Interview with Painting and Drawing Associate Professor
by Annalise Castro
When asked to think about an influential professor, Laurel Farrin immediately came to mind. She had been my instructor for Painting I, which I consider to be the most beneficial class that I have taken, in terms of both my personal growth as well as academic achievement. I had admired Miss Laurel not only for her teaching abilities and skill when it comes to giving direction and guidance, but for her investment in her students, her willingness to follow them wherever they wanted to take their work, and provide encouragement along the way. Taking her class was a significant stepping stone in my life and I was eager to learn more about her relationship with art.
Fools: Who are you and what do you do? Explain what drew you to want to teach and what it’s like to be a practicing artist as well.
LF: “I’m a visual artist and I’ve been teaching at the University of Iowa since 1997. The University of Iowa is great because it’s a research university so the School of Art has professional working artists teaching the classes. It’s amazing because all of my colleagues are teaching and part of our career is that we’re paid to teach and we’re paid to be studio artists at the same time. It’s really a perfect world that we get to do both. There’s something about teaching that I dearly love. Remembering those one-to-one moments with students when you’re advising them, and then ten years later they tell you it changed the way they thought about their work. That sort of connection between teacher and student is a really meaningful relationship. You get to see people through their eyes, listen to them, put yourself in their position, and it becomes a really great flow between teaching and learning. It’s very rewarding. Then over the summer I take a break from teaching to just focus on my own studio practice. I think to have the privilege and the luxury of being in the studio both refreshes you and reminds you of what it is you’re doing.”
Fools: What drew you to your area of work and what motivated you towards making that choice?
LF: “You know, choice is interesting. When you’re in school, you study a lot of different things and I was always interested in writing and literature along with visual arts. But it really wasn’t until college I realized, when I took my first drawing class, it really wasn’t a choice. I was in there drawing and I just knew. This is what I was going to do. Some people get that feeling when they’re five years old, some when they’re sixty. Usually when it’s no longer a choice, that’s when you know what you’re going to do. I think part of why I gravitated towards visual arts is there’s a more physical sense of play and a physical making I get to do. The older I get, the more I realize that’s what I love. Working in a very physical way with materials.”
Fools: What do you hope for one of your students to take away from having been in one of your classes for the semester?
LF: “I suppose I would like for the person I’m working with to find a little bit more self-awareness and understanding to broaden their experiences within their own work. Many times I tell students to look at certain artists. I see it as trying to connect them to a family. A family over thousands of years and all over the world that has something that resonates with them. Even though the work may look different from their own, the student can find some connections to it. That way the individual artist knows they’re not alone. They’re not the only one doing this for the first time. Which I think is a good thing. I think it’s more useful to think of yourself as part of one large wheel of moving work. It can be one of the best things for a person to be more aware of, as far as the process of making. So I guess I just try to hold a mirror up to the student and say, here look, here is what you’ve done. This is how it may fit in a larger context of not just the classroom or a city, but the world, and showing them possibilities that maybe they couldn’t have envisioned for themselves otherwise.”
Fools: What memorable responses have you had to your work?
LF: “Well you always remember the extreme things. One was a review for a show I had in Baltimore. It said something along the lines of, ‘If there was any relation between the paintings and the sculptures in this show then it is located on another planet.’ I actually really loved that, I thought it was hysterical. It was just so funny, I had to tip my hat. Then there was another time, a woman came up to me after a show in tears. It was a more serious work and I had touched her in some way that was personal to her. She thanked me, said the show meant a lot to her, and it was really important for her. I just remember thinking, wow, I didn’t deserve that. I was so grateful I could move someone so strongly, I could actually move someone to tears. It’s strange to say, but I almost didn’t feel worthy to be able to do that. And I definitely could not take credit for it.”
Fools: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
LF: “It’s funny, one thing that’s coming to mind is when I was in grad school and I was planning my MFA thesis show. I was talking with my thesis advisor and explaining what I had in mind, and he really didn’t say much. But then he just looked at me and said, ‘You need to think bigger.’ It’s so simple, but it was really just about someone recognizing that you were putting limits on yourself that you didn’t need to be putting there. That you needed to think more ambitiously. You needed to be more ambitious for your work. Not for your career, but for your work. And I think it was such great advice. It may seem like a cliché, but just for someone else to say that you were making yourself smaller than you needed to be, it was encouraging.”