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A Catalytic Force

 

USC painter and dean of fine arts Ruth Weisberg was honored recently for her talent as a teacher and her contributions to the little-understood science of teaching art.

Honors have always flowed plentifully toward Ruth Weisberg, but this was something very special. In February, the College Art Association — a 15,000-member visual arts and art history organization — conferred its coveted Award for Distinguished Teaching of Art on the USC dean of fine arts.
Weisberg is only the 29th recipient of the award, and the first Southern Californian. Her predecessors include abstract artists Josef Albers and Grace Hartigan, satiric figurative painter Leon Golub and pop artist Wayne Thiebaud — all of them internationally recognized in their fields.
Like theirs, Weisberg’s paintings and prints can be found in the permanent collections of major museums, including the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York; the National Gallery, in Washington, D.C.; and the Instituto Nazionale per la Grafica, in Rome.
But the CAA award commends Weisberg not so much for her creative talent as for her talent as a teacher and her contributions to the little-understood science of teaching art. A USC faculty member since 1970, Weisberg has written numerous articles about pedagogy, including an oft-quoted piece encouraging constructive class critiques rather than abusive ones.
“It’s a little like parenting,” she explains. “You don’t say: ‘You’re a bad person.’ You say: ‘The drawing could be better in this way.’”
Teaching art isn’t as simple as it may sound. The subject’s very subjectivity presents a didactic dilemma. Unlike most other fields, in art “there are no absolute answers,” Weisberg says. “Nevertheless, there is a sense of discipline.”
Figure drawing underscores this tension. “The human body has flexibility, but it has limits,” she says. “Draw a tree branch that’s too long and nobody will notice. But everybody has an innate sense of human proportion.”

Weisberg’s students often talk about her gift for making incisive comments and her inspirational style.
“She has been a catalytic force in the lives of countless young women and men who today trace their own understanding and passion for the arts to a class or even a single conversation with Ruth,” the CAA citation praised.
Kipp Kobayashi M.F.A. ’86 has first-hand experience of Weisberg’s charismatic approach. Now head of a Los Angeles-based environmental art and architecture firm, Kobayashi recalls how Weisberg, as director of his thesis committee, gently prodded him toward a deeper understanding of his own artistic vision.
“Without ever pushing me into a specific aesthetic or medium, she helped me to uncover the basic seeds of my ideas,” he says. “I remember how supportive she was, inside the classroom and outside. She gets involved with people and has them experience things in different ways.”
Colleague Selma Holo, director of the USC Fisher Gallery, admires a different side of Weisberg’s didactic skill — her steady hand even when under the gun. Holo remembers watching Weisberg work with a graduate student curating a show under stiff deadline pressure.
“It would have been easy for Ruth to have imposed a construct on the student,” Holo recalls. But no. “Ruth walked [the student] through the various problems posed by the exhibition. She calmly helped [her] harness her thinking.”

“Teaching is not instinctive,” Weisberg says. “You do get better at it. But some are better equipped for it than others. It helps to have an empathetic personality.”
Sadly, Weisberg doesn’t get to flex her pedagogic faculties much these days. In her fourth year as dean, she has cut her course load back to a single class for senior projects.
“I particularly miss teaching drawing,” she complains.
But artistic and administrative duties interfere. Weisberg often goes directly from her USC office to her Venice studio. Her latest show, a one-person exhibit at the Los Angeles-based Jack Rutberg Fine Arts Gallery, included drawings, prints and paintings relating to a monumental 22-foot depiction of Canto V from Dante’s Inferno, “The Circle of the Lustful.” The work will be presented in November at the Huntington Art Galleries.
Weisberg brings an aesthetic sensibility even to her bureaucratic duties. “People don’t realize how much creativity it takes to be a dean,” she says. “They assume that you’re just pushing papers. But you’re creating an overview, empowering other people’s decisions, acquiring a deeper understanding of your field.”


 

 

 

“Cloud Cover,” 1998, by Ruth Weisberg, mixed media drawing.
Weisberg’s “Glade,” 1998, mixed media.
Weisberg Photo by Debra DiPaolo

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