and freezing temperatures in the garage of our 2 bedroom apartment.
My wife helped plan all the niceties of my exhibition that I didn't have time to address or didn't have a good grasp on how to execute with a delicate touch; linen choices, food and dessert selections, flower bouquets, etc. The result was decadent. People said it was like a wedding reception and it was packed until closing. My exhibition partner to whom I shared the gallery space was a hugely skillful glass sculptor and filled the 3D space. It was beautiful and magical.
The more we struggled financially to produce the show and keep the lights on (the loans started at that time) and along with a family tragedy, the more I leaned into the belief that the painting room in the Conley Arts building was a safe and sacred place. I came to painfully realize veneers of faculty friendship there was only as thick as the course performance forms and pending tenure selections allow them to be.
I felt the need to always defend my realist bent, my belief that something bad had happened to the art world, especially in America post 1970. I didn't have the experience or aptitude to define what that something was. I did have the courage to write as much of my own independent study curriculum during my undergraduate and graduate career as allowed by the college. I knew there was more than what was being offered and I couldn't accept less.
I was very active in the Classics Department across the campus as a way to shore-up what I believed to be the art department's deficit. I routinely received praise from the classical studies instructors both for my knowledge and writing skills in areas of philosophy, history, warfare and arts of the antique. I was encouraged to double major and consider graduate school at Harvard. I had previously attended UC Irvine where an art history course like Renaissance Venice wasn't smashed into a 3 week chapter. I had been to Rome by this time, museum binged for three weeks in the Eternal City trying to further educate myself in ancient, Medieval and Baroque art. I studied ruins, old maps, parks, fountains and all I could there. I wrote badly translated letters for archaeological experts and met other like-minded travelers.
These experiences kept me asking "why and for more" than what payroll allowed at CSU Fresno's Art Department. Only further study and experience would finally reveal to me what that thing was. Fresno State never actually could quench my artistic thirst; it was a land-locked department by district intention and budgetary constraints. The building itself was a Brutalist structure which we all referred to as "the bunker."
I remember one of the semi-retired instructors telling me "there's too many politics here" and another instructor at a community college say "they keep asking me to come over to Fresno but its a bad work environment." Some instructors down the hall would refuse to speak to each other; something I consider today insane, petty and stupid as I am blessed to work with some fantastic peers at my own institution.
I kept trying to find the knowledge to become a wonderfully skilled and smart art creator on my own. I wanted to emulate heroes such as William Bouguereau, Jean-Leon Gerome, Thomas Eakins and the new-kids-on-block like Jacob Collins and his up-and-coming Derriere Guard (life before the Grand Central Academy/Atelier). It wasn't easy; Fresno State didn't even have figurative painting at the time let alone basic grad student studios like the CSUs in Southern California.
I considered moving to New York to attend the GCA and was tempted by the graduate work and faculty at CSU Long Beach (thanks Yu Gi; I chose a pose in honor of you) but couldn't decide such a fate for our children. I knew the liberal arts' jobs jokes and needed to finish this part of my life and get back into the real-world to have a real-world job.
It wasn't easy to ask the art department about its failings as the art department. It was a post-modernist/post-feminist institution circa 2011. They graded my papers and had control of my major GPA (at least one of them). After I completed enough credits for both drawing/painting AND sculpture emphasis they barely acknowledged it and the chair gave me, I came to discover "the paperwork shuffle." My degree to this day only states a singular emphasis. I recall being told they just "didn't do double emphases." I also recall the department changing the course catalog verbiage to include mandatory studio fees for independent study students (who didn't use the studios) after I raised the issue. Remember, whistle-blowers are typically punished.
My grad work eventually evolved into an examination of the seven deadly sins based upon Catholic teachings. I literally painted the emotion associated with the loss of grace and virtue those sins produced. It was a 1/2 modern figurative study in the manner of the work going on at the GCA and 1/2 illustrated Dante complete with Latin naming conventions. Half of the figures were male and half were female to demonstrate the equality of frailty between the sexes.
My position was, essentially, that those ideas/values and warnings of vice were not unique to the Church but had been passed down through the ages via the Humanities (classical literature, art, etc). Read any Greek or Roman tragedy. I took the position then, more so as I approach mid-life, that any willful abandonment of those values is an active and willful step into self-absorbed ignorance. Hubris will always strike you down and sin is the fastest way to get there. Its a road that only leads to moral relativism and sophistry.
Interestingly enough in the October 2019 edition of U.S. Catholic, Steven P. Millies, an associate professor of public theology and director of the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago wrote a brief and well written article titled The Art of Peace drawing the same conclusions I wrote about in 2011.
For years after my graduation, (which faculty threatened not to sign off on) I posted my thesis at this website. I was so shell-shocked after my final review, following a hugely successful and heart warming public response from teens, adults and other teachers at my opening reception, I wanted the wider Internet the chance to also opine. The suddenly acidic criticism from my former teachers - yes some were inspirations to me - left me heartbroken and utterly in a state of confusion. This continued to hurt me for many years thereafter. My confidence was completely broken: I left school in a broken state when I should have felt completely triumphant. Were two-thousand years of experiences passed down through the ages really wrong? No, of course not but I was too close to the wound to feel any other way. I internalized the attack.
On Thursday, April 21st, 2011 my grad committee chairman wrote in reply my own worries about the content before the final thesis submission. The following is verbatim.
On Sunday, May 8th, 2011 I recieved this in response after the other three committee members met, again verbatim:
The astonishing thing to me then and now as I read these letters from my former teachers is 1) the time it took for them to completely turn on me because of this paper (2 weeks and 3 days after years of friendship) and 2) the utter lack of close reading of the paper I submitted to them. Did years of research, citations, thousands of primary sources read and six rough drafts mean nothing beyond their own person opinions? Also interesting was the complete dismissal of my fourth and silent, adjunct committee member. Today I consider him the only one to support me. He remains a professional peer let alone a talented artist and inspiration.
Had I only discovered Roger Scruton those many years ago perhaps my written analysis would have been worse received but I would have avoided years of anguish and guilt made by those hateful faculty.
When I think back, I like to remember some of what they said to me in better days: "I wish we could just pay you to paint here all the time so the others could see you work."
Its been 8 years, 7 months, and 19 days (the day I posted this rant) and I can't quite yet say I forgive them. I will continue to search my heart for the grace to do so.
If anyone would like a copy of my so-called "political manifesto" it was called Vitruvius Exposed and can be requested from the Fresno State Art Department Graduate Archive.