Theodore P. Mead
Theodore P. Mead was interviewed by Mary Giles on November 16, 1976. He spoke of his job as a professor in the art department at what is now UMass Dartmouth.
I’ve been teaching for just about 30 years, twenty-five of them at what is now Southeastern Massachusetts University. I’ve seen the art area grow from a technological training ground for textile designers through various stages, to where it’s now a rather large undertaking. AT SMU, we have about 450 students and 28 faculty members (College of Fine and Applied Arts) in several areas of the arts. We have majors in art education, art history, painting and design, and we have some music. I’m totally involved in teaching, and I think it’s not only helping the students, but helping the community as well. Right now (1976), we’re getting ready to move into a new building, a Fine Arts building with a gallery. We have an excellent faculty, and all of us have been involved in the planning. We’ve been suffering from budget cuts, so we’re all amazed that this building has come out of the ground as we were on the bottom of the list (state priority list). I think the building was started about two years ago, when the financial crunch began, so we’re all just amazed that it is an actuality.
The building had been planned, oh, several years ago, and was on a priority list. At one time, we were way down at the bottom, and all of a sudden, we appeared at the top. I don’t know what caused this, but, of course, we’re delighted.
Now, I teach photography, and that’s just about it. I was Chairman of the Fine Arts Department for many years, and Dean of the College of Fine Arts for five years, and then I decided that I’d like to go back to teaching, and I’ve been very happy teaching full time. Some of my
Bradford Durfee College (1952) and was interviewed for the position they said, “We have a darkroom, a camera, and an enlarger. Do you think you could work with the students with that?’ And, I said, ‘Sure.’
So now, when we get into our new facility, we may offer a major in photography. We don’t at this time. Right now, there are only two of us teaching photography. I think one area that we’ll get into is ‘cinematography’ and ‘video’ and that sort of thing. We deal with still photography, of course, and although we have an extensive facility (at SMU) for dealing with video, nothing is being done it just sits there. I don’t think I’ll get involved with it. It’s all I can do to keep in my area (black and white still photography).
My education at Pratt Institute was interrupted for about four years by the war. I was in the Coast Guard. I didn’t like being in any branch of the service particularly, but frankly, I chose the Coast Guard because I thought it was on the humanitarian side, and I enjoyed being in the Coast Guard. I had four good years there. I was about 20 years old, didn’t have to carry a gun. I was in ‘life saving’ – if you can call it that, which suited me just fine. I worked in fireboats in New York Harbor, which was very exciting, helping to put out fires in the harbor.
When I returned, practically the day I got out of the service, I went back to Pratt to finish my undergraduate work. Before being in the service, I was bent on being a designer, and I was interested in advertising. After four years in the service, I – along the way, became interested in teaching. I was made a teacher in the service, and I enjoyed that, so when I returned to Pratt, I opted for Art Education. Then, my first teaching position was with the high school from which I had graduated, which is a New England Academy (The Gilbert School) in Winsted, Connecticut. I had three good years there, but it was a little bit strange working with my former teachers as colleagues, but it was rewarding. After teaching three years at the high school level, I decided that I would like to do some college teaching, so I went back to school and got my Master’s degree at Columbia University. Through Columbia, I located a college teaching position in Ruston, Louisiana. I majored in Art Education, and they needed someone to teach art in general at Louisiana Polytechnic Institute, so I thought that would be a fine job, particularly since my wife is a Southerner. We met in New Orleans while I was in the Coast Guard.
An interesting thing about living in Louisiana, we had lived in New Orleans, and Ruston is located near the Arkansas border in the Bible Belt. We found life there a bit on the dull side, and we’d try to get back to New Orleans whenever possible, but it was a long drive, and we’d have to wait for a three-day weekend. Louisiana is a huge state. As any rate, we spent two years there and decided to get back to New England. I learned about an opening at Bradford Durfee College in Fall River and that’s how I happened to get back. Of course, Bradford Durfee was absorbed with Southeastern Massachusetts Technical Institute, and then it later became Southeastern Massachusetts University.
I think my philosophic development was gradual, but it didn’t take me long to decide to stay with teaching. I’ve always enjoyed teaching, but at times, I’ve been a little bit upset by the pressures put on teachers at the college level, to achieve so much in their profession. I think it’s good in a way, but the pressures to ‘publish or perish’ are great in almost any university situation. There are actually two kinds of people, and each serves his own purpose. I think you have the outstanding performers, who happen to know a little bit about teaching. They are active in their profession, exhibitions, research or whatever. Then, there are the dedicated teachers. The teachers that I remember best at Pratt Institute, for instance, were not the outstanding artists, but the devoted teachers with time to deal with students. They knew their subject matter, were perhaps not outstanding artists, but knew how to deal with students, and get them directed in the proper way, and that’s the road I took. I find that I’m very much interested in being active professionally, but not so much that I lose sight of what I’m doing with students.
One thing I’ve been very much interested in doing in the photography area, is expanding the offerings, so that biology majors, history majors, engineers, whoever is interested, can take a course, and not feel frightened by the idea that it’s an ‘art course.’ These students come in and work side by side with art students and assimilate and absorb a great deal of what the art student is doing in the aesthetic areas, without really knowing what is going on. Many students in the sciences come to study photography because they feel they will need it in their particular field. It opens their eyes to things they have never really seen before. They get behind the camera and they see things that never knew to exist, and I find this very rewarding. I treat the art student and the non-art student exactly the same. We start basically with the craft, and we get into the aesthetics of photography in gradual steps. Since I’ve been dealing with these non-art students, I’ve been amazed, year after year, how many of them out perform the art students in clear vision. They are not fettered by rules of composition. It’s a very honest, straightforward approach.
Last summer (1976) Helen and I combined business with pleasure, and went to a conference, or a seminar, I guess you would call it, which involved six outstanding photographers dealing with about sixty people. It was almost like a ‘retreat.’ It was held at Asilomar, a conference center at Pacific Grove, California, on the Monterey Peninsula. The outstanding person there was Ansel Adams. It was not a typical photography workshop; we didn’t go into the darkroom at all. The participants came from all parts of the country, and we each had a portfolio, and during the time we were there, each person’s portfolio was reviewed by the professionals, who gave their reaction to our work. Besides Ansel Adams, the professionals were Arnold Newman, Robert Heinicken, Bill Owens, Ellen Land-Weber and one other. It was a great experience to work with such a variety of interesting people.
Before this Bicentennial project came up, I devoted most of my energies to, I’d guess you’d call it, landscape work, straight photography. I am fascinated by the sea and the beauty of Westport. When this Bicentennial project came up, I became very much interested in photographing the house and people in Westport, and I probably will continue. I guess you could call it ‘documentary’ photography. I’m interested in the architecture of Westport, and I suspect that will be my main theme. I’ve just scratched the surface so far. I probably will never get into formal portraiture, where I have to please the customer, retouching, removing lines and wrinkles. If I can get the people to understand what I’m trying to do, I’d like to document what is going on around me. I’d like to provide some enjoyment to the people. I find that this type of photography interests me more than the endless pursuit of something new, which is the thing that is being pursued by a good many of my colleagues. In teaching, I have to keep on top of all these latest developments, and I follow them carefully, but I don’t get myself into the trap of trying to do something that’s shocking or absolutely new.
One specific example of one of the new trends is a photographer who is receiving all sorts of national recognition. He has a big show at the Museum of Photography at Rochester right now. In his own way, he’s making a document of the age, and it has great shock value. For instance, he will go through magazines and take a razor blade and cut out a section of a picture that’s printed on one page, and whatever appears on the next page (through the cut-out section), will be reproduced, and then he’ll show it in a gallery. It might be the juxtaposition of an ad for cosmetics, a page from the New Yorker magazine, for instance, and, on the next page showing through, there might be a photograph of a young Vietnamese soldier, who just beheaded two people. This shocking juxtaposition of the good life, and the realism of what is actually happening, is what he was trying to picture. It’s a little bit of both, art and a philosophic statement. I’ve done something along those lines, but not as shocking. I know that the committee working on the Bicentennial booklet was not too happy with one of my photographs, thought it should not be included, but I more or less insisted, since it was a statement that told an awful lot about our life today. That is the photograph of the highway (88) with the tire marks, which I originally called ‘Midnight Graffiti.’
I’m not afraid of portraying beauty. An awful low of people in the arts today, think that’s been done, why try to do anything that smacks of beauty. To them, it’s a threadbare statement.
I think I’m in an extremely fortunate situation, being able to teach ten months of the year, and have two months free. It’s a luxury really; the University provides me with a living. My prime purpose in live, that of functioning as an artist, is very important, and if I were not teaching, perhaps I could not enjoy the luxury of experimentation. If I were working for industry, perhaps I would always have to compromise. I think that people who are involved in the arts, and are in academia, are indeed very fortunate.
As far as the community is concerned, I think this community has been very kind to me. I have lived in areas where the artist is looked upon as a sort of oddball and misfit, but I’ve never felt that in Westport. Westport is such an attractive community, and it has attracted people involved in the arts. I think the people of Westport look with kindness and understanding on the arts. Look how popular our art shows are. I don’t think we have a snobbish attitude, trained and untrained can exhibit side by side. It doesn’t have the trappings of an art colony, and that’s good. I found this out too, when I was working on this documentary. I was working with fishermen. Now I know the local fishermen, and most of them know me, and they kidded me a lot when I was down around the docks. Actually, they were very cooperative.
I think that generally, the artist has to get out of Westport to earn a living. The market place is in the cities, and places where people are passing through, like Westport.
If I could make any changes in Westport, I would like to see some kind of unification of the North and the South. I recall when we first lived here, the question of zoning for Westport Point first came before a Town Meeting, some of the people from the North part of the town called us ‘a bunch of snobs,’ and there has been this slight antagonism that still exists to some extent.
I hope that Westport won’t change too much. I think the town will keep industry out and make a valiant effort to preserve what we have.