Welcome to Office Hours, a series brought to you by the Features section! In these articles, Argus writers speak to faculty, staff, and members of the administration about their interests, classes, and lives on and off campus.
Meet Visiting Assistant Professor of Art Scott Kessel ’88, Wesleyan alumni, educator, and artist in residence at Kidcity Children’s Museum based in Middletown, CT. Working closely with the museum director and builder, he transforms visions into playful worlds for kids by utilizing his skills in drawing, carving, sculpting, and more. Kessel does many things on Wesleyan’s campus, including teaching classes like “Drawing I” (ARST131) and “Introduction to Mindfulness” (CIS135) and serving as a private drum instructor. With a blend of creativity and education, Kessel enriches his community’s artistic and academic landscapes.
A: Can you introduce yourself in any way you would like?
SK: I live here in Middletown, Connecticut, a couple blocks from Wesleyan. I get to dream up worlds for the kids to play on with the director and another builder [at Kidcity Children’s Museum]. Part of my job is to draw pictures until I’ve captured what the director [Jen Alexander ’88] is seeing in her head. I hand the drawings off to my coworker, Matt Niland, and we build them together. He does most of the structural building and mechanical stuff, and I make what he builds look like what I drew. It’s a real improvisational dance and collaboration between the three of us. I do a lot of carving, sculpting, mural painting, faux finishing, blacksmithing, and whatever is necessary to visualize these worlds. There is also tons of fixing and touch-up work. These one-to-seven year-old kids sure are brutal on your art.
A: Could you briefly describe the hats you wear on the Wesleyan campus?
SK: I have three hats. So, one of my hats is teaching one of the sections of Drawing I, the foundational drawing class. My second hat is with Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and University Jewish Chaplain and Adjunct Instructor of Public Policy Rabbi David Leipziger Teva and Amy Tate, a yoga teacher. Together, we developed and teach the “Introduction to Mindfulness” class. I’m also a private lessons drum instructor in the music department, teaching both hand drumming [congas] and the drumset.
A: Can you talk a little bit about your background?
SK: I graduated from Wesleyan in 1988. I stuck around, got a master’s degree, a teaching certificate, and started teaching art, kindergarten through 12th grade. Then I left Middletown for a few years, lived down on the shoreline with some friends, and ended up back in Middletown to move into the Chan [Shaolin] meditation martial arts temple. Around 1994, I had taken vows as a priest in training in the Chan practice. I also taught GED classes in the prison system and got hired to start an art and music program in the maximum security prison for 14 to 21-year-old boys in Cheshire, Connecticut. After that I was in a touring funk rock jam band in the late ’90s and traveled all over the eastern half of the U.S. playing a couple hundred shows a year.
A: How would you describe your experience as a Wesleyan student?
SK: Wesleyan was great for someone who was an artist, musician, and athlete who also wanted a good, well-rounded college education. It really let me explore all of my different interests and discover others I didn’t know I was interested in. When I was here, I was on the soccer team for all four years and was co-captain my senior year and was awarded All-New England and Scholar Athlete All-American. So, I would say athletics, drumming, and visual art were my three main focuses.
A: You’ve mentioned your involvement in both art and music here. How do you think these two creative outlets complement one another in your practice and your teaching?
SK: I can’t imagine not doing them both. As a student here, I remember thinking I had to pick one or the other to focus on. I’d say, “I’m gonna be a drummer. I’m gonna make a life as a drummer,” and then I’d burn out. And right around then, I’d start having a great time making art. And I’m like, well, “I think I’ll be an artist instead.” And so I would flip-flop, burn out in one, and return to the other. And eventually, I realized I can do both. Why do I have to pick? So, I fall more into the category of jack of all trades and master of none.
A: Professorship versus student life?
SK: It’s a trip being in the same classrooms that I was as a student. Now I’m in charge, and so that’s odd. But it’s fun and exciting, as long as I don’t think about it too much, because what I do notice is that sort of critical self-dialogue, like, ‘Who am I to be standing up here now in the same way as the people I revered?’ It’s hard for me to imagine that people look up to me that way.
A: What inspired you to become an educator?
SK: I love sharing the things that I really enjoy. If you have one student who sends you a thank you note years from now, it’ll power you for a long time. And if somebody’s interested in the peculiar things I’m interested in, that’s exciting. Teaching is an incredibly humbling act, and when you are in a position where you can help coach somebody and guide somebody, it’s an awesome responsibility—something that I try not to take lightly. As a life practice, teaching has been a powerful way for me to see myself more clearly and actually share the awesome things that I like to do without my ego getting in the way.
A: What are your goals as an educator?
SK: I hope to spark a sense of joy and discovery and help illuminate for people what they like about themselves and what they’re interested in. To help people find their inner weirdo interests and not just shove what I’m interested in down their throats.
A: What led you to be an art studio professor at Wesleyan teaching drawing?
SK: I just love drawing and want other people to love drawing. The act of translating something that’s in your head onto paper in a visual way is a really powerful skill to have. Also, the really important thing about drawing is teaching people how to see. When I look at the world as an artist, I find beauty wherever I look. And not so much criticizing, not judging, but just being in awe of this world that we’re in. If I take a photo of something, I’m like, wow, that’s beautiful. Click. But if I sit for an hour or two and draw it, when I come back to look at my drawing, I remember the smells, sounds, and what I felt like as I was drawing because I was that much more present.
A: How would you describe your style for teaching drawing in the classroom?
SK: A fair amount of my instruction ends up being improvisation. Like a jazz musician, you have your melody and then play a solo. Usually, there’s specific content I need to cover in a day, but there are so many ways you can convey the same knowledge. It’s based in part on how I’m feeling, how much energy I have, and how much confidence I have on a day—and also on what each student needs because everyone is so different. “Drawing I” is particularly tricky because you have students who have been through four years of an art magnet school. They’ve done figure drawing for years already. And then you have people who have never drawn before. My main goal as a teacher would be to meet everybody where they are and challenge and inspire them to improve.
A: What type of art did you enjoy creating as a student and currently in your spare time?
SK: So, I majored in printmaking and did lots of portraits of local musicians. Back in the ’80s, when I was a student here, I could see live music in downtown Middletown five nights a week. I would take my sketch pad, and I wasn’t old enough to drink, so I’d get cranberry and orange juice, sit there, and draw the musicians all night. These days, I’ve been enjoying more three-dimensional work. I’ve been doing a lot of blacksmithing and wood carving lately. I’m also excited now that I have my studio space at Kidcity. I just got my etching press back from a friend who had borrowed it for 20 years, and I can’t wait to get back to printmaking again.
A: How has your conception of what it means to be a successful artist changed?
SK: I’m much less interested and concerned with being a gallery artist and making a living by selling paintings and much more concerned with the questions: How can I continue to make art for the rest of my life? And how can I surround myself with beautiful handmade things? I have also been really inspired by teaching and sharing what I love to do.
A: What do you like about teaching music?
SK: As a drum teacher, I enjoy incorporating rhythms from drumming traditions from around the world, bringing that into the drum set, and working on weird and tricky coordination. I love watching people improve over the semester, [especially] when I have students who come in with zero experience, literally can’t hold the stick, and just [get to] watch them improve, keeping them company with their joy and frustration as the semester progresses.
A: What drumming style do you enjoy playing on your own?
SK: I enjoy playing music that makes people move their bodies. So, if it’s got a groove and grabs your insides emotionally and physically, I’m happy playing it. I’m perfectly content playing the same simple groove all night long just sitting there in the pocket, supporting the song. I play with a couple of different local artists, Waberi Jordan, a world-class jazz and R&B singer and songwriter, and also with Randy Moses and the House of Moses, a one-of-a-kind soul and R&B singer.
The main band I play with is Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem. We’ve been together for the last 24 years! We play a lot of music with American roots, like Appalachian old-time fiddle tunes mixed with swing and folk and New Orleans grooves. In that band, I play a completely homemade, recycled drum kit with an old genuine Naugahyde suitcase for a bass drum, a Danish butter cookie tin and the lid for cymbals, and a couple of wooden boxes I made for conga-like sounds.
A: When did the mindfulness program start, and how did you and Rabbi David Teva collaborate?
SK: We’ve been doing it since about 2012. In conversation with Rabbi David, we spoke about how there has got to be a way to help students deal with all their stress and anxiety, to learn how to be with what they’re feeling without resorting to drugs and other ways of escaping. He wanted to reach students before they went to the emergency room. At that time, another friend, Amy Tate, a yoga teacher finishing her Ph.D. at Lesley College, was living in Middletown. So, the three of us created a curriculum based on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs, the Mindful Schools curriculum, yoga practices, teachings of the Chan practice, and Rabbi Teva’s practices and wisdom from the Jewish faith traditions.
The class’s development has been a long and evolving process. More recently, the critical exercise component was added to help students contextualize what they’re learning and think critically about these mindfulness practices. We’re doing our best to acknowledge how much these teachings have been taken out of their original context, to be as respectful as we can, and to acknowledge where these teachings come from.
A: What are the benefits of mindful practice from your personal experience for those who are unfamiliar?
SK: I saw this on a great T-shirt once: “Meditation, it’s not what you think,” which is such a multi-layered statement. People think they can’t practice mindfulness because they say, “I think too much,” but it’s missing the point. It’s more about simply noticing your thoughts and emotions without judging them or yourself and making the choice to return over and over again to your object of focus. Some of the techniques we practice are learning to pay attention to your breath, paying attention to sounds and emotions, doing body scans, or repeating comforting words like mantras or prayers.
These practices are meant to help you develop compassion for yourself and what you’re going through, and allow you, in a given moment, to make choices rather than habitually reacting to a situation. The practices help you see who you are and be okay with yourself. Ask yourself, who am I before I began reacting and thinking in ways my parents, friends, and society have taught me for all these years? Practicing letting go of those thoughts and seeing situations for what they actually are, and not for what you think they are, takes practice, too.
It takes commitment. It takes repeated trying, a willingness to be honest with yourself, and learning how to be with unpleasant and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Most students come to the course because they’re overly anxious or sometimes so stressed out that they can’t sleep. We try to offer different ways to acknowledge what’s going on for them and provide ways to work with their particular situation.
A: Would you explain how the campus has changed since you were a student here?
SK: One of the main differences with the students now versus when I was here from ’84 to ’88 as an undergrad is cell phones. It’s so unbelievably different how people interact, plan to meet up, and actually meet up now. There was so much more interpersonal connectivity by necessity. When waiting for someone and they didn’t show up, you couldn’t just text them, “Hey, where are you?” You’d sit there and ask, “How long do I wait for this person?” You’d always meet other interesting people while you’re hanging out waiting. It’s just very different socially, mainly because of that. But there’s an everlasting Wesleyan spirit of creativity, willingness to experiment with identity, and thirst for social change. One of the things I appreciated about Wesleyan was that it felt like it had all types, from the frat boy jock people, to the crazy artist types, to the queer community, to the hardcore biologists and mathematicians.
A: What is your relationship with the Middletown community?
SK: My family and I stayed here in town and raised our son here because it always felt like a very real community. A rich and varied downtown with lots of interesting stuff going on up at Wesleyan. We have a great shared backyard between four houses right downtown with wonderful neighbors. We shared kids, meals, gardens, tools, lawnmowers, and snowblowers. It’s been kind of like a commune, a little village within a larger city.
Middletown is small enough that if you get together with people and raise a stink, you can make changes. A group of community members stopped buildings from being torn down and a strip mall on Washington Street with a Starbucks, Borders books, and other national chain stores from being built. So, you can make a difference in this town if you get involved.
I think that Wesleyan students would benefit from getting more involved in the community. I didn’t know anything about downtown until my senior year, when I started going to bars and drawing musicians on Main Street for my senior thesis. I got to know people from town just by hanging out there. It just made Middletown feel like a much more welcoming and less scary place. There certainly are opportunities for students to get involved with kids and programs in the community. If students took more advantage of opportunities to be involved, we’d all benefit from that. I do think that Wesleyan is trying to do a better job to be a better neighbor. There is always more we can do to support our community and especially the kids in our community.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.
Dove Bonjean-Alpart can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: This article previously misstated Scott Kessel’s class year. He graduated in 1988, and the article has been updated accordingly.