TAEM interview with Prof. Peter Winant of the GMU School of Art

Peter Winant TAEM- The Arts and Entertainment Magazine touches upon many subjects that our student readership is interested in. The subject of Art is one of many that we write about so that they look to us as a learning tool for. Art takes shape in many forms and the subject that we would like to talk about at this time is sculpture.

 At George Mason University in Northern Virginia we have found the perfect source for the answers to all our questions. Professor Peter Winant is not only an excellent teacher, but a well know artist that has created many renowned sculpture projects. Peter, please tell our student readers about your early education.

PW- I was fortunate to have a family who understood the value of and was committed to education for their children. I grew up in a college community where parents expected high standards for elementary, middle and high schools, and was fortunate to attend excellent schools. While I knew from age 10 that I wanted to make art, and sculpture in particular, my curriculum was broad based, and for its time was relatively integrated. Science was connected to language, and language to history, etc. In other words, the learning process was synthetic. One thing that was of great importance to me, and that I learned extensively from was playing sports. I loved the mix of physical exertion, tactical/critical thinking and intercommunication that is present in team sports, as well as the self-discipline.

TAEM- What intrigued you most about the subject of Art, and sculpture in particular ?

PW- Like I said, I grew up in a college town, and there was an excellent art museum there, the Clark Art Institute. Somehow the link between materiality, visual constructs, and the possible imaginative narrative that resided in the images was meaningful to me. Additionally, I could find connection, and identify with past culture through the works there.

The clincher was a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when I was around 10 years old. I think we were studying ancient Egypt in school, so we went to wing in the museum with all the Egyptian artifacts. The clarity of the works was powerful. We came to one small,  8” tall gold figure, and I couldn’t walk away from it. It spoke to me in a way that still resonates. I decided that I wanted to “do that” when I grew up. Of course, there was a period when I wanted to play professional hockey, but that soon faded. The bug to make art never did.

TAEM- What studies did you later undertake to make you teach what you love best ?

PW- I’ve always been a fairly curious person, and an experiential learner as much as a classroom learner. I have always been driven to structure and the organization of order and disorder, and this has probably informed my work as a teacher and artist more than anything else. Growing up in a rural, New England environment, I was informed by the daily changes of the seasonal environment, and became a close observer of the colors, textures, sounds and smells of my environment.

Contrast and comparison is one of the fundamental ways that we learn, and we do that best when we utilize multiple layers of sensory and intellectual engagement. So, to be in an environment, for example the woods in the cycle of a year, there was a measure of consistency of place, but observed with the seasonal contrasts of wet/dry, hot/cold, trees with green leaves, then orange and yellow leaves, then no leaves, as well as changing conditions of light (and shadow) from the shifting declination of the sun.  These cycles could be observed in large and small scale, as discrete events, or as a unified whole.

Somehow, I think that deep connection to the natural environment is linked to my love of language and of the word itself. Shakespeare rocks my world just for the texture, flow and mass of the word constructions he made.  I love the way they read and their sound in my ears. Also, I have a collection of dictionaries that goes back around 100 years. I really enjoy looking at the evolution of the definition of a word over time. The word, art, has a very different definition today than it did in the late 1800’s. I like that.

WETA with Peter WinantTAEM- Please tell us about the Sculpture Program that your school offers.

PW- Let me take directly from a description of the program written by my colleague, Tom Ashcraft, who directs that program, “The George Mason University sculpture program is an interdisciplinary lab where ideas are given form. Through close association with a diverse faculty, students acquire broad technical skills, learn a contextual/historical awareness of their discipline, and develop conceptual strategies that produce the independence necessary to compete for graduate study and as a practicing studio artist in the greater community. The sculpture program has developed a rich history in site specific, public, and community projects where students are encouraged to assist faculty, local and visiting artists, or have the opportunity to create their own work throughout the metropolitan area. Located just outside Washington D.C students have ample opportunity to take advantage of the many galleries, museums, and cultural activities the region has to offer.”

Art today is shifting and broadening its territory. The role of the artist and designer is expanding its emphasis as active social agent. While paintings in frames, and sculptures on pedestals still have currency in the contemporary art world, many young, and even well established artists are seeing that their work can engage society to make life better for us all. Art and design are especially focused on creativity as the generator of their work, and those fields are increasingly collaborative with scientists, engineers, anthropologists, psychologists and even the medical field.

Our sculpture program has the advantage of being keenly interested and capable of making just about anything one can imagine, but also it is a program that cultivates creative thinkers who go out into the community to make a positive difference.

TAEM- Describe the facility that your campus uses for learning this art.

PW- Our sculpture facility houses a complete woodworking studio, metal fabrication studio, plaster/mixed materials studio, a large outside work courtyard and access to digital media. Students also have the opportunity to exhibit and install temporary works throughout the Fairfax campus. An additional space, a repurposed shipping container provides an alternative space for student projects. We also have classes in Eco-Art and Sound Art that are taught through our New Media program. The Eco-Art courses use the space around our new Art and Design building, as well as other campus locations to consider the interface of land use and art making. Sound art uses the resources of our computer labs and a traditional studio to explore sound as tangible form.

The School of Art program is housed in an award winning building designed specifically for us. This is our fourth year in the building, and we can already see the enormous impact this space has had on our ability to teach creatively.

TAEM- Please tell our readership about the many community projects that your students are involved with.

PW- We are fortunate to have two unique features that enhance student learning and experience through creative projects that bring faculty and students together in local national and even international settings, and through creative research. One is Provisions Library, and the other is a faculty and student collaborative art group, Floating Lab Collective.

Provisions Library (http://provisionslibrary.com/) , headed by Don Russell, is now housed in the Art and Design building, and is an embedded partner in our core curriculum. Don describes the scope of the Library’s work, “Provisions investigates the relationship between art and social change through research, production, and education. From its library home in George Mason University’s School of Art in Fairfax, Virginia and at sites throughout the District, Provisions produces and supports projects in the US Capitol Region and across the globe.

Provisions’ art and culture research explores models for a more inclusive, equitable, and connected society.

Provisions partners with organizations, individuals, and institutions to develop and amplify contemporary narratives across cultures, support grassroots modes of action, and provide open access to knowledge and understanding of social change in its artistic and creative dimensions. The library, public programming, and research opportunities host artistic, intellectual, and activist endeavors that explore the educational and social promise of contemporary culture.

Local, national, and international projects include exhibitions, public art, residencies, screenings, workshops, lectures, and publications. Participants include artists, activists, academics, students, professionals from a variety of disciplines, and everyday people.

Provisions Library houses a growing collection of over 6000+ art and social change texts. The library is exploring the magic of libraries–as intimate places for encountering knowledge, unleashing stories, archiving systems, dreaming possibilities, and as public houses for ideas, exchanges, debates, collaboration and social transformation.

The books, periodicals and videos are available for use by artists, students, researchers and the general public.”

Provisions brings US based and international artists as interns to conduct research and interact with the GMU and Washington, DC community. Additionally, Provisions organizes and is curator for exhibitions that have been shown in a broad spectrum of venues nationally and internationally.

Floating Lab (http://floatinglabcollective.com/) describes itself as follows,” The Floating Lab Collective is a group of artists working collaboratively on social research through public and media art projects in Washington DC, as well as nationally and internationally. They experiment with the aesthetics of direct action in crafting responses to specific places, communities, issues and circumstances. FLC artists move across visual art, performance, new media, and publications to engage and integrate such social topics as housing, the environment, migration, labor and urban mobility. One of FLC’s most important tools is a converted taco truck– a Floating Museum– that circulates projects among different neighborhoods, communities and regions.

Floating Lab Collective was started in 2007 in partnership with Provisions Library, an arts and social change research and development center at George Mason University. To date, over 50 groundbreaking community projects have been produced in the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area, New York City, Mexico City, Detroit (MI), Louisville (KY), Medellin (Colombia) and Port of Spain (Trinidad). Through Provisions, FLC has been funded by The Creative Communities Initiative, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Virginia Museum, George Mason University and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.”

Peter Winant on tourTAEM- You are also a member of ‘Around Town’ and ‘Workingman Collective’. Please tell us about these activities.

PW- Since 2006, I have been one of WETA’s Around Town panelists. WETA is the Washington DC area’s major public television station. The spots cover the visual and performing arts in the DC region. I work with artists, Janis Goodman, Bill Dunlap and Amber Robles-Gordon to comment on art exhibitions and public art works.

The core of my art practice for the past 20 years has been through collaboration.  Beginning around 1993, I worked with a group called Art Attack doing both performance based and increasingly site responsive works that engaged architecture and public spaces in the DC area, as well as New York, Chicago, Berlin, Prague, Poland, Slovakia and Austria.

Since 2005, I have been working with Tom Ashcraft and Janis Goodman. We call ourselves, “Workingman Collective.” (http://workingmancollective.blogspot.com/).  Our projects have brought us to places as diverse as Butte, Montana and currently Monrovia, Liberia where we are working on a commission for the US embassy there.

Although I do have a personal art practice, I find that working collaboratively allows me the opportunity to do more extensive projects, and to approach big ideas from a broader perspective. Believe it or not, I don’t know everything, and my ideas might not always be the best ones for a given situation. By working with partners, one can approach art making with multiple perspectives as a part of serving the work.

We tend to have this culturally reinforced image of the artist walled off in a studio engaged in a brooding existential struggle to find art. Few true artists engage in such a practice. To make meaningful contemporary and enduring art, one must be a disciplined worker who is connected to an vibrant world. My collaborative practice allows me a freedom of thought and action that is different from my private work. Not better, necessarily, but it is an engagement that gives me the juice to go into the studio on my own. By working collaboratively, it’s not about me. It is about the work and the ideas it represents.

TAEM- What  involvement do you have in the college’s Artsbus program, and please describe it for us ?

PW- Artsbus (http://artsbus.gmu.edu/) is a unique George Mason program, begun in 1987 by Professor Jerry Clapsaddle. The program embeds a shared learning experience for all students who are part of the School of Art program. We annually bring around 1200 students, faculty and the broader community to New York City galleries and museums. I have been the program’s Director for the past 10 years.

While the DC area is blessed with great museums and galleries, we think it is an important opportunity for young artists and designers to be able to go outside their daily environment to look at the vast amount of art and design in New York. There is no other place on earth like New York. So, while the over 300 galleries in Chelsea, the 100 in Lower Manhattan and Soho, 50 uptown galleries and the over 30 art and design museums offer students a vast array of work that is historic, modern and contemporary, it is also the experience of the city itself that educates students. We expect them to see art and design, but we want them to explore the city, have lunch in Chinatown and experience the Canal Street market, walk through Central Park, see Harlem and the Empire State building.

We make three trips a semester, and faculty supervise as many as 5 bus loads of students and general public each trip. Faculty offers planned tours of the galleries, and then students are free to explore on their own.  Students are required to make 3-5 trips during their time at GMU, depending on whether they are 4 year students or transfers.

TAEM- Your work can also be found in private collections around the country and have been seen in many gallery exhibitions. How satisfying is this to you?

PW- While it is always gratifying to have someone, or an institution collect one’s work, what I love best is making the work. It is the joy of engagement with an idea, and then seeing the evolution of thought and form develop until the work becomes independent that drives me. I’d make the work even if no one collected it. Perhaps that is why the collaborative work is so meaningful to me. Much of that work is not collectable in a traditional sense. For example, in Butte, Montana we did a project where we used very large chalk lines, normally used for building construction, and snapped precise lines over 5 miles of the downtown’s streets. While we did a lot of documentation of the work, the lines soon disappeared. Along the five miles of lines, we engaged the public by discussing the project, Butte’s history and their lives. It was in no way a traditional piece of sculpture, but it was enormously gratifying to share the piece with the community.

Much of the world is familiar with DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, but most people know that artwork from a picture on a coffee mug, calendar or an image in a book. The line in Butte, while it disappeared, was something very real to the residents. Now, it is like a well played note on a piano, beautiful, meaningful and felt, but ephemeral.

GMUTAEM- We’ve also discovered that you have also held lectures on the subject of sculpture, art and education around the world. Please tell our student readers about some of the things you talk about.

PW- I’ve been around for a while now, and have around 40 years of practice under my belt. No one owns knowledge, and knowledge is not a static thing. It is constantly changing its shape with new contexts. When I give lectures, I try to connect what I have done to what I am currently doing by illustrating my ideas through the work I make, and my involvement with art foundations education.

Joseph Albers, the color theorist, and great teacher and artist from the Bauhaus and later, Yale, said something profound that I bring to my lectures and my daily experience. He said, “there is no distinction between teaching and learning.” It may seem puzzling at first, but the truth of that statement is clear and liberating. As a teacher, if I don’t learn from my students, my teaching will soon stagnate and become irrelevant. If the student is not given the opportunity to express their knowledge, others will not learn. In order to learn, one must be able to teach one’s own self. As an artist, It is my goal to inform culture, but I also must learn from my work and from the responses of my audience.

TAEM- Professor Winant, your school and students are very lucky to have you at George Mason University, and I am sure that they have learned much from your teachings . We want to thank you for your time for this interview and ask that you keep all of us updated in everything that you do.




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