Mike Thiedeman, artist and professor (an appreciation)

I wrote this in 2012, about Earlham College art professor, Mike Thiedeman.  At the time, I meant to post it on my blog, but forgot.  Recently I started re-reading a book that I read back then, and realized my omission.  I post this now because it’s never to late to express gratitude.  (Thanks, Mike!)

I graduated from Earlham with a Theatre Arts major in 1988. While at EC, I took a painting class and a drawing class with Mike Thiedeman. I wasn’t majoring in visual art, and I felt intimidated but welcomed into the rigorous studio environment—in part because Mike was so respectful. I recall painting a still life featuring a red enamel teapot with a black handle. The painting I did was up close so that most of the canvas paper was full of redness. It’s hanging in my kitchen now. It looks very little like that actual teapot (which I still remember well). At the time, Mike admired the painting, and offered to trade one of his ceramic pieces for it. I declined the trade, which I regret now, but I think I declined because his valuing of my painting made it have more value for me. In this simple act, he made me see that what I made had meaning. Mike had a real respect for students, and this came through in his teaching. As a teacher in a graduate creative writing program, I know how important it is to balance support and challenge, but above all, to do everything so that you don’t kill the creative spirit. Mike was an early guide to me in how to be collaborative and treat the student artist with respect. These years later, I still think about those classes and some of the principles I learned: that the artist has choices about how to frame the work, not only literally, but in terms of where the borders are, what to include and exclude from the narrative of the piece. For some reason, I became really fascinated with a certain kind of close focus, and also with its (possible) contrast: white space. I still am haunted (in a good way) by those kinds of considerations. One charcoal portrait I drew of a friend who was also taking the drawing class had almost all white space in on the page, with the line of his arm and inner elbow on the left side of the paper. This kind of seeing, this kind of visual meaning making, was something I had never considered before taking Mike’s classes. My own creative focus has taken the form of writing fiction and personal essay. In some ineffable way, that idea, that way of examining perspective and how to play with it to make meaning, translates to my words on the page, and I see it in most good writing: what we leave in, what we leave out. Absence as presence. I’ve continued to be fascinated with how each of the arts can inspire the other, this idea of interdisciplinary aesthetics. Though creativity in its many forms has been a core of who I am since childhood, I think the start of this conversation—of the finding of words to articulate these inklings—began during my time at Earlham. Mike Thiedeman’s teaching and aesthetic was a formative essential.