2007 DTA Medal
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Distinguished Teacher 2007–08
Douglas Wirls is an associate professor and painter who has taught at Pratt Institute since 1996. He is currently coordinator of drawing in the Foundation Department, where he teaches drawing and light, color, and design, as well as painting in the Fine Arts Department. He has served in Pratt’s Academic Senate for several terms, representing faculty viewpoints on various committees. He has been a visiting critic and lecturer at Haverford and Dartmouth Colleges, respectively, and has taught painting in Pratt’s Venice program. In addition, has given generously of his time in offering Family Weekend drawing workshops and assisting in the organization of Pratt’s Annual Draw-a-Thon.
Revered by his students as “a great painter, a great person, and a great teacher,” Wirls is particularly adept at talking about student work in a strongly motivating way. They describe him as an “amazing artist.”
Douglas Wirls received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Tyler College of Art in Philadelphia and studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Whether utilizing watercolor, charcoal, paint, or encaustic, this gifted artist captures the lyrical elements of form. A keen observer of the intricacies of nature, Wirls imparts a mysterious, modern sensibility to some of the artist’s traditional themes.
An Ohio native, he has lived and worked in New York City and Upstate New York for the past 30 years and has been the subject of many solo and group exhibitions. His work is represented by and has been recently shown at The Painting Center in New York, at the Projects Gallery in Philadelphia, and at the Ober Gallery in Kent, Conn. Group exhibitions include the Denise Bibro Gallery in New York, the Philadelphia Academy, and the National Academy of Design, where he received the Laufman Award for drawing and the Isador Award for painting. His work can be found in many private and public collections, including the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, the CIGNA Museum in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania State Museum, the New Jersey State Museum, and the Woodmere Art Museum in Pennsylvania.
What a wonderful setting for a graduation, surrounded by these buildings and all this green. You graduating students know this place well. Those of you visiting today are probably becoming increasingly aware that you are in the midst of a visual culture of considerable size.
Since I have been granted the opportunity to speak to you today I would like to talk a bit about what I think joins these buildings together besides these lovely grounds.
In my view it is a common language and shared experience. These buildings and the activities that go on in them could easily seem much more distant from one another if not for this bond of common vocabulary and understanding of form, space and color and a shared appreciation for all the permutations that arise from them.
Among other kinds of classrooms, these buildings contain the kind of classroom that is called a studio and the particular and, at times, idiosyncratic kind of teaching that I, and many others here, engage in goes on in a studio. Permit me to grossly generalize by attempting to briefly describe what goes on in a studio class. We- my students and I- take a situation, real or imagined, discuss it in relation to the appropriate theories and principles and approaches- put it to practice and then submit the result to discussion and critique in the intense and collaborative company of others engaged in the same pursuit- It is an amazing thing to experience.
Many of you graduating today have gone through this process so many times you might now take it for granted, but you didn’t when you first arrived. To those unfamiliar with this kind of place it might appear inefficient and perhaps a bit messy But it is this situation of trial and error- conjecture and proof where much of the communication lies beyond easy reach of linguistic expression- not easily articulated- but through the practice I have described this visual vocabulary is built and recorded in the adventure and memory of making something.
It is in this kind of place and in this way that much of this common experience and vocabulary finds connection in both the historic and contemporary.
I know this language much better now than when I first arrived and I have depended on it mightily in relating what I teach to my students and identifying with the many other diverse disciplines taught here.
These values of shared and common experience are cherished at Pratt. I have heard them extolled by many here in attendance. Anyone looking for the qualities that make Pratt a special place should be naturally inclined to acknowledge these qualities first. There aren’t many places like this anymore.
I also have a sense of how much this common experience matters in an age of such diverse and eclectic applications and greater emphasis on specialization. It is a delicate thread. So I m suggesting that it will require a degree of stewardship in order to maintain this community of common understanding and the essential vocabulary that supports it.
It is the great strength of Pratt that it can offer such an incredibly broad range of options. This place is vast in that regard.
You should know that you, as Pratt graduates, are valued for the breadth of your experience and sensitivity to and knowledge of a wide range of visual endeavors gained in all areas of your studies. Whether it is the interior or industrial designer who knows of painting- the art historian or photographer who can draw, you all have a communication with so many aspects of the visual.
It stands to reason that knowledge and a breadth of experience of this kind can’t help but contribute to improving and enhancing the humane condition of the public realm. It is something that we need more of in this world and that is certainly at the core of this Institute’s mission.
I have great affection for this place and the people here today. How can you not. It is all so authentic. I have always enjoyed shooing the cats out of my classroom every morning.
Thanks to all of my colleagues past and present for their example and guidance, particularly those in the Foundation Department and our Chairman Bill Fasolino for his gracious and persuasive way in building an important community of understanding- the institute for giving me the opportunity to teach, which I adore- and particularly all of the students who honored me with your recognition today.
You will all now go and make something beautiful.
Honors Convocation Speech
First I would like to again thank the Institute and those students whose nominations and support conferred this honor on me. I would like to be able to say to you that I spent the year traveling to exotic lands, meeting many new people. But in actuality, with the exception of a very nice weekend in Schenectady, I was here the whole time doing my job.
I know that among my artist and designer friends and colleagues the answer to the question “how did your parents feel about your choice to go to art school” would often be something like “not thrilled.” For some it was even an act of rebellion. Perhaps it is different these days. Pratt is much larger and diverse place than existed in my day, with majors in fields other than art and design. But I’m sure there are some in attendance today who would identify with that sentiment. In light of the occasion, and with respect to present company, I would say that it has turned out to be a particularly good decision for all those honored here today.
But why is it a different kind of decision to go to a school of art and design like Pratt than, say, any other college or university. It certainly represents a choice that from the outset there will be a reliance on vision and most importantly imagination and a curiosity about how to use it. But legitimately the questions arise from thoughts such as- Is this practical?- What are you going to do with it? And even, is this self-indulgent? Perhaps for some, those questions remain.
But in considering all of my many associations with fellows who choose the path of this kind of specialization in their education, I have never noticed any deficit in intellect or capacity. To the contrary they are broad in their interests, curious, resourceful, highly literate and versatile, as I expect all of you are becoming. All the qualities needed to thrive in this world.
Perhaps this is because they all come, as you do, from a place of pleasure and anxiety nourished from the outside and shaped from the inside, but ultimately the sole source of original thought and action. For the past several years you have been very active seekers of vision and you have proven yourselves to be commendable in your pursuit.
Your personal investigation is just beginning but already you know the trials of striking balance between the inner and outer worlds. I believe that this is what makes graduates of places such as this such interested people and valuable contributors to the culture and by extension, to the enrichment of the imagination of others. The following is a quote from the painter Bridget Riley delivered to a group similar to yourselves.
“As someone whose job or task it is to decipher and translate a text unknown even to yourself you are asked to exercise an extra faculty. You will have to learn to listen, because it is through a special sort of listening, a sort of ‘listening-in’ that one learns how to speak.”