My Art Institute Days – A Fundamentalist Dropped Off Behind Enemy Lines

My parents, God bless ’em, had no idea what they were exposing me to when they dropped me off at art college. They were unaware that pretty much every “normal” value that they believed in would be ridiculed daily at my school. Neither of my parents had attended college. My dad was a blue-collar guy and my mom never went to high school, or even learned to drive. I was a white bread, ultra middle-class, Southern Baptist boy from a suburban St. Louis neighborhood where every house basically looked the same and every driveway had a basketball hoop over the garage door. Other than the Catholic church peeking up over the single story houses of our subdivision, there wasn’t an interesting piece of architecture within miles of where I grew up.

Of course, they could’ve dropped me off at any secular college and my parents’ “white middle-class values” would’ve been attacked. But if other secular colleges were pit bulls, the Kansas City Art Institute was a rabid, mutant 3-headed beast with laser eyes. From a Southern Baptist perspective, the Art Institute was the gates of Hell. Maybe my parents’ first clue could’ve been the perky, bra-less, spiky-haired lesbian who gave us a tour of the campus when we arrived. But they couldn’t have known, and I’m so glad they didn’t. At the Art Institute I learned as much about God and life as I learned about art.

Regarding the title of this post, I should say that I’m still not sure what a fundamentalist is, or if I am one, and I certainly never viewed my professors or fellow students as enemies, but I’m going with the stereotype that inevitably gets put on the church subculture from which I came.

You may think I’m exaggerating about the Art Institute. I’ll give you my freshman impressions. The Art Institute was very experimental – creatively, philosophically, spiritually, sexually, and chemically. My first night there, my RA explained that every Sunday night they show pornographic movies in the campus amphitheater. There were no extra-curricular activities or student groups on campus – you know, like organized sports, or Campus Crusade for Christ. But my RA explained that every spring there would be a big event called the Beaux Arts Festival, when trucks of beer kegs would roll up and “everyone” would party and get drunk for several days. (It wasn’t clear to me if this was optional.) When the festival did roll around, the packed schedule of events included Priest Burning and Nude Mud-Wrestling. But by then I had been there long enough to be pretty sure they were only kidding about the priest burning part.

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Student self-portraits – We were encouraged to draw every day, so I have a ton of these, which amounts to a sort of visual journal. OK…I admit I made the last one up. Apparently the forces of natural selection in an art institute environment do not always produce such results.

My best friend attended college in a neighboring town, which provided an interesting contrast to the Art Institute. Several of my Southern Baptist peers from home attended this Christian college – William Jewell College, in Liberty, Missouri. I used to go there on weekends to escape the Art Institute. The contrast was stark. The spacious William Jewell campus was architecturally coordinated with neo-classical buildings on green, manicured lawns. It was peopled with clean, shiny students; some readily identifiable as “jocks.” The girls openly engaged in middle-class behaviors such as curling their hair, shaving their legs and armpits, wearing make-up and bras, and smiling. It seemed like the sun was always shining on campus. When I would go there, I felt like something that had crawled out from under a rock.

When I would return to my small, eclectic, inner-city campus, I swear that my memory tells me that the sky was always dark and there was rolling thunder overhead. However, in time I grew to prefer my little campus at the gates of hell, for the same reasons that I prefer a glass of wine over a coke. I do remember the one time my William Jewell church friends came to visit me at my campus. I think they may have done this to cheer me up. We met in the lobby and I started hugging them. Some lone guy at the lobby pool table immediately saw an opportunity and came over and started hugging all the girls, some of them more than once. When we got up to my room one of them asked, “Was that guy down there your roommate?” I had no idea who he was. Within minutes, a different guy came into my room holding a can of beer, and parked himself. It took both of us a few minutes to assess the situation. I knew this guy’s name was Gary, and I had been told he was a Satanist (I’m pretty sure he told people this to yank their chains, but he did kind of look the part.) He assumed this was a party. I was unfamiliar enough with partying to not realize this was his assumption. I just wanted to talk to my friends. I think somebody mentioned Jesus at some point, at which point he got up and left, also mentioning God and Jesus, but using them as expletives.

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One of my greatest life lessons learned at the Art Institute was about loving people, and not judging by outward appearances. The Art Institute students specialized in outward appearances. I soon learned that the scariest looking people were usually quite gentle and good-hearted, (for human beings.) They just liked to express themselves creepily. As a freshman I remember going to a “dance” one weekend at the Irving Amphitheatre. This was during the late 70s, when Punk was part of the vibe at the Art Institute, (way before it never actually became a part of mainstream America.) Amidst the pogo-ing and slam dancing, one mop-haired student was “dancing” with a big hunk of raw meat. Mostly he was kicking it around the floor, (to the music.) Another guy was dancing with an actual mop. I’d love to tell you a ridiculously funny story about a Halloween dance one year, but I can’t because the protagonist (who is also the antagonist) is a Facebook friend. But you can imagine; art college…Halloween…drugs and alcohol…costumes. So I’ll just tell you that the prizes for the best costumes that year were sex toys.

You could often tell what a person’s major was by how they dressed. The antitheses were the Sculpture and Design departments. The “designers” would have mostly gone unnoticed on the William Jewell campus, except that they were trendier and gayer. These were the people who would have real jobs after graduating art school. Apparently this was viewed as a sellout by the sculpture guys. My freshman impression was that the sculpture guys hated the designers. In fact they seemed to hate everyone. There was actually a sign hanging in the sculpture department depicting a red circle and a slash. Inside the circle was a (poorly drawn) black silhouette of a limp wrist and hand. (I’m pretty sure this sign is gone now.) These guys (both men and women) wore lots of black leather and ripped jeans, and they never slept. Perhaps this is why they always seemed angry. Several of these guys were pretty ripped themselves, (both men and women.) Keep in mind these guys were not sculptors of Precious Moments figurines. I’m talking sculpture as in big red steel I-beams. It was always like the fires of Mordor over there, with welding sparks flying up into the night sky, hissings, the clanging of metal, and deep, bellowing voices. (My freshman dorm room window directly faced the sculpture yard.)

One of my favorite Art-Institute-character stories has to do with a well-loved student named Bob. This story, which involved no actual interaction between Bob and me, tells you something about both of us. Bob was a very cool-looking dwarf. He had long black hair and a full beard. He struck me as a very self-assured guy who always smelled like pot. Bob and I both were majoring in printmaking at the time. One day he came bopping in to the studio wearing a T-shirt that said “PBPGINFWMY!” For those too young to know, this stands for, “Please Be Patient, God Is Not Finished With Me Yet!” It was a Christian sub-culture thing in the 70s. Kind of like “WWJD”, but stupider. There was even a song. So when Bob came in I thought, “What? Did Bob get saved?!” (Finding a Christian at the Art Institute was like finding live rabbit on a shooting range.) I was so excited! I was going to ask him about it, but then I noticed he still swore a lot and smelled like weed. It took me probably a week to figure out that he was wearing the shirt as a joke. Get it? Think about it.

Then, speaking of shooting ranges, there were the professors. I came to genuinely love several of my professors, eventually, but they were freaking intimidating to a little Baptist boy from suburbia. I actually had a couple of freshman classes where professors asked the Christians to identify themselves on the first day of class. One of them grinned and promised, “We’re going to take care of that for you.” This turned out to be the best thing he could’ve done for me. I definitely got the feeling I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The great thing about these guys was that they were brilliant and unrelenting, but they graded us on how well we supported our thinking, not on how much we agreed with their depressing, existential, nihilistic outlook. I was told by one professor that I could be rational, or I could be a Christian, but not both. So I set out to find out if he was right. It seemed that in the sea of anarchy in which I found myself, the most rebellious thing I could’ve attempted was to be a serious follower of Jesus. Freshman year I had a hard time keeping my mind on my philosophy reading assignments because I was thinking of quitting school and becoming a missionary. This is funny to me now, considering that I was already in a foreign land with a language I barely understood.

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The Country Club Plaza (pronounced pul-LAAAW-zuh) – a twinkling beacon of capitalism, wealth, punctuality, & clean-shaveness existing in uneasy proximity to the KC Art Institute.

Finally, I must mention the art, since it was art school. We were daily surrounded, inside and out, by art on campus, of course, and the whole place was a beehive of art-making and performing. The environment was stimulating and always changing. But even in the studio I found myself out of step with my peers. I was just a kid from the suburbs who happened to have an insane amount of natural artistic ability. That got me a scholarship, but once I was in art school it seemed pretty irrelevant. It came in handy sometimes, kind of like lettuce on a sandwich, but what really mattered was the meat – the statement. No one actually told me this with words, but the statement was supposed to be about death, sex, drugs, death, angst, despair, esotericism, protest, death, left wing politics, anger, nihilism, absurdity and/or death.  Did I mention death? Did I mention that I once had an art student living above me who drove a refitted hearse and kept a coffin in his apartment?

Examples of such art abounded. One day in the “dining hall”, I looked up to see a low-relief, fabric and string reconstruction of a vagina, staring down at me. It was titled, “Vaginas are not all they’re cracked up to be.” I believe this was a piece of student work. One faculty member exhibit in the on-campus galley also stands out in my mind. I’m pretty sure this show was mounted by Jim Leedy, a sculpture instructor at that time. The show consisted of actual road kill, mounted on wooden panels, with nails, studs, and other decorative elements hammered in or affixed to each panel. Each panel and carcass was completely sealed in thick white latex paint, so that each panel was reasonably clean and odorless. A focal point of this monochromatic show, at least in my mind, was a panel that featured a dead fetus with some spikes radiating out from its head to form a halo. I have no way of knowing if it was an actual fetus or a replica, but given the pursuit of authenticity at the Art Institute, I assume it was real. Of course, for me this crossed a line and pissed me off, and of course that was probably part of Leedy’s intent. After all, I was in an environment that questioned everything. In fact, I also eventually became a proponent of questioning everything. Questioning is a wonderfully enlightening exercise. I just think it’s important to realize that questioning is not the same thing as rejecting – usually there are good answers to the questions. I’ve come to suspect that the avant garde is not as open-minded as they think they are. For many, “questioning everything” may just be a pretext for doing whatever the hell one wants to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that dark or nihilistic art is illegitimate. Art should be honest expression. If an artist lives in a universe where a knowable, relational Creator doesn’t exist, then human beings also cease to exist in any objectively meaningful way, and his/her art will reflect that. At art school, it’s true that I sometimes felt that I was staring down into a downward spiral. But, for these people, given the absence of any transcendent reason coming from a transcendent God to think and create otherwise, all of this hopeless art made sense to me. It still does. In a purposeless universe populated by accidental beings, how could it be otherwise? Such artists may even believe they are doing society the service of exposing pretensions.

Looking back, I consider my art school experience one of my life’s great blessings. It was humbling and spiritually cleansing as it forced me to confront prejudices and arrogance that I might not otherwise have noticed. It built in me a love for understanding viewpoints different from my own. Plus it was extremely entertaining. I like to think I made friends with “the enemy.” People were patient with me and mostly seemed to regard me with curiosity. I made some mistakes. I also got some lifelong friends out of the deal, and even met my wife there. (Eventually she did have to shave her legs and ‘pits to avoid embarrassing our daughters.) My wife did inform me that her circle of friends used to refer to my small circle of Jesus-people friends as “the Den Mothers.” Cute. My wife and I have come to believe that above all else, life is about relationships and communion. The crazy atmosphere of the Art Institute is where I began to understand that.

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…From Lester Goldman’s drawing class.

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Drawing based on a Rembrandt etching, “Christ Before Pilate.”

                                                                                All drawings copyright 2013, Scott Freeman

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23 comments on “My Art Institute Days – A Fundamentalist Dropped Off Behind Enemy Lines

  1. Kathy Alongi says:

    I Love where you said “..I also eventually became a proponent of questioning everything. Questioning is a wonderfully enlightening exercise. I just think it’s important to realize that questioning is not the same thing as rejecting – usually there are good answers to the questions. I’ve come to suspect that the avant garde is not as open-minded as they think..”
    The only question I found in your clever enjoyable piece was wondering why you would prefer a glass of wine to a coke ..the novelty? The taste ..? I figured you would grow to love KCAI because it became more familiar to you; it became more homey? I wouldn’t Always prefer a wine to a coke, tho sometimes yes.

    • Thanks Kathy. Regarding the wine vs coke metaphor, no, it never felt homey to me. But I appreciated that it was real. Coke is a ridiculously sugary drink that’s all fizz & empty calories. I’m not saying that’s what William Jewell was. Both WJ and UMKC, where I also took some classes, were substantive schools, but at an institutional level they were going for the American Dream. I’m guessing the students at those schools were preparing to enter the “real world” after graduation, and the faculty was there to help them to that end. At art school, it seemed that many/most(?) students had given the American Dream the finger and were plotting ways to keep making art after graduation without actually embracing “the system.” I guess I’m saying I grew to prefer the constant insistence on keeping things real, even though I disagreed with most on what was real.

      I’ve made a lot of generalizations & assumptions there. If anybody wants to shoot them down, feel free.

  2. That brought back a lot of memories! In fact, I was just relating some of my Art Institute experiences to a friend…mostly too creepy or graphic to mention here! I loved the way “Blue Like Jazz” (the movie) reminded me of that place. Even though I know what you mean about the darkness, there was light, too. I wouldn’t trade it, especially the art & the people!

  3. Fun read! Thanks for posting. Although I graduated in 92′ it did bring back a lot of memories from KCAI. I appreciate your heart and honest reflection.

  4. Hi! I came here on the recommendation of your wife (I don’t know who followed who first, her or me), and I have been richly rewarded by the humoristic writing. It was delight to see your playfulness with language and outlook on life. Congratulations!

  5. Buckley says:

    As I was there, too, this seems legit.

  6. Micheal Butts says:

    I will never confess to wearing a Den Mother shirt in the early 80s while an art student in Kansas City. Since I grew up in Boulder Co the culture shock wasn’t quite as jarring for me as it was for you, Scott. In many ways my whole experience as an art student was a “coming home”; I was finally surrounded by creative people, and could work out how my faith bled through to the surface of etchings, drawings and relationships. I had spent the two previous years before the Art Institute living with conservative christian electrical engineering students. Everything in those days seemed raw and shocking whether it was Sunday evening worship at 59th and Kenwood, an afternoon drawing studio with Lester Goldman, or an evening discussing the collision of art, culture and spirituality with house mates.

    • Yah mon. I never saw you in a Den Mother shirt, but I do remember you, me, and Berger going to a dance once dressed as priests. Now he’s a lawyer and a pastor, you’re a pastor, but I’m still making pictures for a living. I don’t think you guys were paying attention at art school…

  7. Christina says:

    I came here from a link from Michael Buckley. I identify with your your post quite a bit. I didn’t attend art school, but I did attend what Rolling Stone calls the US’ foremost party school–The University of the South in Sewanee, TN. That was quite the culture shock–going from being a farm kid in a nearly entirely Mennonite community to attending an extremely wealthy Southern more-or-less finishing school with ambitious academics and more booze & possibly more weed than any other campus in the US. I wanted to get out of the Christian ghetto & see the world, and I sure did. While my faith wasn’t directly attacked by the professors (Sewanee is nominally Episcopalian but really Whiskopalian–worship of whisky), it sure got a workout dealing with fellow students. I did burn out on being completely fish-out-of-water & transferred to a truly Christian college an hour away (actually, it’s more like I was lured away by my then boyfriend.)

    The hardest part for me was that I couldn’t find any other students who were actually studious & not complete party animals while I was there–I think they needed a club for designated drivers & bookworms to get to know each other. I do recommend that fellow stubborn/strong-willed Christians go off to heathen colleges because it will show you parts of the world you might not see otherwise & develop your compassion. I decided that I wouldn’t have a drop of alcohol until I turned 21 & dug in my heels, and despite concerted efforts of my roommates, I kept that pledge. (It didn’t hurt to see how much binge drinking screwed up my roomies.) I got to hear some really good bands for free (even if I did smell like beer & pot afterward). I got to see how the 2%ers live. I got to use fancy scientific equipment that normal colleges can’t afford, and lived on a digital campus in the mid90s.

    The best part about facing such huge culture shock at age 18 is that I think you can drop me anywhere in the world & I can cope quite well–it’s also rather hard to shock me with behavior, clothing, lifestyle, or whatever. If you think culture shock involves not speaking the language, I had to learn a new language–Southern. It has superficial relation to English, but it is definitely not the same.

    • Christina – Ha! Thanks for sharing your story. I wholeheartedly agree with you about getting out of the Christian ghetto. In fact my wife and I never considered Christian schools as an option for our kids through HS, and encouraged them to attend secular colleges as well. This opinion was shaped by our own experiences, but also by seeing how our friends fared spiritually at Christian colleges. (Often not well, imho.) We did homeschool our kids at the beginning, but always with the intent of “sending them out” when we thought they were ready. (I’m not stating this as a rule for everyone. I have great friends who disagree with me, and their kids are doing well.) The bottom line is loving God and loving people.

      I speak just a little Southern (GA). I know about mashin buttons, and fixin to get some bawld peanuts.

  8. Ron Craighead says:

    Scott – thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog and identified with your experience at KCAI. (I found it through Loren’s facebook share.) I, too, was there between 78-81 and reading it brought back so many memories. I believe I may have been in Lester’s drawing class with you. That experience at that particular time was the most eye-opening, scary, adventurous, lonely, exciting, fun, creative, emotional, exhausting, energizing, depressing and inspiring time of my life!
    To be there, with hundreds of other young artists on their creative edge, searching for ourselves in the midst of utter chaos, was an unforgettable experience. Perhaps it just exists in its’ own time and space, not to be fully comprehended, but i still reach back to those years, thankful for the experience and equally glad to have the lens of time to view it through.
    After graduating, I headed west for the mountains and started a new life rekindling a passion for music performance. At the time it seemed so elusive and uncertain, pursuing an ‘art career’. I eventually realized, the important thing was to live a creative life, not necessarily being an ‘artist’, but filling my life with creative endeavors in a tangible, sustainable way and finding that balance of weaving creative expression into practical living. I’ve always wanted to hear the stories of those we knew and how or if they were able to sustain their creative vision.
    And there was a spiritual element to that experience for me as well. Living in the midst of such an unhinged environment forces you to find your rudder fast, or self-destruct – as I witnessed too any times.
    The things I learned at KCAI didn’t have as much to do with painting or drawing as they did building confidence in creative being and establishing a reference point that i still draw upon today.
    Back to KCAI memories: Beaux Arts festival 1979. Of all the crazy costumes, my former girlfriend shows up in clear Saran-Wrap! Priceless. To me, that was ‘art school’ : )

    • Thanks Ron. I feel much the same way you do about what I came away with from KCAI – although I do feel I got some priceless art training from the drawing and painting instructors as well. But it was so expensive – I never know whether or not to recommend it to students today when I’m asked. My student loan debt was a ball and chain for a lot of years after I got out. Best wishes in finding your way. Look me up if you ever come through Loveland.

  9. Greg Markum says:

    Scott,
    I really enjoyed the read. I remember you from KCAI. I attended 1979-1983 also printmaking. I found this through Loren Lichti, one of my old roommates. He is the one who introduced me to lithograghy. The art institute was the first place I ever felt like I really fit in. Luckily not the last.

    • Thanks for taking time to comment, Greg. I started out in lithography under Bill McKim, but I don’t think I remember you, which is weird cause it was a really small department. I switched to painting after a year in litho, and am really happy with that decision.

      • Greg Markum says:

        Scott,
        I was in Lithography from 1980 until graduation in 1983. I new you just around campus and probably from mutual friends like Loren.

  10. Hey Readers – A KCAI alumnus, Loren Lichti, posted this on my Facebook link and I asked his permission to re-post it here. It’s a great story. I think it’s fascinating to hear people’s stories, 30 years later. Especially from people I was probably rubbing shoulders with, but never knew…

    “Scott this was great reading. I wish I had your talent for writing. Although we didn’t really know each other then I was there at the same time I may have been a year ahead of you, I’m not sure. (77-81) My background is similar yet very different. I grew up in a small Kansas town of a little over 1,000 people at 14 was asked to stop attending the Sunday school classes because my questions about “Sex, Drugs and Rock&Roll” were not good for my peer’s and their young faith( wasn’t doing any of them just asking why I shouldn’t). In a town that size where not only did everyone know each other, but the religious diversity amounted to which Mennonite Church did you go to. I welcomed the chance to dance with the devil at KCAI and also have mixed but great memories from those times. It took me many years to get passed being pissed at the religious folks who basically threw me away because I was a thorn in their side. Had we attempted to get to know each other better then (1978) I may have rejected you at first, thinking that as a Christian you would judge me unworthy and cast me aside. Today I am grateful for my upbringing even with the troubling times with the Mennonite church and that little town. I’m grateful for all that KCAI had to offer and all the underlying challenges that were presented to me there. You out lined them beautifully and I could add a couple more twist but will not here. I’m grateful for a family and a God who patiently waited for me to get it figured out and I’m grateful for finding you on FB. I got to pass your story on because it is not only awesome and funny , but it is true and inspiring. I need to come up and see you one day in Loveland, I’m currently working with the Denver Art Society who are a great group of creative people trying to carve out their way.”

  11. Lon says:

    Hi, always i used to check blog posts here early in the break of day, since i love to gain
    knowledge of more and more.

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