A Philosophy of Creative Hunger (2019)
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!
Teaching in the field of visual arts is, at times, like summiting a mountain. As a studio mentor I am very much the trail guide, leading the group on a trek where every step moves us deeper into the unknown and further from our origin. Yet, every step also promises a new perspective greater than the last towards a peak with unimaginable views. This is an enthralling journey. Rarely is this path sign-posted. There is no truly accurate map; and the landscape is scattered with dead-ends and unmarked trails.
When I am faced with an impasse, a deep void into the unknown, I look to my students; their unknowing inspires a refreshing curiosity that helps to redirect the path taken with new momentum. 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 and 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 you in the process”, “nothing happens by accident in art”, “be both naïve and an authority with your medium”, “art made in a vacuum sucks!”, “contrast is everything”, and “every story is actually a love story”. These are my torches, the guiding lights that I seek to pass on to each student that I work with, equipping them to blaze trails towards their own summits.
To this end, as a mentor in the artist studio I maintain a dual focus: to guide the arousal of creative momentum as we discover our paths; to leave deep footprints as we do. My tactics aim to empower students to develop their craft by providing scalable opportunities for students to identify and push their abilities as makers/thinkers; to foster an open, inclusive learning environment where independent expression and inquisition are cultivated with vigorous curiosity; to resolve with critical thought and clear, supportive feedback.
Challenging students to expand their comfort zone in working with materials and medium, I focus experimentation in my curricula. “Thinking through material” is central to my approach to creative practice. I emphasize the power of the artist to alchemize material into medium; highlighting our responsibility to do so as earnestly as we can. 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” because I am curious. Here I can be effective in enticing student’s curiosity, as well as guiding student through their diverse interests and provide hands-on guidance.
The most valuable activities in my studio apply technique, material, and craft to encourage students to formalize their own idiosyncrasies and personal journeys. This is where I as an artist draw my most powerful motivations. They come from the struggles I’ve endured and the challenges that inspired me to be myself and express myself through my practice. I urge students to find their “love story”, their passions, their fears, their questions and statements in the world, to “trust themselves” that they can become their vision. Drawing from our own life experience, no matter how complex or seemingly mundane, becomes fertile ground for moving mountains.
My studio becomes a safe space for these quests. Aware of the fragile nature of student artists at this stage, I exercise sensitivity and attempt to scaffold through collaborative exercises for creative play as well as committed, individual coaching. Through critical experimentation coupled with honest constructive thought we develop a process for working through these ideas and feelings into composition. 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; creative hunger ensues.
I remind students that we can not do this alone, that we must work alongside one another. As such, my own practice must inhabit the same studio as my students. I strive to be humble in my approach, yet inspire confidence in my students. Learning from each others missteps, followers can become leaders, and vice versa. 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).
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 creative act 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.