AF: When you were talking about this idea of being an artist first, and a teacher second, you know, in regards to someone else. Of all the people I’ve talked to in the building so far, not as many have been teachers. I’d be interested in your experience with having so many decades affiliated with MICA and the painting department, how you kind of balance [being an] artist/teacher.
PM: Well, when I taught, I always taught as an artist. But the skill of teaching as a teacher is that you are making sure your class is using their time and the experience they’re getting. Many artists will come in if they don’t have that feel for teaching. By going through Cooper Union for three years with the greatest teachers in some ways, and then Yale, another three years in residence, one year out, I’ve had a lot of teachers. And I think you learn teaching by having teachers. And then as you teach, you learn more about teaching. After each class, I almost want to write a book because all of a sudden, oh!—it all comes together and I understand. I have chapter one through ten, you know?
I think that’s what happens at the Institute.
They will hire artists. The artists nowadays have to have a Masters [degree], at least. You know, Grace Hartigan never got a Masters, but she got a number of honorary doctorates.
On retiring, in some ways it was very difficult. The only thing is I would teach at night. Once I fell asleep, I would be back at the Institute teaching. I did not get paid for this, by the way. But again, just to go back to that one point, almost anyone in the art department at MICA comes up with the experience of being an artist and the sensibility of being an artist and that’s what feeds his teaching. So when you say artist/teacher, the slant between them is still what’s connecting them.
AF: What is it like working with younger artists?
PM: Well, in terms of educational systems, I always say that when you have a freshman class, they become family. Usually they’re the sweetest people to work with, because they’re willing to learn. Then you get on and when you get [seniors]…
I started the senior independent program at MICA. No one knows that. But I was the one that actually started the program, because they needed a program for us to get the student studio space. We had to write a program. So this was the first official independent painting at the Institute, and that was like in 1979. I was chairman. I was chairman a couple of times, but I usually quit the chairmanship because I wanted to teach and paint and I didn’t want to do administration.
So anyway, the senior has their bible already from someone else. They’re coming and they have their own experiences. So when they meet you as a senior, that’s a whole different category. It’s interesting that if you want to, obviously you need your integrity in facing the senior. Well, there’s going to be more conflicts. But it can also be very fulfilling, because you can see them on their own path.
It’s kind of funny when you say, “What is it to teach young artists?” Well actually, when you’re first teaching, they’re not really necessarily artists. They’re doing art. So the whole idea is for them to find out what it is to be an artist. And essentially that same question is always open: “What is it to be an artist?” To me, I’ve never tried to find an answer. I haven’t tried to write that book, What is it to be an Artist? So that’s the big question.