People Aren’t Boring

When I was writing my proposal for the Charles Center scholarship I addressed the art and oral history aspects of my project separately. Aside from the obvious common ground of the place and people, I didn’t consider them to overlap. And yet, during my time in Russia I kept finding similarities between the principles of Realist painting and the principles of oral history. In particular, I kept thinking of an interview with Studs Terkel, which I read in preparation for my interviews.

Studs Terkel was a famous oral historian. He got into interviewing working with the WPA writers project. He started out playing music on his radio shows, but interviewing became his primary interest, and he began publishing books based on his oral history interviews. Some famous works include Working, Hard Times, and The Good War ( about American memories of WWII) which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985. You can find a more complete biography here.

The piece that I read was an interview conducted by Tony Parker (a famous British oral historian) with Studs on the interview process. In it Terkel gets into his philosophy of interviewing. I’ll give some excerpts:

“I don’t know how a tape recorder works. […] I don’t know how to open it, I don’t know how to put in the cassette, which way up it goes, how to close the lid when it’s in, which is the button to press to get it to start recording, which is the button to press to make it stop. […] Are you with me? What am I describing? I’m describing one of my biggest assets. It’s name is ineptitude. Why’s it an asset? Well, would you be frightened of a little old guy who wants to tape-record a conversation with you – and he can’t even work his tape recorder? We won’t go into what you might feel about him, but the one thing you wouldn’t for sure feel is scared.”

To varying degrees realist painters espouse a belief in teaching without rules. When, for example, my brother began studying with his Russian teachers, they were very curious to know if he had ever studied perspective. He confessed that he hadn’t, which to his surprise they were glad to hear. They considered his lack of education to be his greatest asset.

“You’re Columbus, you’re setting out onto the unknown sea. There are no maps, because no one’s been there before. You’re an explorer, a discoverer. It’s exciting – and its scary, it frightens you. It frightens the person you’re going to interview too. Remember that.”

The relationship between interviewer and subject that Terkel is describing reminds me of the relationship between artist and subject as the Russian Realists describe it. The goal is be involved in that particular subject, to try to understand what makes that subject unique rather than drawing from your experiences and knowledge to put the subject in a box. The goal is to really ask the subject what it’s about rather than guess about the subject based on similar subjects you’ve encountered.

“The questioning’s important – but what’s the most important is that it shouldn’t sound like questioning. What time did you get up yesterday morning, what time did you go to bed, what did you do in between – none of that. So tell me, how was yesterday, that’s the right way of doing it. Making it sound like you’re having a conversation, not carrying on an inquisition, right? There’s that word ‘inquisition’ again. I’d say that to everyone and go on saying it – keep away from it, don’t be the examiner, be the interested enquirer.”

The Russian Realists certainly value formal training, but ultimately the goal of their art is not formal accuracy. The value of a portrait is not the relative length of nose to lip. As in oral history, data shouldn’t be the goal of the interview but a consequence. It’s possible to pull dates and names out of an interview, or measurements out of a painting, but the aim of an interviewer/artist’s questions should be unpacking what the subject wants to talk about – the subject’s subjective reality.

“People aren’t boring. When you talk to them, they may have a monotonous voice and you think they sound boring. But when you see their words transcribed, they read great. Other times it’s the other way round – they’re lively when they talk, but it doesn’t come out that way on the printed page. So you have to exercise care. Oh boy – interviewing – isn’t it great?”

The respect for human subjects that inspires Terkel is similar to the Realist painter’s attitude towards nature. In Kaluga, I worked exclusively on assignments given to me by Ilya. At first I found them very frustrating. He would point to some small weed, or clump of grass and ask for a two hour drawing. “But it’s so boring!,” I’d think. But after I resigned myself to the assignment, the process of drawing was as engrossing as ever. In fact, the piece that I consider to be my most successful, from everything I painted in Russia, is a small watercolor of a clump of weeds.

Care is the key word for both Terkel, and for my teachers; whether drawing a dandelion or interviewing a stranger on the street, it’s care that brings the life of a subject to light. And what distinguishes an interviewer like Studs, or an artist like Ilya from and interviewer or artist like me is their ability to care – to find everything interesting.

Terkel, Studs, and Tony Parker. “”Interviewing”” The Oral History

Reader. By Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson. New York:

Routledge, 2006.