“NEWSTUFFWHOKNOWS” & Other Things Stored In My Hard Drive
Written by Ally Christmas
The past five years have felt like a series of ongoing transitions – always living in-between the big events and waiting for the next phase to start or for the current state to end. It’s an unsettled feeling – one of both excited anticipation and quiet anxiety. Last May, I graduated from the University of Georgia with my Master’s in Fine Art degree, which I pursued because I’ve known for the past decade that I wanted to become a college professor of photographic arts. Every step since then has felt like it was in preparation for that hypothetical situation – one in which I’d be *living my dream* teaching photography and video art to college students while still maintaining my personal art practice. This is where I’d like to pause for a minute and download some reflections on what that shift has been like – detoxing from grad school, where it was my job to be a full-time thinker and maker, and moving into teaching, where sometimes my responsibilities appear a bit more pixelated to me.
After the long (read: painful, depressing, exhausting) process of applying to teaching jobs during my final year of grad school, I was fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to teach lens-based arts at Grinnell College, which is a small liberal arts school in Grinnell, Iowa that’s heavily committed to social justice, rigorous academics, and innovative pedagogical practices. I’ve been here for about eight months now as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in Art, and I’m currently teaching the first full-semester photo course to have ever been taught at the college. Introducing video and photo to incredibly driven and critically engaged students has been rewarding in ways that I didn’t even expect; however, that sinking feeling of inadequacy and existential dread that I felt while creating my thesis and applying to jobs last year never fully went away like I thought it would. [404: Happiness Not Magically Found]
I think that teaching (or, getting any job after graduating at all) seemed like the cure-all to me after three years of my health deteriorating, my anxiety growing, and an ever-expanding separation between myself and my self (mind and body, software and hardware). I’m learning that, while I’ve absolutely developed a deep sense of fulfillment from finally beginning the career I’ve always hoped for, it hasn’t solved all these problems I thought would disappear after leaving school. This is where I realized I had to return to making for the sake of making – a return to a process of becoming instead of a process of draining.
Much of my artistic practice revolves around the feelings I’m avoiding at any given moment; it is a cycle of filling, draining, and refilling. The first work I made after graduating was a video piece titled shift, so *cleverly* named to mark the transition I was making from grad school to teaching, from Georgia to Iowa, from one bubble to the next. Making shift was my way of unpacking both the ups and downs of this major life change, by “bypass[ing] the levels, diving in deep.” It then took me another seven months to return to making, but when it happened, it felt like a new beginning. [System Preferences > Displays > Brightness ^^^^^^^^^^]
I don’t know what instigated this ultimate clicking of my mindset from negative to positive – from insecure to excited – but I can say that I am extremely grateful for it and feel truly optimistic for the day-to-day now, rather than just anxiously awaiting the next transition. If I had to pin it down, I may have to attribute this new shift towards positivity and excitement to taking four of my students to the SPE National conference this year (my first time as a teacher instead of a student!). Seeing their eyes opened to the potential of the photographic arts and to how hardworking the artists and educators in that community are was unbelievably inspiring. I’m now working on three new projects – both photo- and video-based but all very loosely titled “NEWSTUFFWHOKNOWS” on my hard drive – while still maintaining my schedule of teaching, advising, and service to the college. The balance has come slowly, but I think I’m actually starting to figure this thing out. It’s possible to move forward.