Professor’s Bookshelf: David Schorr
David Schorr, Professor of Art, has taught various courses in printmaking, drawing, typography, book design, graphic design, and calligraphy since 1971. He also teaches each year as an Adjunct Professor at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India. He has been a Fulbright Scholar three times, and has exhibited his artwork in cities all over the world. Schorr took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his current reading and reflect on his time at the University.
The Argus: So what are you reading right now?
David Schorr: One of the books I’m reading I have right here: “The Swerve,” by Stephen Greenblatt. It’s about this humanist scholar who found the manuscript of Lucretius’ great poem on the nature of things in a monastery in Germany and had it copied, and how that single work of ancient epicurean lore really is about everything—from sex, to love, to the fact that atoms make up the universe. Greenblatt, who is a professor at Harvard, a great Shakespearean scholar, contends that the finding of that poem really began modern things.
A: Any recent books you would recommend?
DS: I just finished Jeffery Eugenides’s new novel, “The Marriage Plot”. The novel begins at Brown in the 80s, and I went to Brown. So, as the characters turn a corner towards Sayles Hall, I know exactly where they’re going. One of the main characters is an English major at Brown, just as theory is taking over the department. And she is very dismayed because she just likes reading novels. It’s very funny, because that’s something at Brown during the 60s that drove me away from being an English major to being an Art major. Because I still—obviously—like to read novels, and I found myself reading less and less literature and more and more criticism which didn’t really interest or entertain me.
A: So you started as an English major at Brown?
DS: Yes. But for a profession, I sought out something I did well rather than something I liked.
A: Have you been an artist all your life?
DS: I have always made art, but I think I had a greater love for music and for literature. I was just better at art.
A: What brought you to Wesleyan in 1971?
DS: I was a graduate student at Yale, and I had saved up some money to go abroad for a few years and just be an artist. But I was hit by a car, and I was in kind of bad shape. When I got out of my cast—my back was broken—the chair of the art school at Yale called me into his office. He said that they needed someone at Wesleyan to finish two courses—one in printmaking and one in typography—and that I was the only person there who could do both things. He said I would then be a good candidate for the job. And I told him I wasn’t sure I was going to look for a teaching job right away, but he insisted it was a great job. He said that the only problem with Wesleyan was that it was such a nice place that I would stay there for the rest of my life. Try telling that to a 25 year-old.
A: How often do you travel to New York?
DS: I go back each week. I spend three days here. When I first was at Wesleyan, faculty were expected to live in Middlesex County. You couldn’t even get a mortgage in Hartford or New Haven. Now, we’re a much more cosmopolitan faculty. At a certain point, after I worked here for a few years, I asked permission of Wesleyan’s president to move to New York, and he told me to go right ahead: “That’s where an artist should live.”
A: You’ve been a Fulbright scholar three times: once in Italy and twice in India. How did you get those scholarships?
DS: I’ve sometimes told this to Wesleyan students when they’re writing a Watson application, or other fellowship applications: no one checks at the other end to make sure the project you describe on your application is what you end up doing. So, if you asked me now what I said in 1975 I was going to do in Italy, I have no idea. I can tell you what I did do, but I can’t tell you what I said I was going to do. I vaguely remember what I said I was going to do in India, and it wasn’t what I ended up doing. In all three cases, they were wonderful years, and I worked very hard as an artist. But it wasn’t necessarily what I said I was going to do when I made the application. I’m good at writing proposals, but I think they also look at what you’ve done and see that you are the kind of scholar or artist who get things done.
A: What did you do in Italy?
DS: In Italy, I did this series of etchings on the lives of the saints. I also really learned how to engrave with the help of the head of the program I was in, a man named Guido Strazza who’s still alive. He’s very old. When I was at Yale, I hadn’t been able to master how to use this sharp tool called a burin to cut copper. I really learned it in Italy. So I started this series of portraits of writers, which changed the direction of my artistic life a lot. I’ve just given the last full set to the Allbritton Center, where they’ve been installed in the Shapiro Writing Workshop on the top floor. I didn’t want a big label; you have to look for it. They’re in lots of museum collections, as individuals or in groups of 10 or 20, but a few years ago Yale bought the penultimate complete set. I had one complete set left, and I thought rather than have them molder in my estate—where and whenever that’s going to be—I could give them to Wesleyan. Before that, Amy Bloom said it looked like the Shapiro Writing and Rehab Center. It was so institutional and unfriendly, so it seemed like a good home for them.
A: What do you do in your spare time?
DS: A lot of my time is spent hearing live music and reading.
A: Where do you listen to music?
DS: I hear music at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera, and occasionally at other places in New York City.
A: What’s your focus in terms of your own personal art?
DS: Though I originally defined myself as a printmaker, my past three shows have been paintings. I have a show coming up of my new paintings, called “Apothecary (Storehouse),” and the paintings are of pictures of old apothecary bottles. It will be at the Davison Arts Center in February and into March, and then at the Mary Ryan Gallery in New York, where I’ve shown for years. I’m actually designing the catalog for the show right now, and the essay in the catalog is by Wesleyan Professor Emerita Phyllis Rose, who is my best friend.
A: You’ve collaborated with her a lot, correct?
DS: Yes. I did the illustrations for her most famous book, “Parallel Lives”, and it was dedicated to me.
A: And you’ve worked with [Wesleyan professor] Norman Shapiro.
DS: I do, yes. In fact, we’ve done four volumes of La Fontaine, and a Baudelaire which continues to be a best seller. We’re actually working on a project right now: an anthology of French poems about cats. I’m busy finding all my friends who have cats that can model for me.
A: You’ve had shows in a lot of different cities. Which city is your favorite?
DS: That’s a very good question. I think the most fun I ever had was my show that toured India. In a New York gallery on a good day you might get 40 or 50 through the gallery, and sometimes you can sit there for an hour and no one comes in. But when I had a show in Bombay, on the slowest day there were 1800 people, and most days there were more than 3000. The Rolling Stones stopped by one day. They were going to play a concert in Bombay, and someone brought them to my show. They actually gave me tickets to their concert.
A: So you met them?
DS: Oh yeah. Showing in India was really fun because people are incredibly friendly. The subject was Indian. That is, the subject of the show. They were paintings and drawings showing the ways in which Indians wear draped cloth. I was very worried about taking the show to India. When you work on someone else’s culture as a subject, you really have to study it well and observe details. You can’t take anything for granted. Things like the finger-pleating for the garments—that is, how you gather the cloth in your fingers when you tie it on—can be different from region-to-region, and I would ask my models where they are from, and how they are tying the lunghi. I was worried that I would get lots of post-colonial criticism—you know, white guy comes to India with pictures of brown people in native costumes. But, in fact, I got none of that. I just got wonderful reviews and critiques, things like “it takes a foreigner to come here and show us the beauty of the little details of our life.” It’s really great to go to another country and gain the respect of the local people through your artwork, so I’ve shown abroad a lot. But the show in India was just wonderful.
A: You teach part-time in India. How did that start?
DS: I’d always wanted to go there. I knew about the National Institute of Design, which is a fantastic school in Ahmedabad. I wrote a letter to the director that said, “I want to know India, but I’m not a good tourist. I want to come to one place and stay there, and shop in the markets and get to know people and just know that place well and know the country through that place and then travel. I have great respect for your school, and this is what I can teach for you. You don’t have to pay me. If you can give me a place to live and feed me that would be nice, but you don’t even need to do that.” I got back a very sweet and enthusiastic letter—which I still have—inviting me to come teach, so I taught for about two months, and I’ve been teaching there ever since.
A: What about Wesleyan has kept you here for so many years?
DS: The students, by far. There are a few things in addition to that. Wesleyan has allowed me to develop this great print shop—which is probably one of the best, all-service print shops in the East Coast—and the print collection at the Davison Art Center, which is one of the things that really convinced me to come here in the beginning.
A: Over the course of your years here, how much do you think Wesleyan has changed? What has stayed the same?
DS: I think the changes are kind of obvious. They’re changes that happen everywhere, they’re not particular to Wesleyan. When I got to India, people sometimes ask me about ways in which India is different, and I say, “In every way.” What is more interesting to me is the ways in which its the same. And I feel similarly about Wesleyan. Things have gone digital. Students’ reading habits have changed. My friends who teach literature have shortened their reading lists because they can no longer require students to read the same number of novels that they did 20 years ago. People just can’t do it. But the ways in which Wesleyan has stayed the same are fascinating. The fact that it’s this small place where the teaching is so good, but where the institution is really serious about the scholarship (and artistic production) of its faculty, so it has this high-powered, high-producing faculty. When I first came here, the Art Department was made up of “Sunday painters” who showed locally, and they were good teachers. But they didn’t care much about their professional lives. They lacked ambition. Now the faculty of the studio program mostly lives in New York and shows in major New York galleries. Jeffery Schiff won a Guggenheim recently. We’re probably the best studio department in the Northeast. I don’t think that would’ve happened—it hasn’t happened—at Williams or Amherst. They’re still concerned with good teaching, and that’s nice for you guys. But I think this focus ultimately doesn’t make these schools high-powered places.