Former Fresno State professor Charles Gaines leaves legacy
Behind a Filipino restaurant in Glendale exists a small guarded building. The area looks abandoned and not maintained.
A bedspring rests on a rusted chain-linked fence that leads the eye to a small building.
The building, after it was reconstructed into an art studio, now houses the studio of a modest artist who has made a career in both art and educating students about the importance of art.
Charles Gaines, 63, an instructor working at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), had once left his mark at Fresno State.
But before Gaines took the position at one of the leading art schools in the nation, he began in a place he never thought he would see himself.
Gaines attended the University of Rochester, and then taught at the campus of Mississippi Valley State for six months.
Gaines soon felt Mississippi was not where he wanted to stay and decided to leave over the turmoil of the civil rights movement.
“I saw my students in Mississippi get shot at right in front of me,” Gaines said. “I started to apply to other schools, and Fresno State was one of them.”
While sending applications, Fresno State offered Gaines the opportunity to teach art. It was at Fresno when he began to venture into new ideas that benefited from his approach that he takes in art.
“I started a course in the art department called, ‘Content and Form,’ for the undergraduate program,” Gaines said. “It was based on trying to put into play some of the things that I was doing in my own practice, but bringing them into the classroom.”
Content and Form is still taught in the undergraduate program in the art department.
The class is taught to inform students about theoretical approaches, in relation to the students’ artwork.
The class has been the only theory course in the department since Gaines implemented it during his teaching at Fresno State.
“I wanted them [students] to generate art from a new perspective,” Gaines said. “It was something that I designed out of my own interest, and, it was a class that was very experimental because there wasn’t anything like it.”
The class that he taught at Fresno State dealt with his own interests that allowed him to experiment with new ideas.
“The class was more like a seminar class because we would work on ideas that really didn’t have a form or really didn’t have a tradition yet,” Gaines said.
Gaines said he was impressed, yet not surprised, that the students participated in this general experimentation of art production.
“During those years at Fresno State, it was rather an exciting place to be,” Gaines said. “The art program had a very exciting faculty.”
Gaines described the course as typical to other courses being taught during the early 1970s, and that the course had no structured framework.
“You couldn’t measure where you were going to be at the end of the class,” Gaines said. “For that reason, it was a tough class to teach because it confused people and there was a lot of reading.”
Gaines’ idea of reading, in relation to an art practice, was new and was commonly misunderstood, he said.
“You had to convince student that it was hard to understand and that it was all worth it—to hope that they would be compelled by the ideas themselves,” Gaines said.
Gaines saw that many of his students were a bit older than incoming students from high school.
Some were veterans of the Vietnam War, many of whom just returned trying to find ways to avoid becoming re-enlisted.
“The war mentality made people more sensitive, more aware of the political world around them and made the environment on campus pretty interesting to work in,” Gaines said.
Gaines started his teaching career at Fresno State at 23, and experienced what he called a tumultuous time to enjoy.
Gaines recalled that Fresno State was going through changes during the early ’70s, and it made for a dynamic place to be.
“There were lots of demonstrations on campus,” Gaines said. “The FBI setup observational posts so that they could watch dissonant students.”
Gaines had witnessed what was transpiring on campus, and wanted to find ways to bring it all together, so it could be focused on in his classroom.
“When we talked about ideas in the class, it really was quite resident, because it was a time where people thought deeply about what was going on in the world politically,” Gaines said.
Not long after he implemented the undergraduate course for Fresno State students, Gaines was offered a job to teach at CalArts in Valencia.
“The framework of the art school was very close to the way I thought about art and the way I taught art,” Gaines said.
Gaines said there was a variety of content and form course at CalArts, whereas Fresno State only had one.
“It would be natural in the way that I approach art because it was such a natural environment,” Gaines said. “Many of the teachers who were there and who helped start the school were among the first generation of conceptual artists in the art world.”
Gaines said he noticed when he started at CalArts that the teaching strategies were very similar to how he taught his course and he saw how a class that taught ideas affected the entire curriculum.
“I always thought, way before I had any idea of moving to Fresno, that CalArts would probably be the ideal place for me to teach,” Gaines said.
Gaines continued to teach theory courses that related to what was going on politically and socially in the world.
“There was a real need for the introduction of political discourse and race discourse,” Gaines said. “I like to make the course related to what is going on in the world.”
Gaines had helped create three courses at CalArts during the time the school was beginning to reconstruct, moving away from its liberal tendencies, and embracing a more disciplined approach for higher education.
“It is still a school that is very different from any other school that exists where there was just more of a competitive approach between students,” Gaines said.
Fresno State students have viewed Gaines as being among the first to introduce conceptual ideas into the Fresno State art department, said William Raines, an instructor at Fresno State and a former student of Gaines.
Gaines’ approach to teaching new courses was to work in an environment where students were able to speak about the art that they were making,” Raines said.
Aside from Gaines’ success as an instructor, he invites students to challenge what they know to learn more. He had his own art, which helped attribute to his success.
In later years, the popularity of Gaines’ artwork began to spread.
“Art is so weird,” Gaines said. “Work that I couldn’t give away in the ’80s suddenly is all gone and now sold.”
“Now, they are fighting each other for it,” Gaines said.
In the early 1980s, Gaines said there was a time when he continued to produce artwork, but within a 15-year span, not a single piece of his received notice.
Interest in Gaines’ artwork was revived in 2004. Suddenly, work he could not give away was in high demand.
“I tell students not to take the career part of art so seriously because if you try to chase a career you are going to drive yourself nuts,” Gaines said.
He understands that taking on a theory course cannot impact an artist as much as if a student took multiple courses.
“It is important, in respects to the liberal arts side, to have a liberal education,” Gaines said. “One should study the history of ideas of the world.”
Gaines wanted students to experience and understand the ideas and relations to art through new ideas in order to make art, Raines said.
Gaines said he realized that Fresno was not an art center, and in terms of an artist, he needed to move somewhere else.
While he was teaching at Fresno State, he said the environment of the college was what made some of his most memorable years.
“It was a terrific art department,” Gaines said. “It was an environment that encouraged experimentation and exploration.”
When Gaines left Fresno State, he said was ready for more to happen in his pursuit to become the international artist he has now become.
“People have different ideas of how they want to live their lives with an art degree, and to get a degree in art doesn’t mean you have to become a famous artist,” Gaines said.
But, Gaines believes, aspiring artists, whether they live in Fresno or Los Angeles, can become a recognized artist if they stay persistent.
“It has to do with what a person wants to do,” Gaines said.
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