Chris Mostyn – a passion for teaching and art

Chris Mostyn is an exhibiting artist, a comic lover, a comic maker, and a middle school art teacher. Here I talk with him about his journey back to comics, and how his dual passions of art making and teaching have come together in the form of a series of comics with a strong message advocating for children and the arts. This is a long interview because I found it so interesting I didn’t want to cut anything! But there are heaps of great pictures, so please dive in!

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Chris you told me that originally you wanted your comic strip art to tell a story but you didn’t know what it was. Then through teaching you realized it was to do with the message of teaching and creativity.

You know, my family when I grew up, I always thought we were middle class but looking back I realize that we were working poor. My parents were miserable. They hated their jobs, they spent every day complaining about ‘oh I hate my boss, oh I hate that job, oh I hate that co-worker, man I can’t wait for the weekend’, and so their life basically became a 5 day slog to get to a two day event where they’d drink beer and watch football and eat. But something in my head said I needed more.

I got through high school, I wasn’t a really good student, and then I got into college – suddenly those teachers gave me a life. They opened us up.

my college art professors exposed us to a way of looking at the world and seeing a place where people can love each other and they can be kind to one another, and they can experience real joy and beauty whether they’re poor, rich, it didn’t matter.

It was a community college in my hometown, my college art professors were all artists, and they liked each other and they got along – which I knew was a unique thing, it’s not always that way in art departments – but they did and they would say ‘oh I’ve got an opening this Friday I would like you to come’ and they would specifically hand pick kids that showed promise, kids that were busting their but trying to make something of themselves. So they’d invite us, and we’d come down and look at the art, eat some cheese, drink some wine, and then they’d be like ‘hey were having a party afterwards why don’t you guys come on out’ and we’d go over to the dance studio of the daughter of the teacher and we’d dance till 2 in the morning. They opened up these doors that they didn’t have to let us into and exposed us to a way of looking at the world and seeing a place where people can love each other and they can be kind to one another, and they can experience real joy and beauty whether they’re poor, rich, it didn’t matter.

Chris_sketch meninhatsSo then I bounced around for a bunch of years doing different things and when I landed in teaching middleschool, I didn’t plan on this at all, I thought I would teach for a little bit until I made it as an artist. And then I realized that I was making it as a teacher that I had a gift for working with kids. People will ask you you know like ‘you teach middleschool, are you crazy or are you brain damaged?’ because it is a hard age to work with. But I love it because they are so weird, and energetic and they don’t know what they’re doing yet but they think they do. And they’ve got all this bravado, but they’ve got no direction whatsoever, they are literally just a tsunami rather than a tide. And so it’s our job to kind of help direct them and guide all that energy.

Tell me about these comics you’ve been making recently?

So when I started making comics again last year I’d been doing gallery work, I’d been doing illustrations for people. The gallery thing was nice, it was fun, but it was expensive to ship stuff out to and especially during the school year I couldn’t travel so I couldn’t see any of the work, and that’s really why you do that stuff, you go to meet people. I’m a social person so I like the wine and cheese and the elbow-rubbing. So to send stuff out into the ether and to never have any feedback was really disheartening so I kind of fell back into comics, because I’d always been drawing comics in my journals and I found that I most often was writing about kids and teaching.

What I was seeing here in the US was the way that we treat education and the way that we devalue the arts, it bothers me to no end. There’s an activist in me and it seems like the arts and education, those are the areas that I am focused on now. When I make comics its like I want to celebrate the good things kids do and the good things teachers do but I also… you know like Picasso said art is not a beautiful thing to decorate an apartment, it’s a weapon to be used against our enemies, and I am a firm believer in that.

I love artLike in your job, therapy, it’s focused on the restorative qualities of the arts whereas my job is to challenge the people that would harm people, in this case children. I’m going to stand against that and say like look the arts are important. They certainly saved my life and they gave me opportunities I never would have had. But when you travel if you’re going to show people stuff that your country has done; typically people don’t go on vacation to see your industrial mining plants, they don’t go see your oil refinery, they go see your museums, they go see your ballet or your opera or your great painters. They go see your architecture. It’s the arts that define a culture. I mean any slave camp can produce something. We don’t want to hold that up as the model for society though.

I’ve been a cartoonist my whole life so making comics made sense. Make a picture, put some words on it and ‘ta dah there it is’. I really love that.

As we speak I’m hearing ‘the protector’, almost this fierceness in your resolve to use art for this purpose and also to stand up and talk about these issues…

I spoke at a conference recently for art educators, and a friend of me overheard someone talking about what I said. And they were absolutely shocked, in a good way, by how passionately I spoke and how just vigorously I approach this subject. I think it’s personal for me. Because for me, the arts were all I had as a kid. I wasn’t an athlete, I wasn’t the best looking kid, I wasn’t the most book smart kid, but the arts I could do. So for me, it’s personal.

I look at what is happening in education in general, and I see what is happening with these children. I have a spiritual background that believes that God looks very favourably on those who take care of children and the poor and those who are downtrodden in the world, so its my job if I’m going to say that I’m following that tradition that I need to put my life where my mouth is, I need to do something.

I believe that teachers don’t often hear somebody speak powerfully and clearly to what they experience. They trudge through their day thinking and hoping to God that someone will recognize that what they are doing is valuable. And many of them quit because they don’t have that internal ‘sick-to-it-ive-ness’ or grit or whatever it is that makes us kind of endure hardship. And that’s unfortunate.

And so I figured, ‘well heck, I could be that person’. I could say those things, and I could also very clearly speak to some of those issues that bother me: the way that we look at art as just pretty pictures for the fridge; the way that we manufacture an artwork in a classroom where ‘Ok girls and boys we’re all going to make a ____ (fill in the blank)’. I don’t do that. From 6th grade onwards I’m like ‘I’m going to teach you the methods, I’m going to teach you the technology, I’m going to teach you the techniques, but from there it’s up to you to decide what to do with it’. Because I think that your 6th grade idea is just as important as my 48 year old idea. It’s yours, who I am to tell you differently. And a lot of my kids come out of my class and they love the class because they’re like ‘no one’s ever thought that way about me, or told me that my ideas were any good’. I’m like ‘why the heck not?’. You know, we have a kind of standing rule in my class – if you see something that I draw or that I do that you really love, steal it. If see something that you do that I really love, I’m going to steal it. So from the beginning there’s the sense that, like that quote ‘we are all travellers on the same path separated only by the years that we’ve travelled’, I’m just a few years down the road farther than my kids. But my kids are all geniuses, they’re artists, they don’t know it but they are.

my kids are all geniuses, they’re artists, they don’t know it but they are.

A good friend of mine shared with me that in the 13th Century artist meant ‘somebody who did something to perfection’ – so you could be a chef and be an artist, you could be a trash collector and be an artist. It meant that you had such pride and passion over what you did and you strove with all your being to do everything you could perfectly, or at least to your best. So why can’t all my kids be artists? I don’t care if they make stuff, but why can’t they get instilled with that, and why can’t they see that there’s something more than the just very pedestrian way of thinking that we often see here in this part of the country. Where you know it’s like meat, potatoes, vegetables, Mom and apple pie… and I love all that stuff too – but there’s other things, and so to open them up to the possibilities. Those are all good things that I felt like comics were a great way of expressing. But I didn’t want to write a graphic novel. I wanted to do a strip a week. This year I’m hoping to launch a blog or a site where I can post these and connect with other like minded creators and educators and artists. [see below for his site].

Chris_What art teachers do

So it’s almost like a conversation starter where you want to see who it connects with and what happens next? 

Yeah. Someone commented on Facebook recently that they were so glad I had done this because they had worked for 30 years in education and they felt these things but they didn’t have the skill set to do something with it so I’ve been a cartoonist my whole life so making comics made sense. Make a picture, put some words on it and ‘ta dah there it is’. I really love that.

So it sounds like the mission you are on is to help children, to speak up using your art as a tool for change. And it’s happening on a few different levels – it’s with the kids, opening up possibilities for kids in the classroom, but it’s also supporting other teachers so that they get that teaching is really  important and that they are valued, but it’s also this broader societal discussion around the arts and education.

Do you have any big picture political changes you’d love to see in relation to the arts and education? Are there any little tweaks you think we could make as a society which would have big shifts down at the school level or for kids? 

Yeah a couple of things. Most of the people who have huge impacts on schools went to private schools or boarding schools, they were very entitled, and I think they should stay out of it. I think policy should be made at the state or local level, where people actually know the people, and the community can lobby and influence change.  To me, we have an awful lot of people making rules and policies which I then as a teacher then have to enact, and those people aren’t in schools.

The children I teach are capable of doing great and amazing things if you would get out of their way and let them do it but the problem is we keep burying teachers and administrators under mounds of paperwork, and technology and constant new programs, and these are things that are awesome if the teachers – who are basically the soldiers on the front line – if those teachers deem it important. If the teachers say ‘you know what we really need some new technology’. Or if they say ‘do you know what my kids don’t need new technology, what my kids need is access to field trips so that we can get them out of this little town mentality and we can go see things’. The teachers that are right there in the room with them do a much better job at saying ‘ this is what we need, this is what we don’t need’. But politicians use very big words that scare voters – I’m tired of my children being used as chess pieces, we need to stop using them that way.

Chris monsters 3
And if you want to do well for schools, start spending money on teachers. On training for teachers. Make administrators to come in and teach a class for a year, so they know that kids have changed a loot since they were in school. There’s a lot that’s similar and a lot that’s changed. And schools vary so much depending on income and the situation of the kids.

As far as arts are concerned, it doesn’t take much but a cursory search of YouTube to find out about the value of the arts. You can listen to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk and you can listen to him walkabout the power of creativity, or Dan White or Daniel Pink who wrote ‘A Whole New Mind’ and he was a speech writer for Al Gore and he talked about how we have to think very differently. We originally designed schoos to mirror industry – we have the bell system, we have the factory type mentality, you know, schools were designed to sort of isolate people into groups. You know ‘you’re smart enough to be on the assembly line, you’re smart enough to oversee the assembly line, you’re smart enough to design the assembly line’  – so we could break people up into groups. But I don’t know if anyone’s paid much attention but we’re not using assembly lines much anymore. You know the companies that are out now are saying over and over again that the number one thing we want is creativity.

They want the next Steve Jobs, and they want them as soon as they’re done with high school. But how are you going to learn to think that way if everybody has to give the same answer on the same standardised test? If you really want creativity you’ve got to start funding the arts. And I don’t mean – and this is going to upset some colleagues – making pretty things, we are going to have to rethink how we teach our pedagogy, how we approach giving kids that creative experience. Because if you teach ‘I’ve gone through my list and I’m giving you the line, the shape, the colour, the form, I’ve shown you how to use pencil and charcoal, and paint and ok there, you have your art education’… well, baloney!

Kids are a whole lot better off in pre-school when they throw a whole bunch of crayons on the floor and they’re just let loose. Once they make stuff then the teacher can facilitate by saying ‘do you see what happened here.. and do see where..?’ and they can use the vocabulary and teach them what they are naturally doing or not doing.

Chris_monsters2So start where the kid is – their innate skills and curiosity? 

Right. My classroom is filled with images of comic books and video games, and the Beatles, and skulls, and shells, and all sorts of weird stuff like that. And little kids when they come in are a little scared of my room because it’s filled to the rafters with stuff. I tell me kids early on, and they think its the funniest thing, I say ‘I teach art and I do teach art history, but I don’t spend as much time on what I call old dead white guys’. And all their eyes get real big and they’re like ‘aaaah – did he just say white guys?’ and I’m like ‘look, I have no problem with white guys, I am a white guy, I know a few and they’re friends of mine’ …but the thing for me is if you name any famous artist – if you ask a kid to name a famous artist, they’re going to come up with Picasso, Van Gogh, they’re going to come up with Leonardo, Michelangelo and all the other Ninja Turtles. Because that’s all we ever teach. Where are the women? Where are the people of colour? Where are the anonymous tribal tribal crafts people who weave and throw pots and make carvings. They are as beautiful, they’ll knock you off your feet. European art has been playing catch up for hundreds of thousands of years with African art, but where is that in our teaching?

Sistine chapel: beautiful? Awesome? Important? Absolutely. And so’s that drawing that that kid did of that mean math teacher who embarrassed him in class.

I see no difference between a comic book and the Sistine Chapel; I don’t treat them differently. I understand their difference in our cultural constructs, my thinking is that our cultural constructs are wrong. I think we need to start recognising that what my children make, what Michelangelo made, what the African tribesmen who carved the mask for ceremony make, what the Native American potter makes, they’re all part of the same human experience. It is genetically tied to who we are. You don’t see fish getting together and having knitting parties. Or bears saying ‘you know what this cave just needs a throw rug to tie the room together’. But human beings do that, human beings are the only animals on the planet who feel the need to embellish. everything. From our walls to our clothes to our furniture to our cars. Why is that? And if that truly is a uniquely human thing and we are educating people, should we not at least take a moments pause to ask the question ‘could we teach them about that one thing that makes them unique in all the species on the planet?’. I think that’s kind of important.

Start funding the arts in genuine and real ways. Let’s get the arts into cities where kids don t have access, let’s find the poor students and open their minds up. Lets first celebrate the arts that are in their communities, whether that be graffiti, whether that be painting on the back of jean jackets back in the 70’s and 80’s. Lets celebrate that but lets also bring them into this discussion of culture and life.

We’ve been doing the same things for as log as there’ve been human beings. We just call them different things. What is that? Sistine chapel: beautiful? Awesome? Important? Absolutely. And so’s that drawing that that kid did of that mean math teacher who embarrassed him in class. Good for him, that’s that child taking a stand and saying you know what ‘screw you, I’m important too.’ And fighting back a little bit. I love the idea of empowering children to make a life for themselves.

Because nobody else is going to give a damn – not to the degree that they will. They’ve got everything to lose, so lets empower them to do something. And I can’t think of a better way to empower them, constructively. I don’t want them taking up arms, doing violence, taking drugs, but if they can make art, if they can speak about it, if they can write a poem. I mean think about how many poems were written during the civil rights movement but Langston Hughes. Think about other poets who have written about their struggles, and we all feel a kinship to and we all think are so amazing and so powerful, it’s because that was their weapon. That was their tool. I would just like to get that tool in more hands.

So when we teach social studies, we should be teaching in stories not just dates and places. When we teach math we should help people understand that math is a language that’s going to unlock potential for you, unlock possibilities for you. When we teach science we want to show people how the world works, and also to understand how stuff gets done. All of these things are basically the same thing – it’s problem solving that empowers children.

Chris Mostyn (c) 2016
Chris Mostyn (c) 2016

I discovered Linda Barry in grad school, and my wife for graduation bought me a book and a grinding stone and stick of sumi ink and some bamboo brushes. She teaches at the university of Wisconsin – she’s working with scientists on the ways that we learn, the way we about things and the way we remember things. She has this theory that an image contains a certain smell, and sense of place – that you smell a smell and it transports you back to grandmas kitchen and you’re hearing the sounds and smelling the sounds, and it’s vivid, and that smell has an image in it. She’s interested in the idea of the image – those carriers of memory and story, and how we can draw those stories out. She’s teaching a class for non artists on how to tap into those stories and tell them.

I think about how many people think their lives aren’t important because they didn’t see themselves on a tv screen or on a movie or in the tabloid magazines, what a shame.

For me it comes back to what you were saying before about being able to see the kindness and the beauty and the awe and the ugly and the everything. I guess that’s the lens that art gives us, it’s the ability to see the profound in the everyday and yet that’s not what our dominant culture holds up as important.

Right. Yes there’s almost this idea that beauty is trivial and yet its interesting that everytime we watch movies like the Hunger Games or any of these post apocalyptic dystopian visions of the future there are always these dirty vile grey ugly – why is that? Well maybe because somewhere down in our souls we understand that life that is horrible has to be ugly, and life that is rich and meaningful is beautiful, full of colour and texture. Why is that? Animals pretty much function on instinct – they want to survive, they want to eat, they want to mate. So when it comes to beauty for them, its all about oh that’s a better looking bird than that bird so I’ll go mate with that bird and produce better offspring. Humans have this ability to transcend just the base needs and appreciate beauty and all the healing ability it has. If you come home and your house is trashed after a stressful day you don’t feel relaxed.

It’s the inner state reflected back isn’t it? In those post apocalyptic worlds of grey they seem devoid of possibility, of diversity and its like we can’t see our ideas out there. Our drive, our passions…
I think another thing we need to change, in America anyway, is that everything is being driven around commerce. We are a nation being run by left brained thinkers – these are people who are great at middle management positions, and counting the beans and figuring out the bottom lines, but they’re terrible when it comes to making life better. In my opinion they keep the vehicle running but they do nothing to make the vehicle beautiful or make you want to drive it.

My parents lived a monotonous life grinding out existence, they had no art, I can’t say no culture because I grew up in a biracial home, we had Johnny cash and we had James brown, but really they were not people who were appreciated art. They thought it was nice that I made pictures but they thought I needed something to fall back on. I then dug my heels in and said forget that. We’ve got to stop looking at things only in term sof commerce. Danny Gregory who I know you’re familiar with, with the ‘art for everybody’ idea – I love that. There are certain socialist ideas I love the idea of but I see no actual practical action for a lot of them. The arts are one of the few areas where we really can have equality of people, rich or poor. And I’m not talking about the art industry, I’m just talking about art as life.

In most cultures around the world it’s only been very recently that we started rarifying art and putting it in cages that we call galleries and museums. For the majority of the world you lived with your art. You know, the Zuni people ate out of the pottery they made, the Navajo slept under blankets they wove. The indigenous people in a tribe in Africa would use the carvings they made as a ceremony for religious social practices.

“The artists job is to go out into the darkness, look over the cliff edge grab something out of the abyss bring it back and show it in the light. The rest of us who are too scared to go over there are like ‘holy crap, look at that, that’s amazing’.”

I feel in love with the urban sketching movement after I saw Danny Gregory and Tommy Kane’s video on Redhook. It shows Tommy Kane riding around Brooklyn, goes into a bar, he draws the bar, he goes home and paints it.

I started to ride my bike around the city drawing. I got to know the city, I got to see the city in a very different way. They are not highly polished artworks, buit they made me see things I had never seen, whether it was an African American Church that was slated for demolition so the Government could build an office building in it, I just felt outraged about it, I had to draw it so somebody would remember it was there, or whether it was the monotonous bricks of the city office buildings. For people to take that time to slow down, not to be looking at a screen, not to be mindlessly consuming through the eyes but genuinely having a relationship through the eyes with people and with things, places.

…the arts I think are not the end, they are a path to a different end. They are a path that leads us to human ends, human conditions, relationships, strengthening, revitalization.

Draw your breakfast don’t do a selfie of it. If you want to take a selfie, draw a picture of yourself. Share it with your friends. Have a party and have your friends come over and everyone draws each other. Maybe nobody knows how to draw – do it anyways, have some fun with it. See what connections happen. Because the arts I think are not the end, they are a path to a different end. They are a path that leads us to human ends, human conditions, relationships, strengthening, revitalization. If you’ll let yourself tap into those emotions… If you stand in front of Monet’s Waterlillys and they take up half the wall in a room, and you’re like kind of speechless by it, there’s something about that.

Chris_postitart
Post-it note art by Chris Mostyn for Giant Robot’s exhibition

The artists’ job is to go out into the darkness, look over the cliff edge grab something out of the abyss bring it back and show it in the light. The rest of us who are too scared to go over there are like ‘holy crap, look at that, that’s amazing’.

The arts are an equalizer for people I think – they can be. But they can also be a separator; if you go with the corporate model of art it can be the rich versus the poor. There’s a gallery out in LA that does a show of post it notes. Its called Giant Robot and the guy Eric Nakamura who started it ran a zine called Giant Robot on Asian Art Culture here in America and around the world. Then it became a magazine, and he opened up this art gallery / store. They have this show and they’ll have 4,000 post it notes, and these are artists from around the world, some of them their artwork sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They used to get people to line up around the store, and whatever order you came that’s the order you got to go in. And you’d go around and each was $25, so a kid can save up his allowance, he loves the artist James Jean, he goes and grabs James Jeans’ post it for $25 bucks and takes it home, puts it in a little frame, he’s got an original piece of art, it’s not going to last forever and its going to be around for that kids lifetime. It’s a democratization of beauty and art and I love that a gallery would do that. I’ve been fortunate to be in the show for a few years, and it’s that idea of ‘how do we get art to the people’ and that interests me.

What inspired you growing up?

For as long back as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with monsters

I’m 48 now and I grew up in the golden era of Saturday morning children’s entertainment. Which started in about 1965 and ended in 1984. We got up in the morning and had super sugar loaded cereal and we watched hour, copiuos hours of cartoons, with animals and adventure stories and crazy weird monsters on everything. My Saturday mornings either usually ended with a Godzilla movie or sometimes a kung fu movie, or Soul Train. So there was this massive pop culture influx. In the late 60s and 70s you saw this explosion of public television – Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers. I can’t say enough things about that guy. He was a licensed minister special ordination for being a minister of the arts in television. He ran a show for little children, preschool aged children, and he made you believe that everybody was special. He did a lot with emotions – he said ‘your feelings aren’t right or wrong, they’re just feelings, they’re just yours. And so what do you do when you feel that way?’. And he had great terrible puppets, and it was the land of make believe. He really fostered imagination, and he had an amazing jazz pianist playing the background, he did things like took you to the factory where they made crayons and you got to see the crayons made.  He taught me how to snap my fingers, I remember when I finally got it, I was so excited.

Chris_monsterFor as long back as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with monsters, and I grew up with lots and lots of plastic figurines and the old monster movies on Saturdays or Friday nights. For me Frankenstein was really huge, because here’s a story about a guy who didn’t ask to be made, who didn’t ask to be made into what he was, but he‘s thrown into a world not of his own choosing which I think resonates with a lot of kids, there’s a lot of us who feel that way. But by golly we’re going to force you to make us something – whether it’s a bride or something – that’s the power of youth. You need grab hold of the throat of Dr Frankenstein and choke that guy until he lets go and lets you have a life. So that was really powerful.
In my studio space I have figurines and Japanese monsters from when I was a kid, and then I found as I got older I started to collect things. Recently I’ve been collecting seedpods, shells, a poppy and displaying them in little plastic display boxes.

chris inspiration 2

Right now one of the biggest things that’s an inspiration is riding a bike. A few years ago I started riding a bike to work. I was actually walking to work for a year but then we built a new school that was further way and I couldn’t walk anymore, which I really hated because the walking gave me time to think, I got to watch the sun rise every day. Walking around and watching nature, and listening to the rhythm of things and saying hi to the horses at the end of this one road before I turned under the bridge. Counting the number of cars on the train, counting the pillbugs on the sidewalk between now an this block.

I have a great bicycle and I love my bicycle a lot, probably more than a person should love their an inanimate object, but I really do love it, and I love to ride everywhere, I just can’t get enough of it.

So where to for your artwork next? 

What was strange to me was that for the last dozen years or so all I’ve done is draw monsters, and it’s been weird because I started drawing the buildings and stuff around town, and I took the first class in Sketchbook Skool, because suddenly my brain started to believe that I didn’t know how to draw anymore, and so I wanted to try and draw real things: started doing it, found out I could do it still, was happy about it. But when I started doing the comics, I found that drawing people made more sense. I thought about ‘oh maybe I could do a monster school and I could have kids be little monsters’ because they are kind of, and so are adults – monsters are a great metaphor for human beings and that’s why we use them. But drawing about kids all of a sudden I’m drawing people and I never would have assumed that I would have done that. But it seems to be right, right now. I’m learning a very hard lesson which is just sit down in the boat and let the river take you and don’t fight it so much. You’ll just wear yourself out.

chris comic arts

About the interviewee, Chris Mostyn:

I have taught art in middle school for over a decade now. I have seen a lot of amazing things from kids and some from teachers as well. I have also seen a lot of things that need to change. I have been an illustrator and gallery artist for years but it was always comics I loved best. In 2015 it dawned on me that I had a lot to say about art and teaching and comics would be a fun way to do it. So now, I continue to teach, make comics and ride bicycles around the Midwest.

About the interviewer, Jade Herriman:

I am a coach and art therapist who supports clients through decision making, change, strong emotions and past trauma. I work with people from around the world through one on one sessions and in groups. For upcoming workshops held in the Sydney area see here. For information on how we can work together through coaching see here.

See more:

Chris Mostyn’s comic strips. 

Chris Mostyn’s sketchbooks.

All images copyright Chris Mostyn.