The Pursuit of Citizenship, Relevance, and Sustainability

Man using an iPhone camera mounted on a tripod

Bill Gaskins in his home studio. William Staffeld / AAP

May 4, 2018

A Profile of Bill Gaskins, from the Spring 2018 Issue of AAP News.

When making the commitment to become an artist, Bill Gaskins, visiting associate professor of art and American studies, asked himself three fundamental questions having to do with citizenship, relevance, and economic sustainability: "How was I going to make money? How was I going to make sense? And how was I going to make a difference through deciding to become an artist?"

His answers to these questions form the basis of his practice, teaching, and engagement with graduate and undergraduate students. "These are questions that influence, guide, and govern the decisions I make to this day, and they inform my pedagogy as a professor," he says. "My work meets at the intersection of the visual and the liberal arts. Photography is a fundamentally interdisciplinary medium. How I'm informed as a person, both through scholarship and experience, informs the ideas, form, and content of my work."

Working in photography, cinema, and nonfiction writing, Gaskins is an artist and essayist whose sensibilities were shaped during the Black Arts Movement of the mid-1960s and 70s. His interests are broad, but Gaskins believes photography is what enables him to be in places and with people that he otherwise would not be, creating work that brings people together who would not otherwise share the same space.

Gaskins earned his B.F.A. from the Tyler School of Art, an M.A. from The Ohio State University (OSU), and his M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). While an undergraduate, he first recognized photography as an art form in Volume One of The Black Photographers Annual, produced by a group of African American photographers in New York City in 1973. It was also the first time he had seen photographs of African Americans who were not portrayed as athletes, entertainers, or criminals.

Two years later Gaskins was teaching and earning his master's degree from OSU when an undergraduate senior sought him out for a debate about race in the U.S. that she proposed to film for her thesis project. She believed there were few tenured African American faculty at OSU because there were more white people in the national population. As they talked, he said, "I realized this student was, in the last decade of the 20th century, about to leave an undergraduate education with 15th-century ideas about the correspondence between race and intelligence because either no one had challenged them or did so successfully in the classroom."

Along with the urgings of some students, this experience helped Gaskins to see that he needed to become "both artist and scholar" in the academy. It was the beginning of a journey that he says has given him the opportunity to train future artists, collaborators, arts administrators, arts journalists, photo editors, and patrons, and to not only help them develop answers to the citizenship, relevance, and sustainability questions as artists on their own terms, but to also develop what he identifies as 21st-century literacies around the intersection of race, class, gender, and structural inequality.

"Too many students earn B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees without a scholarly and social comprehension of the intersectionality of race, class, gender, and segregation in the art world and the world-at-large," Gaskins says. "These are essential literacies in a world that is neither postracial, postpatriarchal, postclass, nor postqueer. I want to know that students will have these literacies to do with what they want and hopefully transform the world through them."

As an M.F.A. candidate at MICA, Gaskins began to see digital photography as a path to digital literacy. He predicted that there would be thousands of faculty teaching how to use software and digital photo equipment but only a handful teaching students how to think with — and through — these tools. Gaskins decided he wanted to be among those teaching people to make and think — "to make students smarter than the technology they were using."

He has continued to focus his teachings on the thought behind the technology and race-based inequalities in classes like The Eye Phone, an undergraduate advanced topics studio exploring the principles of conceiving, producing, editing, and managing digital photographs through mobile phones; and Photography and the American Dream, an American studies class in the College of Arts and Sciences. The latter examines the ways poverty is represented and engages students in the history of photography, and in art, journalism, American and African American studies, rhetoric, editorial writing, and oratory. It questions how constructions of race-based inequalities are both structural and psychic, and for many of the students, the class is the first time they have been assigned research-based nonfiction texts written by African American scholars.

For the past two years, Gaskins has also taught the first-year art studio research seminar, whose purpose is to introduce B.F.A. candidates to the field, the department, and the university. For this class, Gaskins decided rather than work from a textbook, the students would research and write their own textbook or reader, comprised of essays they have written about contemporary artists they have been assigned.

"These students are serious about transforming themselves," says Gaskins, "and challenging the psychic inequalities that lead to institutional barriers to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in American life." They are starting to ask the two fundamental human questions for themselves — who am I, and why am I here?

Beginning in the fall of 2018, the Department of Art initiates a new B.F.A. curriculum that distributes credits almost equally between traditional in-department studios and seminars, and electives across Cornell. Gaskins was on the faculty committee that developed the curriculum, and he sees it as offering those pursuing fine arts degrees at Cornell a rare level of freedom and responsibility to evolve as human beings within a curricular and academic path that fits the questions the students are exploring through elective classes beyond AAP, and minor class offerings in architecture and CRP. At times Gaskins has been critical of the pursuit of credentials over the pursuit of quality content in undergraduate education, but now, he says, "as a result of the new curriculum we will be in a leadership position among university-based B.F.A. programs, and as a department on campus. Students are going to be able to make decisions in close counsel with advisors around how to maximize the benefit of pursuing a B.F.A. within a major research university, and deeply engage science, social science, and the humanities — without the additional coursework and year of tuition the concurrent degree option requires."

"As I tell my students who are coming to Cornell to get a job," Gaskins says, "you can get a job right now. But if you want to evolve and develop through the contemplative space of a university like Cornell in the company of people pursuing the same objective, it's not about the credentials — it's about the content."

Along these lines, Gaskins is among invited faculty participants in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum's "Crossing the Photographic Divide: Mining and Making Meaning" project, an initiative funded by a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The objective is to mine the photographic holdings of the Cornell libraries to develop new platforms for student and faculty engagement with the photograph at the curricular level. Additionally, this semester, in his role as faculty fellow-in-residence in the Cornell Townhouse Community, Gaskins has partnered with natural resources professor and Alice Cook House Dean Shorna Allred to teach a new seven-week Learning Where You Live class titled Where Do We Go from Here? "Each semester, we want to connect the first-year and upper-level students seeking an intimate place to unpack the difficult topic of race-based inequality, by engaging the research-based nonfiction writing of scholars like Toni Morrison, who experience and comprehend these inequalities with grace and intellectual gravitas on a daily basis," says Gaskins.

Even as he returns to the fundamental questions concerning citizenship, relevance, and sustainability, Gaskins looks further ahead into the 21st century.

"We cannot continue to have separate, unequal, and unjust public and private policies in a country we consider to be the greatest on earth," he says. "The future is in understanding that inequalities are structural. If we don't understand the role of visual, material, and media culture in helping people either see or blinding them to those structures, I'm not doing my job as an artist at Cornell University."

"I've come to see pedagogy in the same way I see photography, cinema, and nonfiction writing — I see teaching as a medium," he says. "I believe the third decade of the 21st century is going to be about teaching and learning in ways that our new curriculum is going to be a wonderful platform for."

By Patti Witten

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