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Molding Glass and an Academic Career

Sculpting glass can be similar to molding a career as an art professor. It takes time, dedication, creativity, patience and, of course, special techniques both in the classroom and the studio in order to be successful. Professor Chad Holliday, this month's HigherEd Careers Interview guest, discusses his passions of being a professional artist as well as teaching art and spreading awareness to our colleges and local communities.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: You are an artist actively involved in the community as well as an assistant professor at West Texas A&M University. Will you explain how you've blended your passion for art and higher education?

Chad Holliday, West Texas A&M University: Originally I had a strong urge to teach about "life." Eventually, I discovered that my best outlet was through art and visual expression. At the same time I found that this was a great metaphor for life and self exploration. After graduate school I wanted to teach but felt I needed to experience more in order to provide a quality experience for future students. Since then I have been fortunate to have been mentored by some very well known and successful artists and educators. After returning from my Fulbright experience, I felt it was time to return the goodness that had been passed on to me and re-enter academia to give back what I was given and share my experience and enthusiasm.

Hibel: You currently teach and have taught numerous art courses ranging from glass blowing, mold melting and sand casting.1 How have the techniques of teaching these types of art changed over the years?

Holliday: In the American Studio Glass Movement, our focus has been generally around blowing glass in a pseudo Italian style. I found this to be a bit limiting for my particular ideas. In graduate school I studied under Frantisek Janak, a Czech Master. Since this time he and I have been teaching together in many capacities. He encouraged my natural skills with the material and I have since become known for mold-melting, mold making, and traditional cut glass techniques. While studying under Janak, I was still working for glass blowers and working as a technician. I tried to meld all of these styles and after working with the likes of Martin Blank, I could envision utilizing all these techniques or at least applying the knowledge base from to the other.

Hibel: You hold a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in Glass Design and Sculpture. There is a difference of opinion on the necessity of having a Ph.D versus a Masters degree. Can you compare and contrast the benefits of these options in both the higher education and the art community?

Holliday: I think the difference may lie in the practice. The goal for the MFA, which is our terminal degree, is to create professional working, practicing artists. The MFA allows for in depth exploration and focus. For those of us that wish to continue in academia it also allows us to work closely with professors and in most cases a chance to teach and gain experience. I do know that art is moving towards the Ph.D but there are some differences. What I have seen is that these Ph.D programs are focused more on aesthetics and philosophy whereas the MFA has this component but in addition it requires the practice and creation. In MFA programs, graduates should be performing research the same as a graduate in a Ph.D program and doing similar writing. After the writing, the artist must prove their thesis through some sort of physical representation in the specified media. I personally would love to pursue a Ph.D.

Hibel: You have a lot of different responsibilities. How do you balance being a professional artist and a professor along with your personal life?

Holliday: This is a difficult situation, of course. This is my first semester not teaching overloads since I arrived. At times this can become excessive reaching up to 36 contact hours and managing up to 20 or so syllabi a semester. Balancing can be difficult. Lately, I have been trying to prioritize the best I can. From trial and many errors I am finding more balance but as our institutional and departmental requirements/demands change frequently it is hard to find a consistent formula. But from these lessons I have found that the priorities that supersede all else are family, students and my work (art), in that order. Currently I am preparing an exhibition that opens Friday and this is finals week. Right now it is really go time, changing hats every few minutes is the norm but more the case right now. The bigger problem is I must be 110% with every hat change as the impact to each component can become exponential and greatly impact the others.

Hibel: As mentioned above, you are engaged in the art community locally as well as displaying and teaching internationally. Why do you think exposing students and the community at large to art is important?

Holliday: This could be a long answer. I believe art continues an old dialog that is always relevant. We as artists have a primary goal of communication. We have a kind of unwritten contract and responsibility to the greater public. This responsibility is to demonstrate diverse ways of thinking and communicate alternate points of view that can reach broad audiences. I believe that art can be a very good way of conveying points of view and experience. We can also find those qualities and experiences that we all find across all cultures. One way I have tried to do this is by going abroad and immersing myself in other cultures and countries but I have also brought this to my institution by leading study abroad trips. As a side note, I have taken 30 students from the panhandle of Texas to the Czech Republic and they were able to study at the first glass school in the world and I will be taking students to Turkey this summer. It is important for artists to bring some pleasure and interest to the lives of the public. We can find common ground and have great impact by simply changing the mundane and activating space.

Hibel: What can university fine arts programs do to broaden their students' art education programs either locally or abroad?

Holliday: We are in the midst of this right now, as are many institutions. I believe it starts young and at home. Just as artists have to educate their collectors and galleries, the artist's public, we need to do the same with the general public. We have to start there because I believe that the community support is essential. This support can happen in many ways but also comes down to value systems. I am not speaking to the political rhetoric about values but rather what we value in education. One thing that art provides that I do not see in other disciplines is creative problem solving on a different level. It means that subjectivity becomes a very difficult thing to measure and can be quite challenging. The many variables are fantastic because there is not always, very rarely, a right and wrong. This can be very uncomfortable but challenging and makes us think outside the norm. Locally, we do things for outreach. We have an event called Night Blow. This is for patrons as well as the general public. We offer them hands on experiences and bring in world-renowned artists to perform and interact with the general public. Some of these artists have been from other countries and the program allows us to bring what is abroad home and build enthusiasm for our students to get out and go abroad. Exchanges are also helpful. Not only international exchange programs but also exchanges within disciplines. I am a huge advocate of cross-disciplinary exchanges and cooperation. This also helps bring about more understanding of art but also the commonalities.

Hibel: In a June 2011 HigherEd Careers interview, our guest noted that the funding for arts in higher education is a serious issue. She went on to say that "about one-third of arts alumni abandon their artistic ambitions due to debt burdens."2 What are your thoughts on this statistic and do you see any potential solutions to make the practice of the arts a greater reality for graduates?

Holliday: I have substantial debt myself. I tell my students to stay involved in any capacity. If they stay involved in art they are more likely to succeed in art and stay a practicing artist. I am a bit of a pragmatist so I am very honest and upfront with them. I let them into what I have had to do and try to show them how their skills can allow them other opportunities. I also remind them of the responsibility I mentioned earlier. We have to stay true to the cause, in a sense. It is not an easy life and there is a reason why there is the term "starving artist." I feel that the greatest deficit to art in higher ed is the numbers issue. As we are encouraged more and more to simply push the student through to graduation we loose quality in all disciplines. The rigor is much different than when I was in school to accommodate the lack of quality in public education which brings us a deficit from the beginning. So far I have had nearly 100% placement of my students within the field. They are teaching and or assisting other artists. It is critical that we have a strong presence in our local communities, take ourselves seriously and demonstrate the seriousness and dedication we have. Additionally, it is necessary to operate as professionals do in other fields so we make strides not only in the success of our students and their longevity as artists but we can also gain more clout funding resources. Again, I believe it comes down to values systems but also the perception and stereotype of the artist.

Hibel: Stigmas can exist about craft in art and design. How do you deal with galleries to persuade them to look at the broad picture of art and how do you teach these lessons to your students?

Holliday: This has been ongoing. I describe to them an experience I had with a curator in graduate school. It has been some time but this is what I got from it. He had said that the art world sees art, craft and design as a triangle, with art on top and craft and design at the lower points. His idea was to look at it as a circle rotating in both directions. This was intriguing to me. As one who works three-dimensionally, I could not help myself but bring it to my world. The circle seemed too limiting and flat. I present it as a sphere. All three inform each other and embody something of the other and it continues to work in all directions. I encountered this myself when I lived in Seattle. To me it is an old argument. We do need to remain aware but I think it is usually used when there is a lack of confidence and or information. For example, I also speak to the students about the applied arts as opposed to craft. This term embodies design and craft but also many media that are usually deemed as fine art. I believe that these boundaries are less and less in the art market but they still rear their head in academia. Another example is that I have been told that I do not qualify for a sculpture position because my degrees are in glass. So to circumvent this, I encourage my graduates to focus on sculpture as their major so that they will be more "sell-able." This is whether glass or something else is their primary medium or not.

Hibel: Your discipline has some unique academic ways in career building. What suggestions do you have for an artist seeking a job in higher education?

Holliday: Be diverse and open. Be aware of the values and assets within the other disciplines and media. Stay involved and up to date. Be knowledgeable about technology and utilize the resources that others may have but be sure to demonstrate that there is respect and value. But most important is cooperate not compete.

Hibel: In your dual roles, you are interacting with many types of people from students, colleagues and administrators to art enthusiasts and gallery owners. What have you learned about effective communication and networking?

Holliday: Each one of these groups speaks a different language. I have found that being direct and honest is the best approach. However, leave room for questions and above all listen! Learn to gauge these things as well. Efficiency is important but not at the sacrifice of success. Be thoughtful, mindful and demonstrate the respect you wish to receive.