Faculty Feature: Natalie Lanese
Natalie Lanese is painting and drawing professor here at Studio Angelico. She is also the Director of the Klemm Gallery, a space in Studio Angelico that showcases work from visiting artists and, in the spring, senior projects. Madison LaRoy, a junior, sat down with her on October 28, 2017, to discuss topics ranging from her teaching and classes, to her own work and beliefs.
LaRoy: What made you want to be a teacher here at Siena Heights?
Lanese: From a young age I wanted to be a teacher. I think that was inspired by both of my parents being teachers, so I kind of grew up with that idea in my head and I always thought it would be a profession that I would enjoy and I would be good at. So, I pursued education in my undergrad. I got a teaching license to teach art K-12, which I never ended up pursuing. Instead I decided to go to graduate school and pursue that as a credential to teach at a college level. So after graduating with my MFA, I applied to many teaching positions. It took a long time, it was a hard job to find. In my search, I came across a listing for this position and it appealed to me for a few reasons. One, I was living in New York at the time and I was anxious to move closer to my family in Cleveland, Ohio. So this was regional to that and seemed like a good location that I would want to be. It also appealed to me because of the size of the school and the kind of school it is. It was similar to my experience in college. I went to Xavier University which is a bigger school all around but the art department was very similar to this one. So it felt familiar, it felt like a place where I had many of the experiences that my students are having. Honestly, I grew up attending Catholic schools and it felt like teaching in a Catholic Institution would be a little bit like home, too. There were a lot of factors that aligned at Siena that just seemed like the right fit for me. Sure enough, when I visited and interviewed and met everybody here, that hunch was spot on. I got along with everyone here, it felt like a familiar place. I was overjoyed to be offered the job here because it fit a lot of my criteria. It's where I want to be.
LaRoy: What do you love most about teaching?
Lanese: I love my students and my colleagues. There is a lot of great perks to being in the department and I can talk about each of us as full time faculty having autonomy over our programs and having some freedom to design what we're teaching our students. All those things are great, but when it comes down to it, I come to work everyday with amazing people. People who have my back no matter what, a place where I don't feel like I have to prove myself, like somebody's looking over my shoulder. I come here knowing that I work amongst people who trust that I'm doing a great job and who appreciate the work that I do and recognize the hard work that I do; and I can say I feel that way about my colleagues as well. And our students are so involved in not just their classwork but being a part of this community. This is my sixth year and from day one when I started here, one of my goals was to begin to build a little bit more of a creative community that goes beyond school work. And I really see that happening now, and I love it. I love seeing our students around the building when they are not in class or even wandering into my classes when they are not in my class. They are interacting with each other beyond doing homework. They are becoming artists together and that's exactly what I hope to accomplish as a teacher so it's really exciting to see that happening.
LaRoy: How would you describe your teaching style?
Lanese: That is a great question. That's a question I should be prepared for in an interview. (laughter) I really imagine my studios as maybe like smaller versions or model versions of a studio where my students may find themselves after they graduate. In other words, if they are going to pursue making art beyond Siena, they're going to possibly rent a space in a building somewhere with other artists where those people will be coming and going and working side by side at times or maybe behind a closed door but interacting in between times. So, I like to envision my spaces where I teach as a practice for that experience. I think my teaching style kind of follows that, it follows the way I set up the space. I let the students get to work first and I start to see how they interact with each other and I try to kind of push that along. I'll sit and paint or sit and draw with my students if it's a work day and we can all participate in that activity together. If it's a day when I'm introducing a new project, I have the responsibility of relaying some new information to my students as a teacher. I try to make that more of a discussion than a lecture whenever possible so there is always the goal of it being more of a community setting and thinking of us as peers instead of me as the leader and them the students. I like to position myself as the slightly more experienced artist that is amongst a group of artists. I'm trying to create a space where we are all in it together because I'm constantly learning and I know they are.
LaRoy: What are you most excited for, in your program?
Lanese: Right now I have a very small advanced painting class. There are five students in it, four of whom are in my Color Issues and Abstraction class, and one of whom is a senior working towards her BFA exhibition. I just so happen this semester to have five students in that class who are really into painting. (laughter) I should assume that every semester, but because we have such a small program, students take my classes for all kinds of reasons, not necessarily because they are painting majors. I get a very different dynamic in the class semester to semester. I might have one student who is majoring in painting and other people who are like "well I'll try it, I don't know if I'll like it," which is always great. It's really nice that every semester the energy changes a little bit. It keeps it fresh. That's one thing I really like about my job. But I have to say, this semester, I really love having these painters together in this class. We have really great discussions during our critiques. They all seem really focused on talking about painting and pushing their painting further. They are just serious about it, they are focused on it. And I love that. That's why I teach what I teach. I paint because I love it. You inherently want to see other people as excited about it as you are. When I see that, I think that's what I'm most excited about.
As far as being the Gallery Director goes, I'm just generally excited to bring artists to campus. Because we are in a rural area and because a lot of our students have minimal or no experience visiting galleries or museums because they have also come from areas where there is not much of it around. I'm in a position to bring that experience to our students. That has been the driving force behind my goals as Gallery Director since I started. That's seeking out artists who I know would be a great person for students to meet or who has a process that would really translate well to what we teach in our program or something that would be really accessible to our students. Because this would be in many cases their first experience interacting with an artist in that way. Watching them make their work in the gallery, like when Ouizi [Louise Chen] as here. So that's really exciting to me too. It's exciting to be able to provide that to someone who hasn't had that experience before and being in the position to teach them "this is what it is." This is how we do it. There is a great stigma I think that comes along with being an artist or meeting an artist that there's this whole mystery or we have these really romantic ideas of what an artist is. And when I can bring someone here and they lay out their whole truck full of supplies and get to work and we all watch them do what they do. It's like "oh, I can do that". It makes it possible for our students to believe that it is just a matter of getting to work. It's not this big mysterious thing that happens in a studio sometimes. I mean it is sometimes. (laughter) But I like to open that curtain and that's really exciting to me.
LaRoy: Tell us about your most recent show.
Lanese: My show opened on Monday. It is at Lock Haven University in Lock Haven Pennsylvania. It is right in the middle of the state, about 45 minutes from State College. I went there this weekend to install the show and give an artist's talk as well to a group of students there. They have a class very similar to our senior exhibition class, so those students helped me hang the work when I got there on Sunday, so that was really great. For the show, I tried something totally different for a few reasons. One, I lined up a couple shows for myself this Fall, and I do a pretty good job of managing my time, but sometimes when I agree to do things I do a very poor job of being realistic of how much time there is to do it. (laughter) In all honesty, that's one thing that happened. I was very busy preparing for both shows and taking care of the gallery. I was kind of a little overwhelmed. As a result of that, I decided to make some work that would be different than what I've been working on and would also happen fairly quickly. I typically make site specific installations so when I show up at a gallery, I'll show up with paint and brushes and make the work on site. But this particular space has carpet on its walls, so I couldn't do that. I was trying to figure out a way that I could kind of replicate my installation process, but do it so I wouldn't be painting directly on the wall.
So, I made a series of paintings on paper that were just black and white, which is very rare for me, so it was a little bit of an experiment. I was thinking of them as like giant sketchbook pages because they were sort of these large paintings of these little sketches I had done to prepare for the show. And then when I got to the space, I had the option of hanging them traditionally as individual paintings. But as we unpacked them and I had the students help me and we talked about it a little bit, there was this really long hallway type space with a long wall, and I thought, "wouldn't it be fun if they were all touching each other and looked like one big painting?" instead of twelve separate paintings. So we laid them out on the floor like that and I really liked it and they kind of agreed that it was cool, so we hung them like that. For as worried as I was about pulling this all together and it looking great, I was still able to show up in the space and be an installation artist, which I hadn't thought about prior to that, I was just so focused on getting the work done. So, I'm glad what I brought there still provided the flexibility to respond to the space which is a thing I really rely on in my work. Like getting into it, thinking about what I can put in it that is going to either complement the space or change your perception of it in some way. It just really fit the space. It's this 30-foot banner basically, of paintings across the wall. I'm really happy with how it came out. I had a ton of help hanging it and it went up easily and it couldn't have gone better considering how worried I was.
LaRoy: Why do you think art and creativity are important?
Lanese: Well, I think the general answer to that is what would our world look like without artists and without creativity? I tend to approach my answer to this question from my educator standpoint. I think a lot of what artists and cultural workers provide for our world is very commonly either taken for granted or... not necessarily ignored. There is not enough education amongst the general public let's say, to understand diverse ways of solving problems, to create that thing, whatever it is. Whether it's the couch you sit on, or the table you eat at, or the artwork hanging on your wall, or any piece of design for that matter. Unfortunately, I'm starting to feel that there's less and less of an appreciation for those things and that is why I feel I need to be a teacher. Because it is a question of education. I think if people knew more about how these things get made, or what it takes to design something, and they could appreciate it, they wouldn't just walk past it and not consider it, or they would value the work that an artist does or would value the contribution an artist makes to our culture. But I'm an optimistic person. I don't think people are intentionally ignoring or neglecting it. I think they just don't know. That's why it's important not only to teach in a school, because obviously all my students have come here to learn about art, they already have an interest in it. It's so much about educating people beyond this place, in a community. In a place where you know that the school system has lost funding for its art program, putting artwork out where people can see it and ask questions about it and have discussions about it. So, I pursue projects in my community where I live and making things accessible like that. [...] Creativity is not only important in how our world looks, but how we move forward in it.
We need creativity in how we solve problems, in how we change the way things have always been done, because sometimes we need to come up with a better solution. As times change, we need to change with them. We need to have really great ideas about how to revitalize a city or how to revive an art program in a public school district. All those things are requiring creativity and if we are going to have great things in our world, we need artists. They don't necessarily need to be painters or someone toiling away in a studio. It is someone who has been trained as an artist and became a public servant. I guess my answer is more like, "How is art education important?" Let me make a case for what we teach in this building and I really won't mind if half of my students don't go on to be artists, but go on to work in other fields and apply all this awesome stuff they learned in art school to those other areas.
LaRoy: Do you have any advice for students thinking about majoring in art?
Lanese: My advice to our new art students is to just be you, however weird you think that you are or even if you are a little insecure about some of those things. When I think about my experience in college, and I think this is probably similar to you and your fellow students' experiences. In high school, you gravitate towards the people who are in your art program or in your one art class. Those opportunities are more and more limited. When you find those one or two people, you really get each other because you are into art. You finally figure out "I'm not weird! I'm just like these other two people that I have finally connected with in my life!"
You are about to come to a school and go to class in a building everyday where there are 60 people like you. You should be really excited about that. Maybe you've come from a typical high school experience where you felt like an outsider. Now you get to walk into a space and be one of many and all these people are going to have so many things in common with you, and you are just going to be you. The thing that's so important about that is the work that you make once you're here is going to be great when it has you in it. You're being sincere about the mark you are making on the paper, you're being completely genuine with the idea you are putting into your design. All of your concepts are just you being true to yourself. That is when you are going to make really great art. So, getting back to my advice, be you. It's going to be easier than you think, because we are a great little island of misfit toys in this building. We all fit together, we all get each other."
LaRoy: Do you have anything to say to parents who are nervous about their children becoming art majors?
Lanese: My parents were nervous, although they always supported it. It was never to the point where they discouraged me from pursuing it. I'm very lucky to have had that support. But, I studied art education because my mom was a little too worried about me only being an art major. If I knew then what I know now, like how to talk to my parents about it, I probably would have told my mom, [...] "I'm going to learn things in this program that no one else is going to learn, or no one else is going to teach me." If I become a business major or if I study English or history, I'm not going to learn the same kind of skills. It's not just how to create a hard edge with paint and a paint brush, or how to mix color. I'm not talking about the technical skills you learn in an art class. Obviously, you will learn those. But what's more important is I'll be expected to get up in front of my fellow classmates, hang something up on the wall that is most likely incredibly personal to me, explain to them why I made it and why I made all the decisions I made in order to create it, and then give them all an opportunity to tell me what they think about it. Which, as much as we take great care in creating a constructive environment for that, you are still going to hear things that you don't want to hear, and you are going to have to continue to stand there and let people give you their opinion when it differs from your own, and they are going to tell you how you could be better than you are. For four years, you get really, really great practice at listening to that feedback, processing that feedback, determining what feedback is helpful to you and will help your work and also determining which of it isn't helpful, that you can let go. Then you get to go back to your work and take all of that information and become better. Tell me one life experience that does not apply to?
That applies to every relationship you have, whether it's a friendship or professional. It applies to every job you are going to have in your life. You are going to have to sit down with your boss and be evaluated. It applies to every meeting you're in charge of or have to attend and get up and present. No matter what your kid pursues in their life, she is going to come out of this program with such a poise and strength to interact with other human beings and know what to do with criticism. I truly, truly, believe that it is one of the most important things you need to learn in life. It's not a thing you learn in school except if you're an artist.
Secondary to that, you learn amazing skills with your hands for instance. You learn practical things like using a wood shop and hanging your show and how to write a resume and how to write an artist's statement, which no one is going to teach you. How to write about yourself concisely and professionally. That's a really important skill. You are going to be able to articulate your feelings, because your feelings are what made your painting. Then you have to put that into words somehow. All these are so intangible. A science class isn't going to teach you that.
A science class will probably teach you something that will make you more money than being an artist, but you can study art and become an excellent lawyer some day because of all the awesome stuff you learned in art school. That's what I would like to tell parents, that's what I wish I could have articulated to my mom when I was a teenager. "Mom! Look at all of this stuff I'm going to be good at someday!" She was worried. She supported me, but it was not a comfortable path for her. She likes to plan things out, and here I was pursuing a career that can have no plan; you just have to keep working your butt off, going forward every step of the way and eventually you figure something out. That's something I would tell parents too.
Your child is not going to have four years of college and two years of grad school and job. It's not that kind of career. You have to trust that your kid is smart, that she's persistent, that she's a hard worker, that she believes in herself, and she's not going to let herself fall flat. If you trust that your kid can do all those things, she'll do fine. This path is not, "in eight years she's going to be a doctor." It's in eight years she's probably going to have some great things to show for herself, but it's going to shape shift as she learns what her life is going to look like and where she's going to live and what's best for her. So, they have to be comfortable with the unknown, because that's what you're doing. You're entering a world of unknown, but you just have to figure out.