Monday, May 10, 2021

College Daze

This is a post I have long planned to write, but now that I am finally making it a reality, I wonder if there is much of a point now. I wanted to address some of the experiences I had to deal with while obtaining my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. I have put this post off for so long that those days are now over twenty years ago - how time flies. I feel like this post would have resonated more if written closer to the actual time of my experiences, but hindsight is what it is, and I can see that better now. In the end, until now, I think I was still too close to it. Those events still had sway over how I felt about art and how I felt about myself as an artist.

Times change, and with it, so do institutions, teachers, students, norms, and expectations. A year after I graduated, I saw the shift in what was accepted at my school and the expanding students' freedom to create. Was I the catalyst? Hardly. Likely, I graduated at the zenith of the shift from fine art to mainstream/pop culture art at the academic level at my university.

Let me be clear; I had some very helpful and supportive professors while I was in college. Sadly, they were the minority. I very much had to fight for every inch of creative space that I wanted to claim as my own. It started before I ever was in the BFA program, and it continued to the day I left the program. I never had a moment of peace, and I never had an ideal moment. I constantly worked at my craft and explored my ideas tirelessly. Youth has energy and time as its ally, and thankfully I took full advantage of it. I had two safe harbors while I was in school, one was the print lab, and the second, to a lesser extent, was my BFA studio space. The print lab was open 24/7 to those that needed it, and I could be found there from very early in the morning to very late at night. It was not uncommon for me to pull all-nighters while working on personal editions of prints to have the time, space, and privacy to complete the work I needed to make without interruption. On the weekends, I had a routine; I would get up, head to campus, pick up lunch along the way, get set up in the print lab, and work for twelve to thirteen hours straight. It was glorious, and I created so many etchings, lithographs, linocuts, and silkscreen prints.

Print Rats - Etching - 1998 - One of my several self-portraits
A Vaault - Etching - 1998 - Part of a series of unseen northern Florida monsters
Ethra VanDalia - Etching - 1998 - Where it all began
Desire - Etching - 1998 - I think that was the name. This is a still life through my window than anything else.
Geakoon - Etching - 1998 - Another in the series of unseen northern Florida monsters

Now that I have shared an incredibly tiny amount of my etchings, it is time for the first story. Before I entered the BFA program, I had some professors come to me and whisper advice—chief among them being to NEVER refer to my work as illustrations. I had to speak about my work so that I would not be offended the Fine Art faculty. The 'I' word was a huge no-no, and many students before me did not have a positive outcome by talking about and wanting to make illustrations. I knew this to be a problem when it was said to me twenty-plus years ago, and I can't fathom that this mentality had persisted into the late 1990s. But it had, and I was finding myself next deep in it. As I mentioned before, times changed, and illustration is no longer a bad word at my alma mater. I played the games, danced around words, and spoke of prints, etchings, drawings, and editions. All the while, I made illustration after illustration after illustration.

Illegal Alien and Scary Bird - Lino block prints - 1998 - Two pieces from two different series of multi-block prints focusing on color, shape, pattern, and simplification.

If you have heard me talk about my time in college, you have likely listened to this story. Once accepted into the BFA program, I found myself facing a new set of hurdles. At the end of each semester in the program, each student was paired with three professors, and they would review the work done that semester and deliver a pass/fail status upon the student. Each professor had a vote, and the majority won. While it was taken seriously, it was more of a matter of going through the motions of checking in on the students to make sure no one was having trouble or issues in the program. It was a way for the faculty to check in with everyone. Not the entire faculty, of course. At least one professor deemed the undergrads beneath his time and effort, and he never attended the reviews. He only had time for the grad students. The peons could look after themselves. This is why my first-semester review in the BFA program only had two professors.

Jumping ahead a semester or two comes the pivotal moment for me in the program. That morning everything changed for me, and I stopped caring about anyone's opinion save for my own. My studio space was ready for my review. I had stacks and stacks of print editions filling every flat surface. I had drawings, and more prints tacked to the walls. I had art everywhere. When given uninterrupted time, I can produce a lot of work, and when I was in college, all I had was time. My review team came into my studio, and one professor flopped down on the couch in my space and pushed the prints directly in front of him away without looking at them. He looked at me and asked, "When I say the words 'Star Wars', do you salivate?" I stood there in shocked silence. That is a great way to start a conversation about my work, especially when none of my work had anything to do with Star Wars. In fact, I had not done any Star Wars related work since I was a kid when the movies originally came out. I was too busy creating my art, building my worlds, exploring what was in my head to have time or energy to make Star Wars art. Yes, there are some Star Wars figures in one of the etchings above, but they were there when I drew the view out my window.

The review went downhill from there. While the other two faculty stood there in silence, I was continuously attacked, not my work. In the end, as if triumphant, this professor, whose own work is entirely without merit or worth even describing, rendered a failing mark against me for that semester. His justification for failing me was that I had made too much work that semester. One more time for the people in the back...


I will never forget that moment. That was when it all changed. I knew that I no longer had anything to learn at college and that it was up to me to continue my education. The other two faculty passed me, so in the end, I was never in danger. It was all theater or something. For a long time, I wondered why. Why did he attack me and my work? Why did he fail me? What does too much work even mean? Thankfully in time, I stopped caring. He is a petty little man who pushed college students around. I have no time for such things.

Since I no longer cared about the faculty's opinion, it was now time to mess with them and take the upper hand.

Color Study 2 - Cattle marker drawing on 6' x 4' paper - 1998 / 1999 
Shown with reference photo used for the drawing

I began making big drawings with oil cattle markers. They were super fun to work with, super cheap and offered a method to take my work in a different direction. That direction was trolling the faculty. I am not sure I had the whole plan in mind when I started, but it quickly came together for me. I took a polaroid photo too close and with a flash of a pair of Star Wars figures and a show flyer. I made a viewfinder that matched the dimensions of my paper, and I got to work. This piece poured out of me, and it was a blast to work on. I kept my mouth shut about what it was and made sure that no one saw the reference photos. Some of the other students in the program figured it out because they recognized the colors and shapes, but they kept it to themselves.

The faculty would come through the studios and see what I was working on, and they all gave themselves huge pats on the back. They had finally made an artist out of me. They finally got me to abandon all the monsters and sci-fi garbage that I had been making, and I was now making ART. I would give them a big smile and thank them and get back to work. The faculty was SO happy and proud of themselves. When the drawing was done, I presented it, and the faculty was delighted and told me what I good job I had done and how it was so refreshing that I was making ART. That was when I announced what the piece actually was and showed them the reference. I told them that I am glad they like Star Wars action figure drawings. They were quite angry with me, literally angry. More than one told me they wished I had never told them what it was and that I ruined it for them. I think that was the last time some of the faculty interacted with me. I continued a path of scorched earth from that point on.

E'Lad - Fabricated Suit - 1997

From nearly my first day in the BFA program, I made objects, suits, and monsters along with my prints, paintings, and drawings. These suits and objects rattled the cages every bit as much as my 2D efforts. If a drawing or print of a monster was terrible, then an entire monster suit that I ran around in was even worse. Once I no longer carried about the opinion and demands of the faculty, I doubled down on making more suits, which eventually led to puppets. I put on puppet shows at art events and, in general, made a nuisance of myself in the form of foam, latex, and paint. This led to more suits, and in time I began working them into class assignments. I made installations, and I performed the characters I created. The art professors had even less helpful feedback for me in regards to the puppets and suits. They simply didn't understand it, and it most definitely was not art. 

I had to do a report and presentation on a modern artist for an art history class. Much to the disdain of my art history professor, I did my report on Jim Henson. That went over as you would expect it would. But I stood my ground, and I created a complete report on Henson's work and career and showed the importance of his artwork to society and the world. I had video interviews and clips, and I even made sure to include the connection between Henson, Frank Oz, and Yoda. By this point, I was including Star Wars every chance I could. The professor was not amused and did the only thing he could do. He gave me a 'B' to put me in my place and to prove his dominance over me. Like I cared.

Various puppets - Mixed media - 1998 / 1999
Admiral Ackbar - Mixed media head and suit - 1999 
Worn to the premiere of the Phantom Menace
Woodbane - Mask, costume, and installation - 1999 
An outdoor installation in response to a class focused on the Leon County Sinks.
The most frustrating thing about all of this is that it didn't need to be this way. Because it was like this, I was denied the education I went to college to get. Yes, some professors taught me a lot, but the vast majority taught me little to nothing. There were skilled artists who I wanted to learn from who would not allow me to take their classes. I ended up teaching myself and learning on the job what I could have already been familiar with. Because of bias and a heaping pile of superiority complex, my work was looked down upon and not seen to have value. I am sure we can see the irony in that now. I wanted to learn while I was in college. Instead, I had to fight for every inch and teach myself through a great deal of effort and self-motivation. I want to make the point again; there were faculty to come to defense, who welcomed me into their classes and taught me a great deal of craft and process. But I was never taught how to paint. I was never taught about composition, color, value, and a great deal more that I use every day in my work. These things I learned on my own.
In the summer of 1999, I was in the right place at the right time to work on a horror movie being filmed in Tallahassee. I worked on the makeup effect with a man who would eventually become my boss and learned what I hadn't in multiple years of college in a month. And I didn't have loans to repay for my time working on the movie. With what I learned that summer, I made a monster suit and did an installation and performance for my graduation show. The feet are ridiculous, but I still like the overall feel of the monster. Before graduation, I shipped it out to LA when I visited and completed it there before returning with it for the show. Within days of my graduation show, I moved to LA. I never walked in a graduation ceremony; when that was happening, I was working in LA.
Higuera - Mask, suit, instalation, and performance - 1999 
Graduation Show

A year later, I returned to my school for a visit and to see what was going on. The night I arrived happened to be the night of another graduation show. Walking around, I was amazed to see what was now allowed as graduation quality and exhibition work. I had fought tooth and nail to get permission and approval to create my monster suit and performance. My original idea was to build a spaceship that you could sit in, set up the gallery like a used car lot, and for me to be in makeup trying to sell the spaceship. I talked about this idea a lot, and when the time came, the faculty flatly turned me down and told me I could not move forward with this idea. The funny thing was, one of the exhibits that night was the most intact piece of a spaceship that a student tried to make out of cardboard. Apparently, they were going to set up this spaceship in the gallery, have people sit in it, and he was going to try to sell it.

The cherry on the top of all of this is that when I would run into faculty, they patted themselves hard on their backs and gave themselves full credit for my success. They apparently got me my job in LA. They apparently taught me what I needed to know to work out there. After years of fighting me and telling me to my face that what I was doing was NOT art in any shape or fashion, they obviously were the ones I needed to thank for making my dreams come true. I am not sure I expected anything less, but it still left me in stunned silence.

In the fullness of time, I left LA and the makeup effects industry. The tabletop gaming industry welcomed me in. I had to work hard and never take anything for granted. In the fullness of time, I returned to the world I started building in college, and I completed and published the first illustrated novel set in that world last year. I suppose I get the last laugh, but I am sure my old professors would take credit for that too.

My most favorite photo of my grandmother and I

If not for my time in college, I would not have lifelong friendships that mean everything to me. I would not have met the woman that became my wife at the graduation show a year after leaving. I would not have built the foundation of the Grand Bazaar. I would not have learned that an artist's job is actually that of a problem solver and that we need to do as much sitting and thinking as we do working. I would not have been in the right place at the right time to work on a low-budget horror movie in the summer of 1999. In the end, I only wish I hadn't had to fight so hard to learn so little.

That's all for another exciting Monday on the blog. See you back here on Wednesday! Until then...

For more samples of my work or to contact me regarding my availability, head over to my website:

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