All about Imagination

By Lori Baker '86 A.M. / July / August 2000
October 19th, 2007
It’s critique day in Sculpture II. Students have had two weeks to take their materials of choice and create what Professor of Art Richard Fishman calls "a contraption without limits that would perform an unpredictable or eccentric task." One such contraption belongs to Ann Rundquist ’02, who has painted the walls and floor in one corner of a basement room in the List Art Center a bright, emphatic blue. To this she has added an array of objects painted bright yellow – a pack of cigarettes, an off-the-hook telephone, a whisk broom, a transistor radio, a fork, a yo-yo, a sneaker, and a plastic elephant – and mounted them against the blue. The result is a strange, dreamlike tableau. Members of the class silently walk into and around Rundquist’s creation. They touch the objects and ponder their effects.

Fishman notes that, lacking moving parts, Rundquist’s sculpture doesn’t really fit the definition of a contraption, but he is willing to be flexible. As Jeff Potter ’00 later says, "Richard’s method of teaching is very much ‘Why don’t you try it and see how it comes out?’ " To Fishman, the purpose of assignments like this one is to encourage inventiveness. "You learn things,"he says, "from struggling with a piece and solving problems, from trying to communicate something and seeing how successfully it comes across."

Thus the importance of studio critiques. "I think," one student suggests to Rundquist, "I want a more enclosed environment, more like a room." Another wonders if there is a relationship among the objects. "I’m spending time making connections between them, and I’m confused as to whether these connections are intentional," he says. Fishman notices a disjunction between the objects. Some seem to float, while others appear tacked on. "Is this supposed to be some kind of hallucinatory experience?" he asks.

"It’s all about imagination," the artist responds.

This world of imagination is in the bowels of the List Art Center. To get there, students must first pass through a bright, airy lobby, descend a graffiti-wrapped stairwell, and emerge well beyond the reach of ambient light into an enormous space that is more foundry than classroom. The floor is scuffed and grimy; yellow air ducts snake across the ceiling and hang down over rows of workbenches stacked with old bicycle parts, shards of glass, metal wheels and gears, tree branches – even a ruffled blue parasol. At one bench on a typical day this spring, a student wearing a dust mask and goggles drills into some type of material, while at another a young woman adds digits to a fingerless plaster hand. At a table near the front of the room, in a capacious glass tank, a hamster tunnels its way through a diorama of miniature houses. Passing students occasionally mist the hamster with a spray bottle. "He likes rain," one explains.

Before imaginations can soar into finished sculptures, students must learn a little physics and mechanics. The first thing Fishman must teach, he says, is "how to make things stay together." He quickly demonstrates how to cut, drill, glue, sand, and sandblast glass; how to weld metal joints; how to cut, join, and finish wood; how to mix plaster and cast it. Fishman doesn’t linger on any of this, however, preferring that students know just enough to get started."I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time making people into craftsmen," he explains, "because content is so important."

As the semester progresses, Sculpture II students work with increasing deftness and skill. They learn, for example, that a long, thin object made from steel will be durable, while the same object in plaster falls apart easily – important knowledge when deciding what medium is best suited to a particular idea. Glass has unexpected strength, Fishman instructs his students; it is able to "do things people can’t understand, which gives it a magic or mystery." Learning to communicate with materials is like learning a new language, Fishman says, especially when creating nonrepresentational art.

Fishman should know. The current chair of the visual-art department and a Brown professor since 1965, he’s an active artist who’s received Guggenheim and Howard Foundation fellowships and whose work has been exhibited in group and solo shows.

At least as important to the students of Sculpture II, however, is Fishman’s attentiveness as a teacher. Critiques of creative work are always anxious events for the artist whose work is undergoing scrutiny, but Fishman manages to keep them constructive. When Jeff Potter presented a coffin-like wooden tub filled with water and bubble bath as his contraption, it featured an electric-blender motor mounted inside to generate an ever-growing mountain of bubbles. While discussing the piece, Fishman and the class concluded that the tub would be more successful if it were interactive; Potter added a motion detector so the motor would be activated by a viewer’s presence.

"That really made it work," he says.

Sculpture II’s emphasis on creativity and inventiveness has made it a draw for students from a variety of concentrations. Having such a diversity of interests in the classroom, Fishman says, helps put students’ enthusiasm for art in perspective. He actively confronts them with the realities of being a commercial artist."I make sure they know that only a fraction of artists can support themselves on their art," he says. And a student, he believes, does not have to be an artist to benefit from a studio art course: "Art reinforces the ability to access your own creativity, which is applicable to any part of your life."

Some assiduous students from Fishman’s course can be seen combing though neighborhood dumpsters in search of inspiring materials. The idea, says Arden Stern ’02, a concentrator in art and semiotics, is to find "things degraded, or rusted, or broken, and make them into something new." She and Jasper Speicher ’02, an art and engineering concentrator, rooted through enough trash to create one of the class’s most controversial, self-locomoting "contraptions." Combining pieces of a wheelchair, a stool, and a metal frame, the two have created what looks like a late-Victorian sexual torture device.

Speicher sees the piece as a way "to combine materials and mechanics. It’s about being able to conceive the most absurd thing you can think of and then make it a reality." When all is said and done, after all, isn’t art about helping us regain a childlike way of seeing? "Spending a lot of time is the only way to do it," Stern says. "You have to get immersed, be compelled."

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
July / August 2000