Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Monte's Legacy

Last August I wrote a note to Monte right before I left for my first year of graduate school in Hawaii. I was so nervous, second guessing myself, and, today looking back, entirely less prepared than I thought I was. But now, a little over a year from that time, Monte is retiring from teaching, with a career of 40 YEARS under his belt. The words I wrote last year still ring truer than ever; this last year especially, he is the person that whole heartedly believed in me through my first year of grad school, and the reason I am continuing on through my second year.

And now, the photo guru is actually retiring. Although I am sad he is done teaching, I am also so very happy for him and extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to be his student. I can say with absolute certainty that I would not be where I am right now had I not had the opportunity to be Monte’s student. I am just happy I graduated college before he decided to retire- or maybe he knew I would never have stood for him leaving before then. Who’s to say…
To show the quality of Monte’s character, he is ending his teaching career with an exhibition of not his own work, but the work of his best students through years past. This summer when I got to see the work that was submitted, the work of so many people who have passed through his classroom, I was extremely inspired. Watching him sort through the submissions, reminisce about his students and the stories connected to each photo, he was gleaming with pride. I feel honored to be chosen to show amongst these talented artists.

Monte, you should be beyond proud of yourself and the accomplishments you have gained from your 4 decades of teaching. I can definitely say that St. Xavier’s art department has some big shoes to fill in replacing you. I have no doubt in my mind that there are hundreds of other students that would agree wholeheartedly on your deservedness of praise and acknowledgement for all that you have done, and a long time coming at that. I know from experience, as my mentor, you have changed my life in insurmountable ways. I personally cannot possibly thank you enough for believing in me, challenging me, and changing the direction of my life. Your devotion to the University and its students is something that I have not seen in any other teacher I have ever encountered. 40 years in the classroom and he still believes in each and every student, and pushes boundaries to help them aim to achieve their absolute potential. I would be happy to amount to even half of the educator and photographer he is.
Although he will no longer be in front of the classroom teaching every day, Monte will forever be my teacher, always guiding my art practice and my will to be better. I still judge every photo I make with “Monte’s Laws” in mind.

The Legacy Show is a great testament to your work, your accomplishments, and a record of all of the lives you’ve inspired by your genuine enthusiasm for teaching and photo making. I can’t wait to (virtually) see the results of the show when it opens tomorrow.
I am eager to see what retirement brings for you and your work, and I wish you the absolute BEST in this new endeavor. You deserve it.
A universal thank you for all of your amazing lessons through all of these years, your “Legacy” will surely live on. You are the best there is Monte, CONGRATS!!!

Monday, August 11, 2014

To: Monte

Mentors lead us to believe that we can achieve something that seemed improbable or impossible to us before we met them. They don’t allow us to succumb to self-doubt for too long, or the notion that our dreams are too large for us. They stand by to remind us of the skills we already posses and what we can achieve if we continue to work hard. Mentors can help lead us towards our element by offering us advice and techniques, paving the way for us, and even allowing us to falter a bit while standing by to help us recover and learn from our mistakes. Effective mentors push us past what we see as our limits. Much as they don’t allow us to succumb to self-doubt, they also prevent us from doing less with our lives than we can. A true mentor reminds us that our goal should never be to be “average” at our pursuits. –Ken Robinson, excerpt from The Element

When I saw this quote from The Element, I immediately thought of a professor of mine who has not only been an amazing mentor and teacher, but also a person who has changed the path of my life.
Monte and his friends

Among countless other lessons during his time as my Photography professor of over 4 years, Monte has taught me that sometimes, you have to try failing in order to truly succeed. You have to know how low you can get before you realize how high you can rise. Monte took me under his wing my Senior year at SXU, spending hours and hours working with me to improve my work. I discovered what it is like to really be passionate about something during those sessions. He has admitted to me that the reason I became his leading student was because I had failed in front of him, learned from my experience, and willed myself to be better, until I was. But that wasn't entirely the reason. I had realized over the months that Monte and I had developed a unique bond; we share a similar vision, which allows us to feed off each other's critiques, criticisms, and inspirations, and create from it. The longer I am around him, the more boundaries I seem to break. 
Monte tests my limits because he knows I will take his critique and run with it. While he is the first to let me know when I am producing terrible, safe work, he is also the first to suggest ten ideas to help fix it. I try anything and everything he suggests me to. It's funny, because Monte thinks he has nothing to do with the work I produce, but the reality is that he has been an enormous part of my progression. 

I don't think I have talked about anything more than I have talked about the power and influence of positive mentoring, to anyone who would listen in the past several months. My friends like to refer to Monte as my free therapist. He is right there delivering amazing wisdom and advice whenever I turn to him, which is often. He has made me realize that my only regrets should be the potentials I have within me that I do not turn into actions. 

Recently during one of our many long conversations, Monte said this to me: “I wish you could see how uniquely talented you truly are, because I have every bit of faith in you to succeed out there.” Coming from my greatest creative influence, these words will stay with me always. He has pushed me farther than I ever thought possible; I was unaware that I even possessed a sense of natural creativity until he came into my life and helped me see it. I have become extremely appreciative of the opportunity I have had to get a teacher who has helped me see who I can become if I try hard enough. Through Monte’s advice and encouragement, I applied and have been accepted into an MFA program with scholarship. I have developed a body of work I can take pride in. I continue to create, in large part, to make him proud.

Monte believes in me more than I believe in myself.  To know the rarity of this, to have had a teacher like him fall into my life, is both humbling and empowering.  I think it goes without saying how much I look up to him. I do not think it is commonplace to encounter people like Monte, and I am certain I will not come across another like him again. Not having a fatherly influence to look to for the past several years, Monte has taken up that role in my life. I don't think he knows how much his caring nature and honest, positive attitude has truly touched my life, but I would like him to. His confidence in me makes me strive to be better than what I am. 

Monte has never given up on my potential. I am forever grateful for the infinite hours he has spent building, encouraging, and pushing me; inspiring my work, making me stronger as an individual, and never letting me settle for a life I would surely regret living. He is making sure I get on that plane and leave for Hawaii to go to Graduate School and pursue my goals. And damnit if I haven't tried getting out of it with every excuse I could ever think of, but there is no negotiating this with him. I am sure I will thank him later. I am, however, so grateful that Monte cares that greatly for me as a student and as a person.

I think Monte is saving me from allowing my fears and self-doubts to become destructive. I should be so lucky to leave on his life even part of the impact he has and will continue to leave on mine. He has told me I am the best student he has had in his 20 years of teaching at SXU. Coincidentally, he is also the best teacher I have ever had in my 18 years of education. 

Every single day, he shows up and exceeds all expectations of his job description. I would like to be selfish in thinking that he makes all these exceptions just for me, but I know he works endlessly for each one of his students. His hard work and passion for photography and teaching does not go unnoticed. Monte has inspired me and what I can assume to be countless other students who have passed through his classroom. I am going to miss him very, very much when I am stranded on an island in the middle of the ocean. (This is my dramatic effect)
Saying thank you to him in just two words seemed completely insufficient, so I hope this note does the job a bit better.

It is going to take absolutely everything I have to be brave and leave my Chicago life to go to Hawaii. It will be, by far, the hardest thing I have ever done. But thankfully, I am lucky enough to have people around me who believe in my success. Who have assured me that I will be okay. Who are threatening to beat me up if I try backing out. So now it is my turn to believe in me. 
(I am hoping that if I truly cannot muster up the strength to do it myself, then all my models I have tortured over these years will kidnap me and ship me to the island out of revenge).

I would be lying if I said this choice of mine doesn't have me absolutely terrified. There are no guarantees, and I will be walking into a whole world of unknowns. But with some help (and many of Monte's free therapy sessions), I know now that it is far greater a risk to go through life without seizing opportunities like this one. That I have to try. And maybe fail. But then try again, and do it better. But most importantly, I have to not be so afraid of what could happen that I forget to live a life worth something. 
Now, if I can actually gather up the courage to get myself to the airport, well... Then I think we will both have something to be proud of.  

So thank you, Monte. This world is better with you in it.