I think back to my time in art school as one of my happiest, and I often think about why that is. The time was 2008. The early iPhone was on the scene. Barack Obama had just been elected president, and the financial crash cast a shadow that I was really quite unaware of at the time. I had transferred from engineering a year prior and feeling woefully behind, I put every ounce of energy into work. I only had one year to study art before getting a general bachelor's degree, and in hindsight, it wasn't nearly enough. Anyone who thinks that artist don't work hard has got it backwards. Artists need to work extra hard to make a living, and it is hard work.
I had a studio apartment at the skirts of town, a real run down thing. The floors were linoleum, the bathroom was tiny, and the building sat right next to one of the loudest, busiest roads in town. But it was the first place that was mine, just mine, and I relished it. The walk to campus was about 30 minutes each way. I didn't realize it at the time, but that walk was to give me ample space to meditate every day, about art or relationships or whatever else a 21 year old kid is thinking about.
I spent a majority of my time in the Visual Arts building on North campus. The big, bright, open studios were available to undergrads as long as there wasn't a class in session, and I would spend sometimes as much as 12 hours from morning to evening drifting between classes or working independently. I hadn't made many close friends the past 3 years, and I had apprehensions about something so new. But that fear was quickly eviscerated. I made friends quickly, I worked tirelessly, I loved that year. Something about those spaces were magic for me; those flexible spaces where people came to work independently and talk freely and share critiques felt like being part of something. Seeing the work of others made the challenge tangible. Having class every day gave enough time for formal training, the rest was time to practice and finish assignments.
I made friends with graduate students and one in particular became a sort of mentor to me. We spent a lot of time together, and I would help him stretching new canvases, or watch him mix paint, or help him install a show from time to time. He was the first person to introduce me to Francis Bacon, and I would think of him when I saw the retrospective at the MET in 2009, which was breathtaking.
Sadly, I haven't painted seriously since. I tried for years after school. I worked in my apartment, I rented studios nearby, but nothing quite filled that void. What was special to me that year may have been something else. It was a kind of Epicurean Garden to discuss art and life openly. There was a magic to the informal being superimposed on the formal. It was both rigid and spontaneous. It gave me time to reflect and time to learn. It was a place to make friends, and a place to relax and a place to work.
Having worked in quite a few modern offices since then, I find myself asking why they don't measure up to such a place. They have the potential and the basic elements in place, but I've only worked in one office that came even close, and it had some of the elements from this fancy acronym:
- Teach—Leaders who act like teachers; they evaluate the quality of your work, they teach and answer questions. The let people fail and learn. Regular time is allotted for human teaching.
- Respect the Craft—Disciplines are vertically managed by people who understand your job. Your teacher should understand your work. Otherwise, how else can you effectively evaluate it?
- Informality—Being on time is important, but nobody should feel that they are filling a seat for appearances. Adequate time should be allowed for leisure and meditation (the thinking kind). But if someone is not learning, and not contributing, something needs to change.
- Mentor—A program that puts people together based on their personalities first, skill sets second.
- Mission—There is magic in purpose.
In order to make an office TRIMM, a company may need to achieve a certain scale, and possibly loosen the strings to reorganize things. While maintaining high quality is important, it need not come at the cost of stagnant learning, illogical rules or lack of leisure time to meditate. While an office needs to produce profit, it's not that different. An office may need to fire someone who is underperforming, but a student who continuously gets D's won't excel. Talent and hard work are requirements in both scenarios.
I'm not 100% sure what happened to make that year so special. In the end, it may be that the people I met were just the right people for me at the right time. But something about it felt important. You could get lost in those halls, meet a new friend, see new art on display, have formal studio sessions, learn, and work. I continue to think fondly of those times and wonder how I can create such a place in the future.