Connecting the Dots

Grete Marks, Tea Service, ca. 1930. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, by exchange. Photo by John R. Glembin

Grete Marks, Tea Service, ca. 1930. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, by exchange. Photo by John R. Glembin.

Let’s begin with three seemingly disparate thoughts.

One: Since I started working here at the Museum as the Team Coordinator for the Kohl’s Color Wheels art education outreach program in August, I have seen over 25,000 people while out in the community. As you can imagine, the idea of the accessibility of art has definitely been on my mind.

Two: As part of the Museum community, last month, I had the chance to see two lectures in one day: one on the German potter Grete Marks, given by Mel Buchanan, the Assistant Curator of 20th Century Design at the Museum; the other about the creative process at Pixar Animation Studios, given by Dan Holland, a sketch artist there. It made my day.

Three: I also teach freshmen at MIAD. One of my classes focuses on discussing the philosophical and practical underpinnings of these young artists’ budding visual practices. The other day my students started an impromptu discussion about Felix Baumgartner jumping from the stratosphere. It was a great class.

So, where am I going with all of this? Let me explain.

I loved being reminded of the purpose of the Bauhaus as an institution that was striving to remake cultural identity and also to offer a utopic yet accessible potential through art, in an era between two moments of great upheaval. Seeing Mel Buchanan’s talk about the relationship between Grete Marks’ work and her connection to the Bauhaus was eye-opening for a number of reasons. I was surprised to learn about the effect that the school, or rather the single year that she was part of that community, had on Grete Marks’ work. Her work as a potter translated this influence into stellar and streamlined beauty, not just as high art objects, but in her ingenuity to make these pieces accessible through industry. Looking through the lens of history and hindsight, Marks’ practice was a beautiful and noble mission.

Dan Holland, photo by The Animation Collaborative (http://www.animationcollaborative.com/dan-holland.html)

Dan Holland, photo by The Animation Collaborative (http://www.animationcollaborative.com/dan-holland.html)

Later that day, while I was still thinking about the potential of art as a mode of accessible discovery, even when distilled down to its formal essence, I went to see Dan Holland’s talk along with my MIAD class. One of the things that was so great to hear, especially as a college educator at an arts school, was that Holland told the audience to experiment and not to limit yourself, especially when in school. I felt like I somehow had won an argument in that moment.

It wasn’t so much that he just said it in passing: the idea of experimentation was fundamental to the talk and Holland’s process itself. It was amazing to see him unabashedly showing moments of experimentation for projects he worked on at Pixar; it was like opening up a moving, live sketchbook. To share these moments must have been pretty humbling: a younger Holland lip-syncing dialogue for The Incredibles, failed Lego models of spaceships, candid photos from a trip to Home Depot to research robot-like forms.

The process of making a highly stylized and finished Pixar-style animated feature was immediately laid bare, and I felt like I was seeing the future film in some sort of hospital nursery. But, this experience was purposeful: it gave evidence to Holland’s mantra and Pixar’s mission–to create something that begins as an interior dialogue, rather than sourced from the outside. The point was that no matter how familiar, a new project is always going to entail some sort of remaking or re-invention.

Holland’s process showed how each endeavor of both successful and failed experimentation were necessary in creating the most complete final product. It was like seeing a pin-hole camera picture of his process: everything had to be thought about because at any given moment, any element in that picture would have to be called forward with exacting detail. This is what the artistic process is all about, and why it is important even when the final product is so captivating. There is something in being reminded of the process, since we as viewers only see the product.

Let’s go back to the Bauhaus. Here is one thing I have realized: My job is to make art from the Museum collection accessible and to remind people that the process of making art is one way to make connections. Here’s another: I teach at an institution that is a present day Bauhaus. Or rather, in much the same way, in the first year program at MIAD, a student is guided through the basic fundamentals of artmaking, stripping down the process of making to explore fundamentals of design like color, shape and material.

During her lecture, Mel Buchanan showed a slide of a Bauhaus class discussing sculptures made only of paper or cardboard; I passed something similar in the MIAD halls the other day. Even my “Understanding the Visual” I teach falls into the Bauhaus paradigm: in the fray of visual distillation comes the constant question of why, embodied in the Bauhaus class about philosophy and yoga. I haven’t yet broached the idea of yoga, but I constantly ask my students how they are connected to the visual culture at large, why they are artists/designers, or why they have decided to choose one media over another.

Italo Calvino. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Italo Calvino. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

At the end of Dan Holland’s lecture he showed two amazing animated shorts. One was La Luna, a narrative about a family who rows out to sea, hoists a ladder to the moon, and tidies it up. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. Partly because I was reminded of my 20-month-old son’s current fascination with the moon: when it is dark, he will look to the sky and call out to the moon until he finds it. I am also a huge Italo Calvino fan, and I was awestruck by the film’s echoes of Calvino’s Cosmicomics, and his own meditations on being able to take a ladder to the moon. It was magical to see this story in such a large, visual way–how these animated characters were understood in such a way that their personality came not through dialogue, but through the smallest detail dictated by a broom or hammer.

Felix Baumgartner. Photo by Luke Aikins, Red Bull Content Pool, via Wikimedia Commons

Felix Baumgartner. Photo by Luke Aikins, Red Bull Content Pool, via Wikimedia Commons

In my mind, this moment of watching La Lunawas layered with the Greek Icarus myth because of the (at the time, upcoming) event of Felix Baumgartner jumping from the edge of space. Mixing all these images and narratives of people jumping/falling from the sky, bridging the gap from earth to moon, was magical and practical. It felt very right.

So back to the beginning: I love the poetics of these moments that bridge the facets of my life as a museum and college educator. That each thing echoes the other in the attempt to find a means of dialogue through access. That I find myself making art in unlikely places–like next to row of cows, or with 1,000 people in one day, or engaging in conversations about the motivation and purpose of making art.

Moonrise. Photo by the author

Moonrise. Photo by the author

Here is one last distilled thought: Discovery is the process of preparation, with the risk of the final leap.

Star in Hand. Photo by the author

Star in Hand. Photo by the author

–Tim Abel, Kohl’s Color Wheels Team Coordinator

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