Storyboard: Tom Knechtel

Life as a Theater

Though I’ve been a painter for most of my life, I’ve long considered my body of work to be something akin to a theater company.

Let me explain. When I was nine years old, my favorite thing in the world was to make stuffed animals. I made them for my friends at school and my family. I started selling them – it was my first real experience with selling my work. They often appeared in different costumes, and sometimes I would create all the characters from a favorite book like “Wind in the Willows.” Later, I created my own small-scale model theater. It was modest, but it was mine, and I had much more fun designing the plays than performing them.

My love for animals is one of the chief preoccupations that has carried over from my childhood into my adult life as a working artist. My work is often filled with representations of animal life: horses, dogs, cats, etc.

There are two primary things that continue to fascinate me about animals in relation to art. On one hand, their physical structures are fascinating. On the other hand, animals can play a variety of roles in an artist’s work. Like the wrestlers who often appear in my art, these animals do not carry any one meaning. They play different roles depending on what drawing or painting they’re in. One time, a flounder might be clownlike and pathetic; another time, it might be ominous.

I’m often asked what exactly I mean when I refer to the element of “theater” in my work, since I’m a visual artist. What I mean is not that I am involved in the world of stage drama, but rather, that the medium of theater itself informs the way I imagine my work. And I hope that my work, like the theater I love, can sustain prolonged viewing and reach an audience across a wide spectrum.

After going to CalArts, I began committing to my artistic output with greater intensity. In 1988 I had my first solo show in L.A., where Laurence Dreiband, the founding chair of the Fine Art Department at ArtCenter College of Design, happened to find me. Laurence had a nose for up-and-comers in the art world, and he ended up offering me an adjunct teaching opportunity at the school.

I should probably mention that at the time, I was juggling a ton of obligations. I was teaching at Otis as well as working in advertising design at L.A. Weekly. At night I would return home to my cat and work on my exhibitions.

So, it feels safe to say that my path to ArtCenter was a little… circuitous. I taught on an adjunct basis for ten years and, after that, I stopped teaching entirely and just did the Weekly job, which was less demanding. I wanted to focus on my own art, but every time I went to do a visiting artist gig at a school, my husband Bob would point out how clear it was that I loved teaching. Not only that – I missed teaching. Suffice to say, the call of ArtCenter kept beckoning to me. After a while, I knew it would be foolish to resist.

One of the most rewarding things about teaching at ArtCenter is how the curriculum leaves room for truly inventive approaches to teaching young artists. There’s no cut-and-dry way to teach someone how to become an artist. We give students ample room to exercise their own creative impulses, while simultaneously instilling in them a problem-solving skill set that ensures a successful and fulfilling post-graduate life. We want them to be ready for the highly disciplined, unpredictable and malleable career that is the life of a fine artist in our society.

In a work of stage drama, an audience member purchases their ticket, takes their seat and experiences a kind of intimate spectacle. That thrill of spectacle and intimacy has stayed with me all my life. My goal as an artist is to create a pictorial equivalent of those same sensations – to pull my audience into a theatrical world that is rich, challenging and liberating.

Tom Knechtel
Department Chair, Undergraduate Fine Art
CalArts BFA ’74, MFA ’76
Marc Selwyn Fine Art

There’s no cut-and-dry way to teach someone how to become an artist.

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