A Philosophy of Open minds and Empty… Stomachs? (03/2018)
Emerging from the wilderness we crest the last ridge and pause for a moment to get our bearings. Are we lost? I think we are on the right track? The trail appears beaten and there are scant signs of those who have come before us. It feels safe, yet unfamiliar. We are exhausted, alert, present, and hungry! We know we are nearly there, and that we’ve carried ourselves over obstacles and through the depths of uncharted territory. We hold the artifacts of this journey in our hands. We push for the summit, knowing what lie ahead will surpass expectations and quench our hunger! This is how I feel after instructing a five-hour design studio; very ragged, yet ready…and strangely rejuvenated. It is in this moment that I know I’m on the right trail. This is a moment of what I think of as ‘creative hunger’ manifesting, rumbling in the bellies of those who have journeyed. This is my objective as an art educator- to inspire others to take the trip and to get hungry!
Likening teaching in the visual arts to hiking a mountain is a pleasing analogy. After six years of postsecondary teaching I feel like I’m on the incline; I am the guide, yet still very much guided by my students on a trek where every step into the unknown takes us further from our origin yet promises a new perspective greater than the last. With this said, this vocation is no walk in the park. Art educators wear two hats (or more) at once. Developing an artistic practice that can co-exist with the demand for pedagogy and teaching methodologies in the visual arts is truly challenging (and this is probably why I seek do it). Rarely is the path sign-posted, there is not a single map, and the landscape is scattered with dead-ends and unmarked trails. When my intuition or experimental methods fail (or I am challenged with an impasse), I look to my students. Their unknowing inspires a refreshing curiosity that helps to shape the path taken with new momentum. For myself, not knowing is as valuable as knowing how to lead the group. As with many teachers I feel rewarded by the experience of observing younger artists (students) discovering knowledge. It is necessary to watch slowly and carefully.
Moreover, I look to emulate aspects of past mentors, those older/other trail guides who’ve shown me different means of creative leadership, guidance, and helped me to orientate my own journey via artistic practice. A few directions given to me that have led me over difficult terrain to both successful art-making and teaching are: “be honest with yourself and your art…and trust yourself”, “make it your own if nothing else”, “let the work change in the process”, “nothing happens by accident in art”, “be naive, and an authority at once with your medium”, message is not meaning”, “art made in a vacuum sucks!”, and “contrast is everything”. I believe firmly in the adage “Education’s role is to replace and empty mind with an open mind…”, and I also feel that “Education’s role is to place an empty (hungry) stomach with an open mind…”. These are my torches, the guiding lights that I seek to pass on to each student that I work with, equipping them to blaze their own trails towards their own summits.
To this end, as a studio instructor I have a dual focus: to guide and inspire students to arouse creative hunger as we discover our trail(s); and to leave deep foot prints as we do so. My tactics are to provide scalable challenges (opportunities) for students to identify and push their abilities as makers/thinkers; and to foster an open, inclusive learning environment where independent expression and inquisition are cultivated with vigorous curiosity. Curiosity ignites hunger! My experience teaching foundation art courses such as drawing, two- and three-dimensional design has demonstrated to me that all students have a deep spring of curiosity, but many are unsure of how to best access it. With this in mind I make every effort to provoke students to explore their interests and personal experiences for means of inspiration. Here, surveying the nuances of our everyday, simple habits can often be far more useful than highbrow, academic inflection.
Once the source of the spring is located, containing and channeling it becomes the challenge. Driving students to expand their comfort zone in working with materials and medium, I focus experimentation in most curricula. As my own interdisciplinary studio practice involves a wide variety of media and formats, e.g. video sculptures, 3D printing, blown glass, interactive installation, and sound art, I remind my students that, “I know I little about a lot”. Here I can foster interest and provide a model of experimental discipline for emulation, so that students may follow by my example, without knowing where they are going to end up.
Regardless of the specific studio course or medium that we are working with, a focus on process is paramount under my instruction. In my own practice, I often move discursively through media; from one trail to the next. Here I can compare my own practice with the methods that I engage in teaching. In ways I adopt characteristics of each various process that I explore in my own art making to help guide my steps through the unknown territory of teaching new cohorts. Various media afford divergent paths which all lend themselves to a means of working with younger artists. This very much fosters the necessary agility for mentoring/teaching in the studio; for guiding the trek. For example, in working with time-based media such as Net, video, and radio broadcast my works explore the virtual /actual binary which helps me to look for breaks, or interstices, between intention/action in students’ works. I ask students to break down their work into discrete samples via exercises and tutorials in the process of making to know it more modularly- chewing small bites. Alternatively, my practice blowing glass affords a path of continuous movement and balance, which translates into a certain ‘dance’ in my pedagogy. I am cautious in this and seek to balance my influence on students’ work. My goal is to ‘touch’ it enough to guide it on track, but not cloud their work with my fingerprints. I do this through focused group discussion, visual research assignments, and individual critiques (as well as model my own interests and practice in the studio).
Aware of the fragile nature of student artists at this stage, I exercise sensitivity and attempt to scaffold through collaborative opportunities through exercises for creative play. An example of this is the “Random Progression” design exercise that I offer foundation undergrads in two dimensional design. Students are tasked with designing a 2D triptych, the first panel must begin without any intention, seeking complete randomness and progressing the composition into an intended, resolved design. See Figures 1 & 2. Struggling to relinquish all control, students rely on one another to abandon their sense of control over the medium/composition. Allowing someone else to help them not make art seems to be a perfect opportunity to re-focus and discover something that was unintended. This is where deep inspiration has the freedom to take hold. With subtle suggestions and instigation on my part, the students inspire each other and often discover a passion about some small aspect of the process, form, or the contexts of the artwork. Paths are followed; hunger ensues.
Hungry students not only inspire themselves, but infectiously rouse those nearby. This is my understanding of synergy. This is a broader teaching/life goal: to promote an atmosphere where the learning is self-directed; the students gain the greatest knowledge and understanding through their contact and proximity to each other via the expression and control of differences. When my pedagogical methods are effective, I see this occur. As a visual artist there is nothing more inspirational than witnessing the artistic act progress in all of its rawness and honesty.
When we become genuinely hungry for the discovery of something new and unknown in our makings we open up possibilities for growth, excellence, and most importantly: we motivate and inspire ourselves! This is where we (both students and mentors along the continuum) can become trailblazers and lead the way for those who may follow, and where “empty” trails become “open” paths…
Figure 1: Random Progression Triptych, 2017. ART101- 2D Design- First year foundation studio course. Acrylic and mixed media on Bristol. 14” x 42” .
Left panel is attempted collaborative random making- student must attempt to relinquish all methods of control and open up compositional control to others. Middle panel is a progression of form towards content- control begins. Right panel displays content via technical control of medium and form.