A Working Art Vacation in the Cold and Dark Winter

Winter blahs are the Alaska norm after New Year’s. With kids back in college and tax time approaching, my husband and I have traditionally ignored the cold and dark by spending January cleaning our office, putting labels on manila envelopes and rummaging through the shoe box we use for accumulating tax information (actually we have upgraded to a Rubbermaid container).

Early summer 2011 I joined an online PhD program (The Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, IDSVA). My first assignment was to write papers in Tuscany and Venice. Returning to Anchorage in late June meant catching up on the lawn’s weeding and feeding, then spending the rest of the summer reading Hegel, Kant, Marx and Freud.  Autumn rolled around to a weekly online art theory class and total immersion into a term paper, a warm-up for the “big-one,” the PhD thesis, a few years off.

At the fall semester’s end, I questioned whether I had gone bonkers putting myself through all this agony at the ripe age of sixty-one. Yes, I know everyone says keeping your brain in gear is healthy. So not to be outdone by students half my age, I trudged on  by signing up for the spring semester of more reading and writing, once again coming across my internet access in volleys like an I Love Lucy rerun where Lucille Ball has to wrap bonbons on an accelerating conveyer belt. So I abbreviated my holiday season by leaving the faux tree boxed in the attic, sent my two college children off with relatives and flew to New York City to spend the first week of January in a classroom.

The morning sessions were conducted by director and founder Dr. George Smith. He is a charismatic visionary who reminds me of professor Charles Kingsfield (Paper Chase) and scientist Doc Brown (Back to the Future). Smith realized there were working artists who needed career upgrading but were unable to quit jobs or abandon family obligations.  He also recognized that internet learning, once laughed at as matchbook-education, was fast growing. In 2006, with the help of wife Amy, a professional couture, they started an online doctoral program on their kitchen table. George is descended from Maine ship builders, so he donned his sou’wester and lashed himself to the rigging when the 2008 financial meltdown nearly blew him off course.

Working seven days a week, George and Amy have achieved candidacy for accreditation, that now allows students to take out loans, thus ballooning applications. IDSVA offers foreign travel to Italy and now Germany, and a writing workshop at Brown University after having completed the first two years. The program accommodates the nine month school year as many of his students teach. Studio artists, museum curators, and art collectors also make up the student body that ranges in age from thirty to seventy. Heck, there is even a journalist enrolled.

For my New York week, I attended morning sessions where we read papers, having been instructed to reduce our twenty page fall tomes to something that could be understood in twenty minutes. Academic art writing entails formulating an argument and collecting evidence, somewhat frustrating at first.  In the sixties I went to a high school that offered art history and I continued my love for art writing in both college and grad school, but never had to write beyond observations about the style of a work or its historical placement.

Maurizio Cattelan, "Unititled" (1998)

Mimeographing imagery or projecting with slides has vanished, so baby-boomers like me feel like Rip Van Winkle trying to keep up with the iPod generation presenting with PowerPoint. Public speaking has never been my forte. Fear of facing an audience harkens back to Sunday school at Boston’s Church of the Advent when a visiting Anglican monk asked me to read from the Chronicles of Narnia. I much prefer typing out art adventures in my office and reading the finished copy to my two kittens who usually find chewing on computer wires gets my attention.

IDSVA afternoons were spent at museums. The Guggenheim was featuring artist Maurizio Cattelan who had taken all his satirical sculptures like a blow-up of Picasso, “Untitled” 1998, and hung them mobile style in the rotunda of the museum. At the Whitney, a Sherrie Levine exhibition displayed her versions of ironies with a feminist twist. “Large Gold Knot: 1” 1987, or framed plywood, allows the viewer to contemplate this building material as art object.  Construction grade plywood has traditionally been manipulated by men, here it is worked by a woman. Plywood is also used as crating for artworks.  Levine highlights the knots or imperfection with gold and silver paint, hanging the lacquered plywood in a renowned institution.

A perk of belonging to IDSVA was going behind the scenes at the Museum of Modern Art listening to how the museum functions. One discussion revolved around a current MoMA exhibit “Untitled (Free-Still)” by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, involving making curry and inviting museum goers to eat the soupy liquid. Visitors can also view the faux restaurant in action by peering through 2x4s that defined the temporary café. There are building codes for museums which pose restrictions even for renowned artists. For example, food can only be cooked and served in bona fide restaurant areas. Negotiations ensued, resulting in modifying the exhibit thus cooking the curry in a museum kitchen with serving allowed in the gallery.  Pots and bottled-gas burners intended for cooking lay in a corner like a child’s pretend kitchen. Discarded Styrofoam cups and plastic spoons overflowed a large trash can as art but had to be emptied as garbage. The soup smell that permeated adjacent galleries also had to be removed by an air filtration system. Keeping non-traditional art projects is very problematic for museums.

Sherrie Levine, "Large Gold Knot 1" (1987)

While attending the IDSVA Manhattan week, I found it dizzying at times to go from a personal progress conference to an art discussion by University of Chicago professor Bill Brown and finally to a dinner with board members. Most colleges are too complex for students to know all the support systems, but at IDSVA attention from the faculty is akin to private lessons.

While IDSVA provides stimulation in dark Alaskan winter, joining a group of diverse people can have its frustrations. Occasionally my thoughts return to high school and mandatory mixer/dances where I feared becoming a wallflower. In the movie Legally Blonde California sorority sister Elle Woods achieves a high LSAT score and is admitted to Harvard Law School. Upon arrival, Woods quickly learns graduate school can be “cliquey” when she attempts to join a study group. Whenever I am challenged as an artist I am reminded of a Jerry Saltz quotation from Art in America, 1993, “In the end it all comes down to …a life lived in art. Art is not about sociology, or social life, or money; it’s about something timeless…We came to be in art for what it is. We came because art can move mountains.”

Do something for yourself this winter, experience art.

Jean Bundy is a writer/painter living in Anchorage. She holds degrees from The University of Alaska, The University of Chicago and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a member of AICA/USA. Jean is a PhD candidate with IDSVA. Her whaling abstracts and portraits have been shown from Barrow to New York City.


She can be reached at: 38144 [at] alaska [dot] net
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