Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: November 2017

Talking to the awesome Robert Engman

Engman and work

By far the most impactful and memorable class I took in university was a figure drawing class I took freshman year. It was great spending  six hours a week trying to figure out the human form, but what was really amazing about the course was the professor, Robert Engman.

Robert was actually a sculptor, but apparently he was unhappy with some of the foundational abilities of his students, so set up a figure drawing class loosely modeled on how he had learned to draw at the Rhode Island School of Design. He didn’t care if you were an MFA student, a BFA, or just a random undergraduate from any other school, he just liked mentoring and helping young people learn to see better (which is, after all, the true foundation of art).


In between drawing sessions, Robert would talk. And talk and talk and talk — about pretty much anything. Art, life, yoga, his military service in WWII, the New York art scene of the 1960s. He was one of the least pretentious and most accomplished people I’ve ever met. He could be incredibly demanding, but at the same time he was also always kind and thoughtful*.

Which is why I was so happy to discover that someone has posted an extended interview with Robert from his home studio just outside of Philadelphia. Robert is 89 years old now (and the interview was done a couple of years ago), but his soft voice and eclectic thoughts are just like I remember from when I studied with him, nearly 30 years ago.


In addition to Robert’s incredible range of brilliant insights about life, I also loved his approach to art. In particular, I love how his concept of what is important about art revolved around the artist, not the audience or the critic. He would say things like:

“When you go to a museum and you see an array of finished, so-called important works of art, that doesn’t have much to do with what they’re really about. But if you start to paint yourself, now you find out how closely you locate what painters ultimately come to when they start to invent things of their own.

“There’s a whole world of common human experiences, things we share together, and we can talk about it and have ideas. But there’s one thing that takes place in us that can’t be shared with anyone else, and that’s the connection those things have through us.

“I’ve made I-don’t-know-how-many pieces of art, but I’m the only one who knows what that is. You can show them the things, but that doesn’t tell them what that is.”


“A piece of art is never a finished work. It answers a question which has been asked, and asks a new question.”

And I loved how comfortable he was with commercialism. He used to talk about how the “proper” size for an artwork was the minimum you needed to explore an idea. Big works which were big for no reason were basically pretentious nonsense. However, he was also aware that artists need to eat, so if you took your minimalist idea and blew it up huge to make some money, that was totally all right. As Robert used to say:

“Two-thirds art, one-third paying the rent is fine. One-third art and two-thirds paying the rent is fine, too. As long as it all isn’t just to pay the rent.”


Which is good advice, considering his “Triune” sculpture, near Philadelphia City Hall, is pretty frickin’ huge.

Anyhow, if you have the time, take a listen. I hope you’ll find him as fascinating, brilliant, and wonderful as I do.


*Note: This is 2017, when all our idols are revealed have feet of clay. So if Robert turns out to be a Balrog in human form or something similarly terrible, apologies in advance.


Changing life, culture in a subway station

Recently, new and improved card readers have been installed throughout the Seoul subway system. And I guess they’re better now, with a more sensitive scanner and a small screen so you can get messages when something goes wrong (instead of just a cryptic numeric message, like the old system).

But seeing the readers getting installed got me thinking about the Seoul subway system and how much it has changed since I first arrived in Korea. You can see it in a lot of the stations — like Sangil Station, at the very end of the No. 5 subway line.



Some stations have managed to hide their histories, but not Sangil. You can clearly see where the old ticket machines and ticket counters used to be. Back in the 1990s, Seoul’s public transit was ticket-based, with little paper tickets you needed for every trip. There were single-use tickets, 10-trip tickets and other passes.

Naturally, to accommodate millions of subway riders, you needed to have many, many places to buy all those tickets. But no matter how many machines and agents there were, you still had lines most of the time. God, waiting to buy a ticket as you could hear your subway approaching was one of the most stressful things.

I always find it fascinating how these little structural changes can have such big changes in our lives. The lines are gone. All those ticket agents are gone. Plus you can track all the subways and buses from your phone, so you always know how long you have. Now that the whole Seoul system is all electronic, though, it’s hard to remember what that used to be like.

(Well, maybe not that hard. You can always just go to Tokyo and take the subway there. ^^ )

Btw, Sangil isn’t going to be the desolate end of the line for much longer. The No. 5 line is getting extended all the way to Misari in Hanam City, and with the extension, Gangdong-gu is doing a major commercial buildup of everything from Godeok Station to Sangil Station. The neighborhood is going to be very, very different very soon.



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