Saturday, June 2, 2018

Thoughts from someone who taught a little and knows a little bit more about teaching than they once did

I hope that blog title accurately conveys the hesitancy I have about professing here....

But I have just finished my fifth year teaching undergraduate art students and as I won't be returning in the fall I'm in quite a reflective state about it.

I think to teach well, the thing you do yourself, is so challenging.  My studio mate and I used to joke about how much easier it would be to learn a little math and teach that.  The reason we felt that way, I think, is because once you really know just how much there is to convey, and just how wrong some approaches can be, you realize how much of a responsibility it is, and just how easily you can f it up.  It would be great to teach the few (5?) things I know about math, and be ignorant to all the nuance that exists in that discipline and just teach with pure unbridled confidence.

The tricky thing too, is students love and latch onto a teacher like that, who has an absolute answer without any exceptions.  I think I was probably more of a teacher like that when I started even, I knew less but thought I knew more.

In teaching art, it is critical to both hold a strong point of view but also allow for all viewpoints to be valid.   To confidently explain that there is no one explanation.

So while I come away from these last few years with a lot of open-ended questions, here are the few steadfast principles that I can stand behind and would hope each of my students has come away with:

1.  Anyone can and should make a painting.

I have often heard a similar conversation from both painters and also from students.  Basically its the question of who should make paintings?  Is a child's painting a real painting?  Is an untaught artist (or non-major student) able to make a good painting?  How much do you need to know to make a painting?

Answer: Yes, yes, depends.  I've heard the argument that people don't have to go to school to be musicians or to dance well, why should they for art?  They don't have to.  Everyone should feel free to make paintings.  At any point in life and level you should try to make the best painting you can.  Good teachers are helpful in that they can give you more options, options on how to manipulate the materials, and examples of people who have done that in different ways.  Expanding your knowledge base, ideally, will allow you to make paintings that are more satisfying and challenging and ultimately engaging.

2.  Always try to make a painting you have never made.  Never try for cohesion.

There is another common conversation I have run into over the last five years that drives me crazy.  It's usually coming from upper level students trying to get their senior show or graduate school portfolio together.  They talk about theme, a series, a cohesive body of work etc.  I distinctly remember doing the exact same thing in school and it stunted my work deeply.  I don't think a student should ever prematurely try to make cohesive body of work.  Sure, if there is a weird tangent you are on that dictates making 10 of the same painting, please do that.  But don't fence yourself in.  At the undergraduate level I found most students just needed to follow really different and random urges.  The work will not be cohesive, it will be all over the place, but it will be experimental and informative.  To make the furthest boundaries of where your interests lie, allows you to see common threads, know what you will never do again and slowly the work will narrow into your interests.  But always try to be making a weird one.  Boredom is the real studio practice killer.

3.  Let your influences show.

I still hear this in regards to my own work.  'Oh you must love Bonnard, this reminds me of Matisse, your influences are showing!'  Often students seemed to think it was a bad thing for the work to relate to other painters, they'd say "I want to do something that has never been done before." No.  You will always be making work in relation to other paintings made before and that's a good thing, it's the language painters speak.  Look at paintings, copy paintings.  Eventually that will not be the only thing visible.  That understanding will make the work richer.  De Kooning said to Guston when he merrily ran into the bar after a day of painting, "Ah, you must have paid off all your debts!"  And that took him years.

4.  Listen deeply to critical feedback.  Then consider the source.

Criticism coming from a painter, professor, or someone with a trained eye deserves being heard.  It is helpful to hear what is being seen when the work is looked at by someone other than you, the maker.  However, consider the source before agreeing with the diagnosis.  Meaning, that person may have a very different aesthetic or intention for painting, that is other than yours.  You can hear the feedback but not agree with the suggestions.  Think about the perspective of where that insight is coming from.

5. The answers are in the paint.

The only way out of a creative block is to paint through it.  It feels awful, the work is mediocre and going nowhere but putting marks down on canvas is the only way to break out.  Ideas and plans for paintings are not the same, the only way forward is to paint.  Eventually answers and new questions will materialize, try not to put pressure on the product or the subject, just begin a bunch of paintings with anything being enough of a reason to start.

(all images are student work from the past academic year)


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