“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.

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.

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?

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?

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?

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.)

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?

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?

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?

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.

Interaction Design student @ University of Michigan

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