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When and why did you decide to start Art Prof, an online educational platform for visual arts? In 2014, I was a blogger for HuffPost, where I wrote an advice column called Ask the Art Professor. I assumed that only people who went to art school would be interested, but people of all backgrounds from all over the world started emailing me to ask questions: How does linear perspective work? How do I promote myself as an artist? What is the difference between cadmium red and alizarin crimson? How do I develop my artistic style? I had been working in academia my whole life, and through this advice column, I realized that there was a whole world of people outside academia who were desperate for trusted advice and information on visual arts.

At the same time, I had been teaching during the weekends at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)’s Project Open Door, a free visual arts program for underserved teens in Rhode Island. Most of the students in Project Open Door had never taken a rigorous studio art course with professional-quality supplies. Yet, they thrived, and many created work that was just as good as the work of students in the RISD undergraduate degree program. It seemed terribly unfair that it all came down to access. Between Ask the Art Professor and Project Open Door, it was clear that there was a gap that needed to be filled on a global scale, and that a written advice column wasn’t going to be sufficient.

What has been the greatest challenge of running Art Prof? Funding. People tell me all the time that I should set up a paywall and charge for our content, and that a paywall would solve all of our funding problems. I refuse to set up a paywall because I know that for many people, even the tiniest paywall is the difference between whether they decide to pick up a pencil in order to learn how to draw—or not. Art Prof has been bleeding cash since we started six years ago, and, consequently, Art Prof has always been in a precarious position. I’m surprised every month that Art Prof continues to exist, as, financially, we are barely hanging on. At this point, I’m not worried about paying myself; I will be grateful to just break even.

You recently announced on social media your decision to leave your position as an adjunct professor at RISD. Why did you choose to share that information so publicly? I sat down to write a post on Instagram so I could publicly announce why I was leaving RISD and moving to Utah. I had prepared in my head a polite, sanitized version where I could say goodbye and express how thankful I was to be part of the RISD community. But when I started typing those words, it felt wrong.

Though it is true that I am thankful for being part of the RISD community, I also knew that most of my experience as an adjunct professor at RISD was toxic and had been gnawing away at me for years. While I was teaching at RISD, I never said one remotely negative word for fear of retribution. I realized that since I had decided to leave, I didn’t have to hold back any longer. People have to know how abusive academia can be, especially to people of color.

What was your own arts education like? I was lucky that I had an art teacher who came to my elementary school when I was in fourth grade and was deeply invested in my artistic development. She instilled a confidence in me that was critical at such an early age. High school was miserable; I was that one “art kid” who took art seriously while everyone else signed up for an easy A. I attended RISD’s Pre-College program, which was basically love at first sight and eventually led me to pursue my BFA in illustration at RISD.

What draws you to using a wide range of media, like printmaking and sculpture? I’m an impatient person, and I simply don’t have the attention span to spend all of my time in the studio with just one art media. I love having the wide range of tactile sensations that each art media provides, and I never get tired of it. Most of the time, I come up with the idea and images for how I want the project to look before I determine what art media I’m going to use. So it’s more a matter of finding an art media that is the best match for the ideas. Every art media brings out a different side of me, and I like seeing how my ideas can translate across them.

Tell your story and show your face.”

How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will affect arts education? For most teachers and students, the remote teaching and learning that happened in the spring because of COVID-19 was extremely stressful. The transition to the lockdown was abrupt, scary and unpredictable for everybody. The silver linings in this circumstance are that the amount of online resources for visual arts is going to become more abundant, with a broader and more diverse range of educators, and since we are becoming more accustomed to connecting remotely, arts educators won’t have to feel so isolated. For example, it’s common for a high school art teacher to be the only art teacher at their school. People are realizing that there are benefits to connecting with other educators and sharing ideas, projects and strategies.

How have you adapted from critiquing work in person to online? Over the years, we’ve experimented with countless ways of translating an in-person critique into an online format. Much of that translation process from in person to online was simply trial and error. Ultimately, we found that the most effective solution was to offer a broad range of options.

People need critiques for different reasons and in varying contexts. Sometimes an artist needs insight into their work, so an in-depth portfolio critique of 20 artworks is necessary. Sometimes, two of our staff members will critique one artwork live on YouTube so viewers get a more diverse, extensive dialogue on that one artwork. Other times, a quick sentence of encouragement in our Discord server is all an artist needs to get her or his artistic drive going again. On top of that, we have a “How to Critique Art” tutorial, which explains what the aim and purpose of a critique is, and tells it through the personal experiences of art students.

What topic or issue has been on your mind recently that you hope to have a conversation about on Art Prof? Since I opened a conversation on social media about being a woman of color in academia, I want to talk more about what academia and what the larger art world are like for people of color, to bring visibility to their experiences since they are oftentimes not granted a voice. On Art Prof, we will invite guest art students and artists to share their experiences, and we are also continuing to have discussions about how race plays out in art history and contemporary art. For example, a recent livestream video we did was called “White Artists Who Portray People of Color,” where we discussed White artists like Shepard Fairey and Norman Rockwell, who both became famous for creating images of people of color.

What advice do you have for visual artists on presenting their work online? Tell your story and show your face. Frequently, I see artists putting their artwork online in a cold, distant manner in which they are completely removed and anonymous. Consequently, the artwork ends up looking generic and like it came from everybody else who’s working in the same genre and art media. So, tell us why you are different from the thousands of other artists who paint portraits in acrylic or create sculptures using clay. No one else can tell your story like you can.

Clara Lieu was an adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School of Design from 2007 to 2020. She is currently a partner at Artprof.org, a free website for learning visual arts. Her drawing, prints and sculpture have been exhibited at the Bromfield Gallery, the Currier Museum of Art and the International Print Center New York. Her work has been profiled on Artsy, Hyperallergic, Inside Higher Ed, and on radio stations 89.3 KPCC and 90.9 WBUR.


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