On the Styx
Adviser: Rachael Z. DeLue
Julie E. Dickerson
Art and Archaeology
“The most difficult part of my thesis process was not making a show in two months; it was deciding to get rid of the five months of work I did before that.”
I did not choose the topic of my thesis. It came to me after months of terrible, mind-numbing failure. It came after I physically destroyed all the work I made from September to February. My final product had nothing to do with what I originally started painting: still lives of coffee cups. How did the funky, flying Starbucks cups of September become March’s heavy machinery traversing war-torn landscapes? Michelangelo once said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” I will dare to be corny and say, “Every senior has a thesis inside, and it is the task of the senior scholar to discover it.” The path to discovery may be direct and painless (but probably not); most likely it will be circuitous, tedious, exciting, revolutionary, and confusing all at once.
Chances have it that your final, coveted leather-bound gold-stamped thesis (or in artists’ cases, your unbound, self-stamped-with-your-signature thesis) will not appear out of thin air. Hopefully, your work will reference a deep passion you’ve had or at least thought about while at Princeton. This passion becomes the reservoir of energy that sustains the long days/nights/space-time continuums of work necessary for complete satisfaction in the finished product. Even so, if your passion stays unchanged by your thesis, then your thesis has not done justice to your passion. Let me explain. My senior show echoed themes from my fall junior show, but the senior show transformed the content and quality of the previous show. The struggle with my junior work gave me a platform on which to make bigger pieces faster; I used the same mediums but created deeper, different worlds. It was as though my junior work had grasped at the coruscating edges of an ambiguously formed dream, and my senior thesis managed to form the shapes, places, and characters of that fantastical, apocalyptic imagination.
Passion is beautiful, but do not let my praise of it deceive you. Without hard, academic research to sharpen and refine your view, you are lost. Do tons of it! And be okay throwing the majority out. The nature of my research—looking up artists and paintings, and filing away impressions of both—obviously differs from that of the written thesis. However, how one treats the research should be the same: Learn from all of it but be picky. No knowledge is wasted knowledge, but some knowledge can be wasted space. You want to present a honed, coherent, persuasive story, show, or argument. Only use what is actually essential. In reality, that translates to a painful moment. After months of pinning various artist names on my studio wall, one of my advisers said to me, “Forget this. Just print out images you like.” What? Yes. It was time to cut to the chase, time to ignore what I think sounded or looked good and get at what really moved me. I printed out hundreds of pictures of, literally, things I liked. Once I had established a visual vocabulary, I could investigate it. Only work with what totally inspires you. Be greedy for what excites you.
My advisers were invaluable to my art-making process. They encouraged, challenged, and made observations about my work that I could not. They never let me settle. They invested their time and their research, applauding bravery and innovation when they saw it. At the end of the day, you have to choose your own path, but allow your advisers to illuminate the way once it’s chosen. Listen to their advice, especially when it frustrates you or isn’t what you want to hear. Being uncomfortable or frustrated means you are pushing yourself and testing your limits; it never feels good at the time but pays off after.
Remember, the thesis will be nothing like your other academic work if you’re taking risks; nothing about it is safe or guaranteed to work if you’re striking out into new territory. If you empty your studio two months before your show or nix an entire chapter of your thesis, you don’t know if you’ll pull off a solid thesis before the due date. But trust me, you can and will surprise yourself. There were weeks when I was sure that instead of a show I would have a mental breakdown, film it, and call it performance art. Everyone feels that way. Let me repeat, everyone feels that way. Even if they refuse to show it, most seniors experience moments of thesis terror, even the Rhodes Scholars; luckily, along with the terror come moments of glory. If you work hard and make sacrifices to shape the thesis you want, I promise you can do it. Do not trap yourself into believing otherwise. The most difficult part of my thesis process was not making a show in two months; it was deciding to get rid of the five months of work I did before that. Some people thought the choice was a little crazy. I assure you, all of it will be worth it when your adviser says with a smile, “Well, you did it.” That moment was the most rewarding and will always linger in my memory.
What do I think I may have contributed to knowledge in my field? I don’t honestly think I delivered a world-changing art show in the hallway of 185 Nassau St.’s Lucas Gallery. I think the show was good; I was intensely and immensely proud of it not because it one-upped Michelangelo (I probably never will) but because it changed the perception of my field for people outside of it. Friends who previously smiled politely, feigning respect for my field, came out of my show shocked. They finally saw the guts, time, pain, and work art demands of the creator. It made me respect my own field more, and it made me respect myself. If your art- or thesis-making process is feeling easy, I hate to say it, but you’re probably not doing it right. Do something that you will respect.
Do not fear. Never stop working even if you’re at an impasse. Never work without reflecting. Choose a topic as soon as possible but be okay changing it at any point for a better topic. Be prepared to meet the expectations of that change. It’s never too early to start writing. Talk to your advisers; be honest with them. Welcome the surprises and challenges; the harder the obstacles you face, the more rewarding the process will be afterwards.
Do not pick a topic that you think will be the most successful. It’s too hard to maintain concentrated effort on something you think is good but don’t feel is good. Success will only come out of something you believe in, not something only others believe in. For years you’ve probably produced work other people (teachers, professors, parents, coaches) think is good. Now is the time to decide what you think is good. At the end of the day, you and only you have to be proud of your work. Chances are, if you love what you’re doing, others will too. So go forth and conquer; be bold, young seniors! You have my blessing and permission to do something crazy and be someone you thought you never could be. I know you can do it.
On the Styx
Julie E. Dickerson
Rachael Z. DeLue
Assistant Professor of Art and Archaeology
“Lessons for every senior undertaking to write a thesis: Trust your intellect but also your instincts; be courageous enough to question your work at every step; and shoot for excellence, not mere adequacy.”
It is not uncommon for an artist, over the course of his or her career, to destroy or otherwise dispose of a few works here or there—not every creation is a success, and some are far from it. But it is unusual for a senior in the visual arts program at Princeton to destroy the entirety of her thesis work with less than two months remaining before the opening of her senior thesis exhibition. By “destroy” I mean cut all of one’s paintings into tiny pieces and shove them in a drawer. And by “a senior in the visual arts program” I mean Julie Dickerson, for whom I served as a thesis adviser.
Beginning in the early fall, Julie and I met regularly in her studio to discuss her ongoing work. We talked about her paintings: what they looked like, the process by which she created them, what had inspired her to make them, and what they meant to her or what they might mean to viewers other than herself. Mirrors and mirroring were dominant themes in the paintings, as were everyday objects like paper coffee cups. The pictures seemed to both of us to be about identity and finding oneself but also about illusion and deception: the impossibility of a truly objective encounter with the world as well as the elusory nature of subjectivity. Shapes blurred, shifted, and transformed in her paintings, and carefully rendered images of mirrors produced the effect of fragments of matter and space dancing before one’s eyes. The coffee cups were red herrings; they promised assurance of a known world, a ground on which to stand, but Julie painted clusters of them piled up and spinning in space, proliferating and swarming as if alive, simultaneously mundane and mysterious and thus serving to unsettle more than reassure.
But all of this, come spring semester, was neither here nor there, because these paintings, as I discovered on arriving at Julie’s studio for a visit, were in shreds. “Sooo…,” said Julie when I walked through the door. “Sooo…what?” I asked. Well, she explained, the paintings are gone. Gone? Yes, gone. “Gone” metaphorically? No, literally. Oh.
My initial reaction was, of course, one of concern. How would Julie create a body of work sufficient to fill the two rooms of the gallery where her senior thesis show was to be held, let alone create that many paintings that were actually good, in such a short time? What was she thinking? What were we going to do?
But I kept my fretting to myself, for I have found that holding back is a powerful tool in advising, for it allows thought to percolate and precludes my ideas or opinions from overshadowing or overly influencing those of my students. I also have learned that sometimes my students know better than me. And with a studio thesis, the advice that one gives can only go so far. It is easier to suggest books and articles to read or methodologies to follow—which I do for all of my students, studio and otherwise—than it is to prescribe exactly how an artist should create. So I simply asked, “Why?”
Julie explained that she didn’t like the paintings, couldn’t make them work, and didn’t want to try to salvage them because she wished for a truly fresh start. I had thought they were perfectly fine, a number of them quite lovely, although certain passages of paint hinted at the potential of something more striking, more groundbreaking, and more deeply expressive of Julie’s rich array of ideas and, additionally, more indicative of her superb technical skill.
So she began again. What she produced on this second go-around was exemplary. Bold, vigorous, brave paintings—most of them in black and white, some with fiery flashes of color—of landscapes piled high with grim machines, desolate buildings, and labyrinths of steel. Other pictures showed the view out of a helicopter window or through a rifle scope; in each case, the viewer felt as if he or she was the protagonist of the scene, suspended in air or about to shoot. Vertiginous, to say the least, these paintings were, and immensely compelling for it. Julie’s new work was just that, new, but the pictures also were clearly the result of months and months of thinking, talking, reading, looking, and painting. Everything that had transpired in the year leading up to her creation of them, including all of our conversations about what she might read or whose art she might check out as well as the destruction of her early efforts, was reflected in them in one way or another. As with all senior theses, the process was equal in importance to the product.
So, walking into Julie’s studio only to find out that she had destroyed her work was simultaneously the most difficult and most rewarding aspect of advising her thesis, for this experience highlighted just how brave a student might have to be in order to produce truly great work. The courage involved in starting from scratch is the courage that leads to intellectual inspiration and original thought. If something is broken, the great minds fix it, and this is exactly what Julie did, as if she were a novelist scrapping a terrible chapter in favor of the one that would be devoured by rapt readers for decades or centuries to come. Julie’s courage drove home for me the importance of being rigorous but also reflective as one proceeds through the thesis year, the necessity of letting your project tell you where it needs to go if you sense that your work is not what it should be—if your method is flawed, if your evidence is incomplete, if you stick stubbornly to your argument when all signs indicate you should veer off course. These are lessons for every senior undertaking to write a thesis: Trust your intellect but also your instincts; be courageous enough to question your work at every step; and shoot for excellence, not mere adequacy. Also, call on as many people as you can, your adviser and your peers and your parents and your friends, to weigh in on your process: the more interlocutors the better. Of course, one need not literally destroy in order to create; this is where I feel I must say something to the effect of “don’t try this at home” unless you really, really know what you are doing. But the knowledge that going forward often involves taking a few steps back can be a powerful thing.