60 Sculptures/60 Days, 2020. Wood, aluminum, steel, ceramic, urethane rubber, bronze, stainless steel, plaster, polystyrene, glass, silver nitrate, plastic, foil, copper, cardboard, silicon rubber, concrete, brass, paper, latex, foam, clay, Plasticine, and found objects, dimensions variable. Photo: Dan Engongoro Studio E

You Get Out What You Put In: A Conversation with Patrick Strzelec

Winner of the 2020 ISC Outstanding Educator Award

“You get out what you put in” could be a textbook definition of mold casting. I did learn how to make a proper mold from Patrick Strzelec in the 1990s, but this working-class American adage also sums up his integrity and transparency—as a maker, an educator, and a thinker. Strzelec has a conviction about the expressive potential of sculpted form that’s neither highfalutin nor esoteric; it’s concrete, and contagious. He came to Harvard in 1996, after teaching at New York’s School of Visual Arts for five years. When he arrived, I was a junior focused on painting; by the time I graduated, he was at my senior thesis critique, guiding discussion of my sculptures.

Strzelec’s work, which has been shown nationally and internationally, often relates to the gaps between seeing, knowing, recognizing, and remembering. He attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and received a BFA from Southern Illinois University and an MFA from Rutgers University. His numerous honors include the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rome Prize of the American Academy in Rome, an NEA grant, and numerous New Jersey State Council for the Arts grants. Recently he received both the Presidential Award for Teaching Excellence and the Chancellor Scholar Award from Rutgers University, where he has taught since 2010.

What comes through in both Strzelec’s work and teaching is a deep appreciation for what can be done when artists are given permission to stretch. “You get out what you put in” means seeing how far he can propel something or someone. It’s fitting that “Strzelec” translates from Polish as the archer Sagittarius. Strzelec’s greatness lies in how he can launch others to exceed themselves and strike exactly where they need to.

damned, 2014. Plaster, wire, ceramic, and wood, 64 x 26 x 28 in. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio

Jen Mergel: So much is disrupted and unsettled this year. How are you doing?
Patrick Strzelec:
I’m deeply grateful for this award, and I’d like to thank the committee and my students. But with all that’s going on with the pandemic and in our country, I’m upset. And I’m worried about teaching since we can’t meet students in person. We’ve ordered materials and tools for sculpture kits to be distributed to the students, and I’ve set up a camera and boom in my studio. I’m operating like a bad Food Network show. I don’t know if it will be effective.

JM: We are in a moment of questioning what matters, of re-prioritization. Looking back on your teaching, what’s driven you, and what still drives you now?
I’ve never felt comfortable being admired as an “authority.” I prefer to work side by side with my students as opposed to talking at them. I enjoy working and learning with students and others who have ideas that are different and sometimes better than my own. I get anxious every August as the semester approaches, but I enjoy teaching because it’s a privilege to watch the students mature and develop their ideas—especially if you work with them for four years. The grads, they grow conceptually, and that’s exciting, but watching the undergrads evolve is more impressive. Overall, the students have given me the opportunity to stay active; they kept me humble, in tune. They challenged me. Sometimes pushing boundaries raised intense issues, even cathartic emotions, for all of us. But we always kept a safe space for these discussions. It’s been wonderful to witness this important part in their lives. I’ve known many of them for years and expect that our friendships will last for years to come.

JM: You seem to deflect your role, giving students all of the credit. You grew up Catholic, do you ever see your teaching as an act of service?
PS: I suppose one could attribute it to my religious background. There’s a desire to serve others, almost a kind of need. I’ve tried to reconcile this impulse. I think that I am drawn to giving back and finding that element, that feeling of sharing what I have, since someone before me willingly shared what they had with me. It’s simply a matter of passing the baton on to the next person. But there’s also no question that I benefit; it’s inspiring.

feeder, 2016. Wood, wire, Bondo, and aluminum, 61 x 52 x 72 in. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio

JM: What’s inspired you?
PS: When I think about my varied teaching roles—from the School of Visual Arts to Harvard, to Rutgers—the entire experience with students has been fruitful and deep. SVA was more of a peer-to-peer learning experience with other artists, many of whom were quite ambitious. Those students were in tune with the galleries; they knew what was going on before the art world knew. At Harvard, there was an eagerness to exceed. Everyone did things 100 times extra. I could say “make one of these,” and they’d deliver a truckload. Many of the Rutgers students seem driven more by passion and love. They are perhaps the most remarkable group of all. When you come from a middle-class family, with no serious background in art, attend a large public institution, and are often the first family member to attend college, and you choose to focus on art—that is inspiring. There is more than courage involved. There is a desire for freedom, expression, love, and passion. They are gutsy young people. I suppose they remind me of myself to some degree.

JM: How do you get students to be so involved? What do you do to engage them?
PS: I always tell them, “Here is the project, but you need to break the boundaries. You need to follow some rules, but I expect you to push it.” About 20 percent of them would take it that way, and their projects became more conceptual—not just the assignment, but their interpretation of their limits. You engage them by issuing the challenge.

JM: So you push them to learn by pushing against your own parameters and giving them permission.
PS: They could trust that I would always try to help them realize their boldest proposals. We succeeded most of the time because they were learning to exploit what they already had. My goal was to release what was there, to help the students realize their concepts by exploiting all options, both inwardly and in a technical, real-world way—the school’s offerings and my expertise, for what it was worth. My job has been to help them to press every button so that they could make special things happen.

mighty love, 2013. Aluminum, epoxy, wood, plaster, and log, 102 x 32 x 50 in. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio

JM: What are some of the notable things students did?
At SVA, I had one student who would copy everything another student made. Any project—in plaster, wood, steel, no matter the medium or assignment—he would copy it exactly. It was wild. He took it to the extreme. He may not have known it, but it was a great conceptual project.

Also at SVA, there was a workshop tool lockup, where you had to give your ID card to get your tools. One time, I went in to get screw guns and drills, but only found the plastic shells of the tools—all of their interior mechanics were gone. A student had taken the guts out of all the tools and made a sculpture; the hollow shells in the cabinet were also sculpture.

JM: What did you think at the time?
PS: I recall thinking the sculpture was good for a very brief period of time. But for the school and as a teacher, I did not think it was so good.

JM: Was this just at SVA?
At Harvard, I had a student who had transferred from a manual labor cattle ranch school, Deep Springs College. There was a second-floor hall space between the woodshop and welding room and the class studio. A load of steel rods had just been craned up through the window, and while I was away over the weekend, this student took the shipment of metal and welded it all together in the exact position where it was sitting on the floor. I came back for class the next week and only realized what had happened when we went to go use the rods. It was just great how he saw possibilities in something that hadn’t even been conceived. Of course, we had to take it apart, but it was a smart idea. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have remembered it.

Twist, 2017. Aluminum, 98 x 48 x 48 in. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio

JM: Is it only the “rule-breakers” who stand out?
Not really. Following the rules produced some good projects. At Harvard, we often had to jump through a lot of hoops, but that made the work better. One beautiful piece came out of pressing the students and university to make temporary outdoor sculptures on campus. No one had done it before. It was Arts First weekend in April, and my class was a mix of undergrads and architecture students at the Graduate School of Design. You know how Harvard’s campus is open to the public, and they protect the grass before commencement with ropes and signs to “keep off the grass”? Some of our graduate students designed and placed bridges surfaced with AstroTurf, arching across spans up to 40 feet, just two feet above the lawn so anyone could “walk on the grass” without breaking the rules. That was pretty good.

JM: What about Rutgers?
I’ve had students doing amazing things there. There were a few students over the years who would use the building itself as part of their work. One cut a three-foot hole in the perimeter wall to the outside. We let them do it, but we had to redo their patch work. Another student wanted to cut a 2002 Acura car in half and bring the pieces into the gallery for his thesis show. We had to get the Health and Safety team involved to drain all of the flammables and fluids. I had a crazy tool, an oversize, 16-inch, gas-powered abrasive cut-off saw, that could cut through anything. I’m sure it is illegal today. It was too dangerous, and the student could have cut his arm off, so I made the cut. I got my sculpture installation friends to crane the pieces through the gallery doors. If students can bring their talent and resourcefulness, I always want to try to support them.

playin’ the ink, 2012. Plaster, wood, steel, epoxy, and aluminum, 76 x 32 x 50 in. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio

JM: You’ve talked about how the students coming to you now are painters and photographers and working across disciplines. Has that impacted your teaching?
PS: Rutgers’s grad program, unlike some others, is very open and interdisciplinary, and the students have put lots of time into collaborative pieces that are quite ambitious. One semester, I received permission from Rutgers to do an installation of site-specific works on an area of campus that is over 200 years old. It was the first of its kind. We had 11 students from all backgrounds—printmaking, photography, painting, film, philosophy—all working together. For one student who made paintings with silkscreen-printed texts, I found some polypropylene panels (old one- inch-thick office dividers, five by six feet) in the trash. We put them in the kiln to heat and bend them, then froze them into position with cold water. The student then applied two-dimensional patterns of text on the undulating, winding form. It spanned over 16 feet, with an organic movement that further obscured the legibility. The projects reflected the students’ two-dimensional strengths, but also stretched them. That’s the good thing about Rutgers. The interdisciplinary element gives students room to feed off of one other.

JM: I’m curious about the roots of your impulse to let others explore and stretch themselves, with your support and guidance. You are close with your two sons. Did you ever make art with them before you started teaching?
PS: I actually did make things early on with my sons, Sam and Luke—and still do. Sam first made something with me in the studio when he was three and Luke was still a baby. I had won the Rome Prize in 1988–89, and while I was at the American Academy, Sam was in my studio most days. He made a sculpture out of wood that he found lying around. It was taller than he was, and he painted it blue and white. It was beautiful. Back home, when the boys got a bit older (ages eight and six), they helped me to make a major piece. It was winter, and we brought tons of snow into the studio and packed it into a six-foot figure with a big round head and huge skirt like a chess pawn. We put plaster over the whole form and drilled portholes into the plaster to put torches inside to melt the snow. The studio was a mess. Once I had the form, I took it to the foundry and cast it in bronze. Pawn (1993) was shown at Barbara Toll Fine Arts and was purchased by the Buckhorn Sculpture Park in Pound Ridge, New York.

Since then, Sam’s studied documentary film and has become a fine wood worker, and Luke’s gone to architecture school. We’ve all worked together on life projects, like transforming unconventional spaces—a chocolate factory, a former church, and a John Deere tractor repair shop (my current home)—into our living and studio spaces. Luke’s studying architecture with a bend toward sustainability. When he designed a gravity-driven water system for a village on the island of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, I helped him test and problem-solve on angles and elements to make sure it worked properly. Residents of the village were so grateful they doused him in milk when he turned the water on. He’s had an amazing impact.

Pawn, 1993. Bronze, 63 x 63 x 63 in. Photo: Courtesy the Mallin Collection and Buckhorn Sculpture Park

JM: I’d like to explore the idea of direct awareness of what people need, and awareness of making an impact. Who have you been looking to, and what are you thinking about, especially now, to shape the impact you’d like to leave?
PS: I can say without question that my wife Lisa has taught me to be a better teacher and artist. You can be freewheeling and think you are getting things accomplished when you are really not. Organization is her backbone. During the past 15 years, she’s taught me how to approach and prioritize projects, and to move to what’s important. I’ve learned to realize the importance of little things I took for granted—whether it’s with my art or in life.

JM: Do you feel like your practice has changed?
Sure, it has shifted. Especially this past year. When pretty much everything stopped last spring, I began moving myself forward with a project called 60 Sculptures/60 Days. I had to do it, to unearth ideas and
free things up. I now realize my work of the past few decades has been about just that.

JM: I love the frank self-interrogation and sheer will-to-be of this project. In an essay for Hyperallergic (“Patrick Strzelec Shows Us One Way to Cut the Mustard: Uncertainty is important, and not just because we are living in uncertain times,” July 11, 2020), John Yau discusses the role that art can play in this historic moment of “reset,” if we let it. He writes: “In the sliver of society known as the art world, marketplace success connotes a stable world in which the capitalist turbines are humming smoothly. What does one make of that value system now?…I get the feeling that Strzelec, as serious as he is, doesn’t take himself too seriously, which contributes to the infectiousness of his work…At the same, the work questions the standards by which we judge art. Maybe we can begin looking at what is before us without assessing its value. When is the last time that kind of looking took place in the art world?” I read this as neither naïve nor disconnected from reality. Instead, your work won’t allow the arbitrary to get in the way of the actual. Is attention to the actual what we can teach right now?
PS: At this point, I don’t have a concern about what a commercial market or audience expects. When I was younger, the scene’s overwhelming focus on formal ambition and representation seemed “normal.” But not anymore. I think that my contribution to teaching right now is to allow students the freedom to be honest with themselves and their art—disconnected from whatever society currently positions as “success” in art.

blockhead, 2013. Aluminum and wood, 69 x 34 x 34 in. Photo: Christopher Burke Studio

JM: Like you taught us. You get out what you put in.
PS: Yes you do.