July 2016

Laureate Chris Staley on Art and Life

AlumnInsider sat down with Chris Staley to talk about his experiences this year in promoting art through his position as the 201213 Penn State laureate.

AlumnInsider: What’s the most important thing you want to impart to your students?
Chris Staley: I would like students to learn to value their own personal stories. Each of them has a profoundly unique story to share about their thoughts and feelings ab&ut the world they live in, and this story is only uncovered by having a profound, unrelenting curiosity. In order to have that sense of curiosity, one needs to humble; when you’re humble, you ask for help, and that leads to asking questions. And that’s the key to learning.

AlumnInsider: How have you felt about your overall experience as a Penn State laureate?
Chris Staley: The laureate experience is not without its challenges. Walking into classes at Commonwealth campuses cold and talking with students about issues relating to art and life has led to some unexpected and rewarding experiences. It's like being a substitute teacher for the day. Also, working with Cody Goddard to create the laureate videos has been an enriching collaborative experience.
Like a marriage in many ways, successful collaboration is based on mutual respect and trust. These qualities are born out of shared time working together, and I am grateful to say have only grown with time.

AlumnInsider: How did the idea for creating weekly videos come into being?
Chris Staley: I had followed what Robin Becker had done while she was the Penn State laureate (2010-11). She read poems in different areas around campus—in the Palmer, in the library—and when I became the laureate, I thought, what a great opportunity the videos could also be, to reach a larger audience. Every day in my classes, I begin with short thoughts, with trivia. I’m very interested in the etymology of words. “Trivia” itself comes from ancient Rome. Where three roads came together in a crossroads (tri + via, for roads), a wooden post was set up for people to post messages on. “Deadline” comes from Civil War times—it’s the line between two trees where someone can be seen and more easily shot. “Pothole” comes from England; potters would look for holes in bare dirt roads, where they could find clay. I wanted the videos to provide short thoughts about art and life in as wide a spectrum as possible.

AlumnInsider: Your messages in the videos seem easily translatable to various forms of art, and even to living life. Was it your intention or hope that you could reach as many people as possible with this project?
Chris Staley: I think that art has a tendency to be thought of as esoteric or even elitist, but there’s something about life itself that is a creative journey, that we all are participating in. I was hoping that as a laureate, I could open up people’s perception of what art is.

AlumnInsider: Each of your videos has an element of your life experience; you share powerful anecdotes. Would you say this approach reflects your teaching philosophy?
Chris Staley: I think the whole learning process becomes most relevant when it seems real, when it’s connected to the life we are leading. We all experience things with our whole being. Not just with our minds, our heart, our hands, but with our entire selves. With all of our senses in play, there can be a greater sense of relevance. Feelings, in many ways, determine how much we enjoy life. To not incorporate feelings into teaching a class is to somehow leave part of ourselves outside of the classroom. It basically deadens or diminishes the potential of what the learning experience can be.

AlumnInsider: Do you have a favorite so far?
Chris Staley: I like the Analog and the Digital one. The idea of throwing pots on an iPhone opens up a Pandora’s Box of thinking about the digital world. I think electronic media will inevitably become more and more a part of our lives. There’s an intersection of the virtual world with the longing to be in the presence of others—that you matter to other human beings—and nothing will substitute for that, for the warmth of being with others in a corporeal way. Yet electronic media can facilitate a more meaningful connection between human beings, in a communal, virtual way. Social media can’t replace human interaction, but it can be a catalyst for it. In this particular video, I tell about my experience of shedding tears on my computer after finding out in an email that a friend had died and reading her eulogy. I watched as the water from my tears pixilated on the screen. How symbolic it seemed to me—that the computer elicited this strong response of tears. It’s the place of social media to somehow make us feel, to remind of us how essential relationships are in our lives.

AlumnInsider: What art pieces of your own are your favorites?
Chris Staley: The memory boxes I’ve been working on are meaningful to me. I place objects on top of each box that make you think about what’s inside. Our lives are comprised of stories and gestures that we remember. We keep special objects in boxes as momentoes. Objects link us to our remembrances—they trigger experiences or act as physical evidence of a certain place or time. Because we all on some level recognize our own mortality, when we hold onto an object that we held once long ago, it can bring us back in time like a time capsule. A photograph doesn’t quite do that. When you look at a photograph of yourself from long ago, it’s more a memory. But if you touch an object, it’s like a validation that we are still living, in the most elemental sense.

AlumnInsider: Often, people become interested in making art later in life. What advice do you have for folks—perhaps Penn State alumni—who are just getting started?
Chris Staley: Life is a big circle, never-ending. When we are children, we are so uninhibited. Perhaps one of the blessings of growing older is that we realize what really matters—like the way the sunlight casts a shadow on a cup in the kitchen, or how a soft peach feels when it’s ripe. When we are older, we have come almost full circle in rediscovering the world that we discovered as a child. I think each of us in one way or another deals with our mortality, and perhaps that’s another blessing of growing older, that we grow to appreciate how fragile life is, and as a result, we feel more alive than ever. The creative process lets us create something that wasn’t there before. So it’s quite profound that in our later years, we can still bring something new into the world, whether it’s a painting, a sculpture or the sound of music.

Chris Staley’s video series:

1. “Can You Teach Creativity?

2. “How Do You Grade Art?

3. “Throwing a Snowman: Metaphors in Art

4. “Creativity in Sports (Part 1)—Chris Staley and Bill O’Brien

5. “Body as Vessel

6. “Art and Life: Where They Intersect

7. “The Analog and the Digital

8. “A Search for Meaning

9. “Liking Mistakes

10. “A Woman's Perspective in the Arts

11. “The Art of Teaching

12. “Thanksgiving

13. “Drawing as Thinking

14. “Magic Clay