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School Watch
September 2021

Office Hours: Pope.L: University of Chicago Department of Visual Arts

ashanti owusu-brafi, Parents lack the time to teach they’re kids, 2020. Wood birdhouse, single-stack 9mm pistol without a manual safety, and bird feed. Performance documentation courtesy ashanti owusu-brafi.

Parents lack the time to teach they're kids is a single work from a collective mediation on worldbuilding. Pope L.'s guidance through the course “Worldbuilding 2: Presentation, Exhibition, Context (Part 3)” was an intervention of sorts in which students processed the idea of home through the materiality of a birdhouse. Sequencing themselves, students grasped at the root of their experiences to construct a shared visual language.

ashanti owusu-brafi, Parents lack the time to teach they’re kids, 2020. Wood birdhouse, single-stack 9mm pistol without a manual safety, and bird feed. Performance documentation courtesy ashanti owusu-brafi.

ashanti owusu-brafi, Parents lack the time to teach they’re kids, 2020. Wood birdhouse, single-stack 9mm pistol without a manual safety, and bird feed. Performance documentation courtesy ashanti owusu-brafi.

Martin Girardi, eddies, 2020. Eight digital photographs.

eddies is a sequence of images that attempts to reconcile grief and the form it takes as memory. Responding to a prompt to illustrate a personal meaning of home as part of Pope.L’s class “Worldbuilding 2: Presentation, Exhibition, Context (Part 3),” the project reflects on the lingering of loss and how “home” manifests an individual's holistic sense or legendary conception of the deceased.

Martin Girardi, eddies, 2020. Eight digital photographs.

Martin Girardi, eddies, 2020. Eight digital photographs.

Martin Girardi, eddies, 2020. Eight digital photographs.

Martin Girardi, eddies, 2020. Eight digital photographs.

Martin Girardi, eddies, 2020. Eight digital photographs.

Martin Girardi, eddies, 2020. Eight digital photographs.

1. Why did you decide to go into teaching?
TRUTH IS I JUST NEEDED A JOB. REALLY BADLY.

2. What drew you to your school and what is your teaching philosophy?
MY FIRST JOB WAS A SUDDEN, OUT-OF-THE-BLUE OPPORTUNITY TO TEACH THEATER AT A SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGE IN MAINE. I ENDED UP TEACHING THERE FOR TWENTY YEARS. IN THE BEGINNING, I HAD NO TEACHING PHILOSOPHY. I SIMPLY NEEDED TO BUILD A WAY OF TEACHING. OVER TIME, I’VE SIMPLIFIED MY TEACHING PHILOSOPHY: WORK, WORK HARDER, THEN WORK HARDER STILL. TYPICALLY, I CREATE A PROMPT OR A SITUATION WITHIN WHICH THE STUDENT OPERATES. THE STUDENT MAKES A PROPOSAL FOR THAT CONTEXT, WE DISCUSS ANY OBVIOUS ISSUES, THEN THE STUDENT RESPONDS WITH THEIR WORK AND THE CRITIQUE BECOMES AN EXPLORATION/DISCUSSION OF HOW THE STUDENT WRESTLED WITHIN THAT SITUATION AND HOW THEY CAN BETTER THEIR APPROACH.

3. What theory and art history do you consider most essential for your students? What artist or artwork do you refer to most often?
I DO NOT NECESSARILY LOOK TO ART HISTORY FOR WHAT IS ESSENTIAL. I WOULD JUST AS LIKELY LOOK TO SOCIOLOGY OR PSYCHOLOGY OR LITERARY OR CULTURAL THEORY. OR USE EXAMPLES OF WORKS BY ART PRACTITIONERS TO EXEMPLIFY A CONCEPT OR POINT OF VIEW. SOME ART FOLKS COME UP AGAIN AND AGAIN, FOR EXAMPLE, MICHAEL HANEKE, AN AUSTRIAN FILMMAKER; JOHN CAGE, A COMPOSER; OR EVEN MRS. MOHAMMED, MY UNDERGRADUATE ART TEACHER, WHO SAID THAT WE BLACK PEOPLE LOOK BEST IN RED.

4. How do you navigate generational or cultural differences between you and your students?
WELL, STUDENTS ARE NOT CHANNELS IN RIVER SYSTEMS, SO NAVIGATION? I AM NOT SURE. I TELL STUDENTS THE REASON THEY ARE TAKING THE CLASS IS BECAUSE THEY CHOOSE TO, AND IN DOING SO ARE CHOOSING THE ROLE OF STUDENT, THEREFORE A KIND OF NEED, A KIND OF IGNORANCE; WHEREAS I, BECAUSE OF MY EXPERIENCE, CHOOSE TO TAKE ON THE IGNORANCE OF THE KNOWER AND THIS IS HOW WE ARRIVE IN THE SAME ROOM. HOWEVER, STUDENTS ARE FREQUENTLY INADVERTENT TEACHERS. THEY MAY NOT ENVISION THEMSELVES AS SUCH OR VALUE THIS SIDE OF THE EQUATION, BUT THEY CONTRIBUTE KNOWLEDGE IN THEIR OWN WAY. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN US PERHAPS IS I PAY MORE ATTENTION TO HOW THE KNOWLEDGE I DELIVER IS IMPARTED.

5. What changes would you like to see in art education?
ART ED IS A BEHEMOTH. SO, LET’S START WITH THE HERE AND NOW. FOR EXAMPLE, HERE AT THE UNIVERISTY OF CHICAGO, I’D WANT THE UNIVERSITY TO ENTHUSIASTICALLY SUPPPORT THE MASTERS OF FINE ARTS AS A PROFESSIONAL DEGREE (AND BEING THE TERMINAL DEGREE IN THE FIELD EQUAL TO THE PHD IN OTHER PROGRAMS). I’D WANT THE UNIVERSITY TO ENSURE THAT THE MFA BE FULLY FUNDED. AT THE MOMENT, WE LOSE MANY STUDENTS WHO WANT TO WORK WITH OUR ILLUSTRIOUS DOVA FACULTY BUT CANNOT BECAUSE THE FIRST YEAR OF THE PROGRAM IS NOT FULLY FUNDED. IN TERMS OF THE UNDERGRADUATE BA AT DOVA, I’D WANT THE UNIVERSITY TO BE MORE ACTIVE IN ASSISTING THE DEPARTMENT IN CREATING CONDITIONS WHERE STUDENTS DO NOT FEEL THEY NEED TO DOUBLE-MAJOR IN ORDER TO JUSTIFY WANTING TO BE AN ARTIST AND THEREFORE CANNOT FOCUS FULLY ON DEVELOPING A PRACTICE.

6. What is your educational background? Did you arrive at art from another field?
FIRST I WANTED TO BE A SUPERHERO, THEN AN ARCHITECT, THEN MY MOTHER TOLD ME I’D PROBABLY HAVE TO JOIN THE MILITARY (NOTE: THIS IS DURING THE VIETNAM ERA). AMAZINGLY, I WAS SELECTED TO AN ART SCHOOL BUT HAD TO DROP OUT BECAUSE THE WHITE GUIDANCE COUNSELORS AT MY HIGH SCHOOL WERE SO SURPRISED I GOT IN THEY NEGLECTED TO PREPARE ME FOR THE HUGE FINANCIAL BURDEN I WAS TAKING ON. SO, I HAD TO DROP OUT. AND I LOVED ART SCHOOL. I THOUGHT IT WAS GOING TO BE MY SALVATION. HA! SO, I GUESS I ARRIVED AT THE FIELD OF ART FROM THE FIELD OF DESPERATION AND POVERTY.

7. How have recent cultural movements and activism informed your curriculum?
I AM SURE CULTURAL MOVEMENTS AND ACTIVSIM HAVE INFORMED MY CURRICULUM BUT I DO NOT BELIEVE YOU CAN SHOEHORN TOPICALITY INTO A SYLLABUS AND GET AT ANYTHING SUBSTANTIVE. I TRY TO CREATE SPACES, MOSTLY VIA DISCUSSION, WHERE THE STUDENTS THEMSELVES CAN BRING IN THESE THINGS AND NOT FEEL I AM FORCING MY POLITICS OR VALUES ONTO THEM.

8. How much structure or independence do students have in your courses?
STUDENTS HAVE AS MUCH INDEPENDENCE AS THEY ARE WILLING TO TAKE ON FOR THEIR PROJECTS, HOWEVER, INDEPENDENCE IS NOT A VACATION FROM RESPONSIBILITY FOR MAKING CHOICES WITH DEPTH.

9. How does the program connect students to the surrounding art scene? How do they learn outside the classroom?
IN MY COURSES, I TYPICALLY DO A FIELD TRIP AND/OR BRING A VISITOR INTO THE CLASSROOM. IN ADDITION, I SOMETIMES SUGGEST EVENTS THAT ARE HAPPENING OFF-CAMPUS THAT MIGHT BE GERMANE TO WHAT WE ARE DOING IN THE CLASSROOM OR JUST INTERESTING IN AND OF THEMSELVES. WE, AS A FACULTY, ALSO ENCOURAGE STUDENTS TO ATTEND TALKS AT OUR VISTING ARTIST OPC EVENTS. OF COURSE, GOING TO MUSEUMS IS OK AND I AM ALL FOR IT, I EVEN SUGGEST THIS AT TIMES—BUT WHAT ABOUT JUST PICKING A LOCATION SOMEWHERE IN CHICAGO AND HANGING OUT IN PUBLIC AS A TECHNIQUE? I CHALLENGE ANYONE READING THIS TO GO TO THE CORNER OF 63RD STREET AND MARTIN LUTHER KING DRIVE WITH A FRIEND AND JUST HANG OUT. I LIVE JUST A FEW BLOCKS AWAY, SO DON’T WORRY.

10. What advice do you give to your students as they leave school and enter the field?
IN THE CLASSROOM, GENERALLY SPEAKING, MY ADVICE IS: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE A PRACTICING ARTIST TO HAVE AN ARTFUL ATTITUDE. IF A STUDENT SPECIFICALLY ASKS ME FOR ADVICE AND IS PLANNING TO GO INTO THE FIELD, I TELL THEM: WORK HARD, BE PATIENT, HAVE A THICK SKIN, A HEALTHY SENSE OF HUMOR AND OH, YEAH, LEST I FORGET—WORK HARD!

Pope.L (b. 1955, in Newark, New Jersey) is a Chicago-based visual and performance-theater artist and educator who makes culture out of contraries. Recent solo exhibitions include “member: Pope.L 1978–2001” at the Museum of Modern Art and “Choir” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

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