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Departing Foundation Chair Linda Hudson Speaks with Assistant Professor Emma Kemp about Her 30-Plus Years at Otis College
At the end of this academic year, Foundation Program chair Linda Hudson will retire after over 30 years at Otis College, starting when she had just finished her MFA at Art Center College of Design. In these years at Otis she has been a longtime MFA advisor, taught art history, was an assistant chair in Fine Arts, and taught many studio classes—in both the Fine Arts and Product Design programs—before her multiple roles in Foundation, first as faculty, then interim chair, and, most recently, as chair, all while maintaining her own art practice. Hudson has had solo exhibitions at such institutions as the Santa Monica Museum of Art and Descanso Gardens, and has participated in group shows at the Whitney Equitable, Long Beach Museum of Art, Ben Maltz Gallery, and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, among many others. She’s also been a guest lecturer and critic and has worked as a color consultant and created several interior and exterior design projects. Foundation Assistant Professor Emma Kemp recently met up with Hudson over Zoom to find out more about her start in art and teaching, as well as her hopes for the Foundation program after she has departed. Their interview had been edited for length and clarity.
Emma Kemp: I wanted to begin by asking you about growing up in the Midwest.
Linda Hudson: I grew up initially in Missouri, and then later, when I was in high school, we moved to Wyoming. My parents remodeled a house and then moved to do the next project. It seemed like they could make anything; they built fireplaces and grew huge gardens. Making was always a part of my growing up. When I was five, my father built a rowboat in our basement. And then when the Boy Scouts needed a sailboat, he tore out the bottom of the rowboat to make a keel. My mom sewed canvas to make a sail! There was this belief at my house—if you wanted something, first you’d see if you could make it. There wasn’t wealth, so a lot of our making was make-do, and all of it was can-do.
Did you find the move to Wyoming difficult?
It was very lonely at first. In retrospect, this time was instrumental for me as an artist/designer. The move sent me into a more internal world. In the quiet, I created in response to the huge sky and mountains. I took long walks and started making lots of weird things: sundial wrist watches and so much more.
What other kinds of weird things?
I remember my mother was very frustrated because, at 17, I began drawing on my walls. Looking back, I recognize that bedroom is not unlike what I do now in my studio: careful arrangement and rearrangement of natural world objects and “somebody-made-it” things remains a part of my daily studio practice.
Were you set on going to art school?
No. Well, this becomes deeply personal because I followed a boyfriend, who then became a husband; he was a musician and a composer. We skirted around the country and ended up at Berklee College of Music in Boston. In our first big city we went everywhere. Though I spent a lot of time at Berklee listening to amazing jazz, I was left on my own a lot. Eventually I joined a weavers group in Cambridge. These women were looking at the world in a different way, and their sharing helped me become me. It was the mid-1970s. I entered into this consciousness-raising as a woman and a maker and connected to my family history of weaving. I also developed a deep affection for weaving and weavers from around the world. And yet, at the time, I also worked as an optician to earn a living.
It's curious that you were once an optician. It presents another way of helping people see. I remember you mentioned that job previously in relation to drawing and seeing.
It took a while to make the connection between having been an optician and my sustained interest in perception in my art practice. But it’s true; looking at the long view, comprehending the sense of a space and attention to relationships between things is always present in my thinking and making.
So you were taking weaving classes around the city and you were community-building that way. Then did you enter formal art school?
When [my then-husband] finished school, we moved to Los Angeles. The deal was, in the old-fashioned way, that if I put him through college then he was to put me through college, so I began classes at Cal State Northridge. I started in the Weaving department, eventually migrating into Fine Arts.
Was there a foundation program?
There were foundation classes. I recognize some of the vestiges of my 2D and 3D design courses in our Foundation program today. Along with drawing, those two classes changed my world during my first year of college.
Is there anything that comes to mind when you think about those early classes that you feel were fundamental in your approach to practice, but also in your approach to teaching?
I remember so vividly a gouache color theory project. I was so proud of it when I took it in for crit. And [my instructor] looked at me and said, “Linda, you have to do this again. I want you to look at everyone else’s and understand why you need to make yours again.” It was shocking. Nothing like this had ever happened to me, ever. I looked at everyone’s [projects] and suddenly, all the details available to me to learn, but which I had not been absorbing, rushed in. It was like a scrim pulled away; I could see more. After class I ran home and began a new piece. I learned then that sometimes we students have to be coaxed into seeing more.
How would you describe the Art Center MFA scene? When were you there?
I graduated in 1989. Mike Kelly, Stephen Prina, Sabina Ott, and Renee Petropolis were there. Jeremy Gilbert-Roth, a hugely important mentor, was there as well. Lita Albuquerque, too—what a wonderfully mystical presence. I learned different and important things from each. But talk about differences. Sometimes in reviews, [the instructors] would yell at one another in stark disagreement. While the heads talked over, the student slowly and silently slunk down into their chair. It was hard, but I learned so much from those exchanges. Mike Kelly and I had heated debates about the meaning of the sublime. He once told me that if he put me in a dark closet with some materials I’d walk out with something beautiful and, “Why, damn it, did it need to be beautiful?” My reply was to ask, “What would too beautiful look like?” Too beautiful—that I’d like to see. It was a contentious relationship, but I learned a lot from it.
“As an artist and educator, everything must be seen in context. Personal taste gets in the way so quickly; your developing taste can’t keep up with what you just learned. And because what you just learned is so code-breaking, it’s so important to distance yourself.”
Can we talk about your introduction to Otis?
I had just graduated from Art Center and [former Liberal Arts and Sciences program chair] Hunter Drohojowska-Philp asked me to teach an art history class from 1960 to 1990. Notice it was 1989. There were no textbooks. After saying, “I can’t possibly do this” enough times when then I was told I could, I spent a full week preparing every lecture. And I started teaching. I showed some work by John Baldessari and expected the students to be appropriately reverent. This student said, “Well, I might have that idea but to actually do it and expect other people to like it, well not really.” And I realized, “Oh dear. Teaching is so hard.” What they see, even though I wasn’t all that much older than them, is not what I see. I realized opinions would never be enough. As an artist and educator, everything must be seen in context. Personal taste gets in the way so quickly; your developing taste can’t keep up with what you just learned. And because what you just learned is so code-breaking, it’s so important to distance yourself. Or, as my long-time colleague and mentor [and Former MFA Fine Arts chair] Roy Dowell, would say, “get out of your way.”
How did you transition to studio teaching?
Roy Dowell, who I met at a collector’s house, asked if I would be a graduate advisor. I had just completed my MFA, so I felt I was doing what I did a lot then, which was try to talk people out of hiring me. I was a nervous wreck; how could I go into a student’s studio when I’d been a student only six months before?
What finally enabled you to accept the role?
Roy finally wore me down. He said just come do it for a little while. Between that and the art history class, I learned, just like me, how much the grad students wanted something that they couldn’t necessarily understand just yet. Their yearning, like mine, was huge. From there on I studied learning and pedagogy. Later, teaching in Fine Arts, I kept thinking that if we got students in the first year to have a light bulb go off like it did for me during my first year of art and design education, and similar to the experience of graduate school arts education, well, wouldn’t that be amazing.
You’re taking a Drawing Studio class right now. From the student perspective, how do you still see this type of drawing, and the role of drawing and seeing, relate to the other areas within the Foundation program?
I think drawing is still incredibly valuable. Certainly, for those who have a certain kind of facility, it becomes a deeply satisfying and important part of many of their practices. Artists and designers develop amazing observational skills. Historically, drawing is the key and fundamental way to teach students how to see. Drawing is a valuable tool in the maker’s process. Even poor drawings are important. Consider the practice, not the drawing. After all, what is a poor drawing? To whom, and why?
“Once, a student did a performance standing naked while playing his drum in an Ahmanson elevator. Unfortunately, this took place exactly when a group of high school students came to visit Otis.”
When did you begin to develop the Foundation class called Creative Practice?
In 2004 or 2005. [Former Foundation chair] Katie Phillips recognized that the Foundation program was not able to attract students who were predominantly interested in photography or conceptual art. Initially, the Creative Practice course began as an alternative to second semester Life Drawing. After my teaching in Fine Arts and grad studies I found this new Foundation class a fascinating curricular project, and I was very interested in fostering another kind of art and design student. For six years Foundation ran just one Creative Practice class each spring. We had so much fun, but we were also made fun of. The projects were so, well, not Foundation-like. They started showing up all over campus. Once, a student did a performance standing naked while playing his drum in an Ahmanson elevator. Unfortunately, this took place exactly when a group of high school students came to visit Otis. The student was covered because it was a tall drum, but still, from the administration, it was like, “Linda, really? You thought this was a good idea?” I thought it was a great idea! I never want to censor students. I believe it’s important for artists and designers to take risks that sometimes make others uncomfortable. The elevator student was one of the many times that I broke rules for Creative Practice. I taught it for at least a decade and am thrilled to see how Creative Practice has grown and developed. It is now a year-long course of study for entering students interested in photography, video, or performance, as well as for those planning to major predominantly in Communication Arts, Product Design, and Fine Arts. It’s now taught by amazing educators like you, Emma, as well as Liz Nurenberg and Cara Levine. Creative Practice is one of several Foundation programs re-imagining an art and design education. I learned in Creative Practice that teaching is about setting up this space for things to happen that you do not own; you are there as a provocateur and a witness to the students’ brilliance. A wonderful person in my life once told me, “Remember that it’s always through you, not by you.” Making space for everyone’s voice is what an inclusive learning community is all about.
How has your time at Otis shaped you as an educator?
One thing that’s hard to learn is that everyone learns at their own pace. What it did was help me to suspend my own disbelief about who was successful in a class and who wasn’t, because I started realizing that you couldn’t really judge that. Learning is a process. I think one of the lovely things about teaching in Foundation is getting to watch a student from their Foundation year through their senior year and sometimes beyond, where you think, “Oh my gosh, look at what they’ve become.” Seeing students transform is just extraordinary. From this side it feels like they are with us for such a brief time.
What do you think should compel students to come to art school today in the present moment?
I think this is an incredible time to come to art school. When you teach life drawing, you have to, on the very first day, introduce students to drawing quickly to get a sense response, a sense line, of the figure. And then you have to teach them this very laborious method of measuring to get the proportions right. So you have this slow and fast seeing, drawing, and looking. None of those skills will happen without learning the others; there’s no easy entrance. That’s really what art education is these days. There’s all this stuff to learn that many students assume is directly attached to their major and future discipline. And yet, actually, what the overarching goal—if Foundation does a really good job—is to help students learn about themselves, what they find is central to them, and to begin to develop a creative practice and learn skills they can count on for the future, no matter their discipline and goals. They become so much more than their initial expectations. As they build skills and knowledge, they design a life, a fascinating life where they’re open and active creatively, culturally, and contextually. Likewise, they are accepting and fascinated to study and share with those who think differently to them.
“Art and design college is a time of study that helps students become fascinating people who freely share and collaborate, make amazing things, and change culture.”
I get the sense that you’ve come to this decision to retire as another way of making space in the program. When you close your eyes and think about the Foundation program five years from now, 10 years from now, what do you see?
It will be incredible. In the strangest way it is what’s giving me the energy to think that I should leave. Otis is reinventing itself and there is power in fresh starts. I am excited and thrilled by the changes our culture has finally declared must be made. In particular, I’m fascinated in what this means for Otis. It’s like watching a new graft on a plant, when a graft takes hold, the thrill of new growth and change. Adopting DEI as core values in broadening our understanding of the role each of us can play as we make a better community is so exciting.
I don’t see where, in my life, art happens because it feels like it happens everywhere. Except I don’t need to call it art. Better, it’s a life well lived. It’s the life of a maker and thinker. We need a first-year program that allows that to happen. After this relatively short time as Foundation chair, I’ve witnessed a phenomenal change in the program. Educators have learned so much teaching online. This entire year we’ve been watching and learning, mining for brilliance. What an exciting time this will be.
It’s also what Foundation education will become—an experience beyond the idea of having a degree that will get you a job (which, of course, is important). Art and design college is a time of study that helps students become fascinating people who freely share and collaborate, make amazing things, and change culture. I’ve been thinking about Modernism a lot, and the idea that [Modernists] wanted to bring this generous way of living and making to a diverse community of people. That’s a goal worth striving for. I care so much about Otis, that won’t change. I’ll remain a witness and supporter of all the brilliance. Meanwhile, it’s time for me to do all the projects I’ve wished I had time to do. I have so many things to learn and make!