How Teacher Mentors Advance Art and Design Career
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In Chapter 16 of 17 designer and educator Jon Kolko shares how three teachers have been great mentors in his life, shaping his personal and professional approach. The first, his ceramics teacher, teaches him a Buddhist approach to living. The second mentor, Richard Buchanan, founded the Carnegie Mellon design school and influences Kolko in his writings. The third mentor, Robert Fee, mentors Kolko while he teaches at the Savannah College of Art and Design.


Erik: Where have teachers been most impactful as mentors in your own life? Jon: I can think of a couple of examples and both – I’ve only recognized in hindsight. I’ll give you three actually. The first is Alec Haislip who is one of my mentors in ceramics. He taught me how to make beautiful ceramics. That’s nice. The mentorship came in the way that he approaches life and the world around him. He’s – he’s spent years studying how to play the sitar. He lived in India. He cooks his own Indian food. He reads a great deal of Buddhism and generally, his approach to the world around him is pretty cool and well, I can absolutely – in no way claim the level of sort of tranquility that I think he’s achieved. I could try and so you know when I’m working 20 hour days, there is this little voice inside of me that which I think is him and usually in a fairly comical pseudo-Indian accent because he’s a white guy but he – I think he’s earned permission to use that – that pseudo-Indian accent living there for 20 years or something like that. He’s this, ‘Chill out man. You know like what?’ So, that – that’s one example of a mentor. Another has been Richard Buchanan who founded the program at the school of design at Carnegie Mellon that I studied under and subsequently, he’s moved to Case Western Reserve where he’s found another program but and for me, the mentorship is less in the approach to teaching that he had and much more in his writings and it’s only in the last six years that I’ve actually understood I think a level of depth of those writings which refer to people like John Dewey and to the core – the liberal artists that have shaped a lot of our modern day philosophy culture in learning theory and so it’s – it’s a great deal of reinterpreting his readings and that just had a phenomenal effect on me. The third example of a mentor is a fellow named Robert Phee who went – when I first taught at Savannah College of Art and Design my - you know it was three weeks before I was gonna teach class, I was freaking out. I’d never taught a class a before. I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m talking to Bob on the phone and the Bob is this elder guy, 65 years old and he said, ‘Look, just sshhh…sit still.’ ‘Okay, fine I’ll sshhh…’ Treat it like a design problem and I said, ‘Okay, treat it like a design problem.’ Well, it is kind of a design problem. There’s an audience, there’s context and there’s a process that’s gonna happen. It’s gonna unfold in a certain choreographed way, okay, so I get my big brown paper out and get a sharpie and I start to sketch, what the – the timeline of interaction this is gonna feel like over the course of that curriculum and that’s just been a phenomenal approach for me and I’ve used it ever since.