“The Meadows School Provides New Avenues To Success For Artists,” by Scott Gleeson, MA Art History 2009 (Modern and Contemporary Art)
MA Thesis: The Language of Ascent in Contemporary British Public Art
Occupation: Artist, Art Historian
PRELUDE TO GRADUATE STUDIES IN ART HISTORY: The equipment room of Navy Special Warfare Base, Coronado Island, San Diego, is alive the sounds of celebration as I orbit an eight-foot buffet table like an unmanned drone, laying waste to a ridge of havarti and cheddar before strafing a fleet of pealed shrimp. In Spring 2002 my twin brother Brent (SMU Dedman College class of ‘99) had just graduated from US Navy SEAL Qualification Training. Despite my pride in his achievement all I could do was nurse a hangover and attempt to fill the gaps in my memories of the preceding night. As I targeted a platter of Danish, I was intercepted by a distinguished looking officer clad in khaki, chest blazing with the gold Trident—the insignia of the Navy SEALS.
I recognized him immediately as the Master Chief Petty Office, the highest-ranking enlisted SEAL and coordinator of the day’s ceremonies. He studied me with pale formaldehyde eyes and disarmed me with a smile. It took a moment for my brain to compute this man was trying to recruit me into the SEAL program! Personally, I had never given much thought to the idea of joining the military even in the months following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In fact, after spending four years as an undergraduate living in a military town (Colorado Springs) during the height of sexual abuse scandals at the Air Force Academy, my anti-establishment views had only been reinforced. My head begins to throb with the acronym S. E. R. E. (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape). “Thank you very much for your interest, sir, but I’m an A R T I S T,” I said, thinking somehow this one word, “artist” would resolve the issue in a decisive way.
This moment was when I first began to question my identity as an artist, which at the time was based partly on inherited modernist myths about art’s autonomy from politics and culture. It also coincided with the start of an uncertain period in my artistic practice. In 2006, I resolved to cease all creative projects, sever ties with the Denver gallery representing my work and with my private clients, and enter a period of study and reflection. It was at this time that I applied to the Meadows School of the Arts, and to my astonishment, I was accepted with full funding, a stipend, and a teaching assistantship; I even received personal phone calls from members of the faculty urging me to come!
During the first semester I experienced the same growing pains felt by many graduate students who have been out of school for more than five years and several times I questioned whether this was the right degree program for me at this time. It became apparent that I would need to make a transition from skills learned as an undergraduate art history major, which privileged formal analysis and memorization, to those more consistent with graduate study at the Meadows School, whose curriculum stresses critical thinking, writing, and presentation skills. I began to find my own personal stride in Dr. Janis Bergman-Carton’s Methodology seminar writing critical response papers, even discovering a passion for theoretical inquiry after reading such authors as WJT Mitchell, Whitney Davis, and Griselda Pollock. At the end of one seminar, Dr. Bergman-Carton challenged the students to begin considering what kind of contribution we might hope to make to the existing corpus of art historical literature, and despite my understanding that graduation from the program would require the successful completion of a master’s thesis, I was certainly not very confident that my own thesis would make much of a “contribution.”
Later seminars with Dr. Randall Griffin (American Modernism) and Dr. Pamela Patton (Medieval Spain) helped me to hone my research abilities by adopting methodologies appropriate to the subject matter and to refine my presentation style. Ironically, as an aspiring contemporary artist, it was Adam Herring’s seminar Rethinking Pre-Columbian Architecture that made the biggest impact on my intellectual development. Faced with a dearth of archival material to support research on archaeological remains, Dr. Herring challenged the class to find alternative means for art historical analysis, ranging from the formalist and linguistic to the theoretical – he offered Henri Lefebvre’s Production of Space as an example of the kinds of texts we might look to as architectural historians. What inspired me most was the adventurous spirit with which Dr. Herring approached his own research, which he generously shared in a private presentation to our class, and the way in which he emphasized resourcefulness, creative problem solving, and risk-taking as necessary attributes of a good scholar. For my own seminar paper, I deployed Jacques Derrida’s theory of the archive in a somewhat forced and clumsy manner, a risk ultimately rewarded. Privately, I began an intensive reading of Henri Lefebvre’s writings on urbanism and space, deciding that this would provide the impetus for my thesis research.
I spent the entire summer after the first year dividing my time between preliminary thesis research and redeveloping my rock climbing technique at the SMU Dedman Center climbing wall. Since I was a teenager, I had always maintained a love of mountaineering and rock climbing, but in June of 2008 when French climber Alain Robert (a.k.a. The Human Spiderman) made his daring and unprotected ascent of the New York Times building in Manhattan, ideas for a thesis topic that began with Lefebvre’s Production of Space began to germinate. Urban ascent is a well-documented yet secretive practice that constitutes an unacknowledged history of architectural reception. In fact, those few British climbers who actually write on the topic describe its popularity and importance for maintaining the elite identities of both male and female undergraduates of Cambridge since the mid-nineteenth century. Many of today’s greatest climbers and polar explorers began by conquering Gothic architecture and urban space! Of course, these ideas still have currency in contemporary British culture, which privileges the bodily exploration of the landscape through such pastimes as rambling, orienteering, and climbing; and it was through shear determination and luck that I was able to identify and make contact with several contemporary artists exploring these ideas in their art and public projects. When I presented my findings to the faculty at the beginning of the fall semester I was shocked by their enthusiasm for this very unorthodox topic and was encouraged to proceed with my research under the supervision of the newly appointed Dr. Eric Stryker, a recent graduate of Yale’s Center for British Art.
Dr. Stryker is a gifted creative thinker with an aptitude for identifying in visual images and artifacts evidence of the cultural values of a given historical period; he consistently brings an interdisciplinary approach to his work, drawing from such fields as film theory, technology, and media studies. During our regular meetings, Dr. Stryker’s office became a proving ground for testing new ideas and methods. He encouraged me to gain the critical distance necessary for disinterested analysis, while at the same time investing himself emotionally in my work and dedicating a substantial amount of his time to the conceptual and editorial phases of the thesis project. Like a great tennis coach, Dr. Stryker was always able to keep the ball in play, returning my sometimes wildly unpredictable volleys with style and finesse. With the support of Dr. Bergman-Carton and Dr. Griffin, and a generous Rigsby Travel Grant to fund research in Belfast, Edinburgh, and London, I completed the project, titled The Language of Ascent in Contemporary British Public Art, and received my diploma in August 2009.
Graduating on schedule was little consolation considering I was entering one of the toughest job markets in the history of our country and, expecting even greater challenges in returning to my career as an artist, I dedicated myself to presenting and publishing my research in the hopes of developing a more professional academic cv. The department regularly sends out email announcements for opportunities in the academic world, so I began furiously applying for everything I thought I might qualify for, cranking out article abstracts like thank you notes after a wedding and burdening the faculty with constant requests for letters of reference. This time put an enormous strain on my financial resources, but the investment paid off when I began receiving a stream of acceptance letters from conference and symposia selection committees, the editors of refereed academic journals, and museums and arts organizations to whom I had applied for internships and fellowships.
It has been only one year since graduation and my degree and hard work has opened doors I could not have imagined possible in 2007. In the last eight months alone I have presented at two major conferences, including the 2010 College Art Association Annual Conference in Chicago; had two full-length articles accepted for publication in refereed academic journals; worked a registration internship and a curatorial fellowship; instructed three Art Appreciation courses for the Dallas County Community College District; and in the fall I will be teaching at Montgomery College in Maryland. Due to scheduling conflicts, I have actually had to turn down two adjunct lecture positions at Brookhaven College and the Corcoran College of Art and Design! I am currently being considered for an Arts Writers Article Grant from the Creative Capital / Warhol Foundation.
For each of these successes, I must credit the Meadows School of the Arts and the dedicated faculty for investing in me their time and resources, without which I might never have been able to make my own contributions to the existing corpus of art historical literature. To incoming students of the M.A. program or prospective PhD candidates, I would encourage you to be open to new methods and test the already porous boundaries of the discipline, but also to know when to depart from the wisdom of the faculty and find your own personal way of working. With the superb access to resources that the Meadows School of the Arts provides, and with a little vision and willingness to take educated risks, there is no limit to where your research may take you. To artists who might be looking for alternative ways to advance their knowledge base or develop a foundation for research-intensive practices characteristic of artists like Mike Kelley or Matthew Barney, the background in critical theory and post-war aesthetic discourse that the Meadows can offer could radically change your conceptual process and insure you are producing well-researched, socially relevant, and coherent ideas on your next major project. You may also discover talents you never knew you had…
Hooyah Meadows School of the Arts!