TAEM interview with Prof. Todd Messegee of NVCC

Todd-Messegee-New-YorkTAEM- The Arts and Entertainment Magazine is devoted to student education. Our coverage includes articles on Authors, Music, Science, the Arts , Cinema, and more. We are fortunate to be able to present Professor Todd Messegee to all those students who utilize our magazine as a learning tool to guide them in their choice of careers.

Todd, your work and skills encompass most of the fields in liberal arts, and you teach these to students at the Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Please tell our student readers about the education that you undertook to achieve your skills, and the schools that you attended for it.

TM- First off let me state for the record that I was not a good student in Junior High or High School! I tried to do the best I could but the standard method of lecture style teaching has never worked for me. Independently, I started reading books about artists and writers when I was about 13 years old. That information was much more interesting to me than the curriculum that I was supposed to be studying. Despite my rather average grades and respectable but not outstanding SAT’s I got into a nice Art School. I spent a year working on a photography and drawing portfolio when I finished High School and was accepted into the Photography program at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). It wasn’t until I was there at RISD that I really learned how to learn. Everyone has their own strengths when it comes to taking in information and mine is all visual. If I can attach a visual image to a piece of information, I’ll remember it. This comes in very handy as a visual artist but it made it impossible to become skilled at math since I couldn’t generate any images that went with the formulas, at least not any positive images!

NVCC-logo     When I completed my training at RISD I moved to New York City and worked as a photographer’s assistant for two years. I worked for fashion, product and architectural photographers and learned a great deal about how to survive as a freelance artist. While in New York I met some very successful painters as well as a handful of filmmakers and really felt that learning more about filmmaking was a better path for me even though I still really wanted to try to make a living as a photographer and painter. During my last year in New York I made a short film and used it as my portfolio to gain admittance to Cal Arts, (California Institute of the Arts). My life really changed in California. The world of Hollywood and the very commercial product that the Entertainment Industry produces was a far cry from the esoteric art school world that I had just come from. In art school you are challenged to create unique work that may or may not ever find a buyer or a market. In the world of entertainment, tens of thousands or millions of dollars – of someone else’s money – is on the line, so the product has to be commercial. I always understood this, even as a child but it was hammered into my bones the minute I set foot into the Directing Program at Cal Arts. Money isn’t just the engine that drives Hollywood, it’s the entire point for its existence. I was told that if I wanted to make art, I should move to some other town and rent a studio. The only point to being in Hollywood is to make products that make money. That was the lesson I learned both at Cal Arts and in my fifteen years in Los Angeles. Since that time I know that Cal Arts has changed quite a bit, so I have no idea what they are teaching now, but for the three years I was working on my Master’s Degree, the focus was on learning how Hollywood really worked and providing students with the skills they needed to survive. I tell the story of my time in Los Angeles in my book, Hollywood Eats Children! I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to work in the entertainment industry. Of course, formal education is one thing, and real world education is another. As an artist, I have needed both.

Hollywood-eats-childrenTAEM- You teach Art at Nova (NVCC), as the students fondly refer to it. Tell us about the courses that you teach.

TM- I teach Drawing 1 and 2, Design 1 and 2, Painting 1, 2 & 3 and Digital Photography. The drawing comes from my time at RISD and while earning my Master’s Degree at Cal Arts. The school – Cal Arts – was founded by Walt Disney as a place to train animators and artists that might later work for the Disney company. While studying in the Directing program I was fortunate enough to work with Alexander (Sandy) Mackendrick, who was a movie director and a terrific artist. He drove me to draw hundreds of pages of storyboards. He wanted me to think out and plan every shot that I would set up as a director. I remember sitting alone with him in his office for hours as he badgered me about my drawings and I’m so glad he did! The storyboard work just spilled over into the rest of my life and I started drawing everything around me. Every day I was spending two to three hours trying to perfect my skills and then showing the results to Sandy. His critiques were brutal but always honest. When I showed improvement, he would give me a little encouragement, but mostly he just would say things like, “Todd, in this drawing you’re being clever here…perhaps a bit too clever!” He really pushed me and I have to credit him as much as anyone for teaching me how to draw. Design was also a big part of my studies at both RISD and Cal Arts and painting just became an efficient way to create design images that didn’t actually exist. If you’re trying to convince someone to invest in a film project you have to produce art work that shows them the visual style of that project. An efficient way to do this is to produce concept art. About a year out of Cal Arts I got a job in the Development department of a small production company and along with writing pitches for projects, I also produced concept art – A LOT of concept art. Most people would think if you make art all day at work all you want to do is go home and do something else, but I’m kind of obsessed. The more I painted at work, the more I wanted to do it at home. Eventually I ended up working freelance for Disney in the Imagineering department – just like Walt would have wanted – and one of my many jobs was to create new paintings that looked very old. They ended up in a theme park in Tokyo called Disney Tokyo Sea. It was a blast. So now, along with Digital Photography – which is a very fun class – I teach all the things I’ve learned in the past twenty years.

TAEM- Why is it important to learn about Art?

TM- It’s important to learn about art and learn how to make it because as a culture it’s all that we leave behind. In 200 years no one is going to care what the price of gas was in 2013, but they will be very interested to know about our films and to learn what we watched on TV or created for the internet or what we painted and photographed. They will be fascinated by the dance pieces and the music from this era and will enjoy the work of the actors that we held in high regard, but they won’t give a damn about who was in Congress. Sorry, but they won’t. So, since it’s the art that will be studied until the world comes to an end, we’d better step up and do the best we can or our time will be forgotten.

Genna-at-the-wall-by-Todd-MessengeeTAEM- Please name several artists that have influenced your work, and tell us something about them.

TM- The big one is someone I knew personally and worked with at Cal Arts. Alexander (Sandy) Mackendrick was a British movie director and made The Man in The White Suit, and The Lady Killers, when he worked for the Ealing studio in England. When he came to the states he directed The Sweet Smell of Success, among other films. He was an amazing teacher and a very powerful individual. When I got to Cal Arts I thought I understood the role of the director and how films were made but Sandy really opened my eyes to the process. I really knew nothing until I got there and I had already made a couple films by then. That experience was life changing.

As for painting there are several artists with the most significant being John Singer Sargent. He worked from the mid 1800’s up until the beginning of the 1900’s and was primarily known in his lifetime as a Society portrait painter. Since only the truly wealthy could afford to have their portraits done in that era, that’s who Sargent painted. But for me, it’s his watercolors that are so enlightening. He was so bold in his brush work and yet able to also slow down and be so specific and accurate while never, ever losing sight of the effects of light. Photographers and filmmakers should study Sargent’s watercolors if they really want to understand how to bring out form, color and emotion with light. Sargent was also one of the most gifted draftsmen of his generation. He could draw better as a schoolboy than most current artists can draw in their prime, including me! Other painters that I find inspiring are Caravaggio – talk about the use of light! – and Lucien Freud. Freud painted in a brutally honest way, his work is sometimes shocking and coarse because of that honesty but I find his work has an impact that simply can’t be ignored, like a punch to the gut. I love it!

TAEM- You are well known for your portrait work. How does this coincide with the courses that you teach?

TM- Not much, unfortunately! Students shy away from rendering the human face for fear that the final painting or drawing will look incorrect. I try to tell them that you have to practice in order to improve but beginning artists are impatient. I know I was! I have dozens of drawings of models from when I was in school where I never even attempted the face, it’s just blank! It wasn’t until my drawing teacher at RISD, Brice Hobbs walked up to my drawing one day and tapped a pencil on the blank face saying, “What about this?” I said, “Oh, I’ll get to that.” He then once again tapped his pencil on the blank oval that should’ve had a face in it and said, in a much more firm manner, “What about this!” Embarrassed, I drew a dreadful face as he watched. When I was done he said, “It looks better than a blank space, and the next one will be even better.” That’s when I got it. You have to practice.

Darling-by-Todd-MessengeeTAEM- We understand that photography is a big part of your life. Please tell us something about it.

TM- As I mentioned, I studied photography at RISD and received a terrific education there. Unfortunately, digital imaging has made most of what I learned totally obsolete, but hey, that’s technology. While I was at RISD I pushed myself to really understand what could be done in-camera and what was better suited for the darkroom. I began a series of photographs that started simply as still life images of a bird’s skull along with other objects that possessed a history. I kept collecting items and photographing them and after about fifteen years of producing these strange, haunting images the energy just sort of ran out. The finished images are beautiful black and white fine art prints and several of the limited edition prints have been purchased for private collections but I don’t produce them anymore. Also, with the advent of photoshop and digital manipulation, viewers were mistaking my final silver prints for digital images. How could they know that I had spent ten hours lighting a group of objects to make them look like they were floating? It just became too much work and somewhat frustrating. Still, I am proud of those pictures. These days I do occasional professional photo jobs – all digital now – but I no longer pursue it. I make more money and get more joy out of other art forms.

TAEM- How do you incorporate photography and art as a visual subject and art form ?

TM- Every visual artist should learn how to use a camera. Designers, painters, illustrators, game and character designers should all be walking around with real cameras, not just the cameras on their cell phones. Until an artist learns how to manipulate depth of field and see the power of selecting which section of an image should be properly exposed, they are missing out on a fantastic resource. As artists we shouldn’t have to invent everything out of our heads. The whole world is filled with valuable visual information and it’s right there outside your door. A camera is the perfect tool to take notes and generate an ever-growing image file.

Then of course there is the gigantic field of photography as an expressive art form unto itself. I think we should do another interview where I just talk about that! Photography will always be my first love in the world of art and I will always be proud of the work I’ve done. I encourage any visual artist to dive in and take a photography class. The possibilities are endless and you can even make a living doing it.

Awakening-by-Todd-MessegeeTAEM- We have learned that you had also worked in the entertainment industry as both a writer and photographer. You also recently contributed some of your written work to our magazine. Please tell our readership about your work in that field and describe your style of writing for us.

TM- Ah ha! You’ve caught me! I’m actually a writer disguised as a visual artist. When I went out to Hollywood I found myself surrounded by a group of very talented directors who were all searching for a story to shoot. I had been writing short stories for years and wanted to try my hand at screenwriting so along with the design and directing classes at Cal Arts I also took writing classes. I began writing scripts for short films and a couple of the students there shot films with my scripts. Unfortunately, they shot them, but never finished them. It was another ten years before I would have one of my scripts actually made into a completed film, and that was Brightness, directed by Andrew Tsao. It starred Eric Idle and Chad Lindberg along with some other very talented folks. In my book, Hollywood Eats Children! I tell the story of the making of this film.

Today I continue to write screenplays and pitch new ideas to a couple producers on a regular basis. In fact, last year my wife, Lisa Nanni-Messegee and I did a rewrite on a Hallmark script just before it went into production. It was called Matchmaker Santa and it ended up being the 2nd highest rated holiday movie on Hallmark in 2012. Since our job was to restructure the story and rework it, we didn’t get a screen credit for that one but the producer, Randy Pope called me and said that we should list ourselves on IMDB as uncredited screenwriters since so much of our work ended up in the final film. I love working on the Hallmark projects because the stories have to be deceptively simple. It’s often more difficult to write for specific guidelines than to write anything you want. Guidelines create a real challenge but in those restrictions Lisa and I have found a way to be very creative.

I think your question was also about my fiction writing style so let me address that, too. I love the horror genre and all of my short stories are in that category. The one that you were kind enough to publish, Remains of the Storm is part of a series of short stories that take place in or near the ocean. I have another one that I am polishing right now that is in that same vein. It’s very creepy and I hope your readers will enjoy it. I’ve also recently completed a novel in the horror genre. It’s basically done but I’m having some friends read it and until they relay their thoughts to me the manuscript will be just fine sitting quietly on my desk. As you may have noticed, I have a lot on my plate at the moment!

Woman-With-Violin-by-Todd-MessengeeTAEM- Besides art, you also teach photography at your school. Describe the course for us and the aim that you have your students focus on.

TM- The course is Basic Digital Photography (Art 295) but the assignments are far from basic. Once the students get through the technical assignments I really let them fly. The images that come out of that class are terrific because I encourage them to take creative risks. I love to tell stories and challenge the students to tell stories with their pictures. It’s a very nurturing environment where there is no wrong answer. The only thing any student can do wrong in any of my classes is fail to bring in work. Most of the time I don’t care what they bring in – almost – as long as the student brings in a photo for the photo class and a drawing for the drawing class. I want my students to free themselves from the bonds of self-editing. It’s only when a student can dream up a fantastic final image, then go after it, that real art is produced. We all have to know our basics, the foundation has to be strong, but once a student knows how to use a camera, or how to create a convincing drawing, the world can open up for them. I want to be the kind of teacher who inspires greatness. I will do everything I can for my students to help them become who they are truly meant to be.

TAEM- Todd, you certainly are dedicated in the subjects that you teach, and I know that many aspiring artists and photographers can learn much from you. We want to thank you for the time that you have given us for this interview, and we certainly wish you much luck in all that you do.

   TAEM