(For updates, please visit us at www.arteSumapaz.org)
We couldn’t drive up the road – it was blocked by a portone, one of the massive gates that Colombians often have at the entrance of their properties. But I skirted around a pillar and made my way up the driveway, past groves of bamboo or guadua, and massive stones completely surfaced in lichen. At the top of the road rested a clay-tile roofed, one-story casa with a porch wrapping all the way around the side and front. There on the walls were a half-dozen posters of art: Matisse, Renoir, Dali, Picasso, Miro, and other classic modernists. The ink of the reproductions had all faded in the sunlight, leaving only the blue and black inks. Why were there art posters on a farmhouse tucked away in the Andes?
That was only one of many aspects of this magical place that have become a part of my humongous audacious dream; to establish an alternative school of art, residencies, and perhaps even a sustainable community in a former coffee plantation about a 100km drive from Bogotá.
When I was 17, I was studying German in my local high school. One day, I visited the library at the Goethe Institute in Atlanta, and came upon a two-volume edition of Paul Klee´s Pedagogical Notebook. My German was still pretty rudimentary, but I could make out was that Klee was primarily saying, “hey, look at nature; not just at the surface, but deep down into the system and structure – whether it is a flower, a human body, or even an entire eco-system.” The systems-based approach to understanding the world, and by extension, art, really resonated with me – it struck a nerve or a chord, so to speak, and was even a core element of the book that I went on to write about social media marketing.
Klee had developed his notebooks as a record of his pedagogy at the Bauhaus, which had set up shop as an alternative art school in Germany in 1919. When the Nazis rose to power, the Bauhaus was forced to close with many of the teachers migrating to other countries. One professor, Josef Albers, along with his wife Annie were invited to lead the art program at a new experimental college, Black Mountain College, in the mountains of North Carolina. While the teaching methodologies that Josef Albers espoused have often been criticized for their pedagogical rigidity, Albers played a key role in an institution that, which while it only lasted 25 years was one of the most influential in the way art is taught in the US to this day.
Black Mountain College was established in 1933 by three professors who had lost their own jobs for refusing to take loyalty oaths. One of the key influences in the founder’s philosophy was that of American philosopher John Dewey. Dewey was also tapped by Albert Barnes in the formation of his school, the Barnes Foundation, in Merion Pennsylvania. My own mentor and professor of painting at SUNY Purchase, Nicholas Marsicano, had himself been a Barnes Foundation student. Barnes was notoriously opposed to the snobbishness of the Philadelphia elite, which included the Pennsylvania Academy of Art; thus, when Marsicano and fellow student Ralston Crawford wanted to be accepted into the Barnes academy, they had to meticulously avoid any mention of their experience in Philadelphia and claim to be the sons of poor coal miners.
Marsicano was a truly great influence in my artistic life; in his teaching, Marsicano believed that a teacher should leave their own artistic prejudices at the door, and help the student solve their problems through their way of thinking. In one conversation, while looking at a painting, he asked, “do you know the difference between a monster and a demon? Because what you have here is a monster!” I think that for many of us students, that sort of talk lit a fire under our minds, and got us to think more deeply about painting.
I was so fortunate to have a found a great teacher; we are all lucky if we find one such person in our formative years. But I was doubly lucky, because before I worked with Marsicano, I had the good fortune to encounter the sculptor and teacher, Jim McDermid. McDermid, incidentally, was a graduate of Cranbrook Academy, which has been called “America’s Bauhaus.” I recall one day working away on a sculpture, carefully carving out shapes out of rolled-out clay, while tossing the scraps in a heap. I heard McDermid exclaim, “wow, that’s beautiful!” But when I looked up, it was the scrap heap he was admiring! And admiring was just the right word – McDermid taught me to look at the world in admiration; perhaps let the things that aren’t so wonderful pass. He exemplified for me the words of Van Gogh, “Admire, admire, admire!”
Really, I came of age, artistically, in an environment which was awash in the thinking of the New York School. The current New York art scene was moving in another direction – that of more conceptually rooted art – but my influences were those which came more out of a process-based art. The great playwright August Wilson was once asked how he made his characters have a voice, and his response was something to the effect of “allowing them to have a voice.” This is the very type of thing that was implicit the New York School way of thinking.
At SUNY Purchase, the flagship school of the arts in the New York public university system, I also met musicians, dancers, photographers, and writers. It was amongst the actors that I came across a whole other approach to art, that was based in the teachings of Stanislavski, Stella Adler, and others. For example, while working on a play, the director might yell out, “inside,” meaning the actor should work from a place inside their body; and then “outside” for the actor to feel that they were indeed outside of their skin. To me, this was revelatory, and antithetical to the seemingly drier way of thinking back in the visual arts building. Later, when I was teaching drawing at the Woodstock School of Art, I used some of those theatre techniques in my own teaching.
One day at college, while in a fit of desperation, I was in the library thumbing through books, I came across a little book about Zen Buddhism that retold some of the teachings of Rinzai. They were fundamentally about notions that the listener should stop the thinking process, be – experience reality with all of their being. This resonated with me in a way that the Klee notebooks had earlier; I felt that painting could be about something that was outside the bounds of thinking and words. That lead to one of my painting teachers, the very kind Bob Berlind, to write in my evaluation, “Ric fails to engage in critical discourse.”
Coincidentally, when my then girlfriend, Jen Williams Dragon (now with her own audacious dream, Cross Contemporary in Saugerties, NY) and I later moved up to the Catskills, there was a newly-established Zen monastery being developed in Mt Tremper. Abott Daido Loori had found the property, a former Lutheran summer camp, and established the monastery. Over the years I studied there a bit, and even more often, encountered Loori at the local diner. While I was admittedly a poor student of Zen, I felt it had a tremendous impact on my thinking – and I continue to be a poor student of Zen even now.
One of the big things I got out of eastern ways of thinking was an approach to looking that isn’t often talked about in European-based art; that of becoming something. We tend to look at things more as objects sitting across the room, or as a landscape. But in working to really feel something with your whole body – a landscape, another person, or even a painting – we can have experiences of the thing that could be a totally different way of looking.
The Zen monastery in the Catskills wasn´t the only such place that figured in my life. During my adolescence, and oddly enough in Conyers, Georgia, there had been a Cistercian (Benedictine order) monastery founded in the 1940s. For a short while, I had had a job in the bonsai greenhouse. At the Holy Spirit, I met brother Aelred, who secretly shared woodcut printing, and secretly, transcendental meditation.
Both of those monasteries come to mind as I think about my own project; they were both established in a grass-roots manner – by individuals who got the “bee in their bonnet” and made it happen. Perhaps it’s the allure of creating community of like-minded people, and creating sacred spaces where people can do things that they hadn´t imagined. After all, in thinking about Black Mountain College, I’m not convinced it was the pedagogy – but more the creating of community, and moving thinking outside and beyond the way we think about things every day.
I’ve met an enormous community of young artists and musicians here in Colombia; they’ve had a different education and seem to be interested in some of these other approaches to artistic thinking. The idea of sharing this, and in the process discovering what they, and other artists have to bring to the table, is exhilarating. And in Great Britain, Mexico, the US, and other places, other new forms of alternative arts education are emerging. My main objective is to create that; an alternative arts school.
When I, and others, start envisioning what this could be, other things surface: community; sustainability; working with indigenous peoples; and more. But all of this is way beyond the capabilities of any individual. Thus, the beautiful challenge is to bring together others who want to participate in the creation of an arts-based community project here in Colombia.
There are many, many challenges facing this project. The first is acquiring the property. The next, if not at the same time, is creating the coalition of people who want to participate and lead in the various aspects of the project.
Identify four to five individuals who can bring the financial resources to help acquire the property (goal: to acquire the property by the end of 2019).