In the past few years, I’ve encountered my fair share of artists and art educators as a student. While they all have vastly different teaching and working styles, I’ve secretly put them in two boxes in my mind — the type that makes me feel bad, and the type that don’t.
I entered college as a biology major and thought I wanted to go to medical school, which is pathetically naive of me, to say the very least. But this one film class I randomly picked out of the roster ended up changing everything. I still remember the shock of seeing the first-ever motion picture being projected, and the professor’s voice gently echoed, “It all started there, with one man wondering whether all four hooves of a horse were off the ground at the same time while trotting.”
Her voice guided me through early global cinema, ‘70s Hollywood, French New Wave and life in general. I used to sit on the couch in her office every Thursday afternoon and just bounce some random ideas off of her. We would talk for hours about books and films and sometimes politics. Because of her I became a film minor, then a film and biology double major, then just film and now film and comparative literature. She made me understand who I am, what I like and what I am capable of, without ever explicitly telling me what to do.
And then on the other end of the spectrum, another film professor who has this disturbingly scientific way of working; everything has to fall into a formula, be it the hero’s journey or the rule of three. Don’t get me wrong, he is undeniably successful at what he does, with major motion pictures under his belt and a couple other ongoing projects that are not uninteresting. But in my second semester of taking a (mandatory) class with him, I’ve gotten used to coming to class and preparing myself to hear “no you can’t do this” or “no I don’t like that.”
I couldn’t contain my bottled up frustration anymore, however, when I got the feedback for an assignment, a character study of some sort. It could take any form as long as it conveys the person’s passion or something they have been through. I made a film about my friend, a poet and a wonderfully sensitive soul. He wanders around, writes and laughs in front of my camera; but really, I was just letting him be. “The intention of the assignment was to capture someone with a genuine passion, not just an interest or a hobby with no level of achievement or labor. So, ultimately, I feel there’s a bit of a missed opportunity in terms of subject matter. I know you’re capable of more,” the professor wrote. I was infuriated at the notion that “passion” is something measured by achievement and felt the need to argue, but in his office hours I was asked point blank if I had an issue with the grade.
That’s not why I came in, I retorted, on the brink of explosion. I just wondered — what should an art education look like? How does one learn about art, the history and the craft of it? Can art be taught in the first place, and how? He hesitated and told me he didn’t know the answers either.
I turned to a friend in art to complain, and asked him the same questions. After ghosting me for a whole night he replied, “I think it’s about being self-driven.”
I think he’s completely right that there’s an extent to which we could depend on other people to teach us things. Before that first film professor left for sabbatical, we were sitting on the grass in this beautiful fall afternoon and I told her I was a bit terrified of what’s to come; senior year, thesis, grad school, creating out of my comfort zone and so on. She told me, in that soothing voice that has given me so much encouragement, “You can figure out things on your own. You always have.”
I realized then that she never actually gave me any answer; she just kept me going, one way or the other. And she’s not the only person. The first time I met my thesis advisor, he told the class the only reason he’s there is to lift us up, whatever we want to do. When I brought up my completely unrealistic proposal he didn’t dismiss me like multiple others have, but instead helped me take it to a place where it’s producible. I kept questioning if I should keep going and he would tell me, again and again, “It’s up to you, but I will help you if you want to do this.”
I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by many supportive mentors and collaborators along the way, and for that I am forever grateful. But ultimately, people can only help me if I want to do what I do, and I have to want it really, really bad. In Scorsese’s words, when it comes to the burning need to create, “you have to do it. You have no choice. You have to live it and it comes with a price. But what a time paying it.”
Ruby Que is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Escape runs alternate Thursdays this semester.