From The Studio to the Classroom: Ed Paschke as Painter / Professor

In conjunction with the Block Museum of Art Exhibition Break a Rule: Ed Paschke’s Art and Teaching (September 18–December 9, 2018), Jason Nargis, Special Collections Librarian, Northwestern University Libraries offers a companion essay – considering Paschke as an innovative educator.  Read below or download the essay in booklet form.

What role does teaching play in the creative process of an artist? This is a question that began to intrigue me several years ago as I was processing the archive of painter and Northwestern professor, Ed Paschke. For many early-career artists, teaching is often a day job that supports continued painting, writing, or composing. I kept wondering why a painter who had been honored with a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) and the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and who had a sustained history of lucrative international art sales, would continue to teach introductory studio art classes. Much like one of Paschke’s paintings, the answer turned out to be complex, multi-layered, and surprising.

A Little Background

My curiosity about this subject grew to form the basis for a year-long Kaplan Library Fellowship that I received in 2014– 15. My project, “Signal and Noise: The Art and Teaching of Ed Paschke,” explored the motivations behind Paschke’s 26 years of dedication to teaching and the intersections between his pedagogical practice and his painting practice. My research included extensive reading of the existing scholarship on Paschke’s career, processing the collection in the Northwestern University Archives, and partnering with the Ed Paschke Art Center in Jefferson Park, Chicago to begin to organize and describe another set of Paschke archival material housed there. I also interviewed former students, educational colleagues, studio assistants/mentees, and fellow artists about the role of teaching in Paschke’s life and work. Despite all this investigation, the best source of information on what teaching meant to Ed Paschke turned out to be Ed Paschke himself. It was a theme that he brought up in many interviews; he wrote about it for numerous Northwestern publications; and he spoke of it at length in raw video footage for the documentary film Pigmentata, produced in relation to his AIC show. While people would often ask him why he still taught, his teaching was central enough to his understanding of himself as a painter that he would often expound upon it without prompting. It was simply an integral part of his aesthetic experience of the world.

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Nothing Quite as Gratifying

He mentions three reasons for his continued teaching in a 1993 essay in The Active Intellect, a Northwestern publication from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences: “One is to insulate myself against selling out. […] If you depend exclusively on your income from your artwork to pay your bills, you can begin to make more and more conservative decisions.” It was also a way to continue the “problem-solving” process of making art, but in a social and verbally communicative setting which both balanced out the solitude of studio work and also opened new perspectives and solutions. He noted that, “Teaching is an opportunity to walk into a room full of people and communicate.” Finally, Paschke just really enjoyed teaching and took great satisfaction in imparting knowledge to students: “There’s nothing quite as gratifying as seeing that flicker of recognition pass through students’ eyes when you teach them something.” In that same essay, Paschke elaborates on his teaching style and how he believed in modeling an artist’s way of being and seeing for his classes:

“When I went to art school, I thought that if you could paint and draw realistically, you were an artist. The truth is that technical facility is the least of it. […] There are all kinds of other things involved— philosophical and perceptual attitudes—upon which art can be based. We are all influenced by everything we’ve ever seen and done. Art is a consideration of all those experiences.”

Still, Paschke did take the fundamentals of art instruction very seriously, evidenced in his archive by his extensively detailed and organized syllabi. He was also strict about participation, attendance, and meeting deadlines. While he firmly believed in a disciplined work ethic, and a grasp of the basics of visual representation, he recognized the work of an artist to be about attention, passion, and intuition. “As a teacher, you need to tell students that it’s okay to trust their instincts to be who and what they want to be. The most important thing for students is to define their own voice.”


The following quotations all come from the Pigmentata film raw footage (Directed by James Sheldon. Used courtesy of the Institutional Archives of the Art Institute of Chicago. Shot July, 1989). Paschke begins narrating his decisions/activity while in the process of painting. He is eloquent, and his thinking, like his painting, moves forward in an iterative, situation-by-situation kind of way. It is informed by a larger intellectual and emotional structure but is organically fluid and intuition-based. In film clip #11 (7:47-10:31) he specifically addresses the role of teaching in his life and process:

“In teaching you’re dealing with essentially the same problems that you encounter in your own work, and many times you can get a more objective view of some of these kinds of painterly problems by being in the role of a teacher, which forces you to verbalize and explain and talk about […] what you’re doing every step of the way.”

“When you’re at a point in a painting where you have to make a very critical decision, maybe a risky decision, sometimes you don’t always have your courage level up to the point to make that decision. [Teaching is] a convenient distraction, so you can approach that dangerous, risky decision from the back door sometimes, by doing something else first and then surprise it—surprise yourself.”

You’re diversifying your activities when you teach. You’re still dealing with the same basic issues, but sometimes you can be more objective about these issues if you’re talking about them in somebody else’s work.”

The Students Speak

As part of my fellowship research, I sent questionnaires to past students of Paschke. The responses were consistently glowing and reinforced what I had heard anecdotally about Paschke being adored and respected by students, faculty, and administration alike. Here are some examples of the kind of reminiscences I received:

“He was just so chill…about everything. He was this master yet he acted like my uncle.”

“Ed tried to teach us about life. He talked about his experiences and how they shaped him. We were all there with a raw ability and had been honing our practice, so he would give tips on improving, but he wanted to cultivate the part of our practice that would think about what we were painting and why.”

“I don’t think he taught for the money. Maybe he did to begin with, but I think he liked telling stories, being a mentor, and staying connected with younger students.” “

At his age, having a group of young, hungry 19–22-year-olds wanting to have a dialogue with him kept him in check with how his work was received and how the mass media was influencing us.”

Scraps and clippings from Paschke’s studio

This last quotation gets to heart of what I see as of one the biggest benefits teaching brought to Paschke: His long-term role as professor kept him connected to the cultural zeitgeist. Paschke’s son, Marc, revealed that his dad worried that he would wake up one day and no longer be relevant, and that no one would want to buy his paintings. As a professor, he was exposed to new music, contemporary attitudes, and youthful perspectives that helped keep him tuned in to what was relevant. Friend and former studio assistant Gabriel Feijóo called him “an ethnographer” who liked to “absorb” the energy of young people. Once again, I was able to find ample evidence of Paschke musing on this topic with his quintessential self-awareness and intelligent curiosity:

“I always listen to music when I paint, and most of it comes from my students. That’s another advantage to teaching: It lets you sort of keep your thumb on the pulse, the voice of a new generation. When you think about culture and art, it’s something that is constantly evolving, and I think it’s important for an artist to be part of that evolving link.” “Portrait of the Artist as a Life-Long Chicagoan,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 21, 1993.

“I like to revitalize myself through current culture, and a way to do that is in teaching. I don’t want to just move on in a time capsule.” “Profs art plays in Paris, Playboy,” Daily Northwestern, Nov. 5, 1993

Beyond the exposure to contemporary cultural information, teaching helped Paschke grapple with what he saw as the fundamental structural process of his artmaking, which he referred to repeatedly as “problem-solving.” His work would often begin with images from advertising, pop culture, or revered cultural/historical icons. Often, it was just a small section of an image torn from a magazine or newspaper that he might have “editorialized” with a marking pen. He was always looking for “starting points,” or images that invoked something unique or universal. He would combine them in a way that created “tension” that needed to be “resolved” or “balanced”, or he might heighten the contradictory interaction between elements. The “problems” are not always clear-cut or logical, but involve possibilities, implications, connotations, or emotional potential. Regardless of how the elements interacted, Paschke had great facility in verbalizing his artistic process, which was a skill that greatly benefitted his teaching

“Most people assume that an artist has complete ideas, that he or she wakes up one morning and says, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m going to do, and here’s how it’s going to look.’ In reality, the creative process isn’t like that. Any work is a series of decisions, and each decision is conditioned and influenced by the decisions that came before it.” –The Active Intellect, 1993


Complete the Circuit

I found several instances where Paschke referred to himself as a “painter/professor,” emphasizing the interrelatedness of those roles; how teaching, mentoring, and modeling could function as a continuation or extension of his painting practice. As I learned how much teaching and mentoring artists was a core component of Ed’s work life, it prompted me to move my thesis to the more radical position of claiming that Paschke’s teaching was, in and of itself, a form of artistic production. For this claim to make sense, I will elaborate on how Paschke understood his role as an artist in relation to society, how he saw the role of the viewer as an active participant in the interpretation of a painting’s meaning, and later how teaching artmaking was a performance akin to painting.

Paschke was fascinated with pervasive, popular visual culture such as advertisements, commercial art, and images of celebrity. His work often remixed and recontextualized these images through juxtaposition, magnification, or segmentation. His work is not didactic, but instead seeks to shock or wake up viewers into seeing what has become invisible through ubiquity. Each individual’s memories, connotations, and emotions are integral to the experience of a Paschke painting, creating a partnership between artist and viewer. Paschke does not claim to know what to feel, only that if paying attention, viewers should be feeling something.

He surrounded himself in the studio with tchotchkes and ads and posters and other visual “source material,” which are all well-represented in the archive. Walls, corkboards, and easels were plastered with images from boxing magazines, sideshows, bondage photographs, product packaging, basketball games, and more. He was almost always working on multiple paintings at once, and they would also be scattered around, waiting for their next phase or treatment. Paschke was always ready for a new image to speak to him, to cross-pollinate one of his canvases, and create a new set of potential meanings:

“I wanted to be an interpreter of my time. I’m trying to capture essences of what I perceive to be happening around me, almost in the way the Impressionists did, to try and tap into some sort of truth. One’s work is always biographical, reflecting your life at the time you did it. I’ve always felt I was like a filtration system, processing the materials floating around me, attempting to select, emphasize, and editorialize. Life is the raw material. I try to make something out of it.” -“An interpreter of my time,” Chicago Tribune Magazine, Sep. 16, 1990

Paschke saw himself as a kind of visual anthropologist. He felt that as an artist, he had a responsibility to document the world he saw and to share his vision with others. He also understood that he needed the partnership of viewers for the paintings to come alive and for a dialogue of ideas to be exchanged.

“The experience of looking at, or digesting a painting has to do with a certain type of energy. The observer of a painting or any sort of art experience or event, when you confront it, when you open yourself up to it, you are in a sense completing the circuit. The painting is sending out various kinds of energy, or levels of information and you as the audience, the person perceiving this, brings to it your own personal baggage or experience, associations, references, biases, prejudices, dislikes. You complete the circuit.” –Biography/Commentary section of, 1990

Painting as Performance

In the Pigmentata film clip #12 (17:45-20:43), Paschke describes the act of painting as a form of performance, and then draws a parallel to the performative aspects of talking in front of a group of people.

“The doing of the painting is, in a sense, a performance and there’s this dialogue between the audience part of you and the performer part of you. And the painting itself is the record of that performance; the validation that the performance has in fact taken place.”

“Performing, if you want to talk about it that way, is… there’s always something scary about standing up in front of people and giving a talk, or whatever it is… you get these butterflies and there’s a certain edgelike quality to it. And, supposedly a good performer never loses the butterflies. And I think in a similar vein, every time I start a painting there’s always that apprehension that, ‘I wonder if this is going to work, I wonder if I can do this?’“

With his painting and his teaching, Paschke enters onto the stage not fully knowing what will transpire. The modeling of that improvisational mode of “seeing” was at the core of his pedagogical technique: serious, dedicated, and yet playfully ironic. The performer (professor) and the audience (students) make the experience together, and neither side is fully sure what will be created.



In addition to teaching multiple generations of painting and drawing students, Ed Paschke was also a tireless promoter of art and artists outside of academia. He was constantly attending openings, speaking on panels, judging competitions, participating in fundraisers, helping young artists, and generally acting as the public face of the Chicago art world. His archive is full of evidence of this activity: exhibit cards, correspondence, drafts of talks, and more. He had long-standing gallerists in New York and Paris; he could have lived anywhere, but he chose to remain in Chicago, specifically in the gritty and ethnically diverse environs of his Howard Street studio. He loved the city, throbbing with urban energy, deviant potential, and unexpected experience.

If painting is a performance of solving visual problems and speaking in front of a classroom is a kind of performance that continues the verbal articulation of that problem-solving, and if teaching studio art is centered on the modeling of an artist’s holistic experience, I think there is support for the theory that Ed Paschke’s teaching was a form of artistic creation. His paintings remain as evidence that the performative of act of painting took place. His archival materials survive as documentation of the serious thinking, energy, and dedication he put into his role as an educator and mentor. Viewing his art and his instruction as an interrelated legacy allows this passionate painter/professor to continue teaching us what it means to be a complete artist.


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