Sunday, January 16, 2011

Copy, Choose, Create: Skiing is just like Art School

I was skiing with Schanzy the other day in our Ski Lab (the group of folks from Aspen that are interested in training together before going to National Teams Tryouts), and we had a really great conversation about the bumps. I have been working on my bump skiing quite intensely this season, with LOTS of epiphanies, and the end result has been that I am suddenly able to SOMETIMES ski with more control, freedom and fluidity in the big double black bumps. Yay!

Schanzy said something to me that I've heard often before in teaching situations, but you know how sometimes you hear something in a different way when you are finally ready to take in the information?

It was something like, "You are caught in different moments somewhere in Copy, Choose, Create. Where do you think you fall in this terrain?" It was a great question, one that hasn't been asked to me directly, which it hadnt occurred for me to ask of myself in each type of terrain or situation. Its a wonderful diagnostic.

It occurred to me that learning to ski is just like going to art school. Lots of art school candidates enter school with a portfolio that we are proud of, a sense of where we want to go, and a feeling that going to Art School means we get to skip straight to the CREATE part of the equation. 

Self Portrait by Basquiat
Oh, if only we knew. The hard work begins. Our teen aged angst filled counter culture souls are begging to follow in the footsteps of Basquiat, Schnabel, Cy Twombly, Pollack, Anselm Keefer... let me express all 18 years of my deep, tortured experience in the next five minutes. That's why I'm here. 

Instead, we sit down and learn to sharpen a pencil with an exact o. We practice copying line width and characteristics, we practice copying the masters in one color. We practice copying the masters in two colors. We copy, copy, copy. We draw circles, cylinders, boxes. We draw everything mundane to train our hands to learn to chose line quality, volume, space. We haven't' even got to the part where we learn to chose the story, is it about the light? Is it about the shadow? Is the whole story about the shoulder of the model and nothing else?

Thus begins the painful process of the first three semesters of your undergrad experience: You are taught, and fight against the fact, that you know nothing. I attended art school at three institutions at various levels, first at Montserrat College of Art, then at the School for the Museum of Fine Art, then at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Because I came into each of these fine institutions with a long history of art appreciation (my mom was a painter and my dad an opera singer), and had spent most of my youth wandering around in museums, galleries and attending theater, I had a strong desire to skip ahead to the create portion of the process.

Eager to consume as much new information as possible, I was not realizing at the time that my early education, while a good starting place, had holes in it. It was full of observation, but lacked practical application, and I needed to spend some solid time learning to copy the masters before I could effectively choose in my own work. And that was years before there were moments when I could create. I suppose during this time I learned that part of the process of committing yourself to mastering something over time is being willing to find new information in bodies of information that you already possess. How many times have you re-read a book and found a deeper meaning?

Portrait of Madame X by Sargent
I loved and needed the hard realities of Art school, where so much of the discussion in the lower semesters amongst the students was about the institution's desire to crush your spirit (of course, art school is full of rebellious free thinkers, I can imagine that attempting to educate us is a bit like herding cats...). We griped while we sat on our charcoal covered benches cleaning our size o brushes, mixing pallets full of paint which we could do nothing other than paint a gradient of skin tone to compare to Sargent's palette and see if we had got the right mixture. Not a face, not a creative moment, a honing of the technical understanding of how the pieces interacted together before we were ever allowed to experiment with choice.

After that third semester of dedicated, disciplined, focused work, you find yourself having been beaten into copying the masters and being subject to brutally honest critique of your own floundering work, caught somewhere in between copy and choose, thinking always about the day when you won't get beaten about the head, shoulders and ego for desiring so badly to create.

I thought at this point about what it was like for the painters coming up in the Renaissance, grinding pigment for the master for years before ever putting brush to canvas. Years of rabbit skin glue, years of palette preparation. And finally, one day, if you were diligent, hard working, and your understanding of color and how the master worked, you could assist in putting in the sky. Perhaps the robe. Or a tree on a master's work. 

Art school was a great place to practice humility, setting aside of ego and personal want so you could HEAR what the teachers were trying to tell you. At the same time that you are absorbing as accurately as you can all the information coming to you, you must be nurturing and feeding your own voice, so that one day, the skills you have learned can flow together to show your person, your "muchness" as the Mad Hatter says.

Hamish Cox executing a blackflip with a twist off the Village Raceline. Photo by Charlie Brown

We see this in the best skiers. The technical foundations, well taught, absorbed through discipline of copy, copy, copy, underlined with a strong education in history, physics, bio mechanics, and a willingness to continue to evolve and learn, are present in almost every turn, but in the very best, you see them shine through, not willfully, but subtly.

This, I believe, is the moment of create. It is where the person comes back in, not through ego or desire to show oneself, but because of mastery, because the pieces exist in a way that choice happens almost unconsciously, there is a fluid playful experiential piece that inspires anyone who happens to observe, even and especially if it is in the privacy of the studio... whether that's late at night in the painter's private place, or off the backside by yourself in the trees.


Darcy said...

I read all your posts, but I so miss the day to day - the experiences on the slopes w/ students, video, your own experiences w/ your mentors, etc..
I know you have NO time, just like me and the rest of us, but, that's what made a lot of us start reading in the first place - the first person accounts, and the thrill of what Kate did today!
I relish reading more of that someday!

Unknown said...

Hi, Darcy!
Thank you so much. I would really like to write what you are asking for, and I know that a lot of my readers came for the daily dose. I did get very busy, but I am doing my best to do a daily post again this year.

I have been thinking a lot about the content on my blog, I wanted it to be an honest log of my day to day journey. It was interesting to hear the feedback I got from this log, so many of my readers really enjoyed it, but some people felt that it was too much about me and my journey, and that it needed to focus on a broader spectrum of topics.

To this end, I began slowly moving the focus off my day to day and onto skiing in general.

Balancing these two things is an interesting exercise for sure. I have written a LOT of posts that I haven't posted, they are there as time markers and anecdotes of what happened without going up.

Thank you for encouraging me to post the personal day to day, I'll do my best to bring it back in in a way that feels balanced.

Thanks so much for reading...