Interview With Mary Preis, 9/14/2009

by Luke Strahota
photos by Kim Oahn Nguyen

Mary Preis, at her installment "Office Hours" at PNCA.

Mary Preis, at her installment "Office Hours" at PNCA.

Most occupations are on display: postal carriers, baristas, construction workers, bankers, farmers, politicians, street performers, taxi drivers, lawyers, beggars, merchants … but not academics. In addition to displaying their work publicly, artists and designers open their studios and offices. When we see objects and images, we are only witnessing the evidence of work. And this work is informed by the even more mysterious teachings that enabled it.

Educators are nestled in crevasses behind guards, locked oak doors, stacks of papers and books—beyond reach when not in the classroom or running between meetings.

Here, academia is revealed. Office hours are on public display so that anyone can observe what life is really like behind those daunting doors.

– Mary L. R. Preis

What have you done here?

I have created an office for myself in the front window of the Pacific Northwest College of Art as part of the faculty biannual art exhibit. This happens to also be the bicentennial year for the school, so it’s a special faculty exhibit. I decided there is no better to way to be to part of the faculty and to show what we do at PNCA than to do it in the front window, create an office and show people the day-to-day work that happens. I thought I would expose the inner workings of academia a bit. What we do during our days is always work. I mean, we do a lot. It brings up the concept of more process-oriented jobs versus more product-oriented jobs. I want a coffee. I go, I get a coffee. I see someone make it there, it is done. Contract completed. There’s a commodity and you bought that commodity. Then there’s the service-oriented jobs where there’s sort of a commodity, but what are you buying when you buy education? You don’t really know what that looks like: how many hours a week do I get with my teacher?

How do you think the act of working is art?

Just by looking at the most everyday activities, things that make the world run. I see my postal carrier and I say, “Something’s happening there.” There’s an accomplishment, an actual product of mail going into the box. With teaching, I never get that satisfaction until maybe I see a student years down the road with an art show. You often don’t get to see the end result of the contract. There is sort of this magic and mystery of teaching. You try to keep up with the students and that’s what’s been so fun about this project. One of the other things is that here at PNCA we don’t have regular offices. You have a lot of student one-to-one time, but no one really knows about it—it happens sort of in dark corners … Here, you get the satisfaction of people coming in any time and saying “Wow, you know what? That was effective to me.” And other people get to witness that, and they say, “Hey something’s really going on there. It’s not the mysterious behind-these-doors activity. It’s an actual physical thing.

Desk, posters, carpet, lamp.

Desk, lamp, papers, fan.

What’s your equation for work and money? Often time artists work for very little money.

The equation: materials plus labor equals work. The materials are straightforward but then you can value that work however you want. Maybe you want to value it as twice as much as those things combined. Either you’re using detritus from the street or you’re using gold and there’s a cost/value already associated with that. Then you have the labor. If you’re a lawyer, you charge for every second you’re doing it and you charge per half hour. As artists we don’t get to charge for sleepless nights. We don’t charge for the concert we went to Friday night but that actually inspired us quite a lot about relationships. You get to charge more when you are college-educated but not necessarily $25,000 a year, which is what it costs to go to college. So how do you put a value on that labor? And how do I put value on my time too? I don’t get paid by the hour by working with my students. I think you get used to the fact that most of us are working for $5 an hour and part of the experience of doing this is to have people understand how much time and energy goes into being a student, being a professor, being an artist.

Do you think society in general would be more productive if we all had to work in a display case?

People would in one way be more productive, but you still can’t see what’s on the computer screen—if they’re checking Facebook and not doing work. I think there would be more of an appreciation that all jobs work and even pay equity for certain jobs. People understand that trash men get paid well because people see trash men and they think, “If I had to do that all day long…” It’s back-breaking work down to the core. I don’t think people understand how much I run around up and down stairs, carrying books back and forth. I’m physically beat by end of day too. You would start to see that. I think I should get paid for my mental abilities—my education I had to invest in—I think that if people all saw that they’d appreciate the equality of work more. We all do different things, but we all have the same stake in what needs to get done for life to efficiently move. There is an ethical responsibility to work at work.

Even if you’re not passionate about your day job?

Well, the thing about teaching is that most teachers are passionate about it. We’re obviously not doing it for the money. I think the extra layer of difficulty is that I teach at an art school. Nobody goes to art school for just the hell of it. Nobody generally teaches at an art school for the hell of it. There’s a certain dedication. And there’s already this thin line, if any, between art and life. That’s always this sort of question: what is art and what is life? And then you take it one step further, it gets to be difficult. I love my job, but I never go home and am done with my job. That’s another reason for this project: so that when I go home maybe I’ll stop working, because otherwise I’ll work until midnight, wake up and do it all again.

So you work hard then. Why do you work hard?

(Long, drawn-out pause.) I like work. Why not turn my work into my art, which is what I’ve done here? It’s good work. It’s work I feel strongly about, work that I feel needs to be accomplished. However, I do work more than I probably should. I wish I had more time in the studio, but if I’m not going to be there, why not combine my studio work my visual work? I really don’t see much of a distinction between working in the studio and sitting and grading a bunch of papers. They all are the same and all come from the same place and go back to the same place, which is this internal conversation amongst humanity about what we do/why we do/how we do it.

What are the good things and bad things about your job?

The good things are that I get to think interesting thoughts with interesting people all day long. The bad thing is that you’re never done working—everywhere you go, everything you do influences the work—you don’t really have an end. What I’ve also tried to put on display here is the amount of administration and paperwork that goes into what I do. The unglamorous side, where little by little my office is getting messier—stacks of paper are rising— what started as a nicely appointed space is turning into what my house usually looks like, because all of this junk is usually there. And I think a lot of people think of art school as just some funky place where you go, for both students and faculty, where it’s just fun and it is just studio time. In reality, there’s a lot of work that goes into this. I just got out of my department chair meeting and we have to deal with health issues and we have to deal with accreditation issues, writing self studies and curriculum development, and acquisition of new buildings and programs and places.

Can we be creative and still have a non-creative day job?

I truly believe that all people do have a creative side and there’s a great book called Homo Aestheticus that talks about creativity and aesthetic appreciation as an evolutionary necessity. And in that sense I tend to agree we are all aesthetic beings and have an aesthetic appreciation. There must be some kind of biological benefit to that, otherwise we wouldn’t have continued to develop that part of our brain—devote times of our life where we apparently get “nothing” in return. But we apparently do because we keep doing it. But then the question is balancing that part of one’s creative impulse which we all have in some way and our work. I haven’t gotten there yet. One of the benefits of working at an art school is that even if I don’t get enough time to make my own art, I have enough time that I can be around others. I can feed that creative will. I would also say that being a teacher is creative and as being a department chair, being a chairman of a liberal arts department and creating curriculum is creative. But as far as my own work goes, I’ve always been a multidisciplinary artist, I don’t think I even make simply “studio time” although I try every day. I try to devote something. You do what you need to do for the art.

Do you have a fantasy job you’ve always wanted to do but never would do it?

I don’t know how to drive an 18-wheeler. So many of the other jobs I’d love to do all involve teaching. Like being a tour guide would be interesting for a while, or teaching middle school. But besides just being an artist? I really don’t know. I’ve got a green thumb. Maybe a gardener, I love to garden but I don’t have the time to do it because I’m doing this [other] stuff.

Why do you push yourself so hard to do all this stuff?

I like to make good differences. Why not? It’s like all good art, you don’t have a choice. You have to. You feel a compulsion. I don’t have to, I just can’t imagine not. I’ve never not taught and I’ve never not been an artist, so I don’t know what else to do, and I’m not very good at sitting still—which is really hard to do at the desk.

What have you discovered so far with this project?

One thing that I find very frustrating is how inefficient so many offices are, both for the individual and the organization. I think that we all need to step back and think about what works for us and what makes us efficient workers. The office cube doesn’t really inspire work, it inspires people to work on Facebook. And that’s why I usually work from home. I’m more productive there than at the faculty offices here, which are communal. I don’t work well in that environment, but I don’t have an option unless I get to build my own like I’m doing here.

NB: Professor Preis will be displaying Office Hours through October 17.
To schedule your office hours, contact her at:

Pacific Northwest College of Art
1241 NW Johnson St.
Portland, Oregon 97209

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