Monday, April 16, 2007

Barbering: A Dying Craft (And An Undergraduate Show, Floundering At Best)

Cory Oberndorfer

As a child, I spent little time alone with my father. He played the traditional role of the family breadwinner and house handyman. But once a month, we would get haircuts. Being raised in the Midwest, this meant a trip to the barbershop. It was easy to spot with the rotating white, red and blue barber pole outside. The clientele consisted of men. Old men with little hair, middle-aged men with slightly more hair, and on Saturdays, men with their sons. There was also no shortage of mustaches in the area. For years I was under the impression that barbers were required to have names with three letters or less. There were always men like Ed, Ted, Tim, Mac, Bud, Bob, Joe and at least two Jims per shop. Barbering was a family tradition and there were usually brothers or fathers and sons running the shop, and one thing was always certain—when you came in you would get a haircut. And by this, I mean you would get “the haircut”. There were only slight variations on the outcome of the haircut.

Today, for the first time in many years I visited a place I was proud to recognize as a true, honest-to-god barbershop. Hidden in a nearby residential area next to a bowling alley(natch) was the Westwood Barbershop. I didn’t need to make an appointment as the place only takes walk-ins and cash. As I walked though the door the nearest barber removed the cape from the back of his chair in a silent invitation to sit. He was a man I would estimate to be in his 80’s and I could only assume he held this profession his entire life. He deftly wrapped my neck, draped the cape over me and proceeded to begin his work with an electric razor. He used his comb to part my hair on one side and asked how I wanted my hair to lie. It took me a second to understand what he meant since I haven’t owned a comb or parted my hair in over fifteen years and my hair rarely “lies” in any particular fashion, if it “lies” at all. He emphasized that I would require hair gel to get it to lie properly at the length he was cutting it. Apparently, he takes great pride in getting hair to lie in a certain way.

As he worked on my hair with nary a word spoken, I enjoyed the time to drink in the surrounding atmosphere. The shop was small, with room for five barber chairs lined up near a counter on one wall and red vinyl chairs lining the opposite wall. There were no sinks, as a barber does not provide washes. There were no hairdryers or styling products. In the vinyl chairs sat several older gentlemen reading the paper, an act I can only assume they would continue for most of the morning. In the other barber chairs were several more gentlemen with hair only on the sides and back to be cut, as well as a man in his 30’s sitting in a chair adjacent to his 10-year-old son getting a haircut. There were probably four generations being represented. Very few words were spoken in the shop. The only conversation I could hear was that of the man next to me discussing what type of fertilizer he uses(he used to use manure but now uses this processed stuff that contains no phosphorus). The five barbers all wore the same hairstyle and matching short-sleeved blue shirts that zip up the front. None seemed under the age of 65. I’m sure the barber in his 60’s was probably referred to as “the kid” or “the new guy”. From my vantage point, I was able to see several of the name plaques displayed in the stations. They read “Joe Santini”, “Nick Santini” and “Nickolas Santini”. It just seemed right that they were all family, despite the fact that some of the names were longer than three letters.

I watched as the men displayed a mastery of their craft. In the ten minutes that my haircut lasted, Nick worked effortlessly with his razor. He never needed to check the lengths or even out the sides, as they were executed perfectly on the first pass. The top was trimmed with just a few passes of the scissors. He then placed warm shaving cream around my ears and along my neckline before taking care of the edges with a straight razor. I peeked over at Joe in time to catch him trimming the nose hair of his client.

At this point you may be asking yourself why I’m writing an art review of my trip to get a haircut. The answer is simple…pride and dedication to craft. These men had all chosen their lot in life and honored the tradition that came with it. Just as a painter makes a mark, the barber works his shears. He provides a work of art for the individual to present to the world. Call me nostalgic, but I can’t help holding the highest level of respect for these barbers and their art. Plus, Art is a perfect barber name.

American University Undergraduate Exhibition

As an American University MFA candidate, I was very curious to see what our program was churning out on the undergraduate level. After all, these are the students representing my school and its reputation. But having high hopes and expectations runs its risks…it’s easy to be disappointed. After viewing the show, I was wishing I were merely disappointed. Instead, I was appalled and ashamed.

I am well aware of the fact that the visual arts department does not emphasize Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees and that very few students seek this degree. But I also know that there are many students introduced to the arts through curriculum requirements. I also know that American University has pedigreed faculty members teaching these students. So what went wrong?

I did not see any sort of art education or instruction in the work presented in this show. There were drawings and paintings of a very naïve nature. Knowledge of line, value, contour, form and content were hinted at, at best. I did not see what I would consider a single finished piece. Most were incomplete or presented as studio sketches stuck to the wall with pins. The museum wall, I should add.

Was this show representative of the curriculum? If so, the requirements have a misguided standard. Were the advanced students not represented? Doubtful. Most artists would be thrilled at the opportunity to display their work in a museum. Is it possible that our high-quality instructors do not push the students? Perhaps they do not push them to create “finished” work, but even if the exploration of the work is the focus I could assume at least a few final products would slip through. Does the problem lie in the facilities provided? Although the new Katzen Art Center is not extravagant, the studio spaces are definitely functional and should not be a hindrance to the process.

These are just a couple of the questions the administration should be asking themselves in search of a significant improvement to the program. It is now weeks later and I am still speechless over what I saw. I could as more questions or make more observations but to be honest, I am at a loss for words.

There were, however, two parts to this show. The second part being that of the graphic design students. In my opinion, this part of the show faired better than that of the drawings and paintings, but the standards and expectations are different. Most design students with a bachelors degree are expected to enter directly into the professional world. Unfortunately, with the accessibility of computer-based design programs this field is not as elite as it used to be. There are now many graphic design degrees that can be completed over the internet, in condensed programs and through night classes. This severely ups the ante of what is expected from a quality University program. Pleasantly, it was obvious that craftsmanship is stressed in this program. Not only was the work well-presented, but the cleanliness in the layout and content was also apparent. Which leads me to the one word I would use to describe the design part of the exhibit…predictable. I saw no work that varied from the aesthetic prevalent in Print Magazine. This is often what happens when design is being taught in an educational environment by other designers. I have a feeling that many of these students will be disappointed and frustrated when they begin positions in the professional world. A world full of restrictions, and worse, clients. Their once beautiful product layouts fall victim to cost issues, quality issues of inks, paper and other materials, the bad taste of clients who feel obligated to override any decision the designer has made, and the issue of overall practicality.

To the design students, I applaud your efforts and wish you luck in your pursuits. It is not your University education that will form your career, but the first few years floundering in the real world. Brace yourself.

**With this criticism, I am admitting the fact that I am making generalizations of the show as a whole and intentionally do not mention the success or failure of individual artists.

No comments: