Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Value of Artists Who Teach Is Immeasurable

In April 2010 I had a chance to talk with Cheng-Khee Chee, a Duluth watercolorist whose work is recognized throughout the world, probably best known for a book he illustrated, The Old Turtle. As he shared his story with me I had a certain misconception corrected. Up till then I assumed he was a full time artist. He laughed and said he had made a living as a teacher of art.

Since that time I've had a chance to interview numerous artists who teach in our local schools and universities. Not only is the experience rewarding for them personally, but many have become extremely influential. Some, based on the many younger artists I have met, are possibly far more influential than they realize.

I bring al this up because of an article that was passed along to me by a friend from Chicago regarding the recent passing of Sheldon Patinkin, an influential man in the Windy City's theater scene.  Chris Jones' recent Chicago Tribune column "The real engine behind the arts? Teacher paychecks" addresses this matter of the relationship between the arts, the community and education. He begins, "Without artists who teach, the cultural life of  Chicago would effectively cease to exist."

That's a pretty bold opening line, but his tribute makes the case, Patinkin's life exemplifying the point he makes.

"The relationship between teaching and artistry was brought into focus this past week with the death of Sheldon Patinkin, a theater and comedy artist who taught at Columbia College Chicago. Patinkin was, on occasion, sensitive about the decision he made long ago to stay in Chicago and teach. Many of his peers in the fervent years of Chicago comedy, people like Mike Nichols, Elaine May and Ed Asner, headed to New York or Los Angeles to get rich and famous. Patinkin could have done the same."

It is continually surprising how many careers were launched through the Chicago theater scene. Its reverberations are felt in a multitude of unexpected ways. Patinkin was a central force behind that beating heart.

"He guided the early years of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company*," writes Jones. "He was a crucial force in The Second City's Toronto company. Andrew Alexander, who owns Second City, told me this week that he doubted Second City would ever have taken hold in Toronto without Patinkin, who also worked as a producer and writer on "SCTV." Since the first season of 'Saturday Night Live' was, in essence, a wholesale purchase of the Toronto cast of Second City, it's not much of a leap to say that no Patinkin, no 'Saturday Night Live.'"

Sometimes one gets the impression that teaching is a profession for people who couldn't make it in the "real world." The notion is preposterous. The saying that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world is amplified manifold in the classroom. Here in the Twin Ports we have some remarkable teachers who not only influence students but also give back to the community while pursuing their art.

There's much more that can be said on this topic, but for now I encourage you to read the article.

As for the Steppenwolf Theatre group, it's my hope to return to that topic yet another time.

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*Steppenwolf Theatre Company is a Tony Award-winning Chicago theatre company founded in 1974 by Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, and Jeff Perry in the Unitarian church on Half Day Road in Deerfield. It has since relocated to Chicago's Halsted Street, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Its name comes from the Hermann Hesse novel. Martha Lavey, long-time ensemble member, has been artistic director since 1995 and David Hawkanson has been executive director since 2003.

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