Me, teaching in 2011. Photo by M. Kannan.
Ten years ago this month, I arrived in Columbia, Missouri to start teaching painting and drawing at the University of Missouri. I remember the experience of arriving in town well. My wife was reading to me from the new Harry Potter book (Deathly Hallows was just released the week prior) and we, being Missouri newbies, inadvertently took a scenic route from Chicagoland to MidMo. Those first months were nerve-wracking. It was a one year Visiting appointment (Eventually it was extended, then extended again). I loved the challenge and pretty soon felt at home, especially once Alison joined me. By 2010 I was able to apply to a Teaching Track position.
Triumphant with former grad Ian, 2012.
I really am one of the lucky ones. Unless you’re living the art/teaching life, I don’t know if you can comprehend just how lucky. Yes, I’m a competent teacher. I’m a vigorous and engaged artist. But my art-making is not revolutionary, it is investigatory. I don’t believe in originality, I believe in interrogating meaning and experience by acknowledging the vast array of cross-contextual elements that surround us (histories, cultures, systems of thought, traditions of creativity, etc).
Just as nothing that I make exists on its own, so too my teaching is based on the broad constellations of influences that have coalesced into my particular perspective. My frame of reference is not only my own, it’s a kind of index of everyone and everything that has inflected my understanding.
Posing for one of my former grads, Jake Johnson, way back in 2009. Photo by Jake Johnson.
Ultimately I’m not a huge standout from the other (VERY small number of) MFA graduates who are able to keep up the studio work, exhibitions, and become embedded as an educator. I learned early on that teaching scratched the same itch as painting did for me. I’ve used that. I’ve lived that. If I’m down, feeling blown out and sort of worthless – put me in front of a class of 20 twenty year old undergraduates. I’ll come out supercharged. That’s the power of working with human beings who are in the midst of a transfiguration of personality and purpose. I love teaching.
Ian and Sloane at the first Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage viewing party…
Consider it: I get to think about art, creativity, and even BEING itself for a job. I get to push paint around, push ideas around, and push minds around (including my own). I get to mentor and be mentored by amazing people. I get to work with creative humans of all ages, backgrounds, worldviews, and experiences. I get to read and write and speak about things that move me. I get to show my work around the country (and sometimes around the world). I get to spend time exploring what it means to make things in the world (and what it means for things to make us who we are, too). I get to share those realms of exploration with others.
I’ve gotten to travel around the world to adopt two of my children. I’ve been afforded the chance to elevate my standard of living well beyond what it was while growing up. I have the privilege of good insurance and great health care – two things that have made the quality of my post-heart attack life, and the life of my daughter suffering from osteogenesis imperfecta, much better. I’ve become a home owner. A mini van owner. A back yard mower.
With former grad Jane Jun at the old Shakespeare’s, 2012.
With former grad student Laura at a gallery opening, 2014 or so.
All of these things have come to me through the blessing of employment at Mizzou. It is “an honor and a privilege”* to go into my classroom, greet those faces, and set off on a task of vision and awareness.
So many have challenged me and moved me forward. Bill Hawk, now retired, calling me out in my first talk at Mizzou and asking me to point out what I meant by an abstract assertion I had made. Lampo Leong, telling me to “just teach them” in that first class. Dr. Adrienne Hoard, guiding me in the subtle art of holding a grad student’s feet to the fire. Professor Chris Daniggelis, feverishly baptizing me into the art of mezzotint. Catherine Armbrust and the latex, Jane Jun and identity ghosts, Eric Sweet and the teeth, Maurice and the parking mountain, Shannon and the tree outside the art building, Tina and Midwestern dreams, Norby and graying out, Marcus and awkward dad jokes, Emily and softball excellence, Simon and Caymanian memory… so many more.
So much love, and work, and determination. So many reasons to be grateful.
Joke meme image I created for Chris Hall.
Quality time with former student Marcus Miers, 2016.
The first round of grad students I worked with still loom large in my mind. Ian, Sloane, Nancy were the first… then Natalie, and then Chris, Jane, and Norby… eventually Colleen and Nikos… Each and every one brought a unique inflection to my experience of the world. I am so much better for having spent time with them.
With Lishan, Simon, and Sumi at an art opening a few years ago. Photo by Bobby.
There are so many stories I could put down: grilling pizzas with Maurice, brewing beer with Norby, taking art trips with everyone, having wonderfully intense conversations in Graduate Theory classes, and hilariously irreverent conversations over beverages at any number of our local establishments. I’ve had many wonderful students from China, and I’ll never forget Peking Duck with Jackie or making won-tons with Tianyuan and our children in the kitchen. I’ll never forget when I got to officiate the wedding of two of my former students. I’ll never forget the response of my students and colleagues to my heart attack, and how they supported me and helped me through it.
Jake, visiting for an evening of food and drink, 2008 or so. Nancy isn’t impressed, 2010.
I know that I can’t really express what all of this has meant to me. If I had to bring it all down to the most important thing, I think I would say it’s time with the students. That’s what secure employment for teachers creates. I get the time to get better at teaching and the students get the value of an educator who is growing alongside them. Continuity – hours and days over the long haul – makes the difference. Those students see me living day to day and I see them living day to day. The ones who get it, who really believe they are real and that others are real, who believe in translating human experience into evocative forms… they are the people that get me out of bed. They’re the ones who inspire me.
Standing as a faculty mentor with Shannon at Honors Convocation, 2009.
With grads Guigen, Zach, Amy, Simon, and Nikos at lunch during an art event, 2016. Photo by Waitress.
Working with Emily during a summer drawing session, 2011. Photo by M. Kannan.
I am incredibly thankful for the opportunities I’ve been afforded. My biggest motivation is to be effective as a person, educator, and artist. To make an impact and reveal the world to myself and others through the act of teaching and making artworks. As the years go by, it is the response of my students that gives me such deep encouragement.
The lives of my students are glorious confrontations in the best of ways. They are the world brought to my classroom. Black, white, South Korean, Chinese, Brazilian, Caymanian, Russian, Japanese, gay, straight, trans, Muslim, Christian, Wiccan, conservative, liberal, questioning, broken, certain, self-actualized, brilliant, wondrous, and strange. They come in skittish and green, and they leave full of the power they’ve always had. It’s beautiful to see their transitions, and it never gets old.
With former grad and then colleague David Spear. At Marcus Mier’s wedding.
A portrait of me with Darth Vader by Jane Jun, 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 7 by 5 inches.
Portrait of me as The Dude from The Big Lebowski by Jake Johnson, 2009. Acrylic on wood panel, 7 by 5 inches.
This post hasn’t even really scratched the surface of what that last ten years have meant to me and what I’ve experienced. I haven’t even mentioned my passion for the Cast Collection or Rocking The First Day with Deborah. I haven’t spoken about how much I love Wakonse. I haven’t talked about the strange projects we’ve had to do, the cobbling together of nominal spaces for our students. I haven’t mentioned the glory of Dr. Melvin Platt’s parliamentary prowess or Ferrie and Brenda holding down all the details like heroes. There have been dozens more faculty and students who have made these years amazing.
I’m so thankful, and every semester I try to be worthy of what I’ve received. Here’s to another decade!
A group of my Color Drawing students at work, 2015.
*I’m quoting Professor Corly Blahnik, Emeritus at ISU.