Teaching, Learning, and Looking: Brooks Turner Sees Art as Both Practice and Tool
Brooks Turner, artist and chair of the visual arts department at Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists (SPCPA), talked to Communications Specialist Meredith Heneghan about the collaborative skyway installation Off the Deep End, how art practice can influence students’ development, and why it’s important that they’re supported by institutions like the M.
SPCPA employs teachers who are also working artists. Can you describe your personal relationship to the arts?
I consider myself to be a conceptual artist, but I still like making stuff. Throughout my career, research has been a huge aspect of my work. Most recently, it’s been focused on Minnesota history, historical research, archival research, and using what I encounter as material for interrogating our relationship to history, to identity, to place, and to institutions in a way, too. I’m doing a lot of collage work, pulling photos of archival documents and mixing them digitally with drawings that I make or photos that I find, re-drawings of photos that I find, colleges with made up drawings. Collage is a lot of how I think as an artist, the condition of postmodernity is that we’re adrift in all these references.
How I act as an artist is tied into how I teach. When I go to archives I am trying to learn from the past and apply that to how I learn from the present. How I want to teach students how to engage with art is through investigating the past but also understanding that the past forms and shapes our present. Even if you’re not going to do archival research, it is an important part of how you project into the future.
I also try to get students to engage with concepts. I have very much that Californian studio mindset where you sit around and talk about art for six hours straight, and I really thrive off that. What it’s taught me is that a lot of the time, what you put into looking at art, you will ultimately reap that in what you make.
Looking at art is a creative activity. It’s a generative activity. So with students at SPCPA, one of our core course requirements is individual projects where students have critiques four times a year. I think that that’s really important—just trying to get students to slow down, especially because of how we participate so thoroughly with the internet and social media, slow that down, be present. Looking at and critiquing art are exercises in being present.
“…a lot of the time, what you put into looking at art, you will ultimately reap that in what you make.”
As a teacher, how do you see arts education as a transformational force in students’ lives, especially the lives of teens and young adults?
There’s a lot of things I think about there. One is something I don’t talk about often, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Recently I’ve been trying to understand what it means for so many jobs to be replaced by machines. It’s a utopian ideal in some ways, that labor is replaced, and then what do you do? How do you fill your days? How do you find something that brings you joy, or staves off the boredom?
I know that art does that, whether or not you make it, the act of learning or practicing it builds a sense of appreciation for just existing visually. And, you know, you can study art and everything that you learn can just internalize and be used to appreciate nature. Go out and be a visual person in the world, understanding that you can derive joy just from embracing the sense of play that comes out of compositional analysis. That makes it sound so analytical, but it is sort of an electric energetic experience.
Generally speaking, art is ultimately just problem solving. You come up with an idea, and you have to figure out how to execute that idea, and that will serve anyone regardless of what you want to do with your life.
The students are changing so much too, discovering themselves, their identity, and that poses interpersonal problems that also art can be a means of “solving.” Solving is a bit too finite of a word—art practice is something that never really ends—but if you can learn in high school how to use art as a tool for exploring and figuring out who you are, perhaps it becomes easier to deal with the intensity of changing.
Another thing that I think about a lot in my own work and bring to my students is the relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Perspective is essential to learning how to draw or paint, how to make a representation of the world. But perspective and representation extend beyond the parameters of making a “realistic” image. I think that art can be a tool for inspiring and sharing radical empathy, understanding that you step into a world every time you engage with a work of art. And so critique, to me, is an exercise in entering these student created worlds and finding relation to the color, imagery, materiality. I think it’s through that practice that we can build an empathetic and generative community.