Saturday, October 22, 2011

Reading About Chicano Art

I've been going to this "boot camp" class since a friend recommended it to me this summer. This week they had us write a "mission statement," setting a goal to do something specific that would improve our lives or health. But instead of the usual "eat more leafy greens" or "do more leg lifts," they encouraged us to think about whole-life things like setting aside time to read or meditate.

This quarter a colleague at Yakima Valley Community College is teaching a class on Chicano Art. This is her first time teaching it. She usually teaches classes on Chicano culture or other social sciences. When I saw the offering, I wanted to take it. So this week I asked her to recommend some Chicano artists I should be referencing in my classes and I asked for suggestions of books on Chicano art. My Chicano art knowledge is basically nil. If you asked me to name a Chicano artist, I might suggest Diego Rivera. (Actually, I could name Daniel DeSiga, a local Chicano artist, and Alfredo Arreguin because a student suggested him, but that's about it.)

So it turns out my colleague and I are in an interesting reciprocal situation. I know art but don't have a clue about Chicano history or culture, she knows Chicano history and culture and doesn't feel comfortable with the art side of things. So we made noises about teaching a "learning community" class sometime (so we could learn the other side of things) and she loaned me a book on Chicano Art.

For much of my adult life, when I buy an interesting book on some aspect of art with every intention of actually reading it, I set it aside to complete some pressing task or job and somehow the art book never makes it to the top of the to-do list. These texts are too much like work to read for leisure and too much like reading to take "work time" to do. Following the usual standard, I set the Chicano art book on my desk early in the week and graded papers. I looked at it longingly as I responded to e-mails. I thought about it as I left campus and when I arrived at campus in the morning. But on Wednesday I surfaced from an ocean of grading. I was caught up (for the first time in a week and a half)! I responded to a couple e-mails and got my classes prepped for Thursday, but then, I did something extreme. I read an art-related book that wasn't strictly for class.

I was surprised how difficult I found it to just sit and read. It was an academic text with some passages in Spanish and I had to keep a bookmark in the back to look up the translation, but that wasn't the difficult part. I had a really hard time focusing. I looked at the clock and told myself that for 30 minutes I would read this book. I started reading and found the text interesting, but then I thought about an e-mail I hadn't returned. I had to yank my attention back to the book. "You're reading now, focus." I'd read for a while and then hear voices in the hall that reminded me of something I had sent to the office printer but hadn't yet sent to the print shop for copies. I had to pull back my focus. I read for a while longer.

I though about my yoga teacher during telling us to watch our thoughts drift past as if on a river. She tells us to acknowledge the thoughts but not let them distract us or become our focus. (It sounds better when she says it.) I realized that I had to approach reading this text in the same way. I wanted to commit to reading this book for 30 minutes and everything else had to wait.

It sounds so silly, that this college instructor can't read a book for 30 minutes, but it has to do with the environment and the kind of reading. I can read a novel for half an hour in the evening at home or in bed at night because I can focus on the story even though I am tired or distracted. I can't read a denser academic text when distracted or tired and I don't usually read them at work unless they are specifically related to the topic being discussed in one of my classes. Academic texts, especially French assignments, put me to sleep many an evening in college and I don't think I got as much out of those sleepy texts as I did out of fully-conscious daytime reading. 

So as with yoga, I have to consciously set aside time to read this book. I have to be in a devoted space free from most distractions (my office), and I have to continually rein in my focus as my mind flits around in its typical over-excited state. My brain is constantly trying to ask me questions (What's for dinner tonight? Do we have bread or do I need to go to the store tonight?) or warn me that I should be doing something else (that e-mail inbox is so full I might have missed something...really should order more clay this week). I even caught myself thinking this inane thought while I was reading: "This is interesting. I wish I read more stuff like this. I should write myself a note to read more stuff like this." Seriously. Hey dummy, you are reading this, now! Focus, already.

In the end I read 30 minutes of a text on something I knew practically nothing about. It was interesting, I enjoyed it and I enjoyed making connections between this text and things I knew (like the similarities between the concerns of post-modern art and Chicano art) and thing I had seen (I think the all-over patterns in Alfredo Arreguin's paintings may be influenced by the rasquache sensibility that the book discusses).

So the "mission statement" that I wrote for boot camp I said I would set aside 30 minutes once or twice a week to read an art text. I need to be intentional about setting that time aside. The e-mail will just get full again, the clay can be ordered a bit later, but if I don't take 30 minutes to read about Chicano art right now, when will I?

I read 30 pages this week. At this rate I'll finish the book in 6 or 7 weeks. That's a painstakingly slow pace compared to how quickly I can rush through novels, but I can read part of a novel while waiting in line at the supermarket or while my daughter is watching Dora. The art text is probably more rewarding but it also takes more effort and more commitment.

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