Artist as teacher

callisface.jpgJo Ann Callis is having a busy year. Her photographs and paintings are on display at the Getty until August 9, making her one of the select few living artists the museum has featured. She also has a concurrent show at the Craig Krull Gallery.

Her art was widely exhibited through the 1970s and '80s, but until recently she thought her moment had come and gone. Now her place in the history of photography is recognized more than ever.

With all this demand for her art and her time, Callis took the semester off at the California Institute of the Arts, where she has been a photography instructor since 1975. The Getty show has brought her plenty of fresh opportunities to inspire students around Los Angeles.

Callis began teaching purely out of financial need. She was 36 when she was hired at Cal Arts in 1975, newly divorced with two children and still one year from earning her M.F.A at UCLA. She had begun studying art at Ohio State University. At UCLA she studied photography with her mentor and role model, Robert Heinecken. He encouraged her to make her images rather than find them. This allowed her, as she says, to "go inside my head and express that interior part of myself."

According to the Getty, Callis is a "pioneering photographer who established a reputation in the 1980's as one of the first artists to construct sets and create situations specifically for the purpose of being photographed." Her anxieties and struggles with domestic life provided a deep well from which she has drawn her subject matter. Her mostly color images, created in her studio with models, props, and fabric are really all about her -- "my insecurities, my revenge, my disappointment," she told the Los Angeles Times in March.


"Callis's work has a Hitchcock-like bent," says Judith Keller, curator of the Getty show. "She has a tendency to create a scene subtly loaded with the attractive as well as the troubling."

The transition from artist to teacher was "the hardest thing in my life," Callis said in an interview at her Culver City home. "I had only learned to use a camera three years before. I was absolutely petrified and Cal Arts was such a different kind of school." She drew heavily on Heinecken's influence for support, and found her own teaching style. "I try to be positive, find good things in everyone's work and take it from there and encourage them to work from that point of strength."

"What I try to do is help them [her students] understand how you get ideas, how to work on them, and how one thing can lead to another. Then you can critique your own work so you can understand where it is you need to go."

Callis primarily teaches freshmen and has great affection for her young students. Freshman year is "such a difficult age. There's a lot of freedom at Cal Arts. It's a fishbowl. I remember that time for me which was very scary, but exciting too."

The Getty show has brought invitations for Callis to teach in other ways. In recent weeks she participated in the Getty's "Community Photoworks," a program that connects Los Angeles-area teenagers with artists and their work. The students then produce their own art and present it in an exhibition. This year, a U.S. History class from Los Angeles High School was chosen to discuss Callis's photographs in class, then meet with her at the Getty. As they walked through the show, their teacher, Felicia Perez, detected a major learning moment.

"Initially the students saw Jo Ann's work and with its timelessness they assumed she was a much younger person. When we arrived at the museum, we walked up to a very humble, unassuming woman in red glasses who looked just like any other person one might meet on the street," said Perez. The students saw a woman barely as tall as her photographs. They were impressed that her images were "on display in one of the most influential and important museums in the country. My students learned that to be an artist is actually much simpler and more attainable than maybe they had initially thought."

They were asked to address the idea of tension in their images, a recurring theme in Callis's own work. They had high praise for her inspirational powers. Eleventh-grader Pedro Mateo said, "she helped me to look at things in a more abstract way. I definitely got from her: do what you love." Tatiana Melendez said, "I realized that if she could photograph desserts (referring to Callis's 1993 series, "Forbidden Pleasures") then anything is open."

Two days later, Callis led a group of older adults from Santa Monica College's Emeritus program through the Getty show. Her candor and sense of humor were a hit. "They loved her because she spoke to them specifically and very directly," said teacher Cheryl Walker.

Of the evolution of her teaching style, Callis says, "I don't think it's very different. I'm a little more at ease with it now, and I know more than when I first started. I have a lot more experience at looking, evaluating, showing my own work, producing work over many years, and all the problems that go with that. I'm just more comfortable about being honest instead of trying to fit into what I perceive I should be."

Callis recently had her own learning moment when, in the midst of her leave, she returned to Cal Arts for a show by graduate students. Having some distance from the routine of teaching gave her new perspective. She was reminded of how much is going on at the school at all hours of the day and night. "There really is so much energy there. It's quite stimulating. It made me think, I can still see why I do this." Her students, wherever she finds them, would be wise to take full advantage of the fact that she still is teaching.

Photo of Jo Ann Callis by Judy Graeme / LA Observed
"Performance, 1985" by Jo Ann Callis, courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum

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