Spotlight on Professor Curlee Holton
By Sophie Saguil ‘16
Published: Thursday, March 7, 2013
Updated: Saturday, March 9, 2013 13:03
Sophie sat down with professor of art and department head Curlee Holton to talk aobut his printmaking work, his gallery, and his experiences teaching.
SS: Do you think that a lot of the time your work has been inspired by political issues?
CH: Yes, two or three kinds of impulses about that - but the most important impulse was finding a way to express my value, my esteem, my ego, my desires, how could I articulate them. How could I speak about what I might want in life. If society around me didn’t approve, art allowed me to be subversive and covert, not just for political reasons, but subversive and covert in [my] own reality. Think about this for a moment: probably the greatest deception is not the one we impose on the world, but the one we impose on ourselves - how we see ourselves. And the ego is a very mysterious and very dangerous aspect of our personalities. So how do you undermine that [aspect] so you have a truer sense of self. Art is a way you can hold a mirror to yourself, and be who you really are, and understand who you are. For example, you look at the opposite sex, you [search for] someone else to validate your existence. If someone looks at me lovingly, wants me, is attracted to me, it makes me feel good about myself. Most of the time [these people] have ulterior motives when they give you that reflection, they give that to you in exchange for something else. But, what if you had something that was reflecting you and had nothing to do with anyone else’s ambitions or egos? So not only was art a reflection of myself, it allowed me to reflect on the world I was in - inequality, immorality, betrayal. More importantly, witnessing this betrayal, and documenting it. And if I were to advocate an issue for you, I’d be advocating for myself as well. Take women’s rights, if I advocate for the better treatment of women, then I am also advocating for my daughter’s treatment, and my own interests.
SS: Did you go to school specifically for art?
CH: I started off actually going to business school, but then I switched to art because it began to address more than just an interest, it became a voice, a language, a way to negotiate my existence in the world. At the age of 17 or 18, you’re thinking about who you are, what you mean. Art gave me a way to talk in a very emotional and intimate way. I didn’t feel I was articulate, so the art gave me a way to talk about larger issues without specific language. And of course later I found out, one needs to be articulate about art as well.
SS: So would you say your family influenced this gallery a lot?
CH: Of course they inspire me, I am the result of my family, as we all are. I like to think about this in a way that we inherit things, other things are indoctrinated in us (like schools and education) and then we have accidents in life that define us. Still to this day, young people lose their virginity in the back of a car seat, like they did in the 1950s. What does that mean? That’s what I mean by accident, that’s not something you learn in school, you begin to find out who you are by accidents with people. And that’s how the world works, and I don’t have a big problem with that, but I know that there was a lesson given to me, a lesson taught to me, a model for my household, and accidents with strangers that taught me what the world was.
SS: So if that was when you discovered printmaking, how did you discover your initial interest in the arts?
CH: When I started out, I was first inspired by watching an older brother make art - drawing horses - and I received some recognition and encouragement from my teachers. Making art was like having six fingers - girls were very attracted to it so I could get dates with it. It was special, exceptional, unique. And later it became a serious project, I had begun to understand what it could be used for. Art can always be used for entertainment or fun or other kinds of stuff, but that’s not what it meant to me.
SS: And wasn’t printmaking understood to have an impact on the art world since it increased the differing classes of people who could afford it?
CH: Yes. Printmaking [and buying prints] was very much a democratic thing for everyone who participated, and of course with its reduced price, it was very much about having access to art.
SS: I just have one more question, what would you say your personal teaching style is here at Lafayette? Would you say your more artistic background influences your methods?
CH: …Some students think I am a little unforgiving. Let me illustrate that. I had a student last semester who asked me to change his grade, because he was graduating and he needed a better grade for a job. And I told him I would sleep on it, and if I couldn’t sleep, I wouldn’t change it. And the next day I saw him and I told him I couldn’t change his grade, that it would be unethical and unfair to other students if I did. And it was problematic for him, but he accepted it, and he said he was going to take another class with me and I said, you probably shouldn’t, because I’m not going to change my approach. But he still took another class because he believes that in spite of how demanding I can be, he prefers the honesty than not. That’s important to me, and that doesn't always make you a very popular teacher. I announce at beginning of my classes that I do not give out A’s without a battle, without a fight. And I try to live by that, and I don’t think you help someone by giving a B student an A. And some people take art classes because they think that is the case, but they’re mistaken. It’s harder than any other class because you can’t always measure it, there is no formula you can learn how to solve. Of course I have given A’s, because I have some exceptional students, but its never without a fight.