3. UPS AND DOWNS
Photo by Walt Hines
Art school had a lot to do with my decision to not become a professional artist. During high school, I had discovered art to be a device for letting myself go, to dig as deeply into myself or to explore as far out as I can. It was about tapping the artistic fountainhead and letting my imagination ride. Well, art school taught me that what the world wants from its artists are machines that can be told what to do and proceed to do it apace. And if you want to be original, figure out what you're doing and then keep doing that. It was about doing art "correctly" (an oxymoron if I've ever heard one), pleasing people and living up to their expectations. In high school, I was rewarded for taking an assignment and embellishing upon it until it went someplace different. In art school, that was considered "not doing the assignment properly." It was not about freedom, but about commodification and sales.
Perhaps if I had attended an expensive, out-of-state private school like The Rhode Island School of Design I would have gotten a different impression. After talking it over with my parents, I had decided to save money and go to a state-supported university with an art program, that being Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. I found the instructors to be by and large either older students who were still learning or frustrated fine artists who couldn’t make a living solely on art sales (usually for a good reason: I had one professor who made "Squashes"--small abstracted sculptures derived from observing road kill!). All these people seemed to be so busy searching for themselves, I wondered how they could possibly lead me to any form of enlightenment.
And when I lined up meetings with some commercial artists, to see if maybe that was a good path to take, I found the artists I most wished not to be like. Most said they got into the field to make money while they pursued a side career as a fine artist, much as I was thinking. Of course, grinding out art based on other people’s ideas all week, year after year, robbed them of any energy they had to work on their own material. Their best ideas went into other’s projects, and often their original idea was pounded into a final mediocrity based on group compromise. This was not what I wanted for my art.
I did enjoy taking the school’s art history classes, and I was taught by professors who seemed to truly relish their job of passing on our artistic heritage. I had been aware of other artistic periods, but it was here I learned where my art had come from. I was also indoctrinated in the theories behind total abstraction, opening another door to the imagination. And I was emboldened in my own artistic endeavors. I now began to understand the great art masters, and they were simply people like me trying to push art in new directions. There was no mystery, no key to understanding only they held. I began to measure my work alongside Picasso, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Bacon, and others, as well as Dali. I had found my battleground.
I did take classes I still use to this day, however. I.U. provided my introduction to philosophy and psychology, topics just made for my analytic mind. A music history course fostered a new love of jazz and contemporary classical music. For these I will always be thankful.
My other great lesson learned from Indiana University was that of how to live a Bohemian lifestyle. There was no class in this, but I found the campus atmosphere fostered it in all its forms. It was here I learned the finer points of doing drugs, staying up all night, experimenting with sex, psychedelic music and art, drinking, and simply living in a vast cornucopia of sensory experiences. I met students from all over the world, and I began to realize not all places were like Indiana. There were cities where a person could find challenges and intellectual stimulation. I began to question some of the assumed ground rules I was brought up with, and I was finding many alternatives.
Growing up in the mid-seventies, the guitar heroes I had around to emulate were generally pretty impressive guitarists. I would have given almost anything to play guitar like Jimmy Page, but I had neither the time nor interest to practice enough for that. While Led Zeppelin will forever be a cornerstone of my CD collection, I knew I'd never play like Page in my life. While music was fun, it was also, to a degree, unapproachable, and I never met anyone to tell me otherwise.
Then at I.U., I found myself living with a housemate from New Jersey named Bill Willis. He was a bit of a misfit who had long hair down to his waist and had been exposed to a lot of music that hadn't made it out to the wilderness of Indiana yet. One day, I read a Rolling Stone feature story on a band named The Ramones. The article made their music sound fun and easy to play, and, yes, it turns out Bill had some Ramones in his record collection. One wild night sitting in front of the stereo with Bill, and I had been exposed to Punk Rock's Big Three: The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash. What I heard was music that did not rely on technical prowess, but rather used the emotions of the musicians to put across a much more direct form of music than what I'd heard previously. This was not Led Zeppelin--it was music I could play and maybe even write. It was said that when The Ramones first toured England, everyone who saw them started a band. Well, I didn't see The Ramones in person, but I heard the music, and now it was only a matter of time before a band came into the equation.
One needs money to live the good life, so I packed up and went to Purdue University to study engineering. I figured a technical career would provide me with the financial stability in life I craved. On the side, I could make art of my own choosing, and there would be no clients to sway me from my undiluted vision. I perhaps took this idea from Charles Ives, America’s first composer to break away from European musical traditions. His compositions were so radical, virtually none of his work was performed until he was in his later years. Even his friends and family wondered why he bothered. But he stayed true to his vision, working all the while as an insurance broker. It was this freedom from the marketplace, in my opinion, which allowed him the full use of his imagination, and he created some of the most radical music of any generation. I wanted this freedom, but my science interests pulled me to engineering rather than insurance.
After leaving art school, I was creatively exhausted. I went nearly two years without creating any new art. I finally reached a point where I was bored and feeling frustrated. Trying to remember what I used to do for relaxation, I remembered my painting. I stretched the biggest canvas I had tackled to date, and painted South Side of the Sky just for the fun of it. I discovered my muse was not gone, merely lurking in the back of my mind.
While at Purdue I passed some sort of musical barrier. Punk rock had been festering in my brain for a couple of years. I had listened to enough music by this point that it began to come back out of me. I had long been puzzled over how a person thinks of music in his head and then gets it out so people can hear it. One day, I was riding a bus to class from my off-campus apartment, when a song literally burst into my head. Without much thought, I simply had some words in mind, and the music seemed obvious to me: I knew what to do on guitar to bring this sound forth. When I got home, I wrote down the words and came up with the full musical arrangement for "Higher Learning," a song about the Bohemian learning I was doing outside the classrooms. My roommate, Tim Postel, had a cassette recorder that I could link to mine with some patch cords, and I discovered I could do some primitive overdubbing. I created my first album, Sound and Vision, whose title I took from the David Bowie song about artistic creation. My musical career had begun in earnest. My second album, Atmospheres, soon followed.
There’s not much else to be said about Purdue, other than the fact I did get my degree in Architectural Engineering. Having studied architecture in art history class, I figured this would at least partially tie me in to a career utilizing artistic esthetics. Most of my feelings about the school were summarized in my painting Fear and Loathing At Purdue University which can be seen with commentary elsewhere on this web site.
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© 2000 by Rick Hines.
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