This month, Traverse City Art and Design Studio will launch “Three Decades of Art of NMC,” an exhibition showcasing the work of 30 artists who got their feet wet in art class at Northwestern Michigan College. There’ll be works of all kinds—painting, pottery, textiles—but the one common thread is the early influence of Paul Welch: the wise-cracking, impassioned art instructor who was instrumental in the creation of NMC’s art department in the 1960s.
Welch, now retired, spoke to us about how the exhibit is not only a retrospective for the region’s art scene, but also his own legacy. The following interview is featured in the March 2014 edition of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine:
It’s striking to see just how many of your students went on to very successful careers. Was there something particularly special about the arts at NMC?
Obviously it’s not about me, it’s about the staff, all those people coming together. We had an incredible faculty. It was an exciting, exciting time, but it was a unique situation: We had events with the students, we invited them over to our houses, we had spaghetti dinners for them. We didn’t “twitter” to them, we didn’t send them text messages. We knew them personally. And we were in a fantastic building, designed by the father of the Bauhaus movement. The building had an immense influence; it’s funny, for a building to have an influence, but it did. It’s probably the most important building in Northern Michigan.
What’s it like, to see all these works created by your former students?
Do you have children? If you do, then you’ll know the feeling. I’m the art guy who had a baby; those are my babies on the wall.
Does this exhibit conjure up any funny memories for you? Do you look at, say, a painting and think, “Oh, I remember that guy; he was always late to class!”
No, it’s more like: Look at how he’s grown. Look, all you give sometimes is inspiration. And all you give sometimes is perspiration. A lot of education is unlearning. These people have gone beyond that step. They’re not in a class now, they can motivate themselves. They can get up in the morning and say, Hey, I wanna do art. And maybe just a little piece of that, a tenth of that, is what they got from NMC. But there’s something about them being active, still working. Sometimes you just give them something that makes them go on. On with whatever; right or wrong.
How does this exhibit make you reflect on your legacy in the Northern Michigan arts community?
It’s really been a great experience. Ask yourself these questions: Who do you really influence? Who do you really give yourself to? One of the things that always disturbs me is when I go through people’s obits and it says, Well, he played golf, and he read a story to someone … I’m not trying to judge people, but it seems like people don’t accomplish much in their lives. You know? I feel that trying to accomplish as much as I can within the short time is pretty damn important.
“Three Decades of Art of NMC” runs from March 28 through May 31. Contact Traverse City Art and Design Studio for more info: 231.421.9499