Robert Moriarty, interviewed by Olivia Gude in December 2001

Olivia Gude:

Rob, I’m 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 you’ve 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 classroom.

OG: Why did you decide to begin teaching full-time?

RM: The winds blew at the right moment. I saw a friend at a concert—he told me that a position had opened up in the middle of the year at an interesting school, Morton West High School. It’s in Berwyn, a working class suburb of Chicago. I was between projects and I needed work at the time….

OG: You’ve been teaching full-time for 4 years—so you’re trying to maintain both identities—as an artist and a teacher.

Many teachers struggle with an artist/teacher dichotomy. For you, it’s more complicated than that—the two roles seem to be more intertwined.

RM: 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 also—math 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. I’m trying to find a balance—a 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 an artist.

RM: Several years ago I was one of several artists to form an arts collective—Imperfect Fluids. It was set up to showcase artists working in experimental, collaborative styles. We had these events called Freak Outs—a 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 collective—usually we had 8 or 10 people involved at any one time. All sorts of things happened at our events—a 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 place—one 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 artists—trying 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. We’d exchange tapes and then record on each other’s stuff. I was reading about Surrealism at the time—thinking 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. We’d be going into play with other bands—at that time a lot of VFW Halls were being rented out by punk rock bands or hippie jam bands. We didn’t need to be just another band at an event—we’d 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.

RM: 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 Hoffman—how he created events that were politically charged happenings like throwing cash onto the floor of the New York stock exchange. That’s been an ongoing inspiration for me.

OG: We’ve been involved in the same artists’ group—Chicago Public Art Group for a number of years now. Can you talk about how that has influenced your role as an artist?

RM: 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; I’m interested in something with more substance.

I’m more interested in creating art in collectives and group situations. I have a lot of rock and roll and hip hop friends—it’s unfortunate that so many of those subcultures are self-centered—and I don’t mean consciously self-referential—I mean self-centered. That ego thing is abrasive to my personality and spirit.

OG: What kinds of public artwork have you done?

RM: Much of the recent work I have done involves developing large-scale public art projects for schools. I’ve done a number of mosaic doorways.

I’m 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 square—very “warehouse-looking” tend to produce knowledge that is square and “warehousish”.

It’s weird the way the security in a school can replicate the prison mentality. This doesn’t 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 can’t have an impact unless you stay connected.

I’ve 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 campaign—at 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 don’t 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.

I’ve been doing public art pieces with students at the school. I’m committed to investigating and thinking about how space affects learning and knowledge.

The building in which I teach is in good shape so it’s not a structural or maintenance issue; it's an aesthetic issue. It’s 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 production?

OG: Who are you working with to create the school murals?

RM: I’ve 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 I’d become friends. He asked if we could do something about evolution. We created a painted mural on panels to be installed in a hallway—two 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 moment—within 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 wouldn’t they give us that wall?

At the time, I was talking to the school principal about the concept of graffiti—how it wasn’t just a negative thing, how it expressed positive values—how 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. It’s big piece, a 10 by 80 foot wall. It’s composed of 350 square feet of cracked tile mosaic with a painted ground.

Our next piece was a painted acrylic mural in the lobby of the school theater. It’s the door that is now the primary entrance for students and faculty. It’s 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 you’ve gotten interested in teaching video. Can you tell me something about that?

RM: Right now, I’m teaching a regular schedule of 5 classes a day—4 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 don’t 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 doesn’t have an established tradition of curriculum in art or within other disciplines.

Teaching video, I’ve been aware that it takes a lot less coercion to make the kids work. They inherently appreciated the process. I didn’t need to do a lot of “Come on; it’s 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 doesn’t 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 development.

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 goals?”

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 representation.

I was interested that you began your video class this year using a similar theme.

RM: 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 MTV’s 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. There’s a lot more going on in the real world that doesn’t get our attention because it doesn’t get media attention.

It was exciting having students think about and discuss the possible disconnects between the representation of reality and what’s really happening.

We were in the midst of planning a short documentary about our school’s 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 didn’t come together. We started it, but it wasn’t what was on the students’ minds; it wasn’t 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 sequences—in 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 it.

Things were really going well and then—September 11—like 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 stations—places 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 installations.

Gradually, we evolved our plan. We would create several spaces—an 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 kids—throwing out ideas, being able to go with the flow.

One day we weren’t sure what to do, what direction to go—we 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 something—play 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 be like.

I hope I can maintain the energy I’ve developed with this group of students. They’re 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, that’s a real sign of engagement.

OG: How has this recent installation shaped your identity as an artist?

RM: 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 I’m acting in the role of “teacher,” I should bring qualities that I value as an artist to that experience.

I’m experiencing seeing artist and teacher as being one thing. I’m reclaiming the freedom to play. Even when you’re doing serious art, it’s about playing. I think that where I’ve fallen short in my art and in my teaching is where I haven’t played. It’s such an unpopular notion now. We don’t just do things that are fun or compelling. There’s so much emphasis on state standards, state goals, doing something every moment…. We don’t give ourselves the space for currently critical investigations.

I’m interested in play as a way to breakdown walls that we have built or walls that we have assumed are there that don’t really exist.

Artist and teacher, Robert Moriarty
The Love Mural, a collaborative assemblage mural created in the Chicago Public Art Group studios, 2000-2001.
Cambios de Semillas: the Nature of Education, created by artists Phil Schuster and Robert Moriarty with Chicago teens at Ames Middle School in 1999.
Concrete relief and ceramic-tile mosaic. Sponsored by Youth Service Project, Chicago Public Art Group, and Gallery 37.
Anti Police Brutality Mural, a collaborative non-permission mural, 1998. The mural was created in a studio and then affixed to the fence of a vacant lot.
Evolution Mural, Robert Moriarty and students of Morton West High School.
Movement and Ascension through Learning,
by Robert Moriarty and students of Morton West High School, 2000. An outdoor broken ceramic tile mosaic with painted ground. 10’ by 80’
Detail of Movement and Ascension through Learning by Robert Moriarty and students of Morton West High School, 2000.
Detail of Changing the Way We Look, a painted mural by Robert Moriarty and students of Morton West High School, 2000.
Detail of Changing the Way We Look, a painted mural by Robert Moriarty and students of Morton West High School, 2000.

Detail of Changing the Way We Look, a painted mural by Robert Moriarty and students of Morton West High School, 2000.
Students, faculty, and staff from throughout Morton West High School visited and discussed the Flight to Reality installation.