Professor Tom Parker started teaching during the 1960s, and brought his experience and insight to Drury in 1983. Although Tom could have retired five years ago, he continues to teach, "because I love teaching." At the right, he strikes a pose in front of "Raising a Temple" at the 2001 faculty show in Cox Gallery. Just before the start of the fall 2001 semester, he shared his views on the arts with University Communications staff.
You teach art at a liberal arts university. Without stepping on toes too much, why is that a significant distinction?
In a democracy, there is a necessity for the citizens to learn how to deal with creativity, and deal with it responsibly. Sadly, most institutions don't offer students that experience. The basis of the art department at Drury was built under the rubric of creativity. We are less interested in teaching a canon, skill or technique than we are in encouraging students to identify and go with their creative impulses.
Define creativity for us?
Creativity is the exercise of freedom. Creativity allows students to pursue an unexpected agenda. Not all classes that have to do with the arts are creative. Obviously, we teach art history. We teach basic skills; students learn how to draw and make paintings that stay on the canvas. But creativity, as far as I'm concerned, is working outside the existing paradigm. That's what I mean by creativity - that feeling of thinking outside the box; making something which by definition goes against the culture. We avoid an aesthetic canon, except to get students involved in their own creative impulses. Students are not told what to do or what the result must be. Occasionally, we have a student who rises to the challenge.
The art department at Drury is an oasis, a haven, a safe refuge for diversity. It is not a token of diversity. The function of art in the 21st century is to provide a safe venue to try out concepts freely. Name one other place in our culture where we have that freedom? The arts are the most benign, safe place to be creative, to exercise that freedom.
Does Drury offer students the chance to exercise that freedom?
The art department for the past 20 years has been a home for the kids who need autonomy. Some may call them misfits, perhaps self-selected misfits, but it's really been quite a different place than any other place on campus. We give the students a place where they have some autonomy. They're really not told what they have to do or how their project has to come out.
We've definitely been counter-culture. It's been kind of difficult making that fit with Drury, keeping it in the institution. A lot of credit should go to John Moore and Steve Good for their support ... It's a self-selected thing, we feel more comfortable on the margin.
You can only go on for so long in a marginal sort of way before you put your money on the line and say, "Yes, we do have an art department that is doing important work." The new art center gives us the chance to do that. It's time.
Tell us about some of the department's accomplishments. What are you proud of?
One of the first things we did was to launch the architecture program. It came out of the art department. We established it and then had the good sense to let it go. We still collaborate between programs - foundation, history and basic skills courses - but we are separate programs.
The focus and success of the art department has been a revitalization of the arts, both on the Drury campus and in southwest Missouri. We have freedom in our exhibitions at the Cox Art Gallery. We've been able to expand the program from a single studio arts major to three different majors: studio art, art history, and design arts. We've also assisted in the development of the arts administration degree.
From your perspective, what one thing would be most detrimental to the arts?
There is always a tension between an institution and a group of people who enjoy testing the boundaries of creativity within the desire to be visible on the campus. That tension is crucial. There is nothing worse for art than to be in a place that is completely permissive. It is very difficult to keep your freedom in perspective. The true test of creativity is to be truly creative in a system that has no constraints. That is the end stage, and it's truly disconcerting to be in that stage.