By Karoline Gonzalez ~ Student Journalist
“When I was a kid, I was constantly taking things apart and putting things back together,” said Professor Keary Rosen, director of the Form Design Studio at Express Newark, “I was that kind of kid that was just curious about how things worked.” From a very young age, Rosen was certain he wanted to study the arts. Whether it was attending classes at a community art center during middle school or Saturday classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) all through high school, where he then started as an undergrad, he was convinced this was the path he was meant to pursue professionally.
Having been born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago and wanting to “stretch his legs a little bit,” Rosen transferred from SAIC to The Main College of Art in Portland, ME, where he finished his degree with a concentration on sculpture. He attended the Mason Gross School of Arts in New Brunswick as a graduate where he had the opportunity to collaborate with artists and students from the fluxes period doing performance work.
Rosen began teaching at Rutgers-Newark in 2005 in the department of Arts, Culture & Media under design and fabrication through the Form Design Studio and Lab which he has been the director of since Jan. 2017. He considers himself to be a visual artist, focused primarily on sculpture but he dives into a plethora of art mediums in order to enhance his artistic career. Connected by our mutual passion for art, I had the opportunity to sit down and engage in conversation with Professor Rosen, where we discussed his upbringing and hardships found in the road to success and his advice on how to overcome them. Here’s what he had to say:
When and how did you start getting into these variating mediums of art?
Um… well, I’ve been studying art since I was very young and when it came time to decide what I wanted to do for college, I knew that I wanted to study visual art and I had already been experimenting with painting and sculpture and doing a lot of writing, research and some performance works. Even as an undergraduate I was starting to do video works and small productions not just limiting myself to sculpture, doing drawings and photography. About eight years ago, I started to become aware of 3D printing. They were being marketed as kits and there were some machines but 3D printing technology had been around for about 30 years but there was this movement to make it more affordable and so everything was scaled down to a consumer level size and I got hooked right away. I got hooked because while I was playing with this technology, I was looking at reports from the 3D printing industry and I was seeing that there was more and more development of these kinds of technology and there seemed to be a trajectory that was headed into the future.
So, I convinced the program director of Art, Design and Art History to purchase a 3D printing for me to teach with as an independent study class here at Rutgers and students seemed to really like it. There was an opportunity that came along, and it was presented by Chancellor Nancy Cantor. When she first came to Rutgers, she addressed the university and talked about what it was that she wanted to do during her time here and one of the things that she felt very strongly about—she was coming from Syracuse University and she tried this there, was opening up the school to the city. She wanted to share our resources, both physical resources and the resource of knowledge with the city of Newark. It was such a blessing that she decided that she wanted the arts to be a conduit for inviting the citizens of the city into the university. It wasn’t that easy; we presented a number of proposals and that process took a long time. This building project is not just Rutgers, it’s not just the public, it’s where those things meet. So, when we got this space, I wasn’t just doing 3D printing I was also doing laser etching and cutting and all different kinds of digital media that starts on the computer and ends up using the machine that is how something is actually produced.
Thinking about this time in your life, is this what you envisioned yourself doing when you were younger or have your plans and goals changed? Would you say that you are content with what you’re doing right now and your accomplishments?
Wow, that’s a good question *laughs*. Well, I knew early on, I knew in high school that I wanted to teach. Being interested in the visual arts as something that you want to pursue as a career obviously is not mainstream and a lot of people that were close to me in my life questioned my commitment to the visual arts and following that path. I had some teachers that gave me a lot of support and made me feel like it was something that I could do and gave me a lot of advice and helped to improve myself as a student and a scholar and like I said, when I got to high school and I started looking at where I wanted to go to school there was really no question in my mind that I wanted to go someplace where I could pursue the arts. I feel—Are you kidding me? [laughs] We’re in this space right now and I mean, this is the amazing thing about Rutgers University, it’s a research institution and this initiative here at Express Newark is incredible. The fact that people had enough trust in me to run a space and purchase this equipment, in terms of a career goal I never saw coming, it was an amazing opportunity and I’m super happy that I’m here. What I do is that I work with professors, I work with students and I also work with the public and I’ve worked with people that are seven years old as well as senior citizens and everyone in between. I’ve worked with small businesses and entrepreneurs; I’ve worked with anchor institutions in the city… I feel like this is incredibly rewarding teaching. And the reason I do what I’m doing is because of these technologies, they are moving into the future in lots of different forms, particularly 3D printing. My proposal for this space was really about wanting to expose as many people as possible to these kinds of technology because oftentimes people don’t have access to this stuff. I was specifically interested in Newark high school students and I’ve done a lot of recruitment for the department for many years and visited most of the high schools and community colleges in the state of New Jersey. Some schools have a lot and others have to make very difficult decisions about how they spend their money, and what we have here is not excessive, but it is a place where we do have the technology and we can share with people. I have done a number of programs through Express Newark in conjunction with the city and a lot of public institutions and I feel, again, so incredibly fortunate that I am able to expose people to these ways of digital making and digital thinking and be able to be paid for it.
While on the topic of teaching, why become one? On that same one, how do you feel about being someone’s influence and inspiration. Would you say it’s a responsibility that weighs on you or what has it taught you?
I love teaching. I worked really hard as a student and as an artist who learned as many working methodologies as I possibly could, that was one of my goals as somebody who was studying sculpture in school. I wanted my ideas to not be hindered by a process or by a tool. I wanted to be able to sort of imagine things freely and then have the skills to execute whatever it is that I’m imagining in whatever medium, in whatever way I wanted it to take form. So, I began this process of learning how to do lots of things. I take my teaching incredibly seriously; I love that I can see somebody come in as a freshman and they are one way, maybe they are like a pain in the butt or maybe they’re not sure what they want to do and then a few years later they’re killing it in whatever they’ve decided to focus on, that’s rewarding. It’s also really rewarding when I truly see somebody get into the subject matter that I’m teaching, that makes me very happy. I feel like I am a teacher but I’m also sometimes a guide, sometimes a father and all the time an artist but just to be able to share my knowledge with a whole variety of people is incredibly rewarding to me. Sometimes people talk about the idea of teaching as something that’s great to supplement something else and that is the truth. I mean, if you can stay with the subject matter that you’re interested in pursuing and be able to make some money, that’s just basic living and that’s wonderful but I really, seriously always thought about teaching along with any dreams or aspirations or romantic ideas that I had in my mind about what it was going to be like to be an artist so again, there were people that went above and beyond when I was younger in terms of support and guidance and I always just thought that teaching was a pretty amazing thing and something that was worth pursuing in some level.
So, it was always in the back of your mind?
Yeah, it’s always been in the back of my mind, I was always thinking about it and you know, I knew that I couldn’t teach high school kids in the beginning. I just was sort of drawn more to the college level and like that moment where people are sort of making these big decisions about where they want to go in life. I’m a father too, my daughter’s 15 years old and she’s not too far away from having to make those decisions herself. I see freshmen and some of them seem confident and some of them also seem very young and in need of support and I feel like giving guidance to people is an important part of what I do as a teacher.
Tell me about your creative process.
I’ve been thinking a lot about it since I asked all of my students to write about this and It changes all the time. Going back to what I said about how I wanted to be a sculptor, how I wanted to just learn how to do everything and I wanted to, theoretically be able to teach everything. I’ve taught figure modelling with clay, I’ve taught foundry work with investment, casting and metal, I’ve taught welding, wood carving, furniture making, mold making and casting, basically lots and lots of material and processes. So, when it comes to my artistic process, usually I like my ideas to guide me. I read a lot, specifically books that are accounts of history and also having to do with human physiology and human evolution, religion and philosophy. Basically, trying to address the big questions and so that’s usually where my works come from, something that I’m reading or writing about or thinking seriously about that came from some repository of knowledge. My process it’s definitely a lot about research and then I’m kind of in a place where I feel like I can respond visually to some of the things that I’m taking in and sometimes it’s very complex, other times it’s very simple. But part of it is also about play, so I may have an idea about the direction I want to move in with a work but not know exactly how I want the final piece to look, I mean, this is something very common for artists. So, I’ll have a piece out on a table or a pedestal and I’ll just look at it for a while and make minor adjustments, add things, take things away, you know always thinking about how clearly I want to articulate an idea or the content that I want to include. But yeah, my process is very much about play, it’s about listening to music, about feeling free and then at the same time there’s this weird line that I’ve been walking where I’m doing a lot of academic research figuring out how to use a certain program or a tool for the purpose of learning how to do something. So, it’s my imagination and research and then also just thinking about my classes, thinking about what I’m teaching and how I can move forward and discover something really cool and then that somehow weaves its way into my work, through that kind of practice and play.
With the pieces that you create, would you consider the impact that they have on you to be more significant than the impact they may have on others or is it an interchangeable concept?
I think all creatives, anyone who puts something out into the world is hoping that they can make a connection with people and that somebody understands their idea in a meaningful way, whatever that is for the individual and I think a lot about it. In fact, I’ve thought a lot about my audience in the past year and that has to do me figuring out how I fit into the world. Right now, there is a social revolution that is taking place that has to do with equal rights and equal treatment and this is not just happening now, it has a very long history. But because of the way that we’re connected now, everybody’s seeing it and everybody’s thinking about these horrific things that people are catching in video but yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about it. What do I have to say to people as a white male in America? Who is going to respond to my work? White males have dominated art history for centuries, so my voice has felt smaller. What’s been going on, which I think is amazing, it’s made me think about how I fit in and what I have to say as an artist and to whom I am speaking. Artists can work for themselves and if I don’t work, I feel terrible so part of my daily routine is me working as an artist and in my studio, trying to separate myself as best as I can from the rest of the world and thinking about what I want to do and create. But yeah, you know it’s a weird thing, if you think too much about who your audience is, for me at least, it has a tendency to stifle my creativity a little bit. Sometimes you need to go all the way someplace and then take some steps back and figure out what’s really important, what really works. So yeah, I have had a few serious moments over the past year where I thought about what are things that I say and why am I saying these things and who do I think is listening and that’s a kind of insecurity that I think most artists have.
What are some challenges that you face that may interfere with your work and how do you cope or overcome them?
Wow, there’s been a lot of challenges that I’ve faced as an artist! Whether I really need to purchase some materials to work with and I can’t afford to do that, so money is a big part of it. How do you get yourself in a place where you feel comfortable creating in the way that you want to create but still be able to afford that? My wife has a heart condition so shortly after we got married, we decided we wanted to have a child because of her age and when she would be most healthy to give birth and not at a risk to herself or our child. But having a child shortly after I got out of graduate school was a real challenge because when you get out of graduate school you have all of this energy and steam. You’re thinking about things in a kind of a laser sharp way because you’ve just gone through that process of getting that degree but yeah, I mean that was difficult. It was difficult when my daughter was an infant and I moved my classes around. Many people were great at accommodating my schedule so I can spend time with my daughter. Other obstacles, I mean certainly there’s the art market, it can be one way one day and be affected by the economy or political movements. So, I’ve had really great periods in my artistic career and then I’ve had other periods of not selling my work because of the market. What I say to people is, you always have to work your ass off, you know if you want to be successful in anything, you have to. You have to be thinking about it all the time and working on it all the time and putting yourself in a position so that you can level up in some way if possible, even when there are so many challenges.
What is the best piece of general advice that you could offer?
I mean, it’s the same thing I just said [laughs]. It’s about working your ass off, really! There used to be this romantic idea that somebody that was creative could somehow be discovered. That someone could visit an artist’s studio and then they decide they’re going to be a patron to that artist and they’re going to support them. Maybe that was true, maybe in old time Hollywood somebody would have a soda standing outside of a building and somebody would walk by and say, “You’ve got the look!” and then all of the sudden that person becomes a star but really, it’s about putting in a lot of effort. It’s about taking what you do very seriously and thinking about your audience, thinking about collectors or consumers and just not being afraid to let your voice be heard and putting yourself in an uncomfortable position to make contact with someone or something that can ultimately help you. I think it’s a problem that a lot of artists have, I suffer from it sometimes too. Where you make something that is so personal, it comes from you, it’s coming from your ideas, using your hands or whatever tools you use to create something and when you think it’s all finished there is this real desire to just stand back and see how people take it in. You can do that, you can be a wallflower at your own opening but if you want to really have people understand your work you have to engage with them, you have to overcome being shy. As long as you’re working hard and you’re putting everything you can into something, it’s going to go somewhere over the course of time and hopefully you’re able to navigate so that you’re getting to the place you want to be. As an artist I started off dreaming about being famous. Most people that get into art at a young age and they get a book about someone’s work; some of the big names, and you look at them like “Wow, here’s a creative person and here’s a book about their work and this is their impact on the world” and it’s very easy to imagine yourself as being that kind of person and having those kinds crazy expectations or dreams about sort of hitting the high mark and getting your name into a book. But you know, when it comes down to it, it’s really a matter of pushing as hard as you can just so your voice is heard and that’s why I say, if you’re not serious about what you’re doing, maybe really question whether or not it’s a direction you want to move in. As a teacher I always try not to discourage, I like to encourage because I never know what will happen but as an artist, it’s certainly about commitment.”
What would you say to younger Keary and what would you hope to say to older Keary?
Wow! I don’t know, that’s some sort of time travelling paradox! [laughs] What would happen to me, would I just like cease or like fade away? I don’t know, I mean, what I would say to younger Keary is—am I allowed to say what happens in the future? [laughs]. Okay, I would encourage myself to just stick with it, that it’s going to be a difficult path, but you can do it! And to my future self, keep things in perspective, keep things light. I try to have fun with most of my work, it can be very serious, but I always try to have a sense of humor and I always try for there to be something that’s still engaging but takes a little bit of the edge off a topic for specific reasons. Sometimes when I’m in the studio I think about things a little bit too seriously and that’s something that I’ve always sort of fought with. But the most rewarding work that I’ve done is work that comes from a place of seriousness but non-seriousness and play and fun. So yeah, I hope I don’t get super serious in my older age, I hope I can maintain that, I feel like I can! I don’t know, I’m always hopeful for the future, I’m an optimist, so when it comes to thinking about me and where I’m going, I think to myself “You know, hopefully you’re going to keep on stirring yourself to a good place.” I feel that way about other people and the rest of the world.
So, going back to one of your previous remarks, if you had the younger version of yourself in front of you, would you tell him the events that have unraveled, or would you let him find out on his own?
Wow, so I’m a super science fiction geek! [chuckles] When I was younger my father was—is into science fiction and sometimes I would do something and he would say “Okay, here’s your punishment. You’ve got to read the first three chapters of this book!” And he would hand me this sci-fi novel and you know, usually pretty good stuff and then he’d make me talk with him about it. But yeah, I don’t know. I think a lot about my life, and I think about everything that I am is the result of decisions that I’ve made. Whether they be serious, thoughtful decisions or spurt of the moment ones, so I wouldn’t give specifics like “do this” or “do that,” I would just say “I know you can do it, I’m here telling you that you can do it. You just have to work really hard and you have to keep your eye on your goals, and you’ll be fine.”