e s s a y s
More About the Studio
When you are in a studio full of people doing the art that they want to do, a wonderful kind of magic happens. Sometimes this magic sounds like pin drop silence when the energy of the class is absolutely focused on their independent projects. Sometimes it sounds like giggles and laughter when a group discovers the funny sounds that can be made with wet clay. Sometimes it sounds like the clamor of questions and answers from inquisitive young artists eager to know something new all at once. Sometimes it sounds like the oooh’s and ahhhh’s of a teacher’s admiration of an accomplishment when everyone pauses to see too. Sometimes it sounds like the sobs of a frustrated student, trying so hard to make it just right. Sometimes it is the awestruck delight of a parent arriving to see what their children have done. Sometimes you can hear it in the tiniest voice saying for the first time, “I really can!” Sometimes it’s in a whisper, “Please let me be able to”. The magic lay in the value of each individuals experience being the center of the studio, and conjuring this magic is a special dance. At its center is the heart and imagination of every student. This center has a foundation so strong and wide reaching that every idea has room to grow and be nurtured. On its edges are the open arms of teachers in their broadest capacity to instruct and inspire. The broader reaching these loving arms, the bigger the foundation for which to freely dance upon. From mastery of the technical skills necessary to physically manifest ideas successfully, to an open minded and broad reaching exploration of all the disciplines that make up the human experienced. This structurally sound, broad reaching, open minded exploration of the world is the core of the exponential success of studio art.
This delicate dance is based on a balance between freedom and structure. Too much of one without the other will almost always throw off the rhythm of learning, and growing, as an artist. A student unleashed into a room full of supplies without any instruction will most likely become bored or frustrated or destructive after some time. It’s not to say that an initial independent exploration of art, with attention given to care of tools and value of materials, is not an appropriate first experience in the studio. Highly independent individuals will often covet the self determined direction of their creativity like a mother protecting her young. Sometimes they need to feel like protecting their precious voice, and sometimes this approach comes from absolute confidence in their vision of how their project shall come to be. With arms open to this independent spirit, the inherent human desire to learn and grow can be addressed just as openly. A student must be able to choose to work on his own to develop his own ideas, just as he must be supported when he decides that he wants to know more, either growing tired of the repetition of his past success, or growing frustrated with an inability to make progress. In this way, the lessons are always taught in the context of a students own goals. They should be thought of a tools rather than rules.
A teacher must remove ego from teaching to facilitate this kind of growth. Progress cannot be measured by an external expectation of pace or direction. To maximize a student’s development as an artist, the understanding that everyone is just right where they are must be kept at the forefront. Every path is the right path because they all honestly reflect exactly where an artist is. It’s a simple place to be, yet one that is so often overlooked in our society that is always striving to be better. It is a paradox; to strive to change, and also celebrate a present condition. Embracing this philosophy is such an important element of finding joy through art.
This leads us to a discussion about the role of critique. Critique is an opportunity for a student to get feedback about his or her work. The experience can be either devastating or inspirational, depending on the teachers approach. The fastest way to destroy a students self confidence is to compare his work to another student, or to an external norm. Just as it is totally inappropriate to grade students on a scale of success, so is comparative critique absolutely counterproductive in all but the most advanced students. If you think of art as a means of communication, a critique should focus on how the work is communicating. A critique can be a way for a student midway through a piece to get feedback on problem solving issues, or can be a way to explore what is happening in finished work. It is never a time to pass judgement. When teaching students how to critique, likes and dislikes are beginner’s language that must be understood on a deeper level. These words do not help to further communication, they only serve pass judgement. It is the role of the teacher to help students understand why they like or dislike something. Sometimes it is the goal of an artist to create an uncomfortable composition, and in these cases, dislikes are successes. Similarly, “likes” initially refer to compositions, subjects, techniques that convey comfortable messages. Sometimes this is the goal of the artist, sometimes not. Saying you like a piece, and saying the piece makes you feel comfortable is a different conversation. Saying you dislike a piece or saying it makes you uncomfortable is also a choice between opening a conversation or ending it. In critique, we seek to deepen both the artists, and the viewers experience of art. It is about developing a verbal dialogue with a visual language. A process intent on deepening experience by cross referencing. Just as an artist seeks to give through the art, good critique requires giving of yourself so that a relationship develops between you and the work. In this way, art comes alive inside us. It’s not about like or dislike. It’s about what the work evokes.
Critique should always be approached according to where an artist is developmentally. Often this will be governed by age, but a beginner at any age is going to thrive on ohhh’s and ahhhh’s of encouragement not necessarily in any formal critique session. These exclamations should be followed by why’s however. “I love the colors you used in the sky, they make me feel calm and relaxed, like I want to go for a walk with my dog.” “Wow, look at the sharp teeth in your wolf’s mouth! I’ scared!” “Beautiful! The expression on her face makes me feel like I’m daydreaming too”
Likewise, if a student is doing something that you feel would be more successful with some input from you, its appropriate to say, “If you want to make the sky feel more three dimensional, you can make it lighter on the horizon.” Or, “Do you see how your picture is unbalanced with all the objects on one side? Do you want to put something over here to draw your eye back?” You can see how the langue used is always in the context of the student making a choice. Advice should always be given as just that, not rules but suggestions. Building your relationship with students based on honesty and support will lead them to cherish these bits of wisdom you share. This way taking advice from a teacher feels natural and good, and not imposed. Ultimately, we seek to help students get to a place where they love their art. Words like good and bad are irrelevant. If something is wrong, it’s really just a problem that needs to be addressed. We believe that art is not done until you love it. If there are parts that aren’t working, we problem solve through them. Amazingly, its true and it works and the process is very empowering.
Critique is also a balance between focusing on the process verses the product. So many art curriculums focus solely on the process. We believe that success breeds motivation. A person has to like the outcome to feel successful and to want to do more. In the beginning, students must work towards a successful outcome or they will never feel capable. It is the teacher’s job to have the skills to get students to this place. Of course, advanced students who have experienced success are less fragile and are more able to understand to role of process on their creative journey. Sadly however, so many art programs are taught with this advanced mentality that leads beginners to feel inadequate. We like to think of problems as popcorn popping. In the middle of a project, there are so many issues or problems to be addressed. As you get closer to completion the popping lessens. And a huge part of art is knowing when to stop, when there are no more problems. After all, you don’t want to burn the popcorn. It’s not a very romantic way of looking at art, but it sure makes the process more accessible. So often I hear people speak of art as a relaxing endeavor. To the contrary, it can be a most intense exercise of everything we bring to the table as humans. The more of yourself you invest in your work, the more deeply you feel your power in the world.