John McGiff has taught studio art at St. Andrew’s for more than two decades, and during that time has also maintained a prolific career as a painter. Much to the chagrin of students and alumni everywhere, Mr. McGiff retired at the end of this school year. Eden Rickolt ’16 talked with “McG” (as he is sometimes called) about his painting, his teaching, and his path.
Eden: How did your interest in art begin?
John: I'm not sure. I think all kids love drawing. It’s a natural way to reflect your feelings about the world. I used to draw hockey goalies all the time. Then I went to a boarding school in England and took art for one of my main three classes. I did stuff in gouache and colored pencil. They were all weird, surrealistic things. It was another way of visualizing internal dynamics. I've always loved it and I've always been very visually aware of the world.
My mom was always making stuff. We had a big playroom on the third floor of our house and she let all of the kids do a Jackson Pollock on the floor. We were all there throwing the paint around and it was so fun and liberating. Her costumes for Halloween were always homemade and the best. There was something about art that was an expression of freedom and different kinds of personalities. You could be anything that you wanted to be.
Eden: When did you decide to fully pursue art? And how did you come to that decision?
John: I thought I wanted to be a writer so I went to Georgetown for a year. I got confused so I dropped out, hitch-hiked across the country, and got a job on a Mississippi Queen. Then I lived in San Francisco for about a year and a half doing all sorts of odd jobs. I was a bicycle messenger, a janitor in a public hospital, a dishwasher from midnight to eight in the morning at a café in San Francisco. I realized that being an unskilled laborer in the American workforce was horrible. So I was like okay, I've got to do something that's a real investment. I felt that with writing I didn't have a critical apparatus for knowing when I was making written work that was mediocre. So I decided to go to art school.
I went to SUNY Purchase and it was the hardest thing I ever did. We would be up until like three in the morning doing projects, but I loved the whole challenge of learning a new language. I wasn't good. There were some people that made these things in an effortless fashion. When I go back and look at my original paintings, they're flat and pasty and kind of ugly. I knew it was going to take me forever to feel like I was getting somewhere, to feel really adept at it, but I loved it. It was the process of work that I fell in love with. It wasn't about the end product, but it was about every day having a task that was linked to a process that was creative and with my hands. Art school was fantastic, and I met my wife there in a freshman drawing class.
Eden: Afterwards did you go straight into making work?
John: We were making work then. As you go on, you become more and more independent. Then you graduate and life gets really tough. I think you have to just make work for yourself. You have to make work that you want to make and a lot of the work that you make will only be in preparation for those few things that you do that are really hitting the nail on the head. It’s important though, to develop that practice.
Anyway, Elizabeth and I moved in together and were so poor. Then eventually my father started kicking me in the butt and said, "Why don't you go to graduate school? That way your options will be more open." So, two years after graduating college, I went to grad school. That really helped solidify the practice. Everybody was there for the same reason: to continue to make work and to get better and to meet people who are also doing it.
It can be pretty lonely, though. Visual art isn't like theater. It can be a collaborative thing but for the most part you're there at your studio. If you're not doing it for yourself, if you're doing it to be financially successful, then you're putting a burden on that studio practice and on the realm of your imagination. I never wanted to do that. So teaching became a no-brainer. And it was a way to get out of the studio, and have a social life. I like people.
Eden: What was your first teaching job?
John: I started grad school as a TA. Then, I went and knocked on doors, and started teaching as an adjunct at both Temple University and Drexel University. Then I started teaching Art History at the Jewish Y. There was also a community center in my neighborhood where I taught flower painting to 70-year old ladies.
Eden: And how did you end up at St. Andrews?
John: So I was teaching at all those places, and we had bought a row house in South Philly and we had gutted the entire thing. We had two little babies. We also had a faux painting business on the side. We were stupidly busy and still hardly making anything. I had a friend who knew the previous art teacher that was leaving St. Andrews. My friend was like, "You should go check this out." At first I thought I didn't want to teach high school, but I said, "All right. I'll go look at it." It seemed like a good idea—we thought, Let’s just get out of this city, get close to some decent schools for the kids, try to simplify our lives a bit.
So, we came down here. It didn't simplify life, it just complicated it in new ways. It was different, but it was a great place for my kids to run around, and I realized that I didn't have to dumb anything down. We could do exactly the same thing we were doing in the college studios. I think as a student population, St. Andrew’s students are pretty amazing, because there's nothing you guys can't do. There's nothing you're not willing to do, as long as it's presented in a way that makes sense. I had no idea I'd be here for 22 years.
Eden: How has the Art Department evolved over those 22 years?
John: [When we first started teaching here] there was no such thing as the gallery. The Art Center used to be the old Facilities building. The art studio used to be the laundromat. Everything was all in different places. Then the Board of Trustees decided, "Hey, let's build a whole new building." I was like, "Fantastic!" We got to travel around a lot and look at a lot of different places, and then we designed it. It was a great experience. That made a big difference [to St. Andrew’s art program].
In terms of the arts, just the numbers of people who go through the program, whether it's photo or ceramics or painting or film, or the performing arts, has just exploded. With the new building now, roughly three-quarters of the student population are involved in the arts. It was so cool to see that happen. I think it changed the School. I think it changed the quality of what students were looking for and the kind of student that would come to St. Andrews.
Eden: What do you love most about teaching?
John: I think the best part of it is sharing the surprise of accomplishment, seeing it click for someone who has been struggling. It doesn't mean they're not going to struggle in the future. But being a part of the "Aha.” There was a great quote from one of my student evaluations. They said, "I hated the self-portrait project, but I loved the process of learning how to put it together." That was everything for me, because it's really easy to be disappointed with your work. I'm still that way, too. For them to love that process of building and making decision after decision, even if they’re not always sure of it, that's everything.
Eden: Do you feel like the work you’re making outside of the classroom is in conversation with your teaching and the work of your students?
John: Yes, always. I always bring the students to my studio, just to show them what weird things can happen when you follow an idea. I think students enjoy seeing what their teacher is doing creatively in their private time. Those two things feed each other all the time. I know what frustration is, but I also know what it's like to work through it. I've come to embrace the notion that frustration means you're engaged even though you haven't figured out how to solve the problem, yet.
I think knowing that, and having that experience every day in the landscape or in the studio, is really important. I also work in series. I'll have an idea, and I’ll take it through ten different iterations in order to really own it. That informs how I push students, particularly the seniors, to take an idea and make it their own. And that's really hard, but I like it a lot. I also embrace a color palette for the student population that's similar to mine. It's sort of bright and a little garish, but spirited. And the excitement—I get so giddy when I make something that works. I'm like, "Yes!" For every one piece that I make that works, four are going to be put in the closet. I know that, so I can empathize with students when they're like, "I hate this." I say, "Well yeah, but let's identify the areas that you think are interesting, and then how can we expand those?"
Eden: What do you hope students get out of the process even if they're not going to fully pursue art in their future?
John: I want people to be able to see with their own eyes. I think because we use language so much, it can become kind of a veil. You're like, "Oh, there's a car beside that tree." Well, did you actually look at all of the forms and colors that comprised the scene? Look at that funny little bike rack that's a squiggly sort of big orange worm peeking out from behind the car.. And then, look at where the stop sign, the back of the stop sign, is, relative to the lower levels of the tree branches. It almost looks like it would be the shape of a moon—a harvest moon—and the lavender green pattern of the locust bark contrasts so nicely with the red color of the Prius.
In other words, I want students to not take anything for granted, but to look with their own eyes and take the world in. I think most people don't do that. They look for information, like "Okay I don't want to get hit by a car,” or, “I want to get this jar of pickles out of the fridge."
And at the root of everything, there has to be some joy. There has to be pleasure. There has to be some happiness about it with all the difficulty. I want students to open themselves up to beauty. For me, that’s one of the greatest reasons to embrace this crazy journey. You can keep your eyes shut to beauty, but I think life is a lot less interesting. Opening your whole self to that which is beautiful is really the absolute key, but you need to be able to see it, for yourself, first.