“Unexpected” by Tamiko Thiel.

Notes on learning from an engineer-turned-artist

A look into media artist Tamiko’s story and thoughts on how we learn new things, and her journey in finding her place within the media space.

Ambika Vohra
Apr 13, 2019 · 8 min read

I’ve always been curious about how learning seemingly “unrelated” things impacts our lives— merging across disciplines that normally remain separate, or learning things in a field that we are afraid of. Everyone likes a good success story, but the path is often more convoluted that we express. I started by interviewing Tamiko Thiel, a renowned media artist who started out as an engineer, and paraphrased her answers to fit them here. I also incorporated some of her answers from another past interview.

Hope you enjoy the wisdom she had to impart!


About Tamiko

Tamiko Thiel is an internationally active American media artist who specializes in exploring the interplay of place, space, the body and cultural identity. She attended Stanford University and graduated with a B.S. in Product Design Engineering with an emphasis on human factors design in 1979. She then studied at MIT and the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany.

A photo of Tamiko.

How do you continue to challenge yourself to learn more?

Where do you find the “heart to start” — how do you get over the hump to begin something new that you do not have the knowledge to complete right now?

“I think I find the thrill in not knowing how to do something and figuring it out. You just have to tinker, and fail a lot. My motto is you have to make a lot of bad art to start making good art, so start making that bad art now. There is an artist I love who is not as well-known in the states —Kandinsky — and he wanted to bring the emotion and simplicity of music into his paintings. But his first few paintings were really bad.

I identified strongly with him, because he too switched careers at a late age: he was 30 when he turned down a professorship in jurisprudence at the University of Dorpat in Estonia, and came to Munich as a very mediocre art student. I would go to the Lenbachhaus, look briefly at the truly awful muddy paintings that he did in his first years, repeat my mantra that I should make all my bad art now, and follow the steps of his development as his paintings became brilliant in both color, composition and concept. This became the basis of my work initially with video, and then with interactive 3D virtual worlds. The key is to keep sticking with your craft long enough to find your voice.

You also have to be willing to give up things. My engineering job was stable, and I had really great relationships in my life at the time. It is of course hard to leave the comfort, but if you want to, you should.”

There is often a trap many get into when learning something new, where you read more than create.

People often end up reading and researching their next moves, but not actually making any or creating. Have you experienced this? How do you overcome the fear of actually jumping in and making?

“You know, the answer is short on this one. You just have to get in there and fail. Tinkering is key. You can’t get too attached to your beginning work, because it is going to be bad. Going in with humility and understanding that you will improve is so important. Just researching and reading won’t get you where you want to go, you just have to get out there and start making & failing. It seems counterintuitive since you want to usually have all of the knowledge before you start something, but in reality, you have to be okay with that ambiguity of not being sure, and just tinkering.

I think also having people to support you and guide you can be really helpful, just even having friends who are interested in your line of work can motivate you and create a sense of community. Of course, not everyone will agree with and support you, and that’s okay. You should not feel pressure to conform in a way that makes you most well-liked, but instead listen to that inner voice that tells you what inspires you.”

Was it your intent to dabble in different fields of study?

You learned a lot in different subjects, which you then integrated to become a media artist, so why/how did you get here?

“Media art wasn’t even in my universe at the time. I was just working and seeing a friend of mine designing new things for Xerox and seeing exciting research projects go by, and I knew I wasn’t exactly being fulfilled with what I was doing anymore. I could have stayed in engineering and become a successful engineering manager, but I think it comes down to what you want. A part of me knew this wasn’t for me and that I was curious about more.

Just that realization made me think about what I should do next, and I had the luxury of having money saved up to make a move. I think it is the idea of questioning whether or not you are satisfied with where you are. If not, you don’t have to stay there.”

What is a piece of advice you would want to share about learning and changing through your life?

“The question I always ask myself is: if I die in the next 30 seconds, will my last thoughts be, ‘At least I followed my dreams and stayed true to myself?’ Or will you die thinking, ‘Damn, I never got around to trying to do X?’ If the latter applies, change your life. (This question really did pop into my head at age 16, and I have used it as a touchstone ever since.)

If you are doing something just to be famous, it can get hard, and you would probably give up. I’m turning 62 this year, and I just started gaining recognition a few years ago. If you’re in it for you — because you love it — and are in it for the long haul, you might be alive long enough to gain recognition. More importantly, you are satisfied with your own decisions.”

What is your thoughts on the statement, “jack of all trades, but master of none”?

Do you think there is more to be said for dabbling, or diving into one subject…or a mix of both?

“I think that that really depends on personal preference, and you can make change with both perspectives. I have found success in being a jack of all trades, but I do admire the people who get to have traditional art training and really dive into the study of one discipline. I’m jealous of the people who get that four-year formal training! But I think there is something to be said for connecting the dots and seeing things from another perspective, especially when you get to my age, and you have built this track record before you. People do find a diverse background interesting.”

Media art is not exactly a field that was saturated at a time when you were getting into it.

What was your process for pioneering new projects without having much predecessor knowledge? Is it scary?

“I think it is exciting to take knowledge to do things you are unsure of, or where there is not much preceding knowledge. I found an interest in film through an artist I discovered at the time and just became fascinated with it. That also often shapes your interest and passion, if you find something out there that you love and that inspires you. The fields of art and tech are constantly changing. We used to work with pencil and paper back in the 90’s, but now I look at the powerful tools people are using today, and it’s astonishing. I am now picking up Unity and looking at tutorials. I believe you can learn through just understanding how to learn. You need to first find out what it is you need to know, and then figure out how to know it.”

What was the push that made you move from engineering to art?

You’ve made a move in the past that is arguably difficult. I read in another interview that you heard things along the lines of, “Why did you leave engineering? You’re such a bad artist, but at least as an engineer you could make money.” What gave you the confidence that you could learn art — something that was out of your realm of study?

“My dad also transitioned from engineering to design, so I had the support there and the idea that I could do it, too. I also took some drawing classes at MIT, really enjoyed them and excelled there, and got wonderful support from people there. This propelled me forward, and I had enough money saved up to survive 6 months where I was going for art school in Europe. I had just enough savings in the bank to survive those months without working and with the knowledge that if it didn’t work out, I could always find work as an engineer back in the USA. I found something I liked to do and was getting support in it, and had this fallback in my mind, so I felt like I had to do it.”

You mentioned that a lot of your livelihood today involves teaching. Was learning to teach hard?

“Teaching means you have to understand something well enough to explain it someone else, and that’s hard. It taught me that things are rapidly changing, and you often learn things from your students that you never imagined. They are the ones who are often exposed to what is new and emerging, and simply being around other people with differing ideas can be really inspiring. I recommend for everyone who wants to learn, to actually teach what they are learning to someone else as they go along.”

An AR piece from Tamiko.

Thank you all for reading! Be sure to follow me on Medium for more content.


Thank you so much for Tamiko for having the time to answer some of my questions! It was fun listening and understanding someone else’s journey. Thank you to Anabel Rodriguez for her wonderful blog that I was able to pull from as well!

Ambika Vohra

Written by

Interaction Design student @ University of Michigan

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