But Does She Use Her Brain?

Earlier this semester I was sitting, waiting for my class to start. The class is Statistics for Scientists and Engineers. Almost all of us are engineering majors. I’m one of five girls in the class. Three of us usually sit by ourselves, but the other two are friends and always sit together. That day they were sitting together with their laptops open, searching for easy 2-credit electives for next year.

A guy behind them was throwing out suggestions – fencing, golf, there is apparently a wine tasting class…fun things like that. A few minutes later one of the girls mentioned ceramics. My ears perked up and I smiled a little, thinking “Good luck with that. Not only are studio art classes six to eight hours per week with loads of out-of-class work, but they’re impossible to get into unless you’re an art major.” I was vaguely annoyed that she would even mention “studio art” in the same context as “easy elective.”

Two credits to do this? Sign me up!
Photo courtesy of Jonas’ Design’s photostream on Flickr.com

The other girl chimed in and said that her roommate was a studio art major and was taking a ceramics class that semester. Apparently the roommate had been talking about how challenging ceramics was and also how physically difficult it was on her arms since they had been using the pottery wheel. The girl then quipped, mockingly, “and I was like…yeah…but does she use her brain?”

Just a little bit of a punch to the gut for this eavesdropping former art major. While I can’t defend art as a major that one should seriously consider for its great career promise, the mocking tone she used when describing her roommate was really offensive on many levels. As someone who actually got a degree in studio art and is now getting a degree in engineering, I can say with authority that art majors (at least the good, hard working, dedicated ones) work just as hard as engineering majors and absolutely use their brains. They work on very different things and they use very different parts of their brains, but they work every bit as hard. I personally busted my butt for four years in art school.

A lot harder than it looks.Photo courtesy of Old Shoe Woman's photostream on flickr.

A lot harder than it looks.
Photo courtesy of Old Shoe Woman’s photostream on flickr.

This is a big, messy topic for me, and probably one that I’ll explore in future posts, but something I’ve always struggled with, even back when I was in college the first time, was the perception that creative people are lazy, aren’t smart, just “draw pictures all day,” and that art isn’t an important, useful pursuit. You may be thinking – who is she to talk, she’s the one abandoning art for a traditional “smart person” major. I want to be very careful to point out that I’m leaving the world of art and design not because I don’t respect it, but because I think the way my brain works is better suited to math and science and the world of things with right and wrong answers. I have tremendous respect for creativity and creative people. Part of what pushed me away from design was the nagging sense that the truly great designers and artists were creative on a level that I couldn’t even understand, let alone tap into. I’m a perfectionist. I like to be good at what I do, and I knew I would never been as good a designer as I wanted to be.

My classmate may be surprised to learn that ceramics involves quite a lot of science and chemistry. Ceramics students mix their own glazes using powdered substances she would likely recognize from her chemistry class. Ceramics students mix their own clay from giant, heavy bags of various powders to meet the specific requirements of whatever piece they are sculpting. Ceramics students experiment with firing their pieces at a wide variety of temperatures for a wide variety of times to create the just the right effect. There is a lot of science and a lot of trial and error.

No, glaze doesn’t come in tubes like it did in grade school.
Photo courtesy of San Francisco State University

She might be surprised to hear that an art student with four art courses is spending 24 – 36 hours in class each week and then spending countless hours outside of class sculpting, painting, photographing, retouching, scrapping and re-doing. She may be surprised to hear that art students “live” in the art building the same way engineering students “live” in the engineering building. And then, when all the blood, sweat and tears have been shed, art students can never truly be sure if they’re “done,” and can never know if they’ve done it “right.” Everything is always a work in progress.

Art isn’t an easy major. It’s not a blow-off major. Art is a major in which you work very, very hard and get very little respect from the outside world as a result. Real artists, good artists, are very good at seeing the big picture. They’re very good at making connections and seeing the things that are in between other things, things that most people miss. They’re strategic thinkers, they’re thematic thinkers. They’re good at seeing how the parts relate to the whole.

I don’t regret earning my art degree. I met amazing people, some of whom I’m still close with to this day. I gained an incredible appreciation for art and artists. I learned new ways of seeing things and new ways of creating things. I learned that even people who think they can’t draw (and yes, a lot of art students think this), actually can draw pretty well if they practice six hours a week. And in the process, there’s a lot to be gained from sitting and observing and really seeing things during that time you’re learning to draw.

Da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. Yeah, makes sense.

Da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. Yeah, makes sense.

I know as a country that we’re embarrassingly far behind the rest of the world in math and science. I absolutely agree that we need to improve. But I hate to think that we’re sacrificing art (and music and dance and philosophy and all the liberal arts) to get there. Artists do use their brains. And they use them in ways that can be of great service to math and science too.


10 thoughts on “But Does She Use Her Brain?

  1. Living in the STEM world now, you will probably encounter many more situations where the arts get little credit. Don’t let it get to you, tho. I expect that you will find that there will be opportunities in the future where degrees from both worlds will serve you very well, and will be considered to be an advantage.

    • Thanks Dad! I’m sure you’re right. It honestly bothered me a lot more before I went back to school. I can kind of look at it from a distant perspective now. It still bothers me though, because I know how hard artists work and I know the credit they all deserve.

  2. This posts reminds me of a conversation I had with my roommates in graduate school. They were all law students, and one night they got a glimpse of my assigned reading on typography. A roommate pointed out that I was learning “32 ways to make an A,” and how she would love to do that for homework instead of contract law. I laughed it off, but almost 10 years later it still sticks in my mind!

    • I know exactly what you mean. I would often get comments from non art majors when I was in art school to the effect of “oh, I wish my homework was to do a painting.” Like they thought majoring in art would be a vacation compared to the hard work they had to do. I would invite them to trade places with an art major for even a week and see how much of a vacation it really was!

  3. I love seeing in this blog how you’re working out thoughts that have recurred to you over the years. Nice post—looking forward to more on this subject.

    • Thanks! Obviously this post was inspired by that email I sent you a few months back. This is a topic that I think about all the time, as you know, so I’m sure it will be recurring in the blog.

  4. Love this Steph! As with many things in life, the grass can always seem greener or “easier” on the other side. I am constantly amazed that some people just do not learn that you can never really understand something until you have been through it yourself and even then, everyone does not experience things the same way.

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