Saturday, September 17, 2022

Mentorship and Loss

As a college art student, you'll likely have access to a studio space where you can work on your craft. And while having your own space is great, it can also be a bit isolating. That's why having a mentor in your college art studio can be so helpful.

A mentor can provide guidance and feedback on your work, help you connect with other artists, and even just be someone to talk to about the creative process. If you're looking for a mentor, here are a few places to start looking.

Your professor: If you have a professor who you admire and who is knowledgeable about the type of art you're interested in, they may be a great mentor for you. Ask if they're available to meet with you on a regular basis to discuss your work and get feedback.

The college art gallery: Many college art galleries have staff members who are happy to talk to students about art. If you're interested in a particular artist or type of art, ask a gallery staff member if they know of anyone who could mentor you.

Local artists: There are likely many artists living and working in your town or city who would be happy to mentor a college student. Visit local art galleries and studios, and introduce yourself to the artists.

Having a mentor in your college art studio can make a world of difference in your creative journey. So don't be afraid to reach out and ask for help!

My Mentors

During my college years at the Kansas City Art Institute, I was never shy about reaching out to professors. I was lucky in college, I had two great mentors who shaped my artistic practice profoundly: Wilbur Niewald and Shirley Luke Schnell.

Wilbur Niewald

Wilbur Niewald died this past spring at the age of 97. He live his entire life in Kansas City, and no one has painted the city as frequently as he did. His Plein air works could rightfully be called love letters to the city.

Wilbur earned bachelor and master degrees from the Kansas City Art Institute. He was a member of the painting faculty for 43 years, chaired the painting department from 1958 to 1985, and was a respected and well known painter throughout the United States. 

In 1992, he retired. He remained devoted to his artistic practice and he spent hours each day, often six days a week, painting outdoors in Loose Park or the West Bottoms or in his studio during his retirement.

One of the things I liked to do when visiting Kansas City in the summer was to visit him while he was creating his Plein air artworks. I would find him passionately painting away at his easel near the tennis courts at Loose Park in Kansas City, Missouri, wearing his well-known attire: a straw hat, denim shirt, and blue jeans.

Above, a drawing I completed of Wilbur Niewald while he was painting in Loose Park during one of my visits to Kansas City, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14."

I took Wilbur's drawing classes most semesters while I was in college. Every class was always the same, with one instruction: "Draw what you see." I found the experience meditative and relaxing, and I also developed a deep appreciation for working from observation.

Wilbur always took me seriously and respected me as an artist, which profoundly impacted me the most. I took myself seriously because of that. He understood my potential more than I did. As a sophomore, I had a conversation with him about switching my major from Painting to Fibers. He made a compelling argument to other faculty and me in the program about why I should not switch my major. I stayed because he convinced me.

He drew and painted from direct observation beginning in the 1970s. It never mattered to him what the condition of weather was. Once when our drawing class was outside drawing the landscape in Plein air, it began to rain. Most students began packing up and heading back to the classroom, but Wilbur exclaimed, "Don't leave; this is great. Change your drawing as the situation changes." He only convinced four of us to stay.

Above, a drawing I completed of Wilbur Niewald while he was painting in Loose Park during one of my visits to Kansas City, marker and pen on paper, 11" x 14."

Shirley Luke Schnell

There's nothing quite like a quirky art professor to get students excited about creativity. Shirley Luke Schnell was one of those teachers. With her whimsical, soft-spoken voice and eccentric clothing, she always seemed to be on the verge of levitating above all of us in the Foundations studio. But somehow, she always managed to bring unique and memorable insight to the studio practice, and her students always seemed inspired and to learn a lot.

Even though she was different than anyone else you'd ever meet, her students connected with and loved her. They knew that she cared about them and that she wanted them to succeed. She was always pushing them to be their creative limits with the concepts of her assignments. This generated growth and new perspectives on what is or could be.

Shirley is a true original, and in the classroom, she was the perfect example of how being different can be a good thing. After Foundations, I reached out to her for critiques of my paintings and help with my graduate school applications. She was fully invested and took time during her weekends to help me write my application essays with clarity. I was fortunate to have her mentorship after college, too. We became close friends, and she has been present for the significant milestones of my life. Such as visiting me in London during my residency at the Royal Academy of Arts and attending my wedding.

Above, a digital iPad drawing I created of Shirley during one of my visits to her home.

The Onset of Alzheimer's

As people age, they may begin to experience memory loss. This can be a difficult change for the individual and their loved ones. For those with Alzheimer's disease, the onset of memory loss can be particularly difficult on relationships. Shirley was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease officially in 2013, however, there were signs of the illness several years before that diagnosis. Her illness has progressed significantly and she is now at a non-verbal stage. Even though she is still alive, the disease has created loss.

1. What is Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a neurodegenerative disorder. It causes gradual memory loss and cognitive decline. It is the most common type of dementia, affecting an estimated 5.4 million Americans. The cause of Alzheimer's is unknown, but it is thought to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There is no cure.

2. What are the signs and symptoms?

Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease can vary significantly from person to person. In general, however, they may include problems with memory, thinking, and communication, as well as changes in mood and behavior. Some people with Alzheimer's may also experience physical symptoms, such as difficulty walking, dizziness, and changes in appetite.

3. How does Alzheimer's disease affect relationships?

Alzheimer's disease can impact relationships. People with Alzheimer's may become less interested in spending time with others, have difficulty remembering names and faces, and become confused or agitated. This can be difficult for family members and friends, who may feel like they are losing the person they know and love. 

It is important to remember that people with Alzheimer's are still capable of feeling love and affection. It is essential to continue to spend time with them, even if they can't always communicate. Try to engage them in activities they enjoy, and be patient and understanding.

Above, a digital iPad drawing Shirley created, after the onset of Alzheimer's, of her cat during one of my visits to her home.


It's never easy to lose a mentor.

Whether it's sudden or expected, the death of a mentor can be a difficult thing to process. After all, this is someone who has been a pivotal figure in your life, someone who has helped you grow and learn.

The death of a mentor can leave you feeling lost and uncertain. But it's important to remember that your mentor would want you to continue on your journey, to keep growing and learning.

Take some time to grieve, and then remember that your mentor would want you to keep moving forward.

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