The graphic designer, Milton Glaser, once said, “You teach what you are, not what you say.”
Every year about this time I start to get into a little bit of a worried state. I think about the expectations my students and their parents might have for the art classes I’m about to teach.
There are so many Youtube videos showing how to do things, step-by-step. So many classes online or in person (when that was a thing) designed to help people paint or otherwise create very specific things. I don’t do that. I mean, I try when students want me to, but it’s not the best use of my abilities.
I'm very lucky that I teach on a one-to-one basis because I can be specific. But still, I cringe at the thought of my telling students that the way to paint something is to follow whatever set of rules are there for us all to follow, as the way to go about creating. What a terrible thing to do! Especially to teenagers.
It can be uncomfortable to discover one's own way of working. It's probably a knee-jerk reaction to not trust the way our hands change up whatever vision we have in our heads when we start to do something creative because it doesn’t look or "act" like something we’ve seen or maybe even admire. It probably feels like salt in some kind of wound when you are are told by your teacher (me), “That’s great! Keep going with that process, even though you think it's bad, and let’s see what happens.”
This is a big part of why, every year, I worry that my methods will be met with resistance, or that I will make mistakes. Of course both of these things are true. As well, some people are very happy with a paint-by-numbers approach to creative projects which gets them a result that isn't really "personally activated," but more like attempts toward replicas of something someone else designed. That’s fine. It's still art made by hand. (Bob Ross tutorials, "sip and paint nights".) It's just not a part of my natural teaching approach.
This year, of course, I am adding the pandemic to my usual concerns. Teaching something that is “hands-on” and messy at its best, and doing this between laptop screens- It's a bit weird. But then again, I get to teach at home, which is nice. My students and I are fortunate.
“You teach what you are, not what you say.”
This is why I take summers off to make art and why I make art during the school year. Art first. Teaching is something that happens because of it.
If I have to have a job that isn’t making art, in order to survive (and I do), I’m thankful that my job is something sourced from my life’s work. I mine from my own research and processes and work with as much empathy as I can muster up, in order to share- not what is “correct,” but something elusive that I believe we all can reach, as magnificently unique individuals influenced and affected by our world, our instincts (and who knows what else). Whether creativity is something my student approaches in their life to create a painting or catch fish or work in finance or write code or novels or direct movies… whatever it is- there is a confidence to be brought out during the act of creating and failing and reworking and sharing and creating again. I like to work on that with people.
This is why I hate the emphasis placed on grades. Terrible things, grades. Oh, I hate them. But of course, I participate. I must fill out the required rubrics and templates and allow the great machine to calculate these percentages that will spew forth, now online, for an email to be sent to parents which will describe the day-to-day progress of their children through the demon sent from hell that I know as, grades.
With art, a grade can do so much harm to a child’s sense of confidence in something so universally useful- creativity.
I have seen it! Every semester I have students who are terrified to even put a pencil on paper because they once tried their hardest and received a grade less than an “A,” simply because the teacher graded the work around some kind of parameters that didn’t take into consideration the kind of elusive and very unique energy each of us must activate and express in order to make something that is a visual representation of themselves at that moment in time. Not that the teacher necessarily had ill intentions. We're just very busy and are a part of a structured system.
It's one thing for a student in college to be critiqued, but it's entirely something else for someone who is just starting to find out who they are, in so many ways, to be rated for their creative expression, which, in its most genuine form, is by nature linked to such vulnerability. We're talking about a very raw nerve that deserves some time to form without jabbing into it while at a pubescent stage.
That being said, even in my hatred of grades and my belief in those last two paragraphs, I know that in some ways I’ve been a disheartening force to some of my students over the years through grades given and things I've said. I must have been. I hate that.
The creative process is one that takes mood into consideration. How productive one can be depends on energy levels. What is produced can depend on so many things, and sometimes, the best art can be something that we throw away because it doesn’t hit the mark, but it is what is needed in order for the next, “better” thing to come through. The less-than-polished work done during a class semester might be what leads to something fantastic outside of that time period. Grading systems have a hard time accounting for that.
I realize my perspective may not be the case for other art teachers and teachers that focus on other areas of learning, but it’s certainly how I feel about the subject.
So, I tell each of my students at the beginning of the semester to not look toward that art grade. Listen to what I say about your progress and your work. Ask questions about your work and then listen when I answer in a strange way to your question of whether or not I think it’s “good.” Engage in meandering conversations with me about what you see in your work or in the work of other artists or things in nature or whatever it is-
I promise that I care deeply, even if it isn’t the kind of care you expect. I promise that I will be present with you and bend toward the ways you wish to learn, if I am able to.
Here’s to another year.
My name is Linda Lay and I'm an artist, a writer and a teacher who dabbles in fashion. I'm planning for this blog to be an ongoing series of relatively abstract thoughts, videos and images related to my experiences as a person who teaches art to teenagers.