by Nirshan Perera, English Teacher
Every decade or so, Ken Alley re-reads James Joyce’s Ulysses. “I’m such a different person every ten years,” the video production/graphic and visual arts teacher remarks. “Each time is a revelation!”
Alley’s enduring love of Irish literature, which was ignited in an English classroom at Foothill College in Los Altos, is one theme in his own rich and wide-ranging voyage to room 159 at PCS. (Alley, who was born and grew up in Mountain View, also considers Joyce’s Dubliners to be one of his “favorite books of all time.”) Alley completed his AA degree in literature and creative writing, but when he transferred to UC Santa Cruz, he shifted majors and studied environmental science and conservation.
“I was always also interested in wildlife and the idea of place,” he explains, “and functionally, I never wanted to read as work—I have to read this book versus I want to read this book—though I’m still passionate about it and it certainly informs everything that I’ve done.”
Alley worked in the field of ornithology for five years after graduating from UCSC, assessing and documenting habitat destruction and human impact on species like peregrine falcons, California condors, burrowing owls, and goshawks. He left ornithology for a mixture of reasons.
“I got tired of having my recommendations overruled because of economics instead of science,” he says. “Also, though it was enjoyable, I wanted to be more involved working with people.”
Teaching seemed like a natural fit. Alley designed and started teaching a new class in research methods for the environmental studies program at UCSC (a class which is still being taught today). He taught English classes for a stint in Reno before moving back to Santa Cruz to manage the photography holdings of the Art Department at UCSC.
Alley eventually moved to Boston to complete his MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts, where he taught digital media classes and, afterwards, worked as an art director for a printing company. He eventually migrated back to Santa Cruz, where he started lecturing at both UCSC and Cabrillo, teaching all levels of photography as well as contemporary art theory and practice.
Alley, who joined the PCS faculty in 2015, says that what he loves most about teaching here is the complexity and the challenge and the joy of teaching students how to collaborate. Collaboration, he insists, is central to the creative process.
“I love having classes that are 9th through 12th grades and working to create a community with each class,” he says. “To work together as a unit and to work on shared projects—I wouldn’t be half the artist that I am if not for all the people I worked with over the years. We only grow through contact, through the sharing of ideas. That’s how we learn to discern.”
The photographers that Alley loves the most—artists like Robert Frank, Mary Ellen Mark, and Walker Evans—all highlight the importance of social connections and context. “Their work has to do with how humans relate to one another and place—place is both a physical thing and it is also based in one’s memories and experiences,” Alley explains.
These social dynamics are a central part of Alley’s own art and its recurrent concerns. “All my work has to do with the social construction of place,” he notes. “For me, part of that social construction is how we relate to one another and all of that stuff comes into my teaching.
“I’m really concerned with the individual and how they function in society. How they get along. What are the mechanisms. How we get confused by each other. The whole idea of cultural filters. What truths were presented to us and how that sometimes gets in the way.”