* Reflection: Doing Time in Art Schools (On Becoming a Professional Artist)

by Rodney Chang

This has been the longest enrollment for me with an institution of higher education, but by intent. Study in art with Columbia Pacific University was preceded with completed degree programs in art with Triton College (Illinois), Northern Illinois University (IL), and Union Graduate School (Ohio). In each case, the student motive was to complete requirements for graduation as soon as possible. The first two programs were residential programs with the traditionally highly structured and ordered required blocks of instructions with a minimal of personal choice through elective courses. These programs provided me the basics that artists receive when they go to college to study art. For example, I studied material and passed the appropriate tests in Art History, Composition, Color Theory, Drawing, Painting, Ceramics, Sculpture, Design, Photography, and Printmaking. Studying for the doctorate in art with Union Graduate School (now the Union Institute) opened up a whole new experience to me in higher education. I was considered a “learner” instead of a student in a non-traditional, non-residential institution that fostered a democratic relationship between learner and the doctoral committee, rather than the traditional authoritative methodology of traditional schools. With such self-directed means, the learner is able to develop his own curriculum of study that focused on his personal interests and skills and included relevant life experiences. The curriculum and learning experiences are adapted to the changing needs of the student. Personal organization skills and interpersonal communication became the core for providing the necessary structure and organization that guided a completed body of work that demonstrated the learner’s success in meeting his educational goals.

Such a background made it easy for me to seek admission with Columbia Pacific University. I remained a “learner” with an assigned “mentor.” However, the goal for continued education was different form that for the Union. In the previous program, I spent three years researching the cerebral processes of art and creativity, both through readings, discussions with experts, and conducting a pilot research study in art psychology (”Project Demonstrating Excellence,” or the “PDE”). Although a solid theoretical understanding was fostered on aesthetic perception and a personal philosophy of art was adopted, my actual artwork had not yet been developed to a professional level. I knew that would be the next order of business and that the amount of time to “get there” could not be predicted. Creative potential needs time to be developed. Insight and inspiration cannot be crammed into a course. The studio artist needs to explore, to experiment, to trip over accidents and thereby, learn from his “mistakes.” Each less-than-perfect work of art becomes the stepping stone to the next work that captures a sense of more polished development. Artists find it hard to stick to a narrow course of work. We dabble with everything, seeing an aesthetic side to anything in life. The aesthetic stimulus can become overwhelming, especially when one works with the bright lights of the computer monitor. Therefore, intervals of distancing from one’s studio work become important. These seemingly unfruitful moments not only rest the artist’s eye and mind but serve as periods of unconscious incubation of new visual ideas and digestion of former visual works prior to the studio lay-off. I give thanks to Columbia Pacific University for affording me such a customized pace of moving and developing as a growing artist in search of work that meets his own criteria of satisfaction (and relevance) and artistic triumph, concurrent with formal enrollment within the halls of higher education.

Thus has been the nature of involvement as an art student with CPU. Since the inaugural year of enrollment, I have been involved full-time in the studio as a practicing artist seeking to mature his work. After receiving a doctorate in art psychology, I now sought purpose and performance as an artist. 1983 was spent feverishly painting over 100 paintings and gaining a heightened sense of form through ceramics. 1984 produced 40 pieces of bronze sculpture. By this time, I sought a degree in sculpture, since I, as a generalist with a Ph.D. in the psychology of art, already had a masters degree in painting and drawing. To round things out, I did a series of mixed media assemblages composed of found objects, sculptural elements and paint, all housed in neat Plexi-glass encasements. That year (1985), I also took on the financial , personal energy, and time risks of opening a gallery for contemporary artists. After three such busy years in the visual arts (1983-85), I had learned so much experimentally by DOING in the studio and INTERACTING with the public through the gallery directorship.

However, an important ingredient for my art still seemed to be missing. Everything I did seemed to have been done before because of the materiality that I used to create with. It was as if the local public had become anesthetized to the bombardment of individual applications of all the traditional art media. Everybody seemed numbed to so much painting, drawing, photography, prints, bronze, ceramics and even the “found object,” the artistic outrage of Marcel Duchamp’s time. It seemed what I was trying to do was already overkilled, no matter how individually expressive the work was. I was beginning to feel I was born too late. Even my discotheque dental office installation got more of an eye-opening response from the public than any of my art exhibitions. What was I to do to get the aesthetic response I learned to desire, to theoretically trigger in an audience, as an art psychologist?

In the middle of 1985, I was introduced to the computer. I was invited to an introductory session at the computer graphics work station of Larry Lovett, then with Digital Associates, a graphic design company in Honolulu. Since then, I have been attached (hooked) to the medium, consider myself a computer artist, and have a directed life commitment to help establish this new medium of art. All previous artwork done in other media during the course of my enrollment now become precious “visual data” that can be videoed into the computer system. By starting with such “original art,” my computer images surpass the usual rigid geometric design orientation of graphic software programs and instills a style of personal expression into my computer images. The work for my “Independent Study Project” showcases the best work over three years (1985-88) that has resulted during my involvement in the art studio in making art from the computer. The ISP takes the specific form of being a presentation of a body of works in the context of an international exhibition in a recognized museum. Included as part of the ISP is a published documentary reproduction of the 101 works in full color. The book-catalog is entitled RODNEY CHANG > COMPUTER ARTIST, copyright 1988, and published by Creative Frontiers Publications, Honolulu, Hawaii. It is appropriate that Larry Lovett, M.A. Ed. (Art Education, Columbia University, New York, NY), my original work station mentor, was selected to write an introduction for the book’s works. The ISP is defined and rounded out by a written report that includes appendices that provide photo-documentation of the exhibition experience and interaction with the Chinese art community. Information about the specific computers used to create the works is also included.

Therefore, as a conceptual artist searching for a new look and form of art, the computer has been my solution and salvation. It is a bit ironic that I started the creative process by immersing myself in paint and throwing clay, but eventually ending up a computerized practitioner. But the electronic medium does satisfy the original aesthetic criteria that I sought as an emerging artist. It is quick in responding to aesthetic decisions and loaded with an array of canned visual effects that in other media would take much longer through tedious attention to detail to replicate. A visual kernel can serve as a nucleus for a multitude of completed works, each becoming part of an unfolding series of different final solutions to an original artistic idea or problem. Works can be stored efficiently on disks rather than take up closets-full of space. Instead of being stuck with painting and sculpture failures, old images on disk can easily and economically be erased or deleted. The medium itself is still unrecognized by the art world establishment and thereby serves as a revolutionary tool for my avant-garde instincts to foster the new. Even the mediocre images do not fail to elicit an attentive reaction that I strive to create as art psychologist. The image is linked to a machine destined to solidify the Information Age, truly international in scope. I fine “purpose” as an artist with this medium, helping to establish the cultural end of a new era. I find solace in realizing that computer imaging goes beyond nationalism; it will become the new international art “-ism” of the next century.

Dr. Heather Thompson has been very supportive of my lofty goal of developing into a significant professional artist within the relatively short period of a college program. She has physically visited my Honolulu studio and evaluated work done in painting and sculpture back in 1983-84. With her believing attitude towards my dream and goal, efforts continued to finally blossom as the computer artist that I now am. The administration has assisted in evaluating my previous work, both before entry into the program and pre-computer artwork and made the decision to allow my “major” to be changed from sculpture to computer art. “Donna,” of the Registrar’s Office, has been especially helpful in assisting with transcript and work experience documentation and by providing a compassionate voice and human touch to the administrative system of this distant degree program headquarters.

The Health-scription Instructional Process was of not much value to me as a trained health professional. Much of it was basic and redundant to my professional training. And, at 40, my health and attitudes and practices are pretty much set. Thank goodness much of it is for the better. I still run the Honolulu Marathon at least every other year, watch my diet and nutritional intake, get enough rest to take care of stress, watch the blood pressure, receive an annual physical check-up and take a trip once a year to “smell the roses.” I realize nothing else matters much if one is burdened down with the nagging symptoms of ill health. Physical burdens spill over into the psycho-symptomatic, thereby decreasing the ability to fulfill one’s professional demands and life goals. I am currently enjoying training for this year’s marathon in December (my 11th in 13 years). My trip to China is exciting as I finally have the time to seek my roots. Of course, my physician will inoculate me before the trip against prevalent epidemic diseases of the region.

Further life-long commitment to the new art promises expanded directions for my graphic images. The modus operandi as computer artist will remain experimentation and exploration rather than mere image-making to exploit the available commercial market. Chronological documentation of completed works will continue with the present collection of archival slides and data file disks. The three computer systems I now use (Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and IBM PS/2) need to be constantly upgraded and expanded with new peripherals and software programs. The future promises effort to integrate the distinctive images of each brand into one amalgamated look, thereby getting closer to a “signature style.” Continued work will be done to translate the ephemeral monitor image into executed original artwork constructed in the traditional media, such as painting, sculpture, and printmaking materials. Limited edition signed fine art prints and the cheaper posters are apparent natural commercial end products for the computer image. Hopefully, someday I shall live to see the day when computer hardware peripherals themselves produce the fine art archival pieces, keeping the whole creative process from image formation to product production on line. At the presentation end, I hope to continue to gain acceptance at the museum level and eventually obtain a good cash flow through representation by reputable international galleries. It is a goal to produce a new volume of works (100 images) every 2-3 years that eventually can be combined into a monumental volume that documents my life’s work.