News & Publications
The College Magazine - Summer 2008
A WORK IN PROGRESS
St. John's may provide an ideal education for an aspiring writer, says Kea Wilson (A09),
but even the most dedicated artists find difficulty balancing creativity with the Program
Most St. John's students spend their last night before freshman year trying to cram that last sweater into an over-stuffed suitcase and get those last 20 pages of the Iliad read. I spent mine at a $2 million benefit gala in Miami, where Placido Domingo shook my hand and Vanessa Williams gave me a kiss on the cheek. A week earlier, I had flown to Florida as a finalist in a youth arts competition to which I had submitted a short story on a whim. Twelve master classes, eighteen hotel lunches and one ridiculous photo-op in a botanical garden later, I found myself at this surreal party with a medal hung around my neck, star-struck and eating hors d'oeuvres with the playwright Sam Shepard. Three hours after that, I boarded my plane to Albuquerque, still unsure of what had happened to me.
From the moment when I landed to the moment I write this now, I've been a little embarrassed about telling this story. But I've been embarrassed, too, of calling myself a writer at all, and especially so since I first dragged my trunk onto the Santa Fe campus and began to call myself a Johnnie. No 18-year-old with an ounce of perspective would ever presume to say she had gained the experience, insight, or originality necessary to call herself an artist by the time she had finished high school, no matter how many awards she had won, or how much encouragement she had received.
No 18-year-old who's just finished reading about the burial of Hector in the lobby of the Sunport would even dare to think that she was an artist, regardless of where her plane had just arrived from.
After three years at St. John's, I've often wondered just how many students have had moments like these. While I've managed to write almost every day since coming to St. John's—despite my embarrassment and often my own best efforts to quit—many of my friends have either banished their guitars to the dark recesses of their dorm room closet, or else been too caught up with Newton to ever take it up in the first place. From my original 28-student January freshman class in Santa Fe, at least six left to pursue some form of a career in the arts. I've been the editor of a literary magazine, a member of a filmmaker's club, and devotee of a dance class that have all lapsed due to a lack of student interest or energy. When I first decided to apply to St. John's, I was especially swayed by a video of then-Santa Fe Dean David Levine (class of 1967), posed in front of the Meem Library: he said that "there should be no realm of human endeavor that we should feel ourselves excluded from" once we have completed the St. John's education. Why, then, is the artistic realm of human endeavor so cut off from many Johnnies—and could we make art, even if we wanted to?
Making Time for Art
Needless to say, I didn't come to St. John's to be a writer—and I'd venture to say that even fewer students come to the college to play the clarinet, or act, or more generally, for any reason other than to read great books and attempt to understand them in a community of intelligent people. After all, I had spent the past four years of my life learning to be a writer at a fine arts high school, where I had saddled myself with a creative writing major at age 14. By the time I graduated, I had taken enough English and creative writing credits to fulfill St. John's entrance requirements six times over, not to mention written a portfolio of my own terrible amateur writing that had a page count roughly equal to that of War and Peace.
When I applied to college, there was no doubt in my mind that I knew how to write, at least insofar as I'd done it, consistently and with varying degrees of success, every day for years. When I walked into my first seminar, I still hoped to pursue my writing professionally—but like most young artists, I'd listened to the advice of my parents, my guidance counselors, and every successful writer I'd been lucky to meet while at arts school: "Have a back-up plan." "Study something you enjoy." "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." I ran across St. John's and marveled at the Web site, which advertised itself boldly and with QuickTime™ video testimonials, as a strong foundation for any endeavor I might undertake. I thought I'd found the answer.
I figured out pretty quickly that many of my friends had the same idea when coming to the college. After years of classical piano training, Sam Richards (SF09) had not only learned the nuances of his sonata repertoire, but also the slim odds of success in the music world. "I actually chose St. John's partly because I was so interested in playing music," he says. "Knowing that it would be hard to actually have a career as a professional musician, I figured that it might help me to have a 'strong liberal arts education' as a back-up." Once immersed in the difficult work of the tutorials, however, Richards found that there were simply too many "lab readings, Newton to figure out, Racine to translate, Nietzsche to read...Part of me feels really bad because just about everyone I know ends up telling me that I'm a talented musician, I should keep playing the piano, I'm good enough to be professional, and so on...but I just don't feel it anymore."
It's no secret that all too often, the rigorous work of the Program eclipses the often extraordinary time and energy it takes to practice and perfect an art form—or, God forbid, produce any new material yourself. But this argument isn't enough to explain why so many Johnnies manage to find time for week-long rock climbing trips in Arizona and so few manage to find time to write a novel. While Eron Wiles (SF10) doesn't "find St. John's to be discouraging to art in particular" and has even managed to sustain her own interest in the arts through a craft club, time in the pottery studio and small sewing projects, she misses the sustained community she enjoyed as an art major at a previous college. "A big part of going to art school is a class critique of each other's work. I know I was constantly comparing my work with others." At St. John's, students not only lack the time, but simply the common vocabulary necessary to critique one another's composition or use of a certain rhyme scheme.
For some, however, St. John's doesn't only lack a common artistic dialect, but actually demands that we speak about books, the arts, and everything else through the rigidly defined analytical language that we're taught in seminar—and in the process, neglect our artistic impulses entirely. Caitlin Cass (SF09), a rising senior and prodigious visual artist, says that she is "constantly blown away by how apathetic our student body is when it comes to anything that does not involve critiquing [or] discussing the work of others." While many students are discouraged by the lack of artistic community at the college, however, Cass has taken it as a form of encouragement: she says that her "frustration with this is probably the only reason I'm even considering a career in the arts. The one truly useful thing I've learned at St. John's is that I could never spend my entire life discussing what other people have created. I need to create things myself."
Like Cass, Simon Tajiri (SF09) came to the college with a passion for art, but quickly found himself saddened by "how much talent people have shelved in order to do the Program." A talented poet, blues guitarist, songwriter, soundtrack composer and general Renaissance man himself, Tajiri quickly found himself feeling stifled by the St. John's "culture which says that there's a certain way of writing, a certain way of speaking, a certain way of reading, thinking. If you want to be part of the conversation, heard by your tutors and your classmates, it's got to go a certain way. And there's room for individuality in that. But not rebellion."
Magdalen Wolfe (A07) portrays Desdemona in the King William Player's Othello production.
Tutor Will Williamson played the title role.
Finding a Voice
Like many of the subjects I interviewed, I've neglected my art form for months at a time while I've become embroiled in life at the college. During my sophomore year in Santa Fe, I logged countless hours on the layout computers in the basement of Peterson Student Center, painstakingly adjusting page margins on the school literary magazine rather than writing anything new of my own to submit. I've spent more than a few excruciating seminars biting my tongue rather than commenting on Shakespeare's use of wordplay, if only because I knew that my comment would be met by a round of silence if I spoke. And while I am, absolutely, still dying to understand just how Shakespeare, as a writer, frames a sentence or captures Iago's specific brand of ego in words, I've come to be just as hungry to understand what Shakespeare, as a thinker, has to tell me not just about writing, but about human life.
My freshman language tutor, Cary Stickney (A75) has always stood out in my mind as the first person who showed me what it truly meant to study at St. John's. He was the first tutor to tell me, point-blank, in my don rag, that it was not enough for me to simply love books the way I had loved books in high school—as something I wanted to write and the way I wanted to spend my time—but that I must love books as a testament to the infinity of human perspectives they represent, and the invaluable mirror they provide for myself and the species I'm a part of. He also stands out in my mind as the tutor who could always be seen on the lower Placita on Wednesday afternoon, mandolin in hand, surrounded by students and other tutors making music.
When I asked him whether or not a St. John's student could pursue a career in the arts, Stickney responded that "insofar as the chief thing is to love the beauty and depth of the work that is possible in any given art so as to be inspired to produce that kind of work oneself, I do indeed. Insofar as really getting anywhere with Kant or Newton requires that same application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, that same eager, stubborn persistence that a career in the arts requires, yes, there again I think so."
But he was also careful to question whether or not there had "ever been a school that knew how to turn out great artists. It is hard enough to get students to speak their minds and ask their own questions and listen to one another and to the texts. If the creative arts are about finding one's own voice, then I think St. John's may be one of the best places to prepare to practice such arts."
And Stickney's question is, after all, not a purely rhetorical one. While it remains to be seen whether or not any school can guarantee their alumni that specific breed of creativity, inspiration, sensitivity to beauty, personal richness and yes, success that any artist craves and requires, it cannot be ignored that St. John's does produce alumni who go on to successful careers in all manner of art forms. One alumnus that I spoke with, David Kidd (A85), came to St. John's after abandoning his dream of becoming an architect, and ended many years later restoring classical homes as part of his larger practice as painter, muralist and restoration artist with Kidd Studios.
While the road was not a direct one for Kidd (he also spent several years in the Navy and had a successful career as the senior clinical trial researcher for the neurosurgery department at Johns Hopkins University), he says that it was his broad-based education at St. John's that taught him the adaptability not only to draw on the skills he learned from every fork in his career path, but to eventually gather the courage to apply those lessons to his new career as an artist. "I can't tell you how many times I'll be painting a mural and need to use perspective and I've fallen back on what Winfree Smith taught me [in freshman math]," says Kidd. "And doing clinical trials and helping people with chronic pain symptoms, it doesn't feel like that was a waste of time at all either, not in any way...I learned all this stuff about grant writing and business and managing people, and there were all these life skills that came with it that even if I didn't stay in that career—I took to the next thing."
While Kidd makes no pretensions that it was this adaptability alone that led to his success as an artist, he cannot help but credit his education here for providing him with the foundation not only to pursue any field he chose, but also to address those essential human questions that artists, in particular, explore when they assert their perspective on the world through paint, stone, or pencil. "[Program authors] were able to look at the same thing, the same group of data and come at it from different directions and give it a whole new meaning," he says. "I swear that's what art is. There are artistic scientists, and there are pedantic artists on both sides of the divide. I think real art and real creativity crosses all the disciplines like anything else....[The things that Johnnies are taught] are broadly applicable to everything from writing a computer program to saying 'I'll put this element on this painting here because that's where it will look good in the composition...' Everything that goes on around us, as we are able to understand it, is logical. It may be chaotic, and maybe we don't know what the process is, but there's always a process. If you can bring that to your art, I think it only improves it. That ability to synthesize, to take a bunch of disparate things and pull them together into a composition, that's what an artist does, and the training here just gives you practice.
As I stumble through Newton, Kant, Maxwell, and the other challenges of junior year—and inevitably, editing whatever stubborn metaphor in whatever short story I'm writing at the moment—I often find it difficult to follow Kidd's advice. It's hard sometimes, as I'm trudging through the electro-magnetic equations, to understand how my fiction can even fall under the same umbrella as the vast and brilliant works of the minds we encounter here, and how I'll ever be able to say something as new, as daring, or as genius as they have already said. I'm only comforted to know that generations of St. John's students before me have struggled with these ideas and emerged in awe, with an expanded faculty to enjoy and marvel at the world around them, and more courage to express their reverence and perplexity and excitement for those ideas than when they entered. I'm comforted when I hear the words of a current St. John's student, Simon Tajiri, and to know that they echo my thoughts exactly:
"I'm pretty sure that I'll spend my life creating, whether it be writing, music, whatever. I don't know if it'll be any good at all, or if people will want to hear what I have to say. But I want to be responsible about it. I want to make sure I'm listening to the conversation before I jump in. I want to be honest about what I'm thinking and I want to be disciplined enough to be loyal to my beliefs ... I don't want to create more dogma. I just want to be honest and I want to be able to tell when what I'm saying is real. Maybe St. John's can help me do that. Here's hoping, anyway."
By Kea Wilson (A09)