Q&A with Chris Cuthill, Art Chair, Redeemer University College
I help interpret the colours, shapes and lines around us.
Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
Chris Cuthill: Picasso once said, "Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." The same, to some degree, could be said about the process of looking at art. This is because children are already comfortable with the idea of expressing their reactions to the world around them and are already intuitively understand the way an artist sees. Before children can read and write, pictures are a language that expresses both thoughts and feeling. Colours, shapes and lines do not represent their world—they interpret it.
So rather than asking a nine-year old child what a picture "was" I would ask them questions about why they think the artist made the choices they did. If they could start there, they'd probably be further along than most of us when it comes to understanding art.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
CC: As a teenager in an evangelical church I was grew up listening to contemporary Christian music. Even at a young age, I found much of it banal—but there were exceptions. One musician that stood out for me was Terry Taylor, a legendary songwriter and producer from Orange County California. When I was seventeen, I met Taylor at a Christian music festival and I asked him who had influenced his thought the most. He told me about a writer named Hans Rookmaaker. That was my first introduction to Reformed thought and a body of serious inquiry about faith and the arts.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
CC: Learning to see the structure of my syllabus as guide rather than a law. In my first year of teaching, I ran my classes like a German railway. All the material was covered but I left very little space for genuine interaction. I've learned since that comprehension is far more important than comprehensiveness.
Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
CC: Every faculty member at Redeemer is assigned to a senior faculty mentor in their first year of teaching. My mentor, the venerable Al Wolters, once told me that it's okay to say "I don't know" to a question. This freedom to genuinely ask questions with my students has made me a more vulnerable teacher—and I hope, a more authentic one.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
CC: I was once told that you can tell who has inspired a professor by looking at their syllabi reading lists. Almost every course I teach has something by Calvin Seerveld. Other frequently-appearing-names include Adrienne Chaplin, Hans Rookmaaker, Jeremy Begbie, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Robin Jensen.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
CC: In grad school I was exposed to the mid-afternoon custom of high tea. Each afternoon I make myself a pot of Rooibos in a cast iron Tetsubin. Every morning, I spend time pruning and caring for my bonsai trees. These are grounding rituals for me, a time-out. I am trying to incorporate a demystified form of feng shui into my work space because the Mennonite in me recognizes the manifold virtues of living and working simply.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
CC: My Macbook, a sharpie marker and a laser pointer.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
CC: A year ago I had an opportunity to speak on a conference panel with Mary-Leigh Morbey and Betty Spackman, both women who mentored me in my undergraduate work, and Calvin Seerveld, who mentored me during the early years of my graduate work. I felt a strong sense of generational blessing being able to work with thinkers who had been so formative in my development as an academic. It was an "Elisha" moment.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
CC: Every night before I go to bed I take my beagle for a walk. During that time I plan out my next day. When I get back, I quickly write down the tasks that I hope to accomplish the following day. I find that scheduling has a significant impact on my productivity. When I have a plan I can focus my energy without multitasking or worrying about the things that I haven't finished yet.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
CC: I try to pay attention to each moment, sight, sound and smell—not just the sensations that are pragmatically useful to me. Seerveld once argued that we need to see God's creation with the eyes of a child going to the zoo. I try to bring a sense of wide-eyed wonder to everything I experience—to see mystery in mundane. John Shea once called this "sacramental awareness," a sensitivity to the religious dimension of ordinary human experience that begins in our full-bodied attentive encounter with the world around us.