By Sarah Montague

It’s not often that you find the life of a practicing artist that dovetails so completely with an active and influential life as a teacher, but we find that potential contradiction resolved in John Roach, Associate Professor of Fine Art and the Associate Dean of Parsons First Year.

Roach has degrees in painting and literature, but from early on was attracted to making, materials and sound.

How did that happen? Did you encounter a work that was formative? Sound is all around us, but not everybody realizes that it’s something that can be fashioned.

I asked him how that sea change came about.

One thing is that as I was painting, I started feeling very constrained by it as a form, and the other is that I’ve always been a listener. I’ve always listened to experimental music–difficult listening, as you might call it. And that led me to be making these objects at the same time that I was painting. They were [non-traditional instruments and you know, machines that would make sound.

To some extent, Roach feels as if the work was sui generis and instinctive, not a calculated transfer of allegiance from visual to aural.

I didn’t really know that much about sound art, except where it intersected with music. And so for me, it was kind of entering into it almost blindly, which was this kind of joyous liberation to be able to just step into it like it, like, you know, an outsider.

And, as never hurts when you are making a tectonic shift in your thinking, Roach had a perceptive teacher.

I had one amazing painting instructor, and he came into my studio and he looked at my paintings, and we talked about them. And then he said, “Well, what is that thing in the corner?” I had this machine that when you turned it on, it would make this racket and kind of beat itself up.

–As he says this, I am picturing a Rube Goldberg illustration EXPAND–

I turned it on for him, and he’s like, “Oh, wait a minute. That’s obviously what you wanna be doing. The paintings are fine, but this is clearly where your heart is.” And it was like this permission to just kind of completely switch gears.

Professionally, he wasn’t able to shift gears immediately. His MFA in Fine Arts didn’t open a lot of employment doors (a common story) and he would end up using his design skills in a more practical environment.

“So I actually started doing work in graphic design and doing product packaging for graphic design houses. I did that for many years and learned a lot about digital tools and working with different kinds of materials. And that actually ended up influencing my art a great deal. But at a certain point it’s like ‘This is not my future. I’m working with cereal boxes and macaroni-and-cheese.’

This was not my calling. And I always knew I wanted to teach. Even when I was an undergrad, I had a faculty member who sort of let me test teach a class that he was running, and I loved it, and I had wanted to do it ever since.

Roach determined to “do his homework” but luck also played a part. Dan Hill, a friend of a friend, was on the Parsons faculty and mentioned that the school was hiring.

“I started off started right away teaching in what was then called the foundation program, and also in the integrated design program.

Eventually, Roach became one of the architects of the curriculum of the First Year program as we know it today. I asked him how that evolution came about and he said that when he joined the faculty in 2002, it was just at a point when Parsons was beginning to examine its mission. At that time, the programs were very siloed—

“So photography had its own first year, design technology had its own first year, etc. And so an external review committee came and gave their recommendations.”

Some of which were that the school needed to more clearly imagine the future of design in an era of increasing convergence, and this aligned well with the internal exploration that Parsons was doing at the time:

“And it was basically a moment in which the institution was like, all right, what do we want to do to imagine Parsons in the 21st century.
We need to think about Parsons in the midst of an interdisciplinary art and design world. At the time it was very difficult for students to work across disciplines.”

It was an 8-year odyssey for the school.

“And so the entirety of Parsons undergraduate programs went through a change. And that was just monumental. The thought of redesigning everything. And part of the goal of that really was to think about how
to activate that interdisciplinary possibility, and that really required a complete rethinking of the structure of the school to make happen, because the programs were very asymmetrical.

You know, you would have one program that would just be so packed, and students really had very little opportunity to move within it, and another one that maybe had lots of electives. But the students really had no place to take those electives except they’re in their own program because nobody else had electives to share. So there were so many ways in which we had to rethink the entire framework, which was fascinating. So in 2001 I was asked to chair a committee called the Committee on Undergraduate Education, which was comprised of representatives from each of the Parsons schools.”

And the goal of our committee was to basically look at the recommendations and all of the sort of things that had come out of all of these meetings, and all of this work, and all of these white papers and people musing about redesigning the design school and try to put it into action.”

One of the “action points” was reconceiving the first year experience.

“We have an opportunity to bring some of that interdisciplinary work into the first year. That was our mandate.” But it meant doing a lot of redesigning of courses and bringing different kinds of tools into spaces that hadn’t really been the case before.”

Because the ultimate mission is to equip students not only for the present, but for the future.

“It was the institution examining itself and bringing together faculty, students, and staff to basically talk about what is the future? And what are we doing? And how does it reflect current practice? How might it reflect future practice?

Among many outcomes of this rigorous process was the architecture of the current first year program, which includes a joint course between Studio practice and a Seminar-framed class that examines text as a form of making. I draw the parallel with synesthesia, a condition in which the senses are converged.

“I think that’s a great parallel. If you think about the kind of Bauhaus structure of which most foundation programs were modeled, everything was very segregated right? And the idea of sort of moving, smearing that together a bit and thinking about the reality of contemporary art and design practice it’s incredibly mixed, and the jobs are mixed, hybrid and interdisciplinary.”

Not surprisingly, the key to understanding Roach as a visionary architect of learning environments is to understand his practice as an artist, based in collaboration and exploring the limits of the material he’s given to work with.

When I ask for an example, he talks about a residency he had a the Pilchuck Glass School

“Which is this amazing place in Washington State, and sometimes they invite people who know nothing about glass, of which I was one. I was super interested in this idea of alchemy, and [glass is] this incredible medium that turns into a liquid and become solid, and is easily broken. And then I got there, and it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh! I had no idea what this stuff could do, and I learned that all the things that I thought were going to be hard were easy, and all the things I thought were easy were really hard. I love collaborating—it’s like this incredible dance.”

And then there’s the way all this gets implemented in his own classes; which have evolved he says:

“I was teaching a lot of classes that touched on different components of my creative life, right? So as a maker of objects or maker of images. I would teach classes about that, but I had never really taught a sound class, even though that’s where my practice went.

And so, when I started teaching sound classes, they really became this beautiful conduit to my studio practice. So the teaching became absolutely essential, and the things that I was thinking about in the studio would be things that I would bring to the class. Things that I was researching in class would find their way back to the studio.”

It’s a creative feedback loop—

–and I think it’s really changed the way I teach one class in particular. It’s a 2,000 level elective, and it’s called Sound Matters. I’ve been teaching it for maybe 10 years, and over that time it has completely transformed When I first started teaching it, it was very material based. And the class has evolved to become much more about this idea of sound and affect. For me, it’s become really about ‘How do we think about sound as a form of difference? How do we think about the role of sound and empathy? It’s become much more about what it means to be human.

Roach currently has an installation at the BioBAT art space in Brooklyn; part of an exhibit called Embodied Futures & the Ecology of Care, as well as an installation in the exhibition Immersive at the Soft Machine gallery in Allentown, PA

No matter where he leaves his soundmark next, his work—creative and educational—will always be about “what it means to be human.”