Where and what do you teach?
I've been teaching at Parson's since 2011. Right now I'm teaching 'Integrated Design Senior Thesis'. I also teach another course called 'Unfashion', which is about kids exploring their own sense of fashion: what it is to them, their own point of view. So we start with their favorite item, the thing they wear almost every day, and from there we go into fantasy land...
How did you get into teaching?
I've been asked to teach for a few years now and at some point our interns were becoming assistants teachers and it was coming at me with a force: "why don't you teach officially?" At some point I couldn't say "no" because there were too many people telling me the same thing and all these signs coming at me, so I figured I have to try it out.
What held you back until then?
You know when you're kind of in denial that you have a gift and you just don't want to accept it? Also in a way, working in the industry and teaching at the same time it often means "you didn't make it as an artist" and that you resorted to teaching, so that's another reason. I had to figure out this kind of question mark in my consciousness. But once I started teaching it was more clear that this was a social service and a pleasure; being exposed to younger fresh talent, other opinions; and also take a break from the collective we're in and have my own privacy. Since I started, it's been a constant longing to stop: every year I say I'm not going to do it another year. And then I realize if I'm honest to myself, it's really actually about giving, sharing and offering what I've experienced. It's very rewarding to let it out, rather than keep it to yourself. It becomes a take and give. Learning for myself, exploring new territories and sharing that experience with the kids. Funny enough since I've started teaching I've since been getting invited to participate in all these talks and seminars (I have three in September).
What do you find is the most challenging about teaching?
Being open-minded about what the kids have to offer, what their point of view is. It really challenges me to be as open as I can. They all have so many different points of view. Especially teaching 'Integrated Design', I'm in ten fields of design in one class so I have to be OK with certain things that I don't know about. If a kid wants to learn about film making: I don't know that much about that, but they're my students so I refer them and I get advice from the outside.
What's the most rewarding thing about teaching?
Learning something new. I get a fresh perspective on ThreeASFOUR and on myself. The more open-minded I am, the more I learn. It feels like a lot of things are a gift: you get ideas you didn't expect and you have to go with it. Like last year one idea a student had was forcing me to learn more about the deities of different cultures. I knew very little about it, so I had to research which led me to realize they were the same archetypes. But I wouldn't have known this if it was just for me.
How do you balance your own creative time and teaching others how to create?
I find the classroom a creative place. I tell my students: "Don't bore me. As long as you're excited, then I'm excited." And the only way to do it is by being creative, I force them to be. I want to get some spark out of them. A lot of them are too lazy to push themselves to somewhere they don't know and creativity is all about that: pushing yourself into the unknown all the time. If you don't follow your instinct and your passion then you don't get anywhere. Sometimes you need somebody to push you. And I become that guide or tutor. I don't call myself a teacher, I say "I'm here to help you accomplish what you want." And my requirement is that we have fun, I don't want this to be a chore or something torturous. And if you're not having fun then you're not on your right path and we have to change your thesis. We spend the first couple months "unbrainwashing" what they learned. They're all so brainwashed and stuck in being creative. Media, peers, school, social media: all of that takes you away from yourself. And it's really hard to be yourself when you're being bombarded by this constant flow of information. So my pleasure and my torture is to get them on their path.
In what ways has your own education shaped you?
I studied so many fields: mechanical and electro-mechanical engineering, then I went into architecture, then I dabbled in a few classes of textile design and then I left college as I realized after 6 years of being there that I didn't really need a degree to be a fashion designer or an artist. But I definitely had respect for learning all these classes of history and technique. So I basically was a drop out and I still don't believe in the schooling system the way it is set up. I'm here to make an example for myself: show that things can be different in one class, that it's possible - and that is all I need to have.
What bothers you about the current education system?
You're not encouraged to have an individual voice. You have to fit within the societal or industrial confines of what is required of you to be a designer or artist. You're expected to have certain skills, goals and limitations. The system itself has flaws where it doesn't let students be themselves.In a way that's what is different about the "Integrated Design" program at Parsons: by integrating all these design fields together you're exposed to a variety of mediums (architecture - photography - graphic design), so automatically your mind opens up to doing things in a new way. But then if you don't have the encouragement from a guide, or a tutor, or a papa - like me - then you don't have the confidence to go ahead with your own voice and method and accomplish your project. There's a lot of hurdles on the way to becoming yourself: your peers, social expectations from your parents and family, social media etc.
Do you feel like kids today have more obstacles than you did when you went to school?
I think today's situation is your own personal choice and it becomes about having the opportunity to go either way. So it's also more dangerous how you make your choice. There's more opportunity on both sides: more opportunity to be open-minded and free, but also more opportunity to be restrained and be a robot. It's up to you which path you want to take. It's very open now to any direction and it's up to each person to individually decide how to move things.
Are your students well versed in sustainability? Is that something they're interested in and want to incorporate into their work?
Because it's an interdisciplinary program, the students automatically become aware of the environment and they incorporate it in their work. I don't have to think about that: it's a given. But I find that the more you are focused on one field of the industry, the less you become aware of the environment. It's like putting someone in a box: you can't see clearly.
Do you feel like that's one of the issues with education: separating these fields instead of studying them through an overarching theme?
Definitely. It is well known that separation is the number one tool to keep everyone in the dark. The more varied, the more exposed you are, the more you become aware. Because all these fields are one in the end.
Was there something you wish you were taught in school?
Yes: Spirit Science. Developing the spirit and connecting it to science and mathematics. It's all sacred and secret information which is taught to secret societies. That type of teaching is taboo in school. I think if we develop that, we'll see a critical change. There's definitely an urgency for change: we all know it and it's coming. I feel like it will happen in a natural way and we can't predict how.
If you could give one piece of advice to your students, what would it be?
Be confident in being yourself and don't let anyone give you any doubts on what you decide you want to do.
Gaby Asfour is an artist, designer and the co-founder of ThreeASFOUR based in New York City.For more info: threeasfour.com