Friday, December 17, 2010

What Makes a Good Art Teacher?

“A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn 
is hammering on cold iron.” - Horace Mann 

I spend most of each semester flogging the questions around how to make art, but what makes a good art teacher? Part one of three final posts for the foreseeable future on teaching!
It's a rare synthesis of attributes: combining the elements of being both an able artist and an equally capable educator. The learning curve for me personally on both fronts has been a long, strange trip, and as much as a part of me cringes inside when looking at some of my early works, there's sometimes a shudder when recalling some of those first, tentative classroom adventures. On the ground floor is the fundamental task of small group communication, which can be a challenge for many a creative personality, let alone ones who aren't adjusted to public presentations, much less conducting oneself in a classroom environment as an educator. It's an unfounded and unfortunate stigma though, as over the years I've been able to see and learn from many art teachers (and cartoonists) that buck the stereotypes of ingrown, maladjusted weirdos. Or maybe they just don't stick out as much up here. I think a background training as a waiter can help anesthetize oneself to constant group interactions, and my style probably reflects that experience to some degree: get in there, take orders, give recommendations, deliver the goods, do the job and move on. Albeit minus the booze, free food and tips.
I recently had the opportunity to observe some of the art department graduate students with their beginning drawing classes, and much like critiquing pieces, had to gauge someone's performance with an objective assessment, without projecting my own bias. And as with critiquing, the inner mirror - granted it's a circus funhouse mirror - will reflect many points to ponder about one's own work on the other side of the easel.

More mullings below the fold...

One case in point was for the first observation: confronting a wall of student art in full blazing color that adorned the entire wall of the drawing studio for that class' critique. I had an instinctual comparison/contrast against the body of work produced by my own class, which was a useless yin/yang of simultaneous edification and dejection. Suffice to say, my bias notwithstanding, I felt the strongest pieces on display were the ones that were in black and white, as they emphasized the basic elements like successful use of of strong composition and so on. As much as color can be a powerful and creative tool in unlocking expressive potential, I tend to come down on the side that it's more often than not simply too much to take on at the beginning level, and can lead to crutching, or making an even bigger mess of things when the fundamentals aren't mastered first. 
Now that approach is more in the line of traditional, linear acquisition of skills, that I inherited from my drawing instructor, who got it from his teacher in turn. Maintaining or aping an atrophied status quo can be an easy out for a beginning instructor, and my methods and habits as both an artist and a teacher are definitely not above reexamining and challenging. But then that's why there's an entire department staffed with many diverse and contrasting techniques, talents and opinions.

And like I mentioned above, it's a relatively unique combination to have an artist who can cross over into "performing arts" as far as demonstrating in public: many visual artists can't effectively function "on stage," or make the process demonstratively understandable to a novice, if not also be entertaining about it. Then there's the added challenge of making it interesting, and relevant to each individual, balance the intimidation against inspiration, and making the entire process at least palatable and approachable.
I believe every single assignment should be backed up by a demonstration of said skills in technique and materials, along with examples of previous student works that illustrate the good, the bad and the ugly, in conjunction with discussion as to exactly how each respective piece passes or fails, or where it falls on the continuum of criteria and why.

One potential danger I've noted in making graduate students take up the reigns in teaching entry-level studio courses is the inadvertent risk of turning off prospective majors, minors or even just enthusiasts from making more art, either as a result of ineptitude or ignorance on the part of the teacher. Similarly, I sometimes wonder if I'm really doing anybody any favors by presenting the unvarnished truth: selling someone on the hard work and long odds of a successful career while in the trenches can be as much of a potential poster-boy for recruitment as it is a red flag to immediately change majors. It's a delicate gamble, compounded by the judicious maintaining of standards along with nurturing and encouragement. But as with making the works or art themselves, one has to start somewhere as a teacher in order to gain the needed experience. And again, much as with creating the works of art themselves, it's necessary to expose yourself to as many wide-ranging styles as possible, before your own evolves.

Arguably having a potter, for example, teach drawing, might not make much sense at first. But regardless of their own respective field of study, they should ideally possess the rudimentary (actually exemplary) skills in other media, especially one so fundamental to the field. But often there's the problem of having a banjo player teaching woodwinds: sure, it's all "music" but you can see the potential issue. If you want to encourage and attract as many people as possible to the medium, the better choice is to hire an actual practitioner of said skill.

It goes without saying one has to be able to do it, in order to teach it, but the qualities of being a good artist aren’t necessarily the same as what would make for a good teacher. Just like already knowing how to draw doesn’t always mean someone will be a good art student – there’s a host of other factors that come into play over the course of an entire semester. There is a multitude of other aspects to consider, such as making frequent eye contact, clear communication, effective engagement, constantly keeping on top of each individual students progress, accommodating special needs and ensuring that they understand what's being asked of them at every step of the way.

Nebulous but intrinsic aspects like passion, patience, discipline and creativity itself can be easily demonstrated, but it’s on the student to pick up the slack and follow through. And there are plenty of examples around of folks who are teaching art not out of any sincere desire to teach persay, but to just earn a steady paycheck with benefits. Likewise there are many students in an art class who aren’t there to actually learn how to make art, but need to pass and get the credits to earn their degree. There's always the contingent that maintains true art can't be taught, or shouldn't (see the latest dustup in the comment thread here for some stellar examples of that). Maybe college or classes aren't necessarily the only or best option available to aspiring talents - intensive, hand-on workshops are often a great compromise, and outside of the educational system there are opportunities for apprenticeship, informal or otherwise, tutoring with formal lessons or even casual get-togethers over coffee can perform the same function.

Perhaps the greatest humility for me has been recognizing that I have to deal with all of the very same frustrations and fears that plague many a beginner – the main difference being that I no longer let it hold me back, or compromise, or give up. That empathy and that confidence is crucial, and is an honest link between somebody who wants to and someone who already does. Serving as an example can be a potent motivator, and helps with instilling confidence. But just giving out and regurgitating information isn’t enough – you can get enough of that from books or on-line. Watching someone at their work fills in the blanks and in turn will give rise to even more and ever better questions. And what an awesome experience when a student turns in something far better than I could ever do myself.

And the coolest art teacher ever for me was Mr. Wollowitz, way back in high-school. Why? Because he let me skip my other classes and hang out in the studio, as long as I was working. Now is that a responsible, professional attribute for an educator? Maybe not, but I sure as hell owe him a lot more than any other single instructor I ever had.

"Sometimes the toughest student is right under your nose.” - Paul Allen Taylor

"Yeah, I like it, but how about all that food!"

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