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You have to be inventive

For my continuing series of interviews for the Museum of Contemporary Arts Erarta about art education in America, I spoke with Petah Coyne - a well-known contemporary American sculptor and photographer. Her works are in the permanent collections of the influential museums and galleries such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. For many years Petah has been teaching at the School of Visual Arts and other universities.

Untitled #1336 (Scalapino Nu Shu), 2009-10. Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein © Petah Coyne

Petah, how long have you been teaching?

I have taught since 1988, it is a very long time. For the last couple years I haven't taught, because I have been so very busy, but I am coming back this fall and will be teaching one semester, and I hope to continue teaching, because I love it.

What is the main task, mission of MFA program?

I think, the mission is to find out what each student talent is. Where their eye is, their vision is, and to really bring that vision out, and to work individually with that student. That's my goal to make them see their own work. Every student has a genius. They don't often know what that genius is, because they live with it all the time. It's very hard to see it, hard to trust it. I feel as a teacher that that’s what would be my gift to them, and it's hard for me to get them to trust their own instincts.

Could you be more specific about what you teach to your students?

One of the things that I often do is: I have them go to the Metropolitan museum. I have them look all around, and if they can tell me how they see it, and then if them can articulate that and tell other students and also themselves- because they can see themselves talking about a particular piece. This teaches the students how to talk about their own works, and one of the issues is that people talk about work in an intellectual way, and I try to get students to do it in an emotional way, from a natural way, like breathing.

What do you expect from students? How would you describe your "perfect student"?

I have a lot of them over the years; a lot of them have done really well. And by well I mean they continuing to work really hard. I expect that they try hard. The best students are the ones that make fantastic work but then also he or she really makes bad work, because only the ones that are making great work and then making awful work are the ones that are trying to work to the very edge of what they are trying to do. They have to have enough confidence to do that - it's hard. If you cannot do it now you won't be able to do it later when the stakes are even higher.

The students who I had interviewed told me that they are even more influenced by each other than by professors. Is interaction among students so important?

Absolutely! The connections you will make in school will be the connections you will have, and I hope you will have forever. Your colleagues, your friends are going to inspire you and challenge you. I think, it's interesting to have classmates from literature, to have musicians, to have dancers, because all these people are incredibly creative. I taught up at Bard College one summer, and it's a really great program; it has music, it has literature, it has filmmaking, it has sculpture, it has painting and I had to critique all of those. I thought, how can I critique musicians and composers, filmmakers and literature. I listened to these things and I didn't know how to critique, but it I was really surprised I could have the most fascinating dialogues.

What is the criteria of evaluating student's works?

I am a very hard grader and I also make great demands from my students. If you look at my syllabus - it is very tough. I have so little time and I don't want to have the students that just want to get by. I want to have the students that are really going to challenge me visually. I grade them on all the activities we have; and also how they do in their own studio. I don't care if a student produces 20 great paintings or 20 great sculptures. I care how much he or she is really pushing. Pushing that border for themselves -really trying, really thinking, really challenging themselves. That's the student that really would succeed for me. The person that does 20 great paintings, he would get B or B minus, but the person that did one great piece and 20 medium ones, but he was really pushing and he did great piece that blew everyone out of the water - he would get an A plus. Exactly that's what you are in graduate school for; that's what you want to experiment all your whole life. Because the people that are safe artists like who cares, there are millions of safe artists out there right? Who needs them? The people who produce amazing work, one or two pieces a year, that's the people you look at.

I would like to ask you about career prospects for alumni?

I hope that they will get to exhibit their work and what I try to do with my class, I try to teach them to apply for grants. Because there are many grants that are available for students and after they finish studying. If you look at my resume I got so many grants. Most of artists don’t apply for grants, but you can travel and you can get money, and the money will allow you to be in your studio. If you are in your studio than you can definitely try to get into galleries. It is very good to get your work into galleries. That is my first hope for the artists. If they can’t get into galleries, it can take a while to get into galleries, than I would hope that maybe they get a teaching job. At least they can teach, and hopefully they can sustain themselves until they can get grants or get into a gallery, that is your best thing, because you want to make art and show it to the world.

Which features of character should students or emerging artists have to achieve success in the modern Art world?

Well, you have to be talented, but you also have to be a little tough in the way that you can’t get your feelings hurt too much- Because you are going to get a lot of rejection. The other thing is you have to be incredible inventive. You know how creative you are to make your work. You have to be that creative in figuring out other things. Maybe you won’t get into all the shows you want, so make your own show. Find the storefront to do a pop up show, include your friends, do some mid-career artists and do some well-known artists. You can do this mixture with the well-known artists - some people would say “oh gosh, I love to see that piece”, and then that would bring other people in, so your pieces would also get exposure. If you can’t do a pop up show, do it in the back of a container and have it brought to the piers. Or do it on a boat, and drive that boat on to the shore on a beautiful day near Chelsea. You have to be creative and never get discouraged. When they first told me to send out slides, I said okay. Everyone was sending out 10 slides in a package. They would send one at a time. I made 20 sets, I sent them out. The minute they came back I sent them out. The first year I sent out 250 sets. The next year I said :"I will double my efforts" - and I sent 500 sets. I sent them to every museum across the United States. I sent them to every gallery in New York. I sent them to every alternative space. I sent them to everybody in every museum in New York. Next year I sent them back again to every gallery and every person because I updated my slides. And that’s how I got my first Whitney show and then the Brooklyn museum gave me a show and bought my work. So you just have to be inventive!

Which place in modern world does a contemporary artist have?

I think, they are really the best ones, point to the things that are full of hope. The political artists point to the things that are really important. Like Alfredo Jar, who is a political artist. He questions many things that challenge people. Artists are center point, they are magicians, the ones that show the world if full of hope. They are the grounding for the world and I don't think anyone else does that. The world seems to be in chaos most of the time. The artist, the good artists are the ones that are always taking the temperature of the world.

Could artists influence on society?

I think, they can change the world.

Who is the recipient of contemporary art? Sometimes, the language of the contemporary artist seems so sophisticated that the general public could not understand it.

I think, the world is the recipient of contemporary art. We have to make art so that it is understandable, but the world also has responsibility to open up their heart. I think sometimes the world shuts down, and I think, the world shuts down because of bad publicity. Look at the United States: we have this kind of awful Christian society which shuts people down for no reason and they hear the word ART and they just freeze, but instead if they were to open up they would feel thing that would scare them. But in their quieter moments when they open up and they see the art. It’s very special and they do understand it. But sometimes artists put too much text on the wall by trying to make it too intelligent to understand. I think, that’s wrong.

Do you think art must be more understandable without words? Just with emotion?

Absolutely, just leave it be. Just trust the people.

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