I am writing this from The Art Room. The Art Room is an imaginary space in my mind where I sift through ideas, techniques, exhibitions and conversations that have been shaped by my experience as an artist/professor who has been teaching for over a decade. Everything I say, do, taste, smell, hear, see, and touch when it comes to art gets filtered through a lens that is shaped by the two-hour and fifty minute class time with a group of students in a forty-by-forty foot university studio where we draw or write or talk about art. This mind palace is decorated with the trappings of over fifteen years of teaching in the university environment . . . drawing easels in the corner, compositions pinned to the critique wall, jars of water to mix colors, stacks of flat files, banks of lockers, students with hair dyed a primary color, a couple of pushpins on the floor, bulky footwear and an inner chorus of voices from group critiques.
Last spring I received an invite to join Professor Chris Smith of Music, Professor Nicole Wesley of Dance, and Professor Bill Gelber of Theatre (all of us part of College of Visual and Performing Arts at Texas Tech University) to join their steering committee for a conference dealing with notions of the arts, studio practice, and research. Fortunately this group agreed to partner with the TASA (Texas Association School of Art) conference to which I was already committed. And double-fortunately, now the TASA conference now had a great theme: Arts Practice Research, and would be co-hosted by Texas Tech College of Visual and Performing Arts and TASA in October 2015.
Rewind fourteen years. When I joined the faculty at Texas Tech in 2001 as a tenure-track professor, the idea of merging my studio art, which consisted of paintings of daisies and powder boxes on colorful backgrounds, with the word research taunted me. Don’t get me wrong, the paintings were beautiful and were selling through an upscale gallery in Minneapolis, but they did not in any clear way position themselves next to the word research. As a student several years earlier, sure, the word research was part of my training, I graduated with a BFA in painting from the University of Minnesota, near the Walker Art Center, a great institution in esoteric, academically-challenging art (think Beuys, Albers, Skoglund) and then an MFA in painting from the University of NM, a hotbed for the best photographers –-they wrote fifty-page dissertations, while the rest of us studio-folk wrote ten page autobiographical catalogues, pics included.
The daisy paintings faded when the tenure clock started at Texas Tech University in 2001. My studio was haunted by the word research. Teaching, Research, Service, the magic triad of words each tenure-track candidate is served the day the start their interview. I now needed to form a committee, work on my CV and prove that my work competed on a global academic scale. This was beyond intuitive color matching, rigorous surface and paintings that looked great above a couch. How could my work embrace the word research? I was soothed by the voices of colleagues who told me art was in a “different category” and we did not need to follow the same academic standards or methods as English, History, Math, or Biology faculty. But, something nagged at me. I think we did.
To be fair, I have to add geography to this equation, which means I joined the art faculty at Texas Tech, in Lubbock, TX. The art faculty is part of a huge sprawling campus, which boasted a reputation for a Health Science campus connected to a Liberal Arts campus and a dominant STEM program: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math. While the state of Texas boasts world-class art communities in Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, Marfa and San Antonio, I was being influenced by the academic climate on campus of mid-size West Texas city. With paintbrush in hand, I wondered how early American feminist history could inform composition, surface, color and texture. And I wondered if I could trade the brush for the rays of the sun.
Fast-forward a decade and a half. My studio work has been partnered with grants to American Antiquarian Society, Library of Congress, Women’s Rights National Historical Park, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Paper Project. My artwork integrates with theatre, dance, and architecture projects. My studio evolution has reflected the university academic environment.
On first round of PR for the conference we have had a lot of energy from our graduate art students, alumni and graduate faculty. Texas Tech SOA is clearly engaged with this term research. Studio graduate students and studio faculty are not only ready to grapple with it in their arts practice, they are thrilled to be grappling with it in the company of Theatre, Dance, and Music. Add to that combination, more interest from Apparel Design Manufacturing, the Museum of Texas Tech University, the Roots Music Institute, and the TTU Vernacular Music Center. I know that much of the attraction is due to our keynote speaker Nick Cave, an interdisciplinary artist who manages to create over a spectrum of sound, dance and sculpture. The conference, still months away, seems like a lot to take in. No worries, I’m renovation and expanding the Art Room, the imaginary space where I write. There will be a lot of flat files, shelves and critique walls to sort through it all.
Carol Flueckiger is an Associate Professor of art at Texas Tech University, Lubbock.
For more about the conference Arts Practice Research: Scholarship, Pedagogy, and the Creative Process next October at TTU, click here.
This article originally appeared on The Bowerbird, Hannah Dean’s blog of art Review in Lubbock, TX.