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13 Sep, 2019 / by Shirley Tse

‘How Do You Teach Sculpture?’ Shirley Tse on Being an Artist–Educator

A woman in a yellow coat sits on a bench in a white-walled space. She looks at someone beyond the camera and her mouth is slightly open, gesturing with her hand as if in the middle of saying something.

Shirley Tse in conversation. Photo: M+ Hong Kong

This year, sculptor Shirley Tse is representing Hong Kong in the 58th Venice Biennale with Shirley Tse: Stakeholders, Hong Kong in Venice, co-presented by M+ and the Hong Kong Arts Development Council. Beyond her career as an artist, Tse is also an experienced art educator and faculty member of California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). We chat with Tse about her teaching philosophy, her role as educator, and how the two intersect with her art practice.

How did you become an artist–educator?

After studying fine arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), I began studying for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at ArtCenter College of Design in the United States. This degree qualifies you to teach art at a college level. I wasn’t particularly thinking about that when I began studying, however; I really wanted to focus on making my art.

While studying, I grew interested in conversation and discourse. It became an integral part of my practice, as the process of dialogue enriches my art. So, as I progressed through grad school, teaching became more of a viable, as well as pragmatic, option. I realised it would let me continue to have discourse at that level.

Five students sit in a row at desks set up in front of a class of other students. They each have a laptop in front of them. A woman in a short blond wig sits on a chair to the right of the desks.

A mock symposium for a Post Foundation class. Shirley sits on the right in a wig, while the students role-play different artists and critics to explore classic texts about art. Photo courtesy of Shirley Tse

After graduation, as many fresh graduates do, I took on some odd jobs. I worked in a Hollywood art department and was a personal assistant for the actress Karen Black. Eventually, I started working for a non-profit art space, Armory Center for the Arts. They have an exhibition space, but also run art classes for children. This was my first teaching job: teaching art to young kids.

If you want to teach art in college, the best way is to build up your own practice. The expectation is that, as a professional artist, you can share your experience with students on a peer-to-peer level. While I was teaching at the Armory, I was slowly getting more exhibitions as an artist. I started getting invited to do visiting teacher gigs at schools. In 2001, I got my current position at CalArts, which was very exciting.

How does your role as an artist align with your role as an educator?

In my early twenties during my undergraduate degree at CUHK, I dropped out of college and moved to New York after a one-year exchange programme at UC Berkeley. I didn’t think that you really needed a degree to be an artist—you just needed to be around other artists. Eventually, I started taking night classes at the School of Visual Arts, and decided that I wanted to learn more and go back to Hong Kong to finish my undergraduate degree.

Six people stand or sit in front of an object made out of an upside down stool taped to another stool. A cat and small dog are on the floor next to the people.

Foundation class critique. Photo courtesy of Shirley Tse

After finishing my undergraduate degree, I debated whether I should study art or philosophy. I had started to read French philosophy on my own and was very interested in the subject. But I eventually realised that I like to think through my body, not through language. I find language to be too linear and limiting. I realised that if I could practise philosophy through art, especially sculpture, then it could be everything at once. For me, that is a richer way to think—through your body, using objects.

This became the foundation of both my art practice and my teaching philosophy. When I teach, it’s less about theory and more about critical thinking. I don’t want to create other ‘Shirleys’. I want to teach my students how to teach themselves; how to become autodidacts. I try to expose my students to as many choices as possible, and let them know that these options are available to them, but they are the ones who have to make a decision about which path to pursue. I expect students to have their own critical process and to be able to articulate what their practice is, subjecting themselves to their own criteria.

Can you tell me about your experiences of teaching sculpture, and about the ReMODEL: Sculpture Education Now project?

A group of people sit or stand in two rows, looking at the camera and smiling. Posters on the white wall behind them read ‘ReMODEL, Sculpture Education Now’.]

ReMODEL: Sculpture Education Now 2012 at California College of the Arts. Photo courtesy of Shirley Tse

It all started with a friend of mine, Terri Friedman. She teaches sculpture at a different art school, and one day she brought her class to visit my studio in Los Angeles. We started talking and she asked me, ‘How do you teach sculpture?’

That was actually a really good question. Every time I teach sculpture, I teach it differently. Contemporary sculpture is an incredibly expansive field. Today, you can make a sculpture out of any material. Performance is body sculpture. Joseph Beuys talked about conceptual projects and activism as social sculpture. There is land art and environmental sculpture. There’s a renaissance of craft going on, with macramé and crocheting and, of course, ceramics. It seems like everything is sculpture.

Books that look at how to teach contemporary sculpture are really limited. Terri and I decided that we should get together and write a textbook for teaching sculpture at the college level in the United States. However, when I started to think about what kind of book it would be, I realised that I didn’t want to be the authority. Instead, I wanted to act as a sort of facilitator, gathering material on how different artists are teaching sculpture and then organising it into an anthology.

Seven people sit on a row of chairs on stage. One of them has a microphone and is speaking into it. A vertical banner behind them reads ‘ReMODEL 2012, Sculpture Education Now’.

ReMODEL: Sculpture Education Now 2012 at California College of the Arts. Photo courtesy of Shirley Tse

We quickly realised that in order for us to do this, we needed to actually talk to people. We launched ReMODEL: Sculpture Education Now, inviting other working artists who teach sculpture to come together as a peer-to-peer exchange. We shared syllabuses and held two day-long symposia across California, recording the conversations online. We gathered some amazing material, and although the project is currently on the back burner, I hope to one day turn it into an anthology.

When I teach sculpture, I try to make it as inclusive as possible. I try to do it differently every time. I observe the students to see where their interests lie, and do surveys to see what they want to spend the semester learning. If they want to learn about sculpture-making techniques that I don’t know well enough to teach, such as welding, I get guest artists to come in as instructors.

I’m very conscious of the patriarchal values that have traditionally been put on sculpture, and I try to undo some of that programming. Hopefully, what I’m doing is already an inclusive pedagogy for techniques, discourse, and ideas.

What have been some of your most memorable experiences with students?

Over the past few years, we have incorporated more and more professional training into our curriculum. This includes lessons on how to write artist statements and grant proposals, how to go on interviews, and how to talk to gallerists and curators. Those are all very useful skills to learn. However, at the same time, I want to be mindful not to replicate, and by doing so reinforce, the existing system when I teach. The mission of my class is to teach students to have original thoughts and voices. So while we do teach them how this existing system works, we should not lose sight of how our students should be the ones to come up with a totally new system, which could be a lot more sustainable than the existing one.

Numerous people stand or sit in and on the steps in front of a small building. Small colourful abstract sculptures hang from the ceiling, and a larger colourful sculpture is situated on the steps.

Foundation class field trip to Vernon Gardens Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Shirley Tse

With this in mind, my colleague, Jessica Bronson, and I created a syllabus called ‘Mode of Operations’. In this class, we took field trips to visit people who had an arts education but ended up doing something other than art, in which they creatively apply their art knowledge. It’s one of my favourite classes.

During one of these field trips, we visited a student—Tai Kim—who got an MFA from CalArts and ended up running a famous ice cream shop. He talked about how he saw ice cream almost as sculpture. He created unique flavours, like a mix of lavender and bacon. Although he would not call it art, it was still a creative practice.

Another former student decided to get a PhD in urban studies. In the undergraduate programme, she would often do performances using her bicycle. One of her art projects, for example, involved her blasting Spanish music while biking through CalArts' very white suburban neighborhood. She told me that my class gave her a sense of agency to apply her knowledge to urban commuting and sustainable transportation policies.

I take my role as an artist-educator very seriously. I have many roles—I’m not just an artist, I’m also a human being, I’m a citizen, I’m a wife, I’m a friend, I’m a companion to my cats. I am many things, and as a person living on Earth, I do hope for a better world. I strongly believe in social change and social justice. I hope for my art practice to embody some of that mission, and, although they go hand in hand, I sometimes feel that my role as an educator directly exercises that mission, more so than my art.

Numerous wooden parts are connected to each other in seemingly haphazard ways through 3D-printed joints. Most of the wooden parts are approximately the length and shape of a table leg, although some are longer or shorter, but with wildly varying forms.

Negotiated Differences (detail), 2019, carved wood, 3D-printed forms in wood, metal, and plastic. Commissioned by M+, 2019. Photo: Ela Bialkowska, OKNOStudio; Courtesy of the artist and M+

As told to Ellen Oredsson (Editor, Web Content). The above interview has been edited for clarity. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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