TEACHER AS ARTIST, ARTIST AS TEACHER
Robert Moriarty, interviewed by Olivia Gude
in December 2001
Rob, Im interested that you seem to be comfortable with thinking
about yourself as an artist and an art teacher. I hope we can take
some time this evening to articulate how youve constructed
your identity in this way.
I recall that you completed your art education degree in 1996, but
initially you decided not to begin working as a full-time teacher.
I know that this was a conscious choice. Can you tell me about why
you made that decision?
Rob Moriarty: I took a few years after graduation and free-lanced
as a community public artist. I also spent some time substituting,
but I wanted to take a few years to develop my identity as an artist.
I wanted some real world experience to bring to the
Why did you decide to begin teaching full-time?
The winds blew at the right moment. I saw a friend at a concerthe
told me that a position had opened up in the middle of the year
at an interesting school, Morton West High School. Its in
Berwyn, a working class suburb of Chicago. I was between projects
and I needed work at the time
OG: Youve been teaching
full-time for 4 yearsso youre trying to maintain both
identitiesas an artist and a teacher.
Many teachers struggle with an artist/teacher
dichotomy. For you, its more complicated than thatthe
two roles seem to be more intertwined.
I sometimes see teaching as being at odds with being an artist.
The thought processes involved with being a teacher are very structured.
As an artist I tend not to be that way, but I think that schools
need teachers who are more interested and involved in what they
do. Not just art teachers, others alsomath teachers interested
in math when they leave the school at the end of the day.
There are things that
bug me about a lot of teachers and other things bug me about a lot
of artists. Im trying to find a balancea way to have
the most positive qualities of both.
OG: I realize that we should
probably back up a bit and talk about your work and identity as
Several years ago I was one of several artists to form an arts collectiveImperfect
Fluids. It was set up to showcase artists working in experimental,
collaborative styles. We had these events called Freak Outsa
reference to 60s Happenings. We were feeling like the world was
getting more conservative, more dominated by corporate monoculture.
We created and encouraged
art that was not easily commodifiable-- multi-media, multi-sensory,
interactive experiences. We invited people to come and showcase
what they do.
A lot of people rotated in and out of the
collectiveusually we had 8 or 10 people involved at any one
time. All sorts of things happened at our eventsa lot of musicians
were involved. We had Reiki healing, performance-based film work,
even fire-eaters. We attracted a really interesting crowd.
I did a lot of the organizing for getting the events to happen.
Often I developed the space in which the events took placeone
time we took images from the media, made large-scale Xeroxes, and
covered the walls with them. It was a punk gesture to do that in
an art space because it was about art as a commodity.
We were exploring our
identities as artiststrying to simply create art that was
not designed to be bought and sold.
I also see myself as a sound artist. For a
long time I was into experimental 4-track recording and tape exchange
culture. Wed exchange tapes and then record on each others
stuff. I was reading about Surrealism at the timethinking
about how the Surrealists created art through gaming. On the tapes,
you could hear what the others had done and you were adding, exploring,
responding. We were trying to get as weird as we could--pushing
the boundaries of what was considered sound or music.
Working in various collaborations, I also did performances that
were multi-media. We saw our work as cultural interventions. Wed
be going into play with other bandsat that time a lot of VFW
Halls were being rented out by punk rock bands or hippie jam bands.
We didnt need to be just another band at an eventwed
push the boundaries of sound.
OG: Back when you were a student
at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I remember noticing that
you had a keen interest in the relationship of art and politics.
That connection has always been there for me. Years ago, you lent
me a book, Cultures in Contention, which profiled a number
of socially engaged artists. There was an article on Abby Hoffmanhow
he created events that were politically charged happenings like
throwing cash onto the floor of the New York stock exchange. Thats
been an ongoing inspiration for me.
OG: Weve been involved
in the same artists groupChicago Public Art Group for
a number of years now. Can you talk about how that has influenced
your role as an artist?
I first worked with CPAG as an assistant on the Gateway Park mosaic
project. I liked, not only the idea of public art, but also the
collective feel of the Group. My early memories of the Group are
of eating together. It was human.
I am interested in
a way of being an artist that goes beyond this rock star ego thing;
Im interested in something with more substance.
Im more interested in creating art in
collectives and group situations. I have a lot of rock and roll
and hip hop friendsits unfortunate that so many of those
subcultures are self-centeredand I dont mean consciously
self-referentialI mean self-centered. That ego thing is abrasive
to my personality and spirit.
OG: What kinds of public artwork
have you done?
Much of the recent work I have done involves developing large-scale
public art projects for schools. Ive done a number of mosaic
Im very interested
in the way the physical space of the school affects learning and
the type of learning that takes place. Schools that are very functional
and squarevery warehouse-looking tend to produce
knowledge that is square and warehousish.
Its weird the way the security in a
school can replicate the prison mentality. This doesnt prepare
our kids for freedom. It prepares them for a life of domination.
I used to use the metaphor of a prison to describe this phenomenon,
but other school people would think I was so out there and you cant
have an impact unless you stay connected.
Ive also been involved with making non-permission
murals on plywood. A number of us artists would decide to get together
and choose what we were going to make the mural about. The first
piece we did collectively that went up in public space was an anti-police
brutality mural. We created it in coordination with a grassroots
anti-police brutality campaignat the time I was overwhelmed
with the routine, dismissive attitude of the police presence and
there had been a number of high profile incidents of police brutality
to neighborhood youth.
These non-permission mural projects grew out of my desire to explore
the early history of community art. When the movement first began
it was more organic. Artists came to the form because they wanted
to make art and explore ideas in public space.
It seems that because of your interest in
collaboration, you dont draw as sharp a line between your
teaching and your artwork as some others do.
Teaching is different
than being an artist. As a teacher you have different obligations
and responsibilities. As an artist in the school, I have an obligation
to bring a certain, more creative sensibility, an artistic sensibility
to teaching. The two sensibilities inform each other.
Ive been doing public art pieces with
students at the school. Im committed to investigating and
thinking about how space affects learning and knowledge.
The building in which
I teach is in good shape so its not a structural or maintenance
issue; it's an aesthetic issue. Its a typical functionally
designed late fifties middle American school. My role as an art
teacher is to do something about the way this looks. Will this be
a site of learning and investigation or of warehousing and mass
OG: Who are you working with
to create the school murals?
Ive been working with students through the after-school art
club. The first project was created in response to a request from
a Biology teacher with whom Id become friends. He asked if
we could do something about evolution. We created a painted mural
on panels to be installed in a hallwaytwo feet tall by 24-feet
long in the space above the lockers.
We were working with images that illustrated evolution. One day
I got paint out and handed the students brushes and our selected
palette of colored paint. We started just spontaneously working
on the panels. I began pouring paint. It was a great momentwithin
30 seconds the students were pouring and spontaneously putting down
paint. We developed a really rich ground on which to put our images.
The mural was well received and the general consensus was, We
need more of this.
The next project was a large-scale mosaic. The back of Cermak Plaza,
a local shopping mall, butts up to the student parking lot. There
is a really depressing look to the back of a mall.
I thought, Why wouldnt they give
us that wall?
At the time, I was talking to the school principal
about the concept of graffitihow it wasnt just a negative
thing, how it expressed positive valueshow it could be understood
in a more complex way. She made the connection to the plaza and
they asked us to draw up a design and submit it to them. We created
the mosaic Movement and Ascension through Learning as a special
summer project. Its big piece, a 10 by 80 foot wall. Its
composed of 350 square feet of cracked tile mosaic with a painted
Our next piece was a painted acrylic mural in the lobby of the school
theater. Its the door that is now the primary entrance for
students and faculty. Its called Changing the Way We Look.
We were thinking about changing the way we perceive school and changing
the physical environment of school as well as changing the way we
look in terms of fashion and appearance.
OG: I know that in recent years
youve gotten interested in teaching video. Can you tell me
something about that?
Right now, Im teaching a regular schedule of 5 classes a day4
Video classes and an Advanced Video class. In our district, Video
is an introductory class to the art program. There is no prerequisite.
Any student looking for an arts experience can take this class;
they dont need any prior art classes.
I volunteered to teach
video because I had a sense of openness about the possibilities
for developing a curriculum. It is an area that doesnt have
an established tradition of curriculum in art or within other disciplines.
Teaching video, Ive been aware that
it takes a lot less coercion to make the kids work. They inherently
appreciated the process. I didnt need to do a lot of Come
on; its okay; you can do it.
When I was teaching
drawing, I had to cajole the students into working, into believing
in themselves. With video they were not afraid to make mistakes.
It doesnt seem to be as painful to their egos to get criticism.
Video moves quicker. In our rapid culture,
drawing and painting are slow things. Video is paced beyond the
students. They want to learn more than they can in only one year.
Painting and drawing can take years to develop a real skill. With
video you can develop a sense of skill quickly.
I teach using a camera, shots, and about constructing a narrative.
I teach about editing and from that I like to talk about content
One of the first projects we do is a 10-shot narrative. The content
of the pieces is often very similar. Kids start to notice that all
of their stories involve someone running out of a classroom. Initially,
I let them do what they to do--boys who watch pro wresting doing
their violent theater, kids who are into action movies mimicking
their favorite. Then we ask, Where did it fall short of your
OG: For several years, we have
taught a Reality Check group in Spiral Workshop.
The class draws students in by helping them
to develop realistic skills in drawing and painting, but then becomes
increasingly conceptual as it problematizes notions of reality and
I was interested that you began your video class this year using
a similar theme.
Yes, this year I began my Advanced Video class with the theme of
Reality TV. We began by looking at video and reading about the representation
of reality in reality TV.
One of the first things we did was to look at the protests surrounding
MTVs filming of The Real World series here in Chicago. The
series depicts the interactions of several young adults living together
in an attractive house.
The protests drew attention to the narcissism of focusing on the
relationships of a few privileged people. The protestors wanted
people to think about the control that MTV and other corporations
have over our culture. Theres a lot more going on in the real
world that doesnt get our attention because it doesnt
get media attention.
It was exciting having students think about
and discuss the possible disconnects between the representation
of reality and whats really happening.
We were in the midst of planning a short documentary
about our schools home community when September 11 happened.
That created all these really intense teachable moments. For a few
days afterwards there were no scripts. It was an interesting time
to watch TV. The professionalism and the gloss broke
down. We spent time thinking about and talking about the moments
that followed the tragedy.
I was trying to get back on track, trying to push getting to work
on the documentary, but it didnt come together. We started
it, but it wasnt what was on the students minds; it
wasnt what was on my mind either. I was doing my best to maintain
my own sense of composure.
Instead, we began to make montages based on news footage. We were
creating these visually abstract montage sequencesin a sense
trying to put it all back together.
At first it was so difficult; I was having an existential crisis.
I went into this school year feeling really good about teaching.
Other years I was nervous, but this year I was looking forward to
Things were really
going well and thenSeptember 11like a lot of people
I questioned everything I was doing.
Thinking about the video installation work
a class did last year, I decided to suggest doing an installation
in response to the September 11 tragedy and its aftermath. My suggestion
was that we look at the transformation of space.
I told them about an All Hallows Eve show of the Red Moon Theater
that I had attended. Every year the company creates a ritual performance
for October 31. Hundreds of community members attend. This year
the performance was set up in stationsplaces that represented
grieving over the death process. We also looked at the work of a
number of contemporary artists such as Jonathan Borofsky who make
Gradually, we evolved our plan. We would create several spacesan
entrance or introductory space, followed by Shock, Denial, Anger,
Grief, Acceptance, and an exit room, which became the Comfort Food
Room. The project was called Flight to Reality. (See the Variations
1 chapter for the Video as Installation project.)
The students who worked
on this project really felt that they made art. It was more than
just something for a class. Their creativity has developed since
doing the project.
The day before the installation was scheduled
to open, it was 5 p.m. and students were still there working, finishing
last details. In the midst of all this chaos, a student turned to
me and said, Mr. M, do you think we could do another installation
for the spring art show? I think we could do a better one.
OG: This project seems
to bridge the split between you as teacher and you as an artist,
a collaborative artist creating a work that the community needs.
RM: The key to that for me was to rediscover the sense of play and
to then model that for the kidsthrowing out ideas, being able
to go with the flow.
One day we werent sure what to do, what direction to gowe
were stuck. We stood around in a circle, kicking the footbag (playing
Hacky Sack). When you are doing art not every moment is spent making
somethingplay and have fun. The fun is translated into the
freedom in the artwork.
The project brought
me closer to the school community. I feel like it represented the
potential of what art can be within a high school community. It
was out of the expected box of what art in a student art show should
I hope I can maintain the energy Ive
developed with this group of students. Theyre really excited
to do more artwork together. Yesterday, we were talking in class
about what we could do for the future--how we could integrate reality-
based artmaking into a future project. It was the last class of
the day; the bell rang and none of the students even made a gesture
toward leaving for 5 minutes. As you know, for high school kids,
thats a real sign of engagement.
OG: How has this recent installation
shaped your identity as an artist?
It made me realize that I should be more fluid as a teacher. My
identity as an artist is linked to my identity as a teacher.
Even when Im acting in the role of teacher,
I should bring qualities that I value as an artist to that experience.
Im experiencing seeing artist and teacher
as being one thing. Im reclaiming the freedom to play. Even
when youre doing serious art, its about playing. I think
that where Ive fallen short in my art and in my teaching is
where I havent played. Its such an unpopular notion
now. We dont just do things that are fun or compelling. Theres
so much emphasis on state standards, state goals, doing something
. We dont give ourselves the space for currently
Im interested in play as a way to breakdown
walls that we have built or walls that we have assumed are there
that dont really exist.