K  A  R  E  N     K  I  E  F  E  R

e s s a y s

What Do You Want To Do Today?

There is nothing in the world more powerful than the unlimited potential held in each and every person’s very own hands. Likewise, there is nothing more distant in the imaginations of so many people stifled through a life time of being told what to do in potentially any aspect of life. From appearances, to academic and career dreams , to performance in a job, we so often are a culture challenged in our ability to foster independence and self determination from generation to generation. It’s an interesting dichotomy in a country that celebrates freedom and individuality as we do. But real freedom and individuality comes from a deep sense of knowing one’s self and what one really wants to do or say. Creating an atmosphere where every individual feels in control of their own decision making, and thus their destinies, is a step in the important direction of creating a world where every person is empowered to manifest their most complete selves.  The microcosm of a person’s art experience can absolutely parallel an ability to see life as an opportunity to bring these qualities into fruition. A person’s art experience is where they will learn to connect their hands and minds and hearts in that fundamentally essential human experience of creation. What do you want to do today?  

In the studio art environment this very question is at the core of every artist’s experience. It is an approach to creativity that holds each and every individuals motivations and needs and interests as the greatest priority of the learning environment.  So often we have heard joyous students delight with the mind blowing idea that they can do anything. To be able to support such a promise, the physical environment of a studio is very specifically designed so that every creative endeavor can be pursued with fluidity and order. In some ways the statement that you can do anything is an illusion because the environment is structured to promote classical lessons in art.  We all share a love for art and in this mutual appreciation we naturally have the desire to learn how to do it ourselves. Almost every student is naturally drawn to these traditional lessons. However, how each student chooses to approach these lessons will always be unique. A real measure of the success of a studio is in its ability to serve these individual needs with inspiration and verve.

There are many factors that must be addressed in the creation and maintenance of this effective studio environment. These include effective student teacher ratios and relationships, lesson plans in every media and materials that are readily available so that each project is easy to set up and work through, and a variety of spaces for different types of work in different media, spaces which also address different learning styles such as group, solitude, indoor, outdoor, intimate, spread out, messy and meticulous. So much of the work of teaching in a studio is prepping the room.  However, the tremendous effort it takes to create a studio space is equally balanced by the lack of any need to create lesson plans there on out. The studio, once set up, runs its self. And one of the biggest joys we have teaching in this environment is that every day, we don’t know what we are going to do. It is in the hands and hearts of the students. Inherently, there is a sense of wonder and surprise and there is no way around the fact that the students are in charge.

Staying keenly attuned to each student’s moods, needs, and inspirations requires the attention and energy of a teacher’s whole being. We often call a bustling class a stock market day because our skills and attention and social skills will be pulled in every direction imaginable. It is not for the faint of heart. In a teachers vocabulary there must be an imagination flexible and willing to stretch to extremes in ideas to keep up with young artists.  This teacher must be attuned like a sprinter to the gun, where missing a students need for instruction or inspiration is equal to missing the start of a race. A studio art teacher must be engaged in a meaningful dialogue with each student so that they can tap into the creative parts of their brains. So much of success with students is in motivation. It comes from the excitement of their life experiences and our universal human desire to explore and celebrate these experiences.  A great teacher should be engaged with the students work as if it has its own spirit and presence in the room. Engage in what is playing out in the work. Ask the artists what their characters are thinking, or what they might do if a dynamic were to change. Ask who might live in the beautiful place they are creating, or how the work makes them feel …

It’s a process of gently leading students to understand that their imaginations are limitless, where nothing is to silly or absurd or complex to be realized.  Where amazing things happen all the time, and all ideas and questions are worth exploring. In the studio, every moment is an opportunity to change and grow, balanced with a time to focus in the meditation of making the work physically happen. When all thoughts and worries about ones life can drift away while attention is given to craftsmanship and the joy of making.

What do you want to do today? Must be supported by an ability to do anything and everything that can be seen or imagined. An effective studio will have many, many ways to help a person decide what they might want to do. Often a person doesn’t know yet. For this, we  have lists of lessons in every media and style so that students can see all the choices they have. These lists are all around, and are a constant reminder that there is still so much more to learn. They create a feeling that the pursuit of art can last a lifetime. Attached at the end of this chapter are many of these lists that are the cornerstone to our studio’s success.  Students also only need to look around the room at all the other independent projects to get an idea of what is possible.

Probably the most important element of the success of a studio are the files. When a student wants to draw a tiger, the best thing would be to go to the zoo with a pencil and paper and actually look at one and draw it. If a student wanted to paint a sunset on the beach, he should set up his easel by the shore and paint the real thing. Of course, this is very impractical. While there are times that drawing what is present can work, as in doing still life studies, generally, a student is going to get most of his or her information from photographs kept in the files. In this respect, our most important resource at the studio is our files. These are a topically and alphabetically organized system of folders that are full of years of collecting pictures of everything you could possibly want to create. We have subcategorized them as: environmental, animals, human products, and human activities.  Asking a student to successfully create a ceramic rhinoceros without having a rhino to look would almost inevitably lead to frustrations by student and teacher alike. This is because we think we know what things look like, but almost always, mid process we can’t really remember what the shape of a rhino’s head is, or if the eyes are in front of the horn, or if the shoulders are above or below the head. That’s why research is so important. For younger children working from the imagination is ideal, and they often will not request more information. But for students around 8 and older, getting it “right” is fundamental to feeling successful with the project. And make no mistake, success breeds motivation. If a student does not like how a project comes out, she will be less likely to try again, or feel that she can do good work. This is absolutely tragic when the simple solution is so often to have research handy to answer questions about what things look like. It’s important to remember that the intention of these –photos are not to copy, but rather to inspire. A great way to avoid this confusion is to ask a student to take out several pictures to help create their own original idea. An interesting side note is that for the sake of learning basics in realism, or how to make things look real, the two dimensional and unchanging quality of a photo is actually more conducive than life study. The tiger doesn’t walk a way, the sky doesn’t darken, the flower doesn’t wilt. Using photos allows for students to more effectively break down the structure of what they are observing at their own pace.  Point perspective lessons make so much more sense when first viewed two dimensionally, and things like galaxies and nebulae just can’t ever be observed. In fact, photos as resources are such a great way to expand the awareness of students. The files can have names like, creepy creatures, or magical places to spark curiosity and imagination.   We have gathered these pictures from calendars and magazines and old books from library sales. And with the word out, people are always bringing us new sources. The files are never complete and should be constantly added to so that the source of inspiration remains