Department of Art
Meet the Faculty/Staff
Join us in getting to know our faculty and staff through this relay interview series where the person being interviewed gets to choose and interview the next interviewee. The interview questions and format are also chosen by each interviewer for diversity.
Meet Anne Thulson, Associate Professor, Art Education
Interviewed by Yunjin La-Mai Woo, Assistant Professor, Studio Art
Yunjin Woo: How does your work relate to the everyday? I'm thinking about your work in general with special attention to projects like One Hundred Famous Views, Invisible Labor, or Cleansing Emmanuel's Bathroom. How do questions of labor, power, and memories come into play in your dealings with the everyday?
Anne Thulson: I wanted to do something meaningful with my life and I leaned towards narrative, metaphor and images. I was steered towards art with a capitol A. I’m sure the school guidance counselors thought, ‘Where can we put her?’ By the time I figured out that the Artworld was compromised by money, grandeur, and celebrity, I was well into my senior year of college and already accepted into an MFA program. I felt trapped but moved ahead anyway. In that program, a guest critic, Suzi Gablik, lectured. She championed art outside of Modernism and the Artworld. I remember sitting in my chair and feeling as if she was throwing me a rope and an escape map. I love her for it. I finished my degree, but with a heightened conscience and an escape plan. Since then, I discovered many artists who were pursing the same workaround. How do you make art and a living wage and work towards poetry and justice? These justice-driven poet-teachers are my community, including my colleagues at MSU Denver.
Even though I made transient, time-based art, I still wanted to make physical paintings. Why do people continue to represent what they see and think in a picture? What is a picture? Those are questions I will always love and never fully answer. I paint as a way to find out.
In One Hundred Famous Views, I painted pictures of Denver alleys because they are significant-insignificant places that people inhabit and know. Alleys are like so many acts people do every day. We pretend they don’t matter, but bit by bit, they make up most of our lives. With this in mind, I wanted to lovingly attend to them. Painting by hand is one way to lovingly attend. Brushstrokes are caresses and the body of the painter stays at an intimate proximity of the canvas while they paint. Painting is not about me making my mark or gesture or expressing myself. It is more about matching the act of painting with my act of attention with the layers of memory people bring to an alley or any mundane space. Those spaces resonate collective memory. So, on my usual walks I started photographing parts of alleys. Each painting represents a specific photo and site with odd additions like theaters and floating houses. The titles include the street names and allude to other associations as a way to acknowledge that the mundane and poetic exist together. The title of the series references One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, the 19th century prints by Hiroshige. Again, I’m interested in the notion of fame. Why do we need things to be famous? What makes a view famous? These were the last paintings I made specifically for a traditional exhibit in an art gallery. The opening and the sale of the work were not my favorite part of the process. I don’t know why, but it didn’t make any sense to me. I left the gallery soon afterwards.
Since then, I continued to read and think about painting. I came to a decision that I would still paint, but not as a professional act. I would paint as I do any non-professional practice in my life, like yoga or walking or cooking or gardening or reading fiction or being a mother. All these back-alley activities are extremely significant, but invisible on my resumé. This is when it gets interesting. Once you leave the professional realm, you are a “Sunday painter” or a “minor artist” or a “hobbyist.” I thought that was funny and I was ready to claim the titles. Still, it wasn’t exactly a great fit. I continued read and think critically about painting in a way the hobbyist doesn’t. So, I’m in a no-man’s land. There is no spot to put people who make art informed by criticism and history, but do not participate professionally in the Artworld. This seems especially true for people who make paintings, the art medium with the most capitalist baggage. What a strange place to be! Without a gallery and sales, I had to consider where the paintings as objects would go after I made them. So, I started painting even smaller canvases and I decided to give them away.
With this thinking, I made the series, Invisible Labor, with the intention to give these paintings to my children who now are grown and have walls of their own. I painted images from photographs that were significant to them. Traditional “women’s work” includes the invisible labor of archiving family memories. This is the hobbyist’s task. Within this space, I still wanted to apply an informed painting process to these very unprofessional, domestic paintings that will land on domestic walls. I was informed by the ideas of art historians Norman Bryson and Peter Geimer: various levels of the mundane, genre painting, and the question of truth in photographs. As the hobbyist, I gave these to my children. As an informed painter, I put them on my website, whose purpose is for me to start a conversation with others (like this one).
Alongside painting, I’ve maintained a post-studio practice for years. I try to do one a year. For instance, a colleague and I did performance together for a faculty exhibit at the Emmanuel Gallery. We discussed the hierarchy of our university. Who empties our trash cans every night? Who makes our photocopies? Who cleans our bathrooms? We decided to do a piece about the invisible labor in the gallery where we were exhibiting. That led to taking on the bathroom cleaning duties of the university maintenance worker during the duration of the exhibit. As I mopped the floor in that bathroom, I was suspended in an odd state between the mundane and poetic. It was a good fit.
Yunjin Woo: I would like to talk further about the politics of the strange space you occupy between the Artworld and the everyday. The same space, which is far greater than the exclusive room in which famous artists gather, is occupied by varied individuals and groups as you note—not only hobbyists but also informed artists, women, children, students, people of color, ethnic minorities, etc. Their creativity, which can be highly informed, is often dismissed, and as a result, their work occupies this liminal space between the professional art galleries and the domestic/instructional rooms. The latter is then often deemed preparatory, transitional, and thus inferior to the former. Their art may be called scribbles, decorations, or folk art. Yet, art educators are often primed to train students to aspire to the grandeur of the Artworld, which reinforces the hierarchy within the art school that closely mirrors that of the Artworld. How do you navigate this challenging paradox as an artist and educator in your work with children or students?
Anne Thulson: For college pre-service art teachers, I try to demythologize some things that tenaciously cling to K-12 art education: the inspired genius, modernity, the universal language of form, the limited time span of art normally used in K-12 curriculum (from 1800-1950), the Eurocentric “top forty” artists, and cultural appropriation.
- I introduce how to teach children to work with ideas rather than mimic form
- I introduce what a big idea actually is
- I help them understand that they have to research deeply in order to teach anything well
- I give them many examples of contemporary artists who work to undermine and expose worlds of power and dogma
- I allow for them to practice matching the ideas from contemporary artists with the life of the child
- I introduce the idea that visual culture needs to be taught to children as early as kindergarten (shoes, toys, cartoons, advertisements, playgrounds, etc.)
- I introduce documentation practices of transient work to reassure and inform principals and parents
When I’m teaching children, I try to create a democratic classroom where all makers and thinkers are equal and where all kinds of making and thinking exist together equally. I have them examine primary sources. I facilitate frequent conversations about ideas. I model thinking and curiosity. I try to help them make connections between poetic thinking and the everyday. After giving them lots of robust things to see and think about, I offer them prompts and/or materials for them to respond. Some of these prompts are more teacher directed and some are more student directed. I try to keep a balance. I’ve found that young children are very open to the subversive and conceptual nature of contemporary art, often more than teenagers and adults are. So, it is really wonderful to teach art to children and to work with art teachers.