Saturday, June 10, 2023
Todd Stong studied art and creative writing at Brown University, graduating in 2014 magna cum laude, with honors, and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. In 2016, he started teaching at Kimberton in the painting room with grades 7 through 12 and as math support faculty, working with Tonya Rice in the 9th grade classroom – what he considered a daily masterclass in teaching. It also helped that Mrs. Rice was his own math teacher back in 2008 at Perkiomen Valley High School – he knew he was in good hands. Couple that with thoughtful, careful mentorship from Anna Zay, and he had soon expanded his teaching to include History through Art, Algebra I and II, Geometry, 7th Grade Perspective, 8th Grade Platonic Solids, Comedy and Tragedy Mask-Making, US Government, and Yearbook Advising. You all had him busy! In 2019, he decided it was time to return to his own artistic practice and applied to the Tyler School of Art and Architecture, where he received his MFA at their Rome Campus with a full academic scholarship and teaching stipend. Now back in Philadelphia, he teaches printmaking and design at West Chester University, and works assisting the artist Odili Odita in his studio, while pursuing his own art career through exhibitions and publication. Next fall he will be an artist-in-residence at Yaddo, joining the ranks of past fellows such as Michael Tilson Thomas, Langston Hughes, Philip Guston, Flannery O’Conner, and James Baldwin, among many others.
“A few weeks ago, I had the absolute pleasure of returning to Kimberton to meet with this wonderful group on stage behind me and do something that for them was completely natural: draw. We did a classic exercise: taking a line for a walk. Meaning, we all picked up chalk, committed it to the board, and let our minds unspool across the dark stretch without lifting a hand and breaking the line. Another rule: no going over the lines. Come to a dead end and, sorry, find your way back out of it, think your way through the maze that you’ve just created.
Because drawing is really just that – it’s a kind of thought. It doesn’t feel like thinking in the way we are used to thinking about thinking – a monologue only audible in our own heads. It is a way of negotiating the space and the stuff of the world, internalizing then physicalizing it, like dance but recorded flat. And at the end, you understand differently. You might not be able to put words to it, because, well, that’s the point — it’s drawing.
When the board was chock full, I presented a set of brushes taped to the ends of four-foot long dowels and, holding them from the far end, we dipped them into buckets of water and began drawing again, directly on top of our first attempt. Then, with that practice down, we tried out ink on a long scroll of newsprint.
It was so much fun. What I love about Kimberton students is their willingness to do. Their unblockable, indefatigable, iron-core will. Their fearlessness. Present a four foot long paint brush to any Joe Schmoe and tell him to paint, and he’ll have a panic attack. Give it to a Waldorf student and they’ll try to make you a twelve-division circle without you even having to ask.
I was so proud of the drawings we made together and of the joy we had being in something of an art class one more time. But I wanted them to think about something, something in switching from chalk to extended brush. So I asked them, “what was that like?” “Well, it was easier to control the chalk, easier to get out exactly what I wanted,” said one student. “The chalk is closer to the body. But it was maybe more exciting to use the brush, more free, more expansive”, said another. A flick of the wrist multiplies into a wild gesture.
Though roughly the same principle – using this instrument to put our spatial thoughts outside of ourselves – the body was altered in radically different ways from tool to tool, and so the kinds of thoughts that could come out of ourselves changed with them.
A tool, of course, is meant to help us do things our bodies can’t do on their own. It can be a bit awkward at first. But with practice, a well-designed tool becomes an extension of the body. The hammer, after hitting many nails, is a kind of fist; you swing it and you can see, know, and feel where it will come down, and how deep the nail will sink. The shock of impact rattles through the handle and up your arm; you understand what the hammer has felt.
A piano makes your fingers into vocal chords; the longer you practice it, the more seamlessly you alone sing as a choir. And anyone who has hit a perfectly composed chord in perfect time will tell you that you feel that in your chest. As much as you allow your body to flow into your tools, they flow back into you – don’t forget that – altering you in ways you’re not always conscious of. Think the chalk and the chalkboard, those tools that let us map out our minds, and in so doing change them.
This might all seem a little out there, or maybe totally a given, nothing new. But I’m bringing all this tool talk up for a reason. There are, I imagine, a diverse group of possibilities on each of your horizons, whether that’s more school next year or more school later, whether finding gainful employment, a trade, going into business with family or for yourselves. Whatever the possibilities are, you will have choices ahead about the tools you use. And those are going to be choices distinctly different than any generation that came before you. Because the tools are becoming different.
When it’s getting dark out and you’re just finishing up your German homework and still have a math problem set and a world lit response, or maybe a painting to design, and you get a text from a buddy that there’s a party everyone’s going to in an hour – you’ll have ChatGPT and Midjourney and a host of other generative artificial intelligence tools at your disposal.
When you need to find the right words to convince someone to hire you, or when you need to sell your service to a client, you’ll have these tools available. And it will be your choice entirely whether you use them. I won’t lie to you: if you use them savvily, you’ll probably get the grade or the response you wanted and save yourself a lot of time. It might feel great.
You know, as an artist and a writer, I’ve been thinking a lot about these technologies. In some ways, they seem like a miracle – why not use them in my studio, when I can’t afford to a hire a model? Why not have ChatGPT write that grant application? I’m tempted too, I won’t lie!
So, let’s look under the hood. This is technology built on statistical analysis of inputs culled from human production. Meaning, in essence, that it’s been fed libraries and museums, outputs of the minds of thousands and thousands who used much humbler tools to make their contributions. Give it a prompt, and it’ll simply predict what you want to read or see based on what it deems from its data set to be most likely to follow the given words. It’s a mind eater, chewing hunks and crumbs of thought and vision left for it by thinkers past, and mashing it all together into a paste that can reassemble into whatever is asked of it, by predicting the likeliest outcome.
Do you click a button and let a cloud of probabilities select your thoughts for you? Or do you drudge through your own mind, weeding it and watering it, pulling up ideas from its soil, and planting them onto a page or a canvas. It will certainly take longer to do the latter.
What you choose to do, what resources you decide to cherish most – your time or your mind – those are your decisions. That’s what it means to be a graduate. I will only say this: the reward of making is rarely the execution of a fully preconceived idea, seen in the mind’s eye and brought into reality as an exercise of technique. It is in the starting and getting turned around, looking down at the page and realizing that you understand something in your own thoughts that you hadn’t before. Pausing, leaving, returning, and rearranging. Learning from what you’ve done and thinking deeply, in a way that is far more organized, more crystalline than what you can concoct in your head alone. My biggest revelations in the studio never came from sitting around thinking; they came from doing, which is, actually, just another way of thinking. Are you going to let a machine take away that possibility?
And then there’s this: that the machine will always know exactly what it needs to say, and it will simply say it. But you, you will struggle, and out will come the rough drafts with big plot holes that you find yourself patching with webs of imagination, or perhaps leaving gaps of mystery. The best works of art are ones that don’t tie up neatly in a bow. The best writing takes the writer’s own mind for a walk and sometimes leaves them deep in the forest or far out to sea.
And of course, that’s what is so rich about life, too. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up; but this journey, this wandering, this is the real stuff of life. We live in a culture that tells us that we’re wasting our time if we’re lost, that we need to find a career and settle down and be productive members of society. But let me tell you this: a machine can’t get lost. Only a human can. And that is maybe the most magic we can wish for. That is key.
One of my favorite classes to teach at Kimberton was History through Art. The graduates on this stage were the last crew I taught, luckily scheduled October 2019 when we could be all together in a room plastered with posters of masterpieces. There is nothing quite like the panoramic of a classroom, as our following year of screen time sorely demonstrated.
Yet in the midst of these many artworks, the very first thing I taught them was not actually a piece of art, as many of us would define it – something made by the hands of an artist. Instead, it was a small jasperite pebble with two little holes – like eyes – carved over many thousands of years by two repeating drops of water, and a small crevice right under them – a mouth. Every feature made geologically, no hands or tools involved. Dubbed the Makapansgat Pebble, for its discovery in the Makapan Valley of South Africa, it was discovered three miles from any other piece of jasperite it might have broken off from, and close to the bones of one Austrolopithicus Africanus, a distant human relative.
It is not a giant leap to the conclusion that this great ape had found this pebble and seen a vision of itself in the two little eyes and mouth, a vision it saw fit to pick up and carry home to a dolomite cave. Of course, and this is something I made clear to my ninth graders, a key tenet of such ancient history is that we will never really know what actually happened; Occum’s razor, the simplest explanation being the most likely, must reign.
No matter what, it’s a great story, maybe one of the most important stories, because at approximately 3 million BC, it would be the first known evidence of symbolic thinking and aesthetic sense of any living creature in the record. A moment when the world presented one if its living with an idea of itself. And that that was a comfort. That that great ape took that rock and carried it away, despite its seeming uselessness.
I like to think that the world was giving our ancestors a hint. It was saying, “you don’t have to keep your mind inside of you. I’m here; there’s space to breathe.” And so, the history of art is born. Entranced by the world around us, we slowly began to hold a mirror up to it, to take our ideas of the mysteries of life and put them out there for everyone else to see. In so doing, we shaped how one another saw the world, and began a chain reaction of thought that provided a foundation for civilization.
Generations moved through the caves of Lascaux, recording the animals they had encountered, perhaps hunted or been hunted by. Generations – many, many generations, hundreds of them – left hand prints in the caves of Borneo. “Here I was, in this world,” they say, “with these five fingers, where all of my people were before me, with theirs.”
What a punch to the gut. If we’re to say that a tool is an object used to extend the possibilities of the body to do work, then the whole world becomes a tool, a place where we let our brains, that most important anatomy, unfurl; to leave clues, give advice, offer respite, puff ourselves up, place ourselves amidst our relations, mark ourselves in time. All these things that would just stink to keep cooped up in our skulls. And instead, we can make the world alive with us. You might say it even wanted us to.
This is not to say that I want you all to grab your cans of spray paint and go out and tag the side of a mountain (I mean, you’re Waldorf students – at least break out a hammer and a chisel). No, but I do want you to keep yourself in this world: you, yourself. What you are matters. I don’t mean that in terms of what profession you choose or what talents you hone. I mean it as this: what thoughts do you nurture? What love? For whom? How will you tell the world?
Will you tell the world? Or will you let something else do that for you?
When we were done with our drawing exercise and had cleaned up our brushes, the seniors took me to see their portraits. Six stellar, sophisticated paintings hanging in the senior hallway, each a marker of themselves. I could tell they were so proud, and for very good reason. When you look at those paintings, know that they are siphons, sieves, dream catchers, pebbles catching water drops – those paintings sift through a miasma of calibrated sight and motion, mind-body-tool-surface. Every mark a culmination of events, begun so many years earlier, nurtured here in this incredible school. Every choice – pose, poise, color, texture – a revelation as much as an inevitability.
When we look at those portraits, it’s not just about the young person in the painting. It’s about us, too: our seeing ourselves, in a collection of marks. Our reaching out to them, and them to us, a chain reaction of empathetic understanding, mixed with awe.
Now I know that as much as I try to be the hype man of everyone’s innate painter, the hurdle that must be jumped to take pride in our artwork is sometimes too high; the often thoughtless messaging of what’s good and what’s bad too ever-present and too ingrained.
Then there’s this: that every letter, number, symbol, that you string together, can do just the same work, whipping up an electric wind, activating worlds in everyone who reads them that deepen into trenches and shoot into the solar system, often without our even noticing. That’s the magic of being human: how we, at our best, electrify one another with maybe just bundle of hairs tied to a handle or maybe just a stick of chalk.”