Expressing the non-visual: Art & Design professor retires after 36 years
In 1978, just two years before he would begin his 36-year long career as a professor in the Department of Art & Design at the university, Robert Straight exhibited at the Perkins Student Center Gallery.
“Those paintings were made out of hardware cloth, cardboard, papier-mâché and finally, covered with acrylic paint and beeswax,” Straight said. “They were three-dimensional and there were three layers to the painting, which would stand off of the wall. They were like layer cakes, and I had gotten into making pastries. So in a way, it was like cake making.”
Prior to accepting a position as a professor in the university’s Department of Art & Design, Straight taught at Spelman College and then Connecticut College.
“My first teaching job was at Spelman College,” Straight said. “Thank God it was a small school. The first day of class, I was just petrified – I panicked. I waited until the last minute to walk into the classroom. And I think I must have talked to them for all of three minutes. I gave them supplies to bring to the next class and said, ‘Well, see you tomorrow.’”
Departing from Spelman College, Straight went on to Connecticut College, before ultimately accepting a position at the university in 1980. Straight had great interest in teaching in the university’s Department of Art & Design because the department offered a graduate program.
At the time, many faculty members in the Department of Art & Design were exhibiting in New York City, so the department itself was a microcosm of the city’s art scene.
“In the back of my mind, I always wanted to teach,” Straight said. “I have an aunt who is 97 now who taught design at Cornell and I had another aunt who also taught at Cornell. As an artist, you are always thinking, ‘How am I going to have time to make art and have enough money to survive?’ Teaching was always the best of both worlds for me.”
Straight’s favorite part of teaching was witnessing his students’ diverse responses to assignments and projects. Straight focused on each individual student, engendering the idea that within the classroom, there was truly no right or wrong way to address a project.
“The whole time I have been teaching, I have been learning,” Straight said. “I will miss having students together in a group – it is really exciting. They start feeding off of each other, and learning from each other – probably even more than they learned from me.”
As an undergraduate at California State University, Long Beach in the 1960s, he said he felt like there was a universal drive to be an artist. However, he definitely feels like this drive has dissipated throughout the years, and has given way to the pressure of student’s families, especially with the rising cost of higher education.
“For today’s student, I think it is important to study seriously within their main area, but to also do other things and just know about the world,” Straight said. “It helps their art, expression and communication and brings a whole new dimension to whatever they will be working with.”
Through his own work, Straight has become reengaged with topics he once neglected in grammar school, such as mathematics and science. For Straight, mathematics is very basic, like counting.
But with his abstract paintings, some of the theories that occur in mathematics and physics come into play, and through those interplays, he has become more interested in what is happening outside of the art world.
His techniques and materials vary from acrylic paint to laser cut paper. Straight is especially interested in forms that suggest patterns, such as the silhouette of a tree in front of his house that his mom gifted him, which may be seen as human nerves or veins. In his studio, just overlooking some of his paintings, is a window. Through that same window, one sees the silhouette of a tree swaying in the wind.
Through color, Straight suggests emotions. While Straight does not intend to present a narrative to the viewer through color, he does see every painting as an individual; an individual which calls for an original way of thinking and a distinct process in its construction.
Straight said he is not interested in cultivating a cult of personality in the fine art world.
“I have always been interested in eliminating a kind of mannerism or brushstroke that people could identity as mine – like handwriting,” Straight said.
And Straight’s plans for retirement?
“The plan is just to continue painting,” Straight said. “Every painting presents a set of problems that will eventually become the next painting.”
To this day, many of Straight’s former students, having graduated from the university in the 1980s and 90s, continue to marvel at his humanity and humbleness. One of these students is Deborah Kapoor, a graduate from the class of 1989.
“When I met Bob and he learned that I had no funds, he walked to the nearest ATM machine and gave me $300 of his own money to hold me over,” Kapoor said. “On a personal level, he is warm and kind, and I think students learn best from positive feedback like Bob’s that nurtures the soul.”
Additionally, Kim Tieger, who graduated from the university in 1984, is one of many of Straight’s former students who discussed the formidable impact of his classes and mentorship had on not only their individual artistic development, but also on their personal development.
“Bob’s work is beautiful, unique and was very much an influence in my development,” Tieger said. “He’s one of the most prolific and experimental artists I know — who wouldn’t be influenced, if not by his work then by his intense work ethic and devotion to his love of making art.”
Straight taught by example not only when it came to artistic instruction in the classroom but also life lessons through his compassion, Bruce Garrity said, who graduated from the university in 1984.
“The biggest thing about Bob is that he is not just a role model in the sense that he makes art,” Garrity said. “He makes art, he teaches and he has a family.”
Straight’s influence proved to be so impactful that it completely changed the trajectory of Robert Jackson’s career.
“I enrolled in Painting I as a throwaway elective during the last semester of my senior year,” said Jackson, who graduated from the university in 1986 with a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering. “I took one course with Bob, thirty years ago. I still see him at my shows. I was under his instruction for such a short time, and he has supported me for such a long time.”
After graduation, Jackson went on to design radio systems for Motorola, before settling down in 1996 to launch his fulfilling career as a contemporary still life artist. Jackson considers that single Painting I course, coupled with Straight’s mentorship, to be the impetus for his current career.
“It seems like in the past, education meant learning about the world,” Straight said. “But it seems that more and more people are just interested in the job description. One of the problems with knowing what the job description is, is that it fits you into a little box.”