We’re launching the first student interview of 2022 with my longtime former art student John Gleb.

Staying in touch with students who studied at length at my studio is a pleasure and a privilege. Students become lifelong friends in art or music. My cozy art and piano studio has evolved into a lively community of like-minded creative spirits.

To honor my beloved students’ support over the years I enjoy congratulating and encouraging their achievements as they become young adults. Their presence enriches our culture.

My art students are invited to participate in public and virtual art showcases celebrating their accomplishments. Over the years, many have received offers on their work either while studying with me or years later. This is always an exciting pleasure. John is one of them who received such an offer many years after graduating from my studio. I’m pleased to reveal the anecdote – Back in May 2019, a friend-in-music, David Brunt happened across John’s charcoal sailboat study. David was smitten by its beauty and shared with me how it evoked a fond memory for him. He inquired if John might consider selling his work. John was moved by David’s interest and although he and his family desired to keep the original, John agreed to sell a professional print on archival paper. I was glad to serve as intermediary in this thrilling transaction. Upon receipt of John’s print, David wrote, “Hi Linda, Please tell your student thank you for selling me this copy of his beautiful piece.” Proud art teacher. 🙂

With the onset of Covid in 2020, my correspondence with students was interrupted while taking on the daunting task of moving my teaching practice online onto Zoom and all that went with that.

In 2022 as things began to resemble “normal”, I happily resumed corresponding with my former students. This past February, I PMd John to say hello and catch up on the latest. He totally floored me. Wait till you hear what he’s been up to! John Gleb is going for his PhD in History, focusing on American foreign policy!! This makes John my youngest student studying for his doctoral candidacy. K V E L L I N G. I invited John to share his story on the school’s blog and was elated when he accepted the invitation. Without further ado, here’s John Gleb’s story.
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LRW: Our history goes back to the early days of Pastimes’ studio. Do you happen to remember how old you were when you started art classes with me? Had you ever studied art before?

JG: I believe I started taking classes with you in 2006, so I would have been about 11 years old. It was the first time I had studied art seriously—I enjoyed drawing pictures like lots of kids do, but I’d never been trained.

LRW: Ah, yes. It was such a pleasure teaching you art from elementary to middle school to high school. You studied several drawing and painting mediums with me and exhibited in many student art showcases.

Viewing your beautiful artwork opens a flood of fond memories teaching you and having you in art class with your zany, amazing and accomplished sidekicks, Rachel Arditi and Jeff Cantamessa. Witty jesting and kvetching about homework.

I hope you don’t mind my mentioning to my readers, but John graciously gifted my school permission to feature his chalk pastel waterfall on the cover of the Chalk Pastel 101 Project Booklet. Thank you so much, John. Beautiful work!

After high school, I understand you earned a degree in history from UC Berkeley.

Student interview with John Gleb by Pastimes for a Lifetime

John Gleb, UC Berkeley Graduate

You now have had your doctoral candidacy in the same field approved at the University of Texas at Austin, expecting to graduate in May 2024. Congratulations! May I please be reminded of the career you hope to have at the end of your academic journey? Would you be working as an independent consultant or employed at a dream company or government office? What was or were the inspiration(s)?

JG: Thank you for your kind words of praise! I’m very fortunate to have been able to pursue a doctoral degree in history, a field I’ve loved since I was a child.

Traditionally, PhD students go on to pursue careers in academia. For me, that’s always been a very exciting prospect. But many of us—myself included—are exploring nonacademic alternatives, too. There’s an old joke that historians tend to become whatever they study. I study the history of American foreign policy and policymaking institutions, and sure enough, some of the “alt-ac” career paths I’m considering would involve studying contemporary foreign policy issues, on behalf of either a government agency like the State Department or a private-sector think tank. I also have a passion for teaching, which is something PhD students do alongside their faculty mentors. If I could teach history for the rest of my life, I’d grow old happy.

LRW: You would make a fine professor as well as a consultant to the State Department on foreign policy. What inspired you to attend University of Texas at Austin? Were there other choices?

JG: Graduate programs pair individual students with a specific faculty advisor who shares their academic interests and commits to supervising the development of a major research project over the course of many years. My relationship with UT’s history department really hinges on my relationship with my advisor, the historian Dr. Jeremi Suri. Dr. Suri met with me personally when I visited UT as a prospective student, and I committed to attending UT in order to study with him. He’s both an incisive scholar and an exceptionally supportive mentor, and I’m very lucky to be one of his students.

LRW: Perfect match. So glad you found your mentor early on. What led you to study history and develop your research project?

JG: When I was an undergrad, I knew very early on that I wanted to go on to graduate school and keep studying history. But I had no idea what kind of history I wanted to study, nor did I really understand how important it was to define a relatively narrow field of study so that I could find an advisor. The whole process took place almost by accident.

LRW: Curious. How do you mean, “accident”?

JG: In my second year at Berkeley, I happened to take an introductory course on European diplomatic history up to 1914, and I fell head over heels in love with the field. I thought I was going to study the origins of the First World War—until I read a book on American foreign policymaking at the turn of the twentieth century, purely to broaden my horizons. My whole research agenda changed; I started reading primary sources, too, some of which were available online; and before I knew it, I had written a research paper on the State Department for a class at UT. That paper, which I wrote three years ago, has gradually expanded and evolved into my dissertation project. You never know where inspiration will strike, or you’ll end up when it does!

LRW: Indeed. It’s as if the subject found you! Do have a favorite class or professor over the years and perhaps an anecdote from one of their classes that sticks with you to this day?

JG: Along with Jeremi Suri, James Vernon, Daniel Sargent, David Wetzel, and Yuri Slezkine—all historians who teach or taught at Berkeley—inspired me to pursue a doctoral degree. Drs. Vernon, Sargent, and Slezkine gave me a lot of advice, for which I’ll be forever grateful, as I prepared for graduate school. Dr. Wetzel taught the course on European diplomacy that inspired me to become a foreign policy scholar. He remains the most memorable lecturer and maybe the best storyteller I’ve ever seen. Hunched over the lecture podium, often gesticulating passionately as he spoke, he completely mesmerized every student in the lecture hall.

LRW: Wow! Sometimes it just takes one great teacher to change a life. The world needs more foreign policy scholars…obviously! What were some of the highlights and learning points at school and/or at work that you would like to share with my students and readers?

JG: Graduate school taught me how to do two things: read quickly and write clearly. When your coursework requires that you read and analyze three or four hefty history books a week, reading turns into a kind of sink-or-swim experience. It’s hard but ultimately very rewarding: you learn how and where to find the big, thought-provoking ideas buried in hundreds of pages of text. After spending many hours hunting for those ideas and then many more writing about them, you also start to appreciate the value of concise, accessible writing. Anyone—academics included—can benefit from trying constantly to be better writers.

LRW: Wise words. I’m impressed with the volume of reading demanded of you and how you are handling it so professionally. Can you describe to my students and readers what an average study or research day is like for you? What school and work experiences or life lessons would you like to share with my readers?

JG: Right now, I’m doing the primary research necessary to begin writing my dissertation—a book-length research paper which will, I hope, eventually be published. I spend most days doing research in academic libraries and archives, which are fascinating places if you’re a history buff. Lots of people and lots of institutions leave behind written records: letters, diaries, memoranda, and so on. Those records are bread and butter for historians. They open up windows onto the past.

LRW: I hope it will be published, too. I have a penchant for reading written records such as letters, diaries and no longer extant publications from various eras to get a glimpse through a window of time. Playing piano music and studying from master painters is my form of time travel back into history. When you perform a piece of music exactly as intended by the composer, his or her voice speaks through the music. Painting a study of a work by a master painter allows one to imagine the artist’s thought process. It changes you in the end. Speaking of influences, may I ask what impact did your art classes at Pastimes make?

JG: Most people are probably familiar with the concept of “work-life balance.” Graduate students struggle profoundly with balance. We have a lot of freedom to design our own research agendas and our own work schedules. That’s both a blessing and a curse: work and life can start to bleed into each other, we can’t fall back on structured work time routines to keep them apart. But pastimes can provide structure, too. And art, as you are fond of pointing out, is a “pastime for a lifetime.” It’s something I’ll always be able to do, something that opens up a tranquil work-free space in my day.

LRW: Amen to that. Interesting insight into the grad students’ work-life balance dilemma. I can imagine! I’m so delighted to learn that your art classes are still an important part of your life and help bring you Zen moments during your day. As you know, art can also touch people’s lives, bringing happiness and hope. For example, Pastimes for A Lifetime partners with CoachArt to provide free art classes and piano lessons for families impacted by childhood chronic illness. Is there a charity you or your family are fond of or support, that you might like my readers to learn more about?

JG: Through my partner, I’ve become interested in the work of Compass for Youth, which provides funding and resources for foster youth and former foster youth from California to go to college and earn degrees, including PhDs. Compass for Youth helps make higher education more accessible, a goal I support enthusiastically.

LRW: Thanks for sharing. What a wonderful organization. I will check them out and hope my students will consider supporting them as well. In closing, do you have a favorite quote, mantra or process that you find inspiring or helpful when faced with a creative block or frustration, that you would like to share with my readers?

JG: I find that studying history has made me very sensitive to nuance and ambiguity. The world isn’t painted in black and white: the more closely you study it, the more shades of grey you start to notice. My favorite quote reminds me that academic inquiry remains a worthwhile pursuit, but it also highlights the value of humility, of acknowledging that our theories about the world might be wrong.

“Seek the company of those who search for truth; run from those who have found it.”
–attributed to Václav Havel, playwright and former president of the Czech Republic

Seek the company of those who search for truth; run from those who have found it. - Václav Havel Share on X

LRW: Indeed! I love this. It’s tweet-worthy! Thank you for sharing this gem. May I ask, is there a way to learn more about your academic research?

JG: Yes. Here are a couple of links to my academic profile pages.
1. Academic Profile Page at the University of Texas
2. And my predoctoral fellowship program

LRW: Best wishes to you, John. Looking forward to hearing about your graduation and beyond!

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Did you enjoy this interview? If so, your comments below are sincerely appreciated. Please feel free to share it with others, too.

For more on Pastimes for a Lifetime’s Art Curriculum and founder/instructor Linda Wehrli, visit the website.

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