Q: How long have you been involved with art?
A: Since I was little, just like so many people. It’s been kind of a loopy path; I didn’t know anybody who was involved with art and I didn’t know how to make that work. My parents were worried about me when they found out I was really serious about a career in art and suggested that I make it more of a hobby and find something else to do to support myself. I was confused and didn’t know what to do so I tried to do that, but then I was in college and I saw the art department students and I thought, that’s what I want. I realized that I could probably live on minimum wage if I had to. I decided to just go for it and go to art school and I never looked back.
Q: What influenced you to pursue a career in art?
A: Initially, Disney. When I was little I liked to copy from cartoons and I was really fascinated by animation--that was the start of it. It’s funny because when you’re little, you’re not aware of corporations or anything insidious about Disney and it’s pretty fantastic. On the Disney channel they would play behind-the-scenes documentaries so you got to see what the artists were doing. I would see these videos of artists making Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse and the process they used to draw the characters was just magical to me. I thought if you can take a marker, make a few strokes and make a character come to life, that’s what I wanted to do. As I got older, I always loved book illustration; I became interested in Van Gogh and other painters who had a very expressive way of making marks.
Q: What made you want to work for The Smithsonian Associates?
A: When I knew I was going to move to D.C from Indiana, I was thinking where do I want to work because I need to just find a job to support myself and the Smithsonian was the first thing that I thought because it encompasses everything that I like and it’s such a wonderful organization. So I thought even if I had to sell tickets at the planetarium I don’t care I just want to get in there and be a part of it. When I did get a job in the retail stores I found out that they had classes thorough The Smithsonian Associates program and I thought, well wonderful, I need to get involved in that. I checked the website and wasn’t exactly sure how to begin so I contacted one of the faculty and asked her how she got involved. She was kind enough to tell me how she got her job here and who to contact and put me in touch with her. I expressed my interest in teaching at TSA an there happened to be an instructor opening in the winter and we had a conversation and that was it.
Q: Have you had any prior teaching experience?
A: Oh yeah, I got my graduate degree in Indiana at Indiana University in Bloomington and after that I started doing adjunct teaching in Indianapolis at the Herron School of Art and Design. I was teaching studio courses in drawing, 2-D design and color and I did that for 4 years. Along the way I picked up drawing classes at a couple other universities and so I had a lot of teaching positions from that and my TA positions at IU. I love teaching, so it was definitely something that I wanted to get back into but moving to D.C was more about making a big shift in my life because adjunct teaching is a wonderful experience but it was kind of a dead-end as far as advancement is concerned. When I moved out here I really missed teaching so it was really wonderful to get back into it.
Q: How have you been enjoying the teaching experience at TSA?
A: It’s amazing, because I enjoy talking about art all the time so it was a natural fit for me to begin teaching again. I also learn a lot from interacting with students, and seeing what you guys [the students] do energizes my practice.
Q: What do you feel is the best way to get students interested in art?
A: I think everybody is creative in a way and I think most people start off drawing as children. There’s always that spark of being affected by a drawing that really looks like something and there’s that illusion that really captivates people. I think in general people are kind of interested in art but might not feel like they can necessarily do it themselves, they may really want to, but something is holding them back. I think that the most important thing for someone who is on the fence to know is that it is totally possible to learn to make art and there are tricks. Not technique tricks but things that once you know how to look at things in a different way it makes the experience totally different. It’s absolutely possible to learn.
Q: What teaching methods do you implement to create a learning environment?
A: Enthusiasm is really important. Enthusiasm for the subject and sympathy for what it feels like to learn something that you don’t really know how to do. So I guess empathy is a big teaching strategy. I think it’s really important to reinforce the notion of process over product because taking the focus off the product really frees you up to just learn and it really does not matter where you are in your journey, you still need to do that. Also I think it’s very important for people to get over who they think that they “should” be artistically and figure out who they are themselves and what kind of marks they make. You want to be able to make volume and feel like you can make a realistic illusion of something but apart from that, it doesn’t have to look like Leonardo or Van Gogh or Rembrandt because finding out who you are as an individual artist and what your art is going to look like is really exciting.
Q: Do you plan on pursuing teaching other courses through TSA? If so, which ones?
A: I would love to; as they come available I would love to teach painting or a color theory class. We’ll see what happens; I understand from Marybeth that things will come up as they are available, but anything in 2-Dimensional media is what I like to do.
Q: How would you encourage future students to take this course?
A: It feels good to make things with your hands and if you’re not in art already, if you’re in some other kind of field, then it’s interesting to make the connection between what it takes to make a drawing and what it takes to do whatever you do in your area of expertise. I think that in almost any field there are parallels with art-making, we just use different materials and different subjects. In whatever you do, there is always a process of inquiry and exploration. When you’re making art and connect with the way you already think and then you expand your thinking using this new-found experience, the result is incredible.
Fifty Silver Wishes (left) and Everything You Can Think of is True (right) by Jamie Combs