Professor: Ed Kerns
Chair: Eugene H. Clapp II ’36 Professor of Art
Years at Lafayette: 37
Received Chair: 1987
Song: “Che gelida manina” from Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme
Connection to Endower
I met Eugene and Mildred Clapp. It was quite an experience. In 1987 there weren’t many chairs—that has been a growth industry at Lafayette as people have found a way to give. I met him through then-president David Ellis, who invited me to a dinner to meet Clapp. As it turned out, Clapp wanted to give this chair to economics, but Ellis told him the College had chairs in that department but didn’t have many in humanities and the arts—would he consider it and be willing to meet me. I had just come to Lafayette to build what has become the modern era art department. I was a young hot shot from New York City who had his own ideas and pretty well connected. I was rather brash and didn’t know much about academic life but had nothing to lose. I knew a little bit about Clapp from what the Ellis told me. Clapp was an OSS officer during World War II, spoke Mandarin, and was stationed in China. So already we had a fascinating beginning to our conversations. As I got to know him, he was such an interesting man. He had a Christmas tree farm in Maine called Penobscot Tree Company. Over time, and when I met him, it had become Penobscot Investment Company. He wanted to do something for his alma mater, and he gave this chair. Ellis wanted him to meet me thinking it might seal the deal, but as it goes with me, seal it or ruin it. But we had a lovely time at that first meeting, and I became the youngest professor to have an endowed chair in the College’s history. I was such an idiot in my youth that I didn’t know what it meant. Years later, Ellis told me that my appointment left some older faculty huffing and puffing, but I didn’t know that and just sailed full speed ahead. Over that time, I wrote Clapp letters on the quarter, and he would write me back. I have many of those letters, which are very entertaining exchanges between people in different fields. I remember at that first dinner him asking me what I could bring to the chair, and I told him I would never dishonor his name, always work at the highest level, and leave if he asked me to. As a military man, he knew I was swearing a kind of allegiance to the chair as a high-end gift that he really got behind. When he died, I wrote his wife. It was a wonderful relationship. I have been the only person to hold this chair, but when I retire in a few years, someone will have the benefit of a lovely legacy of connectivity to that family.
Connection to Song
The song I selected is from Puccini’s opera La Boheme, which premiered in 1896. It’s about artists and poets living in garrets and lofts in Paris in the late 19th century. When I listen to the arias, and this one in particular, translated “What a cold little hand,” it takes me back to my early days in Manhattan where I lived a romantic life for 12 years. I don’t mean romance in the way people can talk about it in arts, like Van Gogh being a romantic guy who cut his ear off. We were very practical, survivalists in a way. We snuck our garbage out at night so people wouldn’t know we were living in these lofts, but, of course, everybody did. It was a wonderful existence because artists could talk to other artists. It wasn’t the big art world it is today or even the city is today with international commerce having taken over Manhattan.
Connection to Passion
Artists back then had natural meeting places. I actually saw fistfights over aesthetic ideas and principles. There was a kind of passion that is unimaginable. Passion is a word that is used today, even in education, like loose change: Everybody says, “Work to your passion” or “Find your passion.” But they don’t really examine the very nature of what passion means. This aria does just that. In the scene, Rodolfo, who is a poet, meets a street person named Mimi and takes her to his studio. She is cold when he grasps her hand. He tells her he is a poet whose verses are about describing the great experience of life. And yet, during this aria, he burns one of his manuscripts in order to keep her warm. Rudolfo’s relationship with the bohemians reminded me very much of the “one for all and all for one” attitude that many of the young artists and I shared. Their passion had nothing to do with careerism. It had to do with making the art, to model human experience and human capacity in a large, engaging way. A good painting, for example, can speak to you over time. That ability to empathize with a subject and to identify with it speaks to us across hundreds of years.
Connection to Science
I have always had an abiding interest in biology and physics. These deep, emergent systems that generate imagery, cellular life, all sorts of patterns that I have seen in nature correspond to what I have seen in art. So for the last 15 to 20 years I have been reading earth science and neurology. I have talked to many scientists, biologists, and engineers. In a strange way I feel I have more commonality there because of the approach we take solving problems than I do with my fellow humanists who have taken different tracks and are engaged in other approaches to knowledge. Science is not illustrated by me but is a partner with me. Thomas Aquinas, one of my favorite rigid philosophers, says there is nothing in the intellect that didn’t start in the senses. That is a very powerful statement to me and holds true today. We have this wonderful physical instrument by which we can know the world. Memory is physical. I think of these little neurons expanding to include this knowledge and going from flat to full and round. With my colleagues in the sciences, particularly neuroscience, engineering, and biology, I have been working in the area I call consilience. The great naturalist E.O. Wilson wrote a book called Consilience in which he suggested that the problems of the 21st century could be approached if we had a broader sense of intellectual community. No one single discipline can save us. Science when combined with poetic insights and artistic insights can enhance the general capacity of human beings to think passionately and more creatively and with a sense of empathy. Empathy is created in part by observation, and that is the shared root of art and science. Think of Leonardo Da Vinci, who would paint in the morning and dissect in the afternoon. It is that kind of probity, personified, that carries the day intellectually. I want my students to know that this is such a worthy way to model experience, that one can glean from art certain things perhaps that might not be repeatable but we have all experienced, like the quality of a sunset or the quality of love.
Connection to Students
We want students to innovate, be creative. That is something that has to be experienced. Bodily experienced. To see change and recognize change. Innovation usually comes from ideas already around, but can you recognize a new idea? Do you know what creativity really means? It comes from experience. And that is probably my greatest contribution here. Not to codify it, but have students experience it. Students in my classes, like the one I am currently teaching, has four engineers, three mechanical and one chemical, two biologists, and one neuroscientist. They don’t get here by chance. It’s the idea that they are going to find another way to think about what they do. It’s very powerful. E.O. Wilson said we are in the process right now of finding a kind of intellectual unity. The walls are falling and disciplines are coming together, like bioengineering. We are sharing questions together. It is all full-bodied and delicious—a much bigger feast for students.
Connection to Work
The chair has done three things for me. The first thing it did was provide me with a research fund. For most academics that means travel, but it also means materials. If you know anything about art materials, to be able to purchase paint and have a degree of freedom to have enough to try things and push the boundaries. Rather than safe successes to have magnificent failures made possible by having material. The second thing it did was give me a kind of cachet as a recognized honor that opened otherwise closed doors, not in my field but in other fields. If you got a call from an endowed chair, people were more likely to talk to you because it’s like you have been certified by Good Housekeeping. The third thing it did was give me such a sense of peace and commitment because I could go no further. Ambition is only good in the drive to the top. Then what do you do? The chair allowed me to not worry so much about that. I could take, in my view, more strident positions, speak for the arts with great care and precision, and felt a tremendous obligation to talking about how it might contribute to civic dialogue and society. We don’t live in a European city where you walk down the street and art is everywhere, but if you notice in Easton there are certain things going on, like the Karl Stirner Arts Trail, various art venues, and visiting artists. All of that is part and parcel with conversations and work the chair allows me to do in the city.
Connection to His Art
As a young artist, I was completely devoted to overthrowing my teachers—don’t we all. My teachers were abstract expressionists, the first generation of American painters to dominate the international scene. All of this happened around World War II when so many expatriates and Jewish intellectuals left Paris and other venues in Europe to escape the onslaught of debauchery and horror of Hitler. They tended to congregate in New York City, which transformed from a sleepy financial center with some culture to this enormously full, complex, and rich environment of arts. That’s why artists, dancers, musicians, and actors, everyone wanted to go there and measure themselves against the best. So did I, so I went there. I had some advantages having had those folks as teachers—they helped open some doors. I had my first show in New York City in 1971. It was a terrific success because my teachers came and others assumed that I was something special because the abstract expressionists were there. But they were just there because they knew me. So I was off to a wonderful media start. If I had had an agent, she couldn’t have designed it any better. I painted abstract expressionism. I was good at it and sold a lot of work. But over time you paint yourself out of your teachers and that initial aesthetic experience. You become yourself. You don’t find yourself; you invent yourself, over and over again. You calm down and realize the problems you want to address.
Connection to Calamari
The thing I am working on now is another manifestation of consciousness. I love calamari, but I don’t eat it anymore because I have come to know octopuses. They are brilliant. They have nine brains and an integrated network, which presupposes a different kind of awareness or consciousness. Humans have a central processing unit (CPU) with the brain and neurons intimately connected with our body. Everyone knows that cortisol and stress cause things to happen or that we can shut down very easily if too much stimulation goes to the CPU. An octopus can handle things locally. There is a little brain at the top of each of the tentacles. As invertebrates they have all this surface area from which they can receive telemetry and not shut down. I wonder what octopus consciousness might look like. It’s sort of a silly question, but it’s really about a synthetic idea that a person in a meditative state might reflect on. I read a story once about Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine. He was riding in the back of a taxi cab and got an idea of how to defeat the virus by imagining he himself was the virus and could figure out a way to kill himself. If you were a scientist today applying for a grant from other scientists, you probably wouldn’t get it if you talked like that. But being an artist, I can create imaginary worlds. So I’ve been working on what consciousness means. Not what goes on when we think, but what it really means. So these creatures live in this fluid environment with this loose skin, and they have all these perceptual characteristics. So I wonder and think about that idea and make visual systems seeing what emerges and build complex imagery. I’ve been working on this idea for 15 to 18 years, painting new worlds.