GOING BACK TO SCHOOL AT 37
It’s been over three and half years since I left Philadelphia to take part in a graduate program at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. In unexpected ways, returning to school during my late 30’s played an integral part in my development as a designer and human.
The Radical Cut-up, as the masters program was called, made me remember what I already knew, and realize that there was much more to discover.
Since moving to the Netherlands, I’ve worked on personal projects I never thought possible, been employed as a design lead at a global advertising agency, meditated every single day, and trained with a professional Muay Thai coach to keep my body and discipline in the best condition it’s ever been. And then, in the middle of the pandemic, I met the person I hope to spend the rest of my life with. I don’t think I would of been prepared for her without the challenges that the return to school in a foreign country confronted me with.
None of these things were on my to-do list when I left Philadelphia in the summer of 2017. The fact that they happened is a testament to the powerful effect that taking yourself out of a comfortable situation, trusting your capabilities, and doing the work that will open new possibilities in your life can have.
HOW DID I END UP IN THE NETHERLANDS?
Summertime in Berlin. It’s 2016 and I’m riding the U-Bahn from Roman and Trangs flat to meet Lukas Feireiss for lunch. Lukas is a Berlin-based curator, writer and educator. He teaches at various universities worldwide and has published numerous books and organized a lot of exhibitions that I had been interested in. It was great to meet with him and talk about what we had in common. We went to a little shop down the street for Turkish food, and over our meal Lukas told me about the Radical Cut-Up program. He said it was designed for students with professional experience who for one reason or another had never pursued a graduate degree. He thought I should apply.
A graduate degree was not something I had considered. While moving to Europe was something that I had always wanted to do, if I was honest with myself at the time it seemed more like a dream than something that would ever actually happen. Too many things tied me to Philadelphia. I was born there. I owned a house there. I had developed my practice as a designer and artist in the City of Brotherly love for many years. I had won grants and awards, shown my work in musuems, and had a large network of friends and collaborators. It would be foolish to leave.
But in my heart, I was tired of being a designer. I was tired of the small studio in South Philly. Of my house, of the 15 trolley and of riding the El and Broad street line back and forth between South Philly and K&A station. Simply put, I had lost motivation.
I re-examined my assumptions about the possibility of moving. In the end, I had no kids, no wife or girlfriend or any other major geographically based responsibilities holding me back. Yes, my father and friends were all in Philly, but they would support me no matter what I did. The choice became clear. I applied
I did not think that I had much of a chance of being accepted into the program. But after a few weeks, I received an email that officially invited me to join the RCU. I thought this was the chance to change things, to change where I was headed. So I moved my life to Amsterdam.
THE SANDBERG INSTITUUT / THE RADICAL CUT-UP
The school that I was invited to is called the Sandberg Instituut. It’s the postgraduate program of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and it is located in Amsterdam. There are five Main Departments focused around graphic design, fine art and architecture, which aim to deepen the practices of artists, designers and critics. In addition, the Temporary Programs, which the RCU was part of, reflect on specific urgencies in society and the arts.
I was attracted to the Radical Cut-Up program because it addressed many of the questions that contemporary media and the internet had recently begun to raise in the art and design world. Questions about cultural appropriation, the ability or necessity to create an original image, the aura of a piece of art, questions about work that was created by collaborative groups, and that existed in the commons, the effect of social media on how art work is perceived and how much that even matters to us in today’s media landscape were all up for discussion. To understand this idea more clearly, think of Ines Alpha and her Instagram virtual make-up face filters or Virgil Abloh’s approach to the fashion direction of Nike and Louis Vuitton. Or read this article in Harpers by Jonathan Lethem, it was one of our primary inspirations.
We were encouraged to copy, combine, create and celebrate experimental forms of creative production, and to do so against the backdrop of the accelerated growth of new digital technologies that expand the production and circulation of images, text, sound, and objects in contemporary life.
As a designer, this naturally appealed to me. Designers are always dealing with diverse sources of content, creating in different mediums, and playing with different materials. Collaboration is an inherent part of the design process for many of us. I was excited to see how I could reconsider the work I had made up until this point, and figure out how I could better recontextualize it for myself.
BACK IN CLASS
Returning to school was a completely different experience than I expected. It turned out to be less about art, less about making work, less about school even. It was more about the opportunity to finally leave home, to leave the United States for an extended period, and to see what kind of person I would become in a new social and cultural context.
The first year tested my confidence. I was far from home, both physically and psychologically. I had left my business, and the reputation and comfort that I had built over the years in Philadelphia.
I struggled during that time. The classes and structure of the course and of the Sandberg felt more like “school” than I had hoped. I was looking for something intellectually rigorous but programmatically flexible, but I soon realized that the program felt too open. It was as if all the rigor and focus on rules was directed towards our attendance and participation in group exercises, instead of encouraging the members of the class to independently explore new ways of learning and exchanging information and then be able to bring those ideas and discoveries into the class and have a honest and critical discussion about them. The program was too flexible when it needed to be rigid, and too rigid when it needed to be soft.
It was also tough for me socially. I know that I’m not “old”, but I am definitely “older”. As that aging process continues, I am at my happiest when I don’t drink often and when I go to bed early. I need to spend a lot of time alone. I felt a lot of pressure, probably mostly self imposed, to go out and to drink and socialise in a way that I hadn’t done since my twenties. I think at times I was somewhat depressed and not my most productive.
IF IT WAS EASY, IT WOULD NOT OF BEEN WORTH IT
This all sounds quite negative, but it is not the whole story. Just as any piece of art is not the total of its parts, graduate school was not just about being a student in graduate school. In fact, it instead allowed unexpressed aspects of my life to emerge, like new ideas or emotions emerge from a painting or film. Graduate school became the catalyst for many other changes in my life.
During my second year, I realized that I needed to take the program and make it into what I wanted. Nothing really was stopping me from getting what I wanted out of the experience. I looked towards Agustina Woodgate, a fellow student for inspiration. Her own personal work and the initiative that she put together with PUB while at the Sandberg reminded me that it was possible to create your own cut-up of the graduate school experience itself, and develop a personal approach to higher education.
Things quickly started to come together. Through a classmate Barney, a freelance project fell into my lap. This changed everything. I had a new view on my position at Sandberg, my position as a student, and how to deal with and reconcile other part of my past and my personality. I realised again I could take the discipline from my paid work and apply it better to my own personal projects. This is something I used to be quite good at, but in my early thirties I somehow lost the touch for it. I had lost the motivation. But now it was back.
Also while working on a freelancer, two Spanish art directors that I worked with convinced me to join them for a kickboxing class. I haven’t stopped training since. This trinity of school, physical activity, and work put me in my most level headed and happy state. I felt challenged again.
And despite my issues with the program, I later realized that if I focused on what I wanted to pursue, there was a lot that the Sandberg and my fellow students and teachers had to offer. With the help of Lukas and my other advisors I completed my masters thesis, which was built upon stories and other fiction that had been on my laptop as notes for far too long, some of them for close to fifteen years. It resulted in a book of short stories called Good For One Fare. I see this book as putting much of my past to rest. It’s a requiem to a formative time in my life, full of experiences that I have found it hard for others to understand. With the completion of those stories I feel ready to leave the city behind not just physically, but mentally.
I also took part in the Sandberg’s graduate exhibitions. We showed our work at the Melkweg Gallery during year one, and at Looiersgracht60. Despite my resistance to creating an art object to be displayed in a gallery, I designed a series of sculptures based on the now defunct SEPTA token. They are talismans into the strange little world that I’ve been able to give people a glimpse into through my writing. Like the tokens themselves, that world is no longer in use. But it’s always a good idea to keep a few tokens handy, just in case you might need to take a trip back to retrieve some important things that might help you make a better future.
Getting the piece of paper that said I was now a Master of Fine Art did not change my life. I never expected it to. What did change my life was the broader experience of leaving home, of putting myself into a uncomfortable situation, and of facing myself as myself alone. This all forced me to reckon with myself, and then making changes to my life based on what I came to learn and understand.
The experience simultaneously threw me back into good and bad memories from my school years, while pushing me further into adulthood in ways that I had sub-consciously resisted for over a decade. It demanded that I question how I had been working and what I had been focusing my creative energy on. It gave me something to push against, and it made me feel humbled.
I learned how to move and fight again, how to listen to those both younger and older, how to better love my partner, and more identify with those who came with different experiences than my own. I rebuilt my body, mind, creativity and spirit.