Art Can Change the World
By J. Z. Holden - the Arts
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The first time I met Audrey Flack was in a classroom at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. She was my anatomy professor, and I was a first year, wet behind the ears, foundation student. She dressed like an undergraduate in jeans and a work shirt. Once the members of the class were seated, she hauled out a life-sized skeleton from the back of the room, dangling by a hook attached through the center of his skull, which in turn hung from a rod. He was like a long lost member of the family she'd grabbed off a coat hanger in the closet on her way to work. We were told to draw the bones, and eventually, if and when we had them down, we might be encouraged to add a muscle or two, on our way to discovering the joys of flesh. By the middle of the semester, we were drawing the naked body with extraordinarily nuanced skill. We had learned what lay beneath the surface, how it functioned and thus affected the surface: a metaphor so profound, that it would affect every aspect of my life forever.

This past Saturday afternoon at 3pm, in the Grande Ballroom of the New York Hilton, longtime East Hampton resident, groundbreaking artist, author and professor, Audrey Flack, stood before an audience of 5000, having been chosen as the keynote speaker for the 47th Annual National Art Education Association Convention. Audrey Flack believes in the truth of spontaneity. So with a single sheet of paper clutched in her palm, on which she had scribbled a few notes moments prior to leaving the house, the lithe and small, spiky-haired, blond ball of creative energy addressed this intimate audience of 5000 art educators in the "off the cuff" style that has been her trademark.

"There were art educators from all over the world in the audience," said the artist during a telephone interview from her home in New York the following morning. "You know, teachers don't have the egocentrism of artists, they are the "givers". I truly believe that those who teach can change the world. You remember the terrible ones, the ones who shamed you and didn't get you, and criticized you unfairly. But you also remember the wonderful ones who were able to see you and who made a difference in your life."

She continued, "At one point in my speech I said that if Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and George Bush had had the right art teachers, instructors that could really teach them to see, that George Bush would see that he had to get out of Iraq. There was lots of applause after that remark. Being on stage was like the Academy Awards. There were two enormous screens on either side of me, and I was miked and moving and talking to 5000 people. People wanted to touch me. People had come from all over the world to see me. That is probably a once in a lifetime experience. At any rate, I was saying that if you can work with someone to help them to really see, you change the internal structure of the brain. That's why I think art can change the world."

"When you work with a student, everything that they are registers in their ability to see. Astigmatism, brain damage, everything. I have learned that if there isn't any physical reason for a student's inability to draw what they see; it is because his brain is programmed in a distorted way, and he is limited, he can only see a certain way. When students are asked to draw a head thrown back; it can take up to ten tries for them to get the perspective right. That is because the brain is accustomed to seeing the face certain way, and to break that pattern means learning how to reframe reality."

Teaching touches the teacher. "In 1968 I was teaching at Pratt and NYU, running from one to the other, and then home to take care of two children. I had an African American student called Randolph Williams. He came to class and never said a word. Three to four months into class I felt something special about him. In the middle of the semester Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. And my class was held the very next day. Well, I couldn't teach. It didn't make sense. So class was dismissed, but the assignment for the following week was to create something, a drawing in any medium, on the subject. And the following week we would all come in and place our projects at the front of the room and have a crit, and we'd all talk about one another's work. I always believed that a crit had to be truthful without being hurtful."

Taking a breath she continued, "Well, the following week Randolph brought in a portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. that he'd drawn on shirt cardboard with a 6H pencil, and you know how hard a 6H is. The drawing showed every lash, every facial hair, in some places he pressed down so hard he broke through the cardboard. He had drawn tears running out of his subject's eyes. It was a very intense, obvious and yet heartfelt drawing. When the class got to his piece, I took over because he was a very sensitive young man, and I didn't want anyone to damage him. A flower can get crushed on its way out of the earth. I said, "This is a very intense drawing, and the emotion is beyond the artist's skill." Two weeks later, he came in with a beautifully drawn baroque line. Well, he was in the audience at this symposium and I asked him to come up. He's a full grown man of course, it was a very emotional moment for us both, and he thanked me for changing his life. Today, Randolph Williams is the Head of Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City."

Her lecture style is based on technique but she can get personal. "I usually concentrate on technique when I lecture, but I had been asked to talk about more personal aspects of being an artist. So I brought slides of paintings I had done of my daughter Hannah and her sister Melissa at the height of her autism. Eighty percent of the people present were women who saw me as a role model. To them I was a source of inspiration. I was a woman, an artist, a teacher, a mother, and a wife, and all that that implies. To some it was my struggles that spoke to them, as well as my art. Sometimes I think back to my childhood when I used to carry around the book of self-portraits of Rembrandt. He was like my father. And Cezanne was like an uncle. They all became my family."

This symposium comes at an extraordinary moment in Audrey Flack's career. Since early January, two major pieces, both public art commissions, were placed. One named "The Recording Angel", to great fanfare in Nashville Tennessee, and one more recently in Tampa, Florida, where the issues surrounding her uncanny ability to challenge the status quo, and win, brought FOX5-TV, as well as the local and New York City papers to cover the event. "I've spent the last two years completing two major commissions, "Veritas et Justicia" in Tampa, Florida, and "The Recording Angel" in Nashville, Tennessee," said the artist in a recent interview.

""Veritas et Justicia" will stand in front of the 13th Judicial Courthouse in Tampa, Florida. That's the courthouse," says Ms. Flack, "where the teacher who married her student and had his two children was tried. The sculpture is the scales of justice with one arm up and the other one down. She'll be up in December or January and will rise to a height of 14 feet. She is made of bronze with highlights in gold leaf."

Several years ago, Ms. Flack entered a competition judged by the Arts Council of Hillsboro County, Florida as well as 48 judges, "and each one had an opinion," said Ms. Flack illuminating some of the hurdles needed to win the prize. "Needless to say, it was highly competitive. This was going to be a very important sculpture for a newly constructed building. They wanted her to carry the scales of justice. I didn't want to do that. So I came up with her being the scales of justice. She also wears a crown with 13 stars for the 13th Judicial Courthouse. I'm very excited about the drapes, I've been studying Bernini."

This is not the first time that Audrey Flack has taken her inspiration from Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Rome's foremost Baroque sculptor. Bernini received recognition early in life by expressing a new relationship between the head and body and revealing more subtle emotions through facial expressions. Although he worked in marble, he had the uncanny ability to create the illusion of texture; skin, hair, folds of clothing, all of which broke with the tradition of Michelangelo and set sculpture off in a new direction.

Bernini's contribution to sculpture, his break with tradition into unknown artistic territory, is very like Ms. Flack's challenge to the expressionist status quo of the 60's and 70's, and her dramatic and extraordinary jump into hyper-realism. Challenging the status quo just seems to be in her blood.

"She didn't have a blindfold at first," said the artist referring to "Veritas et Justicia", "because I felt that Justice can see. But as a public artist, you have to be sensitive to what the public wants and needs. The judges wanted her blindfolded because it's traditional. By my creating a blindfold, the eyes had to destroyed. I had to destroy the eyes. That's terrible for an artist. Now, she is blindfolded. And yet," says Ms. Flack with a note of triumph in her voice, "she can see. If you are standing beneath her, you can see that her eyes are opened slightly and she is looking down. She is moving and not moving at the same time. Her hand is reaching out, it's more than a weight or a scale, is it a plea? A beckoning? Will there be a feather in there so that it will rise? Or will it be a gun or a cannonball?"

"The first version I created took a year and was the figure of a Seminole Indian. I thought that was perfect for Florida. They didn't like the fact that she was a Native American. That was just too controversial. So I was asked to create a second version, and that took another year. To give you an idea, my model was a six-foot-tall mixed black and white beauty, with blue eyes, aqua blue against caramel skin," she continued.

Despite her fame and extraordinary track record, Ms. Flack has no intention of resting on her laurels or suddenly caving-in to the status quo. On the contrary, she continues to challenge viewers' and judges' perceptions through her highly developed aesthetic and choice of imagery, an unusual combination of feminine and masculine, with respectful nods to masters of the Baroque, all swathed in her own particular world view.
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