In tune with meaning: A conversation with Betsy Schneider

Does your work tell your story if you’re not standing next to it art-splaining?

By Gigi Kisela ‘17

I remember standing with my classmates in VES 11a at our very first critique. The drawing assignment had been about representing memory. Very quickly into the critique of my work, I had realized that I represented a memory so personal and painful that I had no interest in, nor the courage for, sharing it with anyone. The critique taught me that the only thing that had come through in my representation was not wanting to share the memory, rather than the memory itself.

The frustration was crushing. In the re-do for our second critique, I felt bolder, braver and obsessively driven by that frustration of being misunderstood. I never expressed the memory during the second critique, but there seemed to be a greater understanding that they were privy to an intensely personal memory. And that felt incredible.

Betsy Schneider, my photography professor and visiting faculty member of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, summarized this experience during a conversation we had on intent and interpretation or consumption. Not only would I not be standing next to my memory-drawing when people saw it, but I could not even articulate my intentions given the chance. What is the visual artist’s relationship with the viewer? That’s what I was trying to understand.

I had had similar experiences in Schneider’s photo class Introduction to Still Photography (VES 40a). I A VES project by Gigi Kisela '17had to reconcile my photographic intention and critical interpretation. I distinctly remember giving Schneider an intolerable spiel – “See, they’re having a conversation here and, like, they have all these distinct quirks I know so well and…” – about a series of photographs I’d taken of my close friends and roommates. I was art-splaining it to death. She straightened me out pretty calmly and quickly with questions I hadn’t considered because I was obsessed with the heart in my process: Will anyone know how the photos were taken? What elements speak to my story? Are the works interesting independently? How important is the story to me?

“There are times when I want something to mean something, and it just doesn’t. I think it’s meaningful and powerful, and it’s not,” Schneider said in response to reconciling her personal intent and interpretation amidst frustration. Her method or journey in this initial regard was such: She knew whom to trust. She would show work to close friends and peers and “balance being open to what people are hearing and seeing but confident enough to do what you want” with artistic intuition.

VES visiting faculty Betsy Schneider“Filter through the criticism,” Schneider advised. “Mull through your own response, trying to figure out what’s right and not right.” This creative discernment seemed difficult and nuanced, mostly because it was. “If you want to continue to grow, it’s something you have to grapple with,” she continued. In my first almost-full semester as a VES concentrator, I had done a lot of grappling that came with equal measures of frustration and reward. It was net positive, however. The frustration drives you, and the reward nourishes you.

As a teacher, Schneider guides students to executing that intent, but as a viewer, she steps back. Is the art working?  

As students pursuing artistic careers, putting our work out there or trying our hand at studio work, how are we to deal with discord in such early stages? 

Focus on your idea and your process, said Schneider. These constitute the “kernel you need to sustain yourself.” By knowing the meaning and purpose within the process, you can start to lead people to your intent with your work. “To only see the gallery goal is really discouraging,” she said. “On the other hand, be ambitious and show your work to people. Network, but stay in tune to what’s meaningful.” 

Beyond the philosophy, she recommended practical steps as well: “Make time to make your work. Continue even if you don’t have an instructor. Make communities where people push you.”