My Teacher

March 3, 2008

Ongoing education is something I expect all designers who are long out of school crave. Of course many of us work to educate ourselves daily by various means, but the luckiest among us have teachers or mentors who provide hands-on instruction on some regular basis. Last week my teacher came for his annual visit and I’m still reeling from the experience.

My teacher is Nick Lenz, a mixed media artist, bonsai artist, potter, and writer. Each year Nick comes to Dallas from his farm in rural Massachusetts to teach a 2-day workshop for his bonsai student study group. I have not been a member of that study group for some years, but each year after he concludes his study group duties I pick him up and bring him to my home for a few days of relaxation, artistic challenges, and beer drinking. And each year I typically learn more about art and design in those few days than in the rest of the year.

Nick Lenz and me

The understanding and stimulation I gain from this brief experience carries me quite high for months afterward. This week I’m still enjoying looking at the world with new eyes—something Nick has the habit of bringing me each year.

For those few days, my wife lets me have a mini-vacation with Nick and our time is spent divided between; more languorous pursuits, like watching sci-fi movies (and sampling the variety of high-quality beers I stockpile before his visit); challenging intellectual pursuits, like arguing over razor sharp specifics of politics (he's a hopeless bleeding-heart liberal, I'm a staunch conservative nutjob) , religion, and history (while further sampling the stockpile of beer); and examining and working on the specimens in my bonsai collection (again, with the beer). But each of his visits involves new activities and challenges, and each is quite different in character from the previous visit.

Sometimes we spend the time climbing precariously along rocky bluffs lining ravines deep in the Texas wilderness, where we admire the excellent design of the winter-bare oaks and elms. We take turns describing the mood and character of some of the more remarkable specimens in poetic terms, in an effort at personification. Examining the landscape, Nick compares some of the natural rock formations we find with architectural themes found in Rome…or New Jersey.

Other times we are shut up in my office listening to classical or jazz music. We dissect the themes and the lines and the chords and the notes …and we spend time simply enjoying it, too. I’ll play him some of my new compositions and after smiling indulgently, he suggests some obscure artist whose CD I should buy to better examine the themes I’m working to articulate. He complains that my piano needs tuning. And it does.

This time we were off to the Sid Richardson Museum and the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth because Nick decided we should spend the day with the work of Frederick Remington. I was not a Remington fan, but I dare say I am now. One cannot fail to appreciate the technique and lyrical design of the man’s work, when seen in-person. It was truly stunning. The indulgent part for me was when I discovered that the Amon Carter held some of my favorite works by some of my favorite artists of the Hudson River School (but not T. Cole; yuck).

I gained much as a result of seeing a great many works by artists I was not interested in. Ignorance fuels ignorance and apathy, and makes for a poisonous contentment. Sometimes it takes a teacher or mentor to compel us from our contented ignorance.

The mentor effect

Creative people need challenges and stimulation. We must have it or we atrophy, or maybe die in some way. My teacher understands this well and I’m very lucky to have him as my friend and mentor since 1999.

For the past 20 years, all of them spent out of school, I have had at least one teacher in my life. Sometimes more than one, because I believe a man without a teacher is a lost man.

Our relationship is, on the surface, just an easy friendship, for he is certainly one of my best friends, and our time during his visit pretty much constitutes “hanging out.” There is no formal structure to our activities and seldom any formal structure to our discussion, but everything we discuss and everything he directs me toward in our activities is a lesson. He knows it and I know it.

I used to think that Nick was just very eccentric, because he has a very strange way of raising topics and of putting certain things he’s communicating. But I’ve come to learn that this is just his way of keeping me from thinking “normally” so that I’m arrested by what he’s saying so that I actually invest some thought into my comprehension and then my response.

So my reflection on this past week’s experience with my teacher got me thinking about ongoing mentorship in design. I wonder if other professional designers have teachers and mentors who challenge them on a regular basis and so help to shape their approach to design. My initial thought would be that few designers do, especially those who are well into their 40’s, like me.

For the past 20 years, all of them spent out of school, I have had at least one teacher in my life. Sometimes more than one, because I believe a man without a teacher is a lost man. I know what sort of difference ongoing instruction and mentorship can make; it’s enormous. Truly, if you do not have a teacher or a mentor, I highly recommend looking for one. Finding a true mentor is easier said than done, surely, but worthwhile nonetheless.

I must also say that it doesn’t matter in the least what field of art of design such a teacher or mentor comes from. Artistry—be it acting, painting, ballet, graphic design, poetry, music, or any other form—is directly relevant to what we do in our design work and a senior artist of any ilk may be able to offer you new eyes. I hope that you have a good artist friend who is older and wiser than yourself. I hope that this friend is willing to mentor you and challenge you. A lack of challenge breeds that poisonous contentment I mentioned earlier. We designers need stimulation, but without challenge in that stimulation it is a paltry meat to feast on. Once you taste the real stuff with real challenges, the difference is striking. It can set you reeling.

Nick walking along the Nolan River