Wethli raises bar with his brush
It is 1978. Arriving at Bowdoin for a job interview, Mark Wethli realizes he has found the ideal academic environment. He meets with the search committee about the position, is offered the position, and promptly turns Bowdoin down in favor of a job in California. Why? Because the Bowdoin position is for only one year.
"I knew one year would not be enough," he says.
But from that point forward, Wethli keeps his eye on college job postings. In 1985, another position opens up at Bowdoin, this time for a tenured director of the Visual Arts Program, and the process from 1978 is repeated-only this time, Wethli says yes when offered the position.
During his seventeen years as a Bowdoin professor, Wethli has continued to direct the Visual Arts Program and has risen to become the A. Leroy Greason Professor of Art. He is presently the chair of the Department of Art as well. His work as an artist has been exhibited around the country, including major galleries and museums in New York and Los Angeles as well as a number in Maine. He counts his teaching and his career as a professional artist as his two great accomplishments.
Wethli began teaching as a graduate student at the University of Miami (FL). After a brief stint in New York as a graphic designer, he re-entered academic life at the University of Northern Iowa and, later, California State University, Long Beach.
To Professor Wethli, however, Bowdoin's liberal arts focus puts the visual arts in a new perspective. He points to influential Harvard psychologist Howard Gardiner's seven categories of human intelligence, which holds that the way we learn can be categorized beyond the traditionally emphasized math and verbal skills to include such styles of learning as artistic, musical, and kinesthetic. That the arts can help people change their viewpoints about the world and themselves is the core of Bowdoin's Visual Arts Program.
"Our curriculum, like that of numerous other liberal arts colleges in the last fifty years, has come to embrace the visual arts (along with music, dance, and theater) as one of several and equally significant ways of thinking and engaging in the world," Wethli said.
In keeping with the liberal arts tradition of education the whole person, Wethli is interested in more than merely training those who hope to be professional artists. Art is worthy of first-hand study, he maintains, "whether a student's ultimate ambition is art stardom or simply a more creative and visually enabled approach to one's life, whether in medicine, law, education, parenting, or community involvement."
His students certainly appreciate this philosophy. Jenny Harvey '04, a student in Wethli's Painting I class, calls him one of her favorite professors. "I really think he has got things figured out. He stresses learning, improvement, effort, and having fun in a way that is truly inspiring."
"He has so much insight into what art is about and also into what we as students go through while working on certain projects," said Namsoo Lee '01.
Yet for all of his success in the classroom, Wethli cites the common perception of "art" as a nebulous, undefined subject, as well as the view of the Visual Arts Program is simply a training program for budding artistic wonders, as his greatest challenges as professor. In his classes-Painting, Printmaking, and Drawing from the Intro through the Advanced levels-Wethli uses the same techniques as would be used in, say, a grammar lesson. "Art has a vocabulary, a syntax, and a style of usage that can be taught, much like any language," he said.
Wethli is quick to caution us about this, though. "It's not so much a matter of whether art can be taught as what art can teach," he said. Displaying his penchant for remarkably direct and clear insight-surely no one can walk away from any substantive conversation with Wethli without feeling as though one has just encountered some type of deep truth-he said, "While 'art' is indeed a slippery notion, in a liberal arts curriculum it needn't be any more elusive than the topics of history or philosophy. It's in the pursuit of and immersion in the art-making process, precisely because it can be so confusing and uncharted, that other questions-the complex interactions of seeing and knowing, the interplay of personal, cultural, and social values, the nature of symbols and meanings, and the more profound and often paradoxical implications of coordinating eye, hand, head, and heart-are invariably raised and addressed."