I am interested in helping my students develop skill as a means for inspiring and promoting their creative and conceptual expression. I believe in a learning community for my students in which there is a fluid and dynamic conversation and exchange between all participants. I am intentional about, and dedicated to, representational diversity in the artwork that we study and make. I am inspired when working with young people, and I seek to inspire in them lifelong enjoyment in art and artistic endeavors.
My approach to art education is inherently influenced by my own education in art. I went to a large, statistically diverse public high school just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, where the arts were deeply valued. Though we may not have had state of the art technology or an abundant supply of resources, no digital lab or printing press, we had access to a variety of mediums and class options. We put on shows and held festivals, painted murals, had a lot of fun. There were three classrooms in the art hallway. In the drawing/painting studio, experienced seniors set their easels up next to exploratory sophomores. The teacher who ran the graphics studio also lead the Black History Month art and performance festival, and his classroom forged a unique space for many students of color. A diverse cohort of underclassmen populated the mixed media studio, working in watercolors, pencils, jewelry, and ceramics. Sharing a hallway, these three rooms formed a locatable community for creative, committed, and simply curious students. Students in each class caught glimpses of the work being done across the hall. There was a shared investment in each other’s work, and a palpable spirit of collaboration, even when students buckled down on solitary projects. It is this spirit that kept me in that hallway after school, led me to take art classes in college, and encouraged me to teach art in various settings over the past five years.
I believe that all sorts of students take art classes for all sorts of reasons. Some students are confident in their artistic ability. Perhaps they come to class wanting to develop their portfolios, for themselves or for their college applications. Some students want to gain artistic skills and bravely sign up to experience something new. Other students find art therapeutic, or rigorous, or both at the same time. Art-making can be and is a place of self-actualization, understanding, and development for everyone. My classroom welcomes every student, regardless of personal or artistic background. Studio classrooms are spaces in which we create and learn how we create.
When students enter a classroom, they enter as artists, with the facility to perform and engage in any and all projects that might be presented to them. Not knowing “how to do” something does not preclude their ability. In my opinion, technical skill is useful for achieving and executing ideas. It can be a practical utility, but it is not the only one. I support and encourage students who want to develop and enhance their technical skills, though doing so requires, I believe, thoughtful reflection on why and how we measure and relate value to skill levels.
NPR’s Ira Glass assures young artists that “your taste is why your work disappoints you.” The first time I heard this wisdom I found it encouraging. But upon further contemplation, I have grown skeptical. While the optimism entwined in aspiring to make great work can be truly productive, there is something deeply patriarchal about the cultural imperative of “taste.” I have heard my students express their fear of drawing and painting because they are afraid of how hard it looks or how easy it might be to get wrong. And conversely, I have also had the immense pleasure of witnessing students experience the joy of painting and drawing as they encounter new ways to play, experiment, and harness new mediums. I love explaining the concept of “heta-uma” to students who are either struggling with their technical ability or trapped in their heads about what to create. This Japanese term translates best to mean simultaneously “unskillful-skillful” but to me represents being full of soul regardless of technique. When it comes to drawing and painting, the disciplined concepts and techniques which I am confident about teaching, such as tonal shift, perspective, color theory, and gesture, are means to an end: creative expression.
The critique of taste also applies to art history, which I love studying and discussing with students. The history of artists and the movements they produced and grew out of is invaluable, but should be looked at from a worldly and critical perspective. I want to challenge the notion that we are accountable for knowing who has done work before us. Not every young artist has access to the books and museums, talks and lectures that teach us these histories. Teachers, however, are accountable for providing these resources for exploration and pointing students towards considering their own art histories, aesthetics, and tastes. In the past, my students have also shared with me examples of artists from across the world and time that have opened up, if not changed, my conceptions of certain practices. Once, while teaching a class inspired by Ellsworth Kelly’s newspaper paintings, one teenager brought in images of their aunt’s artwork, stunning and intricate pieces made with newsprint, which added new dimensions of reference and inspiration that a canonical “master” could not have done on his own. We are all vulnerable to disappointment. But through the transformative power of conversation, satisfaction is achieved. Students are “taste-makers.”
Pablo Helguera, in his book Education for Socially Engaged Art, asserts that “artists and teachers both must demonstrate respect and sincere interest in their interlocutors.” This I firmly agree with. To be an effective teacher, I believe, one should not only express but actually possess sincere interest in the livelihood, development, and expression of one’s collaborators (students). Teaching, be it in lecture, seminar, dialogue, or critique, is founded in conversation and exchange. When working with students of any age, I always look forward to what I will learn from them. By eliminating certain restrictions of formality and protocol that position the teacher as the possessor of all knowledge, I aim to encourage participants to give to each other and to me in order to arrive at stimulating exchanges. As Helguera describes, conversation is a craft, like any art skill, and “when skillfully performed, is a form of enrichment” (77). Conversation takes place around, within, and through art. I reflect fondly on the teachers who taught me about art through the art of conversation, like my professor and mentor Pato Hebert, whose questions to me are as illuminating as any answer, or my college painting professor Tula Telfair, who had us sitting on the floor in circles for as much time as we stood behind canvas (we were then, of course, expected to spend 30 hours a week outside of class painting…).
I seek always to create comfortable environments with students that are safe and challenging, rigorous and playful. Entering a new community or workplace involves listening and taking time to get to know students’ individual and collective needs in confluence with the implementation of pedagogy and practice. I am critically and confidently invested in the artistic expression and education of young people.