CHARLES (CHUCK) BLEICK
The following interview was conducted on April 13, 2016 by David Robbins, a graduate student in the Department of Art Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. This interview is part of the Virginia Art Education Association Distinguished Fellow’s Legends and Legacies Project, a project intended to preserve the histories of prominent Virginia art educators for posterity.
Dr. Charles (Chuck) Bleick (now retired) was a professor and chairman of the Department of Art Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. He also served as the Director of the Art Foundation Program, the Director of the Anderson Gallery at VCU, and as Associate Dean of the VCU School of the Arts in Qatar.
Brief Biographical Summary
It began in the usual way – in the 1960s, Charles Bleick was in college working on a bachelor degree in paint and drawing at a small college in California – until one semester, when he took a light class load and was drafted into the Army. He was sent to Vietnam for three years. When he returned, his military service made him eligible for G. I. Bill funding, which provided free college, so Dr. Bleick wrapped up his undergraduate studies and moved to Texas to begin working on a master’s degree and eventually a Ph.D.
At VCU, Dr. Bleick was employed at the Anderson Gallery, the Art Education Department, and the Art Foundations Program. His work as the Chair of the Art Education department included encouraging the faculty to write more in order to be active as scholars and researchers. He hired several star faculty when he became chair of the department, including Dr. Pam Taylor and Steve Carpenter. Dr. David Burton was already on the faculty at the time. Dr. Bleick was an active member of NAEA as well. He and several colleagues founded the Museum Education branch of NAEA, and Dr. Bleick served as the first president of that branch.
Years later, Dr. Bleick was invited by the Dean of the School of the Arts to investigate the budding VCU Qatar program, and eventually he moved to Qatar to serve as the Associate Dean there. His wife also moved to Qatar where she was employed in the library department. After his retirement, she continued to work there for several years.
Because he was still living in Qatar with his wife, and he was retired with nothing much to do, Dr. Bleick decided to start taking classes at VCU Qatar (interestingly from some of the faculty he had hired). This began yet another chapter in his career. Several years later, the couple returned to Richmond, Virginia, where Dr. Bleick has continued to take classes in fashion design and other areas. Eventually, his expertise was such that he was invited by the Dean of the School of the Arts to teach again. As of this writing, he is teaching his first fashion design class at V.C.U.
David Robbins (DR): I did a little research on your background because. You majored in visual arts in your undergrad, right?
Charles Bleick (CB): Painting, drawing and painting, both bachelor’s, and then I was drafted into the Army because I took a light load one semester. But, the benefit of that was after I went to Vietnam for a year , then I had the G.I. Bill, and it paid for my master’s degree that was at the same school, and it was again in drawing and painting. They didn’t have a M.F.A. at that point, they had an M.A. degree.
DR: So that wasn’t a terminal degree.
CB: No. but then I applied for jobs at different universities, and ended up going to Texas at a small university called Angelo State University, where when I was interviewed they said, “You are going on for your doctorate, aren’t you?” And I said, “Well, sure!” And so I was there for a year, then the first summer, I found a program in Denton, Texas, at University of North Texas in Denton.
DR: What did you do your Ph.D. in?
CB: It was actually related to museum education. I started out at a studio-type program, and they were working getting a D.F.A., a doctorate of fine arts, and that didn’t pan out, because the accrediting agencies didn’t want to devalue the M.F.A., so they gave all of us that were in the program, I don’t know, a handful, maybe 5, the option to switch to a Ph.D. program that was in University teaching or something like that.
DR: How many years were you in the Army?
CB: Three years, the standard.
DR: Did you have some time before your Ph.D. working in museums or teaching or anything?
CB: No, while I was working on my doctorate, I was at Angelo State for two years, and I taught studio classes, but then I was asked to teach an art education class, which was curious. And so I did some reading on it. It was primarily for elementary classroom teachers, and looking back on it, I approached it all wrong, but I did find some interesting reading that I liked a lot that sort of debunked the whole notion that Lowenfeld was promoting.
DR: So you already knew Lowenfeld at the time.
CB: Sort of. Yes. And the books that I was reading suggested that art education shouldn’t be just sort of a cafeteria approach where kids can just grab materials and do anything they want, but there should be instructions and teaching strategies to go with it.
DR: I guess that is what Lowenfeld was… I know about his haptic and his visual perceptions. I’m still learning Lowenfeld’s basic theories, so he was more about allowing the child to explore.
CB: Just explore. And I think it came out of Dewey. So, then. The sequence of things. For two years at Angelo State, one of the Faculty at University of North Texas heard of an opening at a community arts center in Waco, Texas, and he said he would support me, and the courses I was taking at North Texas during the summer, some of them related to the art education we were doing. Elliot Eisner was a big part of it. We were looking at instructional packages in one course that were being distributed to elementary classroom teachers.
DR: Was it fairly common to have a program like that at that time?
CB: I think so. The chair of the department was from Penn State and he was very well known. Ed Matill was his name. Tthe person that was in charge of the graduate program had just came from a big Rockefeller-funded grant program. So, he was very big in art education, and a very likable fellow. I got to know him very well. So, I applied for this job at Waco, and it was to be director of a community arts center that just received a large amount of HUD (Housing and Urban Development) funding to start a community arts center in downtown Waco, to sort of revitalize that part of town, and HUD had already torn down a lot of downtown derelict buildings.
So, we had to hire faculty and establish a program, and it was primarily studio programs like ceramics and painting an drawing, things like that, and in the course of running that program, somebody told me about a program in Oklahoma City, where in the arts center that they had, they had a Wellow [sic] space place, which was an environment for children, preschool and young elementary, where they designed a space where kids could walk through it and do different types of activities and discover different things. So I went to look at that program, and the people who got the grant in Waco (it was the Junior League, actually), were very interested in doing this learning environment for children. So, I designed it, and it was sort of a modular sort of structure made out of plywood, and we had a lot of posters about different elements of design, and it was a place where kids could crawl through and around. It was for preschool and elementary grades. There was a part of that had a storytelling area. It was really slick! And so got me interested in designing spaces for kids – I thought that was kind of neat.
Then we parted ways after a year, because I had made some tactical errors. I won’t go into details. I offended someone from the Junior league who was a local artist. So, after a year, I decided to become a full-time student, work on my doctorate.
DR: And you were already doing that part-time?
CB: Well, I did it for two summers, then I was in Waco for a year, and following third summer. And the year after, I got a fellowship to teach and be a student at University of North Texas in a department that was really strong in art education at the time. I was still on track to become this D.F.A. program.
DR: What were your primary interests?
CB: Well, it was primarily in museum education, again using art work with kids.
DR: I read one of your articles, it’s from Art Education in 1980 or so, where you were talking about docents.
CB: So it all led to doing a dissertation on docent training and what type of training led to them being good at working with kids in particular.
DR: I thought it was interesting to work with volunteers and training them. Did you find anything?
CB: My theory was that, and it turned out to be sort of self-evident, that if the docents learned more about kids, they’d be better docents. But it turns out, now looking back at it, that most of the docents were mothers, and given their age, their kids had already left the nest. So they had a pretty good understanding of kids at that point, and what would keep them interested.
DR: So, the whole thing with volunteers, do you think museums have changed for better or worse in terms of their education since then?
CB: I think significantly. With my involvement in museum education and coming out of that program, finishing the dissertation, before I left Denton, I was doing some work with Saturday Morning Children’s Programs at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and they offered me a job there at the same time that I was offered a job here. They wanted me to come on staff. I thought the university would probably be a little bit more secure because I had a wife and a young daughter.
DR: Where were you from originally?
CB: California. I was born in Hollywood, grew up in Los Angeles. But then I went to school at a small school in Northern California called Chico State University, University of California Chico.
DR: So, you didn’t mind so much winding up on the East coast?
CB: No. I never taught in the public school. I was hired at VCU, and a lot of it had to do with fact there were some Penn State people running the department here when I was hired. And so the fact that people at North Texas went to Penn State and all of that.
DR: When you started, what was VCU like?
CB: It must have had about five or six faculty. Three of them were from Penn State. It was a very quirky department. I don’t know how to explain the quirky part of it. When I was hired at the Angelo State University, there were two faculty that didn’t get along. That’s where I was for two years. So, they wanted someone to be in charge to get these two people to work together. And then when I was offered the job in Waco at the Community Arts Center, I didn’t announce that I was leaving, because the search wasn’t completed until the mid-summer. They said I could only leave if I found somebody to replace me.
DR: Did you find somebody?
CB: I just contacted Chico State, to see if they knew of anybody. They found somebody that agreed to come, but I don’t know how long she lasted. But, then, when I was hired over here at VCU, it was because I was the Director of that Community Arts Center and I was interested in museum education. I hadn’t finished my dissertation yet when I was hired, and that was a big part of it.
DR: They wanted you to work with the Museum of Fine Arts. Where was the museum at that time, in terms of level of development?
CB: It was very strong. There was a woman in Texas who was doing children’s catalogues for museum exhibitions, and that intrigued me again. I was interested in ways to get kids engaged in the museum experience. So, the first thing I did for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) was to write a children’s catalogue for a traveling exhibition they had brought. It was on a collection from a large house in the United Kingdom, called Chatsworth. And from there I started off on Saturday mornings doing an elementary practicum, where we did Saturday morning art sort of based on what I was doing in Texas.
CB: I’ve been a little critical of the artist in residence concept because of that. But if the artist in residence where there is an art teacher or a music teacher, I think it’s great. Because kids are intrigued by people who aren’t teachers.
DR: With your experience with museums, why do you think it’s important to bring students into museums?
CB: Kids do well to see the works of art rather than the reproductions and the environment in a museum is just so different from a public school that I think it changes the perception of how important art is when it’s in a setting.
What was so great about the Dallas Museum was we were able to go in before the museum was open, and while we had a classroom area, we had access to the whole museum when it was closed, with kids, and we could go anywhere we wanted. I remember one time at the Dallas Museum, we spread out a tarp in the middle of the whole gallery. It was in front of a big (Robert) Motherwell, and we actually had kids slopping paint in the gallery. They’d never do that now! It was a pretty big gallery, so we weren’t near the walls. That was the Dallas Museum of Art. They had a good education. program. Then when they asked me to teach this Saturday morning program, and during the week a practicum, we’d need to develop lessons, and then preservice students would take those and examine them.
DR: Did you ever miss that you didn’t teach in public schools?
CB: I always felt bad that I didn’t do it. I don’t know that I missed it. But I always felt that, as I was supervising student teachers, and again I’m not certified. I always thought, when are they going to catch up with me!?
After being in art for four years, an issue developed in the Anderson Gallery, which is a (VCU) School of the Arts gallery. It was not in the Pollock building but near one of the administration buildings.
The Anderson Gallery, in addition to providing exhibition space for faculty and student exhibitions, brought in visiting artists and exhibitions. The problem with it is that it didn’t have an elevator. It was designed as a library and it had some big spaces but it wasn’t a great space. We looked into putting an elevator in and things didn’t pan out.
But, because I had finished my dissertation. It took me three years after I had gotten here that I was able to finish it.
DR: Did you go back and forth to Texas to finish it?
CB: No, I only went back once for the defense, and took a typewriter, and after the defense, revised some things, and then submitted it.
So, then, the dean of the School of the Arts, knowing of my interest in museum education, asked me if I could start working with the Director of the Anderson gallery, because he was having some administrative problems. They were silly things like certain state regulations as far as serving wine at events, and he was sort of violating those state regulations. So, he was putting the School of the Arts in a sort of precarious position. So, the dean asked me if I would start working with this guy and help straighten out some of these things.
DR: So you were full-time and then you went part-time.
CB: I did. I continued to teach some courses in the Art Education Department, but then I was part-time at the Anderson gallery. Then the director got clobbered, and so the dean asked me to be the director of the Anderson gallery, and then I completely left the Art Education Department.
DR: Did you ever return to Art Education?
CB: Well, yes, but not the same. So, then I was in the Anderson gallery, but I was teaching in the Art Foundation Program as well. When I first came to VCU, because of my studio background, Art Education wanted me to teach in the Art Foundation Program, so I continued to do that the whole time. I was Director of the Anderson gallery for a year. Then at the end of the year, the position of director opened up, and they started doing a search, and they were also doing a search for a Director of the Art Foundation Program.
DR: So you were an interim director, and you probably weren’t even allowed to apply?
CB: Well, I was given the option to become director of either program. And I liked the Art Foundation Program, and I felt comfortable there because of my studio background.
DR: Did you ever miss doing your art, focusing on it.
CB: Yes, and I wasn’t able to keep it up. The first couple years in Art Education, the other faculty in Art Education were strong faculty who were strong studio artists as well, so it was a great environment to continue to do art. Again, thinking about security, I decided to become the Director of the Art Foundation Program, and so at that point I had left Art Education completely. The Art Foundation Program was in a totally different building on Franklin street. I did that for sixteen years, but I continued to be involved in the museum education. We hired like 52 part-time faculty. It was a big operation.
DR: How did you make this transition from being an artist to an administrator?
CB: I don’t know! (chuckle). I guess I liked doing that, but it was while I was Director of Art Foundation Program, I was very active in National Art Education Association (NAEA), particularly with a group of people that were interested in museum education. Some of us got together and we decided we wanted to create a division within NAEA. There’s a Higher Education Division, there’s a Secondary Education Division, there’s an Elementary Education Division, there’s a Supervision Division. We wanted to create a Museum Education Division. So we did that. And then I became, I was elected to be the Division Director on the NAEA board. So I was the first director of that division.
DR: What kind of work did that involve?
CB: A lot of it was governing NAEA.
DR: Organizing conferences…
CB: Right. In the program, we offered certain sessions related to museum education, so before I became director of the division, my responsibilities were organizing how those sessions worked, recruiting people and so forth.
I was Director of Art Foundation, and continued to be involved in museum education. Then, they hired the new dean of the School of the Arts. I think there was a general feeling that they wanted to reexamine the Art Foundation Program, as they wanted to implement some new ideas that weren’t fully implemented as I took over. Then, I stepped down as Director of the Art Foundation Program. Then the dean asked me if I would apply to be chair of Art Education.
DR: So, you were back… What qualities as a professional do you think made you someone that people would like to have in those kinds of position?
CB: I guess I was trustworthy.
DR: Did you find that you were good with working with faculty? I always thought it would be difficult to work with faculty who are pretty talented people with different interests. It’s not like anybody is right or wrong, sometimes they are just different. I’m fascinated with that.
CB: That’s certainly a big part of it. I’ve been in situations where faculty were doing outrageous things that were annoying other people but they were valuable, I thought, they were good for students, they were doing some exciting things, but they may not have been doing the right things diplomatically with some of the other faculty or other chairs. But, when I was asked to apply for the position as chair of the Art Education Department, the department was languishing. The faculty weren’t doing research; they weren’t writing. So, my pitch to the dean and to the faculty was that it was time to get off the dime and do something about this because they were talented faculty, and they could contribute to the field. We had the support from the dean to do that. There was an acting chair of art education who also wanted the position. When he heard that I was being encouraged to apply, he didn’t take well to that. But, then I was selected as the new chair. It was at that point where I decided I was going to support the faculty to do what they wanted to do and make sure they had money to do the research and to go to conferences.
DR: When was this?
CB: that was 1997, I think. David Burton and Nancy Lampert were there. In the course of being chair, I was able to hire a very highly regarded gentleman from Old Dominion University who got he doctorate from Penn State. His name is Steve Carpenter, and he had worked mostly with Pam Taylor, and so I was able to hire her as well. I was able to steal them both. I stole Steve away from Old Dominion University, and I stole Dr. Taylor away from University of Georgia, and I think it was at that time that the department really took off. I think they were well respected in the field, and the faculty that were there that weren’t doing anything, resigned. I think that was for the best. I think they realized that they were at the end of their careers.
Yeah, it’s been an exciting career. My daughter and son-in-law live in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He grew up in Portsmouth. He was working on his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and suddenly things didn’t work out; I don’t know what happened. All of a sudden they decided to move back to Portsmouth and they wanted to create a music and arts center, and now they have 700 students and are a non-profit. It turned out that the city, in their master plan, thought it would be good to have some sort of music organization.
When my daughter was young, she was very involved with SPARC here in Richmond. I was on their board, I was president of their board, and my daughter was a student, and then when she was in college did some work as well.
CB: When I was Chair of Art Education, I became involved with a group here in Richmond, the Richmond Arts Council. They were interested in getting grant funding to non-art teachers to teach art, an inter-disciplinary thing, and to figure out how they could integrate their math lessons or English lessons with music, art and music, to facilitate that.
DR: I like that idea, but do you think it works? I hear a lot of talk about how these ideas are not respected in their field.
CB: Again, it goes back to the artist in residence. If you’re preparing class-room teachers to do art, then they don’t need an art teacher.
DR: Is that related with D’Amico? I didn’t realize this other side where there wasn’t an actual art teacher in the school, so how can you expect that to make much of an impact. So, to integrate math and music, for example, I taught a class called the Science of Sound, for a summer gifted program. I found it very fun and interesting, science, but at the same time, where does it fit in the larger picture?
CB: Out of that, my work with the Richmond Arts Council, and as Chairman of Art Education, I became the person in the School of the Arts that chaired the curriculum committee. If a department had to add new courses or change the curriculum they had to come through this committee. And coinciding with my involvement with that, VCU started this campus in Qatar. The agreement with Qatar’s government was that we would teach exactly the same program there that we taught here at VCU in Richmond, so I became involved making sure programs there met the same requirements, which meant that we had to offer math classes, social science, English, in addition to the art program. We had to hire faculty to do that.
D: It’s just the School of the Arts, but not part of VCU in general, right?
CB: Well, it started out as the School of the Arts in Qatar, and now it’s VCU in Qatar. It’s difficult to explain why it turned out that way. I visited Qatar with the dean who wanted me to go. This happened in 2001, right after 9/11. The US had just invaded Afghanistan at that point, so things were getting really touchy, the dean wanted to make sure what the faculty wanted to do, whether they wanted to stay there.
DR: So the school was already established at this time.
CB: Right. So, when I went the School of the Arts was so big here that faculty in different departments didn’t talk to people, Art Foundation faculty didn’t talk to people in Communications Arts. But in Qatar, they were all working together because it was a small group. Then there was a – strange the way this came about – but, VCU was the first university to open a campus there. There was a state university, called Qatar university, but it was languishing. So, the government had been looking around different schools in the United States to see if they could bring their programs there. So the second university that Qatar was able to attract was Cornell University, and they were offering medicine. So, when it opened teachers in the schools learned how to integrate art and science.
After that visit to Qatar in 2001 and the opening of Cornell’s branch, VCU and Qatar decided to offer a symposium on integrating science and the arts. Because I was involved in this Richmond Arts Council where we were doing something similar to that, I was invited to make a presentation in Qatar at the symposium, and another faculty, the guy I had hired from Old Dominion (Steve Carpenter), was also invited there. We went to that symposium, and after my first visit to Qatar, I was trying to figure out a way that Art Education could do something there, I developed a proposal to work with classroom teachers in this integration, and it involved computers. So when I was there for that symposium, the dean was over there at the same time, and I went to consult the Ministry of Education about this program. We thought the computers would give teachers access. At that time, the web was just developing, I forget the rationale for using them.
DR: I actually have one of these computers because I had to get a laptop from work, but it has a bunch of the Arabic characters on the keyboard. They were supposed to go back to Qatar, but somehow they didn’t, so I have one. It’s an old one.
CB: After expressing an interest in developing a program, it was in-service program. The concept was that teachers could take courses to maintain their training. When I came home from that symposium, I was talking to the dean here about a proposal, and then one day he called me into the office, and said, “Are you interested in going to Qatar and being Associate Dean?” I called my wife, and said “Are you sitting down?” I was there for nine years. I went there with the idea of being there for two years, and coming back here.
I think I was leaving Art Education, though, when things were just beginning to roll.
The proposal that I had made there sort of got shelved because there was a big research government organization that the government had hired to revamp the whole education system in Qatar K-12.
The University in Qatar was created at the beginning to just offer art classes, and the education system there, as you may know, is pretty segregated – men are educated separately from women – so it started out that way. Then students kept taking courses and it got to the point where they wanted a degree! So, VCU was faced with going about how to get accrediting agencies and everything to actually giving students in Qatar the same degree that students in Communication Design, or Fashion Design, or Interior Design, the same degree there as the students here.
Because when we first started the campus there, there wasn’t a lot of interest on the part of the faculty here to go over there, and that was part of the whole idea – the faculty would sort of rotate – they’d spend maybe a year or two in Qatar and they’d leave. Well, that never took off, so they hired a lot of people that were part time here to go there. They didn’t have a lot of teaching experience when they were sent. They were adjunct here. Most of them had their M.F.A. But, they weren’t doing research. They weren’t as active in studio as they should have been. So, we had to figure out how we could still justify offering a degree program in Bachelor of Fine Arts there. When I became very involved in curriculum when that was approved. it was a fantastic adventure.
Oh, it was a very unusual situation. The government in Qatar, in order to establish this campus, they paid everything. They gave VCU money to pay all the faculty salaries. They gave VCU what they called a “maintenance” fee – but they gave the School of the Arts money to operate here, to do things here that they wouldn’t have been able to, such as offer grants to do projects here. So it became really the model for a university in an entrepreneurial endeavor – to go out and find other money other than state money to operate.
DR: Interesting. Why would they want to be so involved with VCU?
CB: Well, they had apparently visited lots of art schools, and I think the story goes that there was a student in Qatar, or a couple of students, who had on their own decided they were looking for art schools. They wanted to go to VCU, and so they came here. When they went back home, they were singing praises about VCU.
When I was Associate Dean in Qatar, part of my job, was to go to different countries to recruit students, in the Gulf. It’s amazing, I don’t think the president realizes now, when you say VCU, they know what it is!
So, to top all this off. When I retired in 2009, I decided I wanted to take classes that I had been promoting for all these years as a student. When I retired, my wife was working in the library in VCU Qatar. It was sort of a courtesy position, because when I was offered a position, I said, “Great, my wife has to have a job.” So, she was offered a courtesy position, it started out part-time and became fulltime. She became a very valuable member of their library. When I announced I was going to leave, they decided that the position they had created was something they wanted to keep, so they made a permanent position, and they asked her to apply for it. They had done an international search, and couldn’t find somebody.
DR: An international search? That’s quite a thing.
CB: They had to do that in Qatar. It turns out most of the faculty are not from the United States.
DR: did you speak any languages. Do you speak…
CB: I took some Arabic, but English is pretty much the second language. They offered her the position, and after I retired, we were there for four more years. I decided, well if I’m going to be here, I’m going to figure out what I’m going to do. I started sitting in on Interior Design classes, because I’ve always been interested in three-dimensional modeling on the computer. I just liked the architecture part of Interior Design. I did that for three years, and got up to the part when I would have to take senior level classes, and I just wasn’t ready for a big senior project, so I started taking fashion classes. Last year, in fact, I was sitting in on fashion.
DR: Did the other students enjoy having you in class…
CB: I don’t know if they enjoyed it, but there was a sort of obligation, pressure to do well. And I had to ask faculty who I had hired to sit in on a class. So, it was really difficult for someone to deal with. So then, after a year taking a couple classes in Fashion Design and moving back here, I decided to continue taking classes. Last year, they asked me if I could teach a class this semester. Now I’m teaching a class! It’s weird, but I’m team-teaching. So that sort of adds to this really confused career that I’ve had.
DR: It sounds really interesting. Did you ever feel overwhelmed, I know it’s a silly question.