In the incredibly dark and grubby Odessa airport, waiting for the short flight to Kiev, I find a crumpled copy of the English-language Herald Tribune. While most of its words appear well used by previous travellers, there’s an interview with 76-year-old American author John Updike. “I’ve tried to avoid teaching,” he says, “which for all its charm takes a lot of your energy and makes you doubt yourself.”
Charming, for sure, I’m thinking. There’s that terrific feeling you get when you see the lights come on in students’ eyes. Watching improvement in others has to be one of the great highs. For those of us who love to spin knowledge, preparation itself opens up exciting new directions. Further, during delivery, the teacher finds out what she thinks by hearing what she has to say.
But teaching takes a special kind of energy. Lots of it. Frankly, I don’t know how they find it. Arriving home from the schoolroom, many of my art-teacher friends have to put their feet up and debrief with something like Vodka or the decorating of eggs. Exhausted, many have trouble getting to the studio. Like those undersized tubes of Ukrainian toothpaste, they are used up.
Updike’s third point — teaching makes you doubt yourself — is worrisome and worthy of consideration. Within words themselves there resides the potential disarmament of creative action. Art is a doing thing. It favours self-discovery and process while eschewing words and theory. It thrives on silence and contemplation. Some artists report that creativity requires a sort of blind energy and focused ignorance. The seeds of doubt may be sown by knowing too much. If this is the “teacher-mind,” and I’m not sure it is, the antidote may be enforced mutism. This may seem harsh in a free country, but with the mouth closed, stuff comes out of the brush — or pen. Even those who teach by showing and doing expend resources and might just be subconsciously cheapening their passion.
John Updike saw teaching from both sides. He understood what he had to do to become a creator. “Four years was enough of Harvard,” he said. “I still had a lot to learn, but had been given the liberating notion that now I could teach myself.”
PS: “The artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and he does it without destroying something else. A kind of refutation of the conservation of matter.” (John Updike)
Esoterica: Or you might be one of those teachers who believes that the more you give the more you get. By sharing, guiding and watching, you become party to personal growth. For this exalted state, words and explanations need to be seen as expendable. By giving to others in a playful way we may leave ourselves more intact, and squeeze more out of ourselves. May we never run out of Squibb.
Understanding how humans learn
by Anne Hightower-Patterson, Charleston, SC, USA
To assume that being an artist and being a teacher is synonymous is so wrong. If someone is a talented and skilled artist, it does not mean that he or she would be a happy and successful teacher. I am an artist and a trained, professional educator. This means that I have studied and worked in the field of education. Understanding how humans learn is a wonderfully separate skill than knowing how to paint a masterpiece. When a masterful educator exists in the same body with a painting master we have a true gift to give to the world of students desiring to know more about their craft. I will also posit that teaching private lessons and workshops is inspiring when the hungry students come to be fed. Teaching a class full of thirteen year-olds with walking hormones and not a full desire to learn, is far more challenging and liable to result in self-doubt.
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Repaying the debt
by Jon Rader Jarvis, Vashon Island, WA, USA
The studio instructor and the writer follow very different protocols. Every artist who was well “taught” by one artist/instructor or many takes on a debt that must be repaid by paying it forward. Those who benefit from your instruction incur the same debt with the same imperative to pay it forward. I once saw an intelligent description of a “professional” as compared to a tradesman. A professional shares knowledge freely without trade secrets knowing that his unique abilities are a part of his nature and not accumulated knowledge that must be held in secret to protect his worth. I have tried to follow that philosophy sharing all of my knowledge with my students to repay a tiny bit of what my teachers shared with me. I have benefitted from the process and my art work is considerably more “honest” as a result. We keep only what we share and the waves we make will benefit generations yet unimagined. I make art as a visual communication language with artists I will never know. It is a way to touch the future and achieve a kind of immortality not open to any other communication form. To avoid teaching is to avoid repaying the debt, and we are made less by that avoidance.
‘Value added’ teaching
by Lynn Edwards, Dallas, GA, USA
Teaching certainly requires a very high level of energy, commitment and focus. And yes, it does cut significantly into one’s own personal studio time. As an acrylics instructor in a local university’s Continuing Education department, I believe strongly in offering “value added” to my students. I reserve at least one day per week (in addition to class day) for creating handouts, planning exercises and mini-demos, organizing supplies and doing whatever I need to do to ensure I’m serving my students to the very best of my abilities. Rather perversely, my own muse loves to strike when I’m immersed in these preparations. All I can do is grab my journal and jot down those siren-seductions for follow-up later. It’s frustrating not to be able to act on them immediately, but surprisingly, the delay usually turns out to be beneficial. “Enforced gestation” seems to speed my own creative efforts along when I finally do get brush in hand.
Teaching serves artist well
by Bob Ragland, Denver, CO, USA
I have always instructed. Someone said, “To teach is to learn twice” — I agree with that artfully. I have been an artist for quite some time and I have put together quite a skill set. I am very adept at exchanging information in a very easy manner. I am a good demonstrator and a good explainer. I start people where they can start. I specialize in art career maintenance. I have paid for a house/studio and car with my art. Teaching has given my art life great traction. When I embarked on the art adventure, I noticed that many of my distant mentors all were art instructors no matter how famous. The artists Charles White and Jacob Lawrence are my best examples. Teaching as an artist in residence has and does serve me very well.
Teaching is Learning
by Kim Werfel, Pittsboro, NC, USA
The art room of my childhood was a place where magic could happen. I adored my art teacher, Karen Hammer, for making me feel so special and encouraging the creative child within me. Hooked, I knew when I grew up I wanted to be just like her. I could think of no greater joy than to nurture the creative imaginations and self-esteem of children. My practical parents disagreed and I had to wait until my thirties to make my dream happen, when I could afford to put myself through school while working. It became my holy grail to become the sacred art teacher. When I got my first job as an elementary art teacher in NC, it was exhilarating, quite an eye-opener, especially coming from NY. I had to go against my quieter nature and be in front of a classroom – learn to take charge of a class, entertain, organize materials and presentations, work within a 45 minute period to make something happen and prove to myself and others I could pull this off. But the rewards were immeasurable! I was allowed to be a kid again too!
In teaching about art, color, texture and form and especially individual expression I allowed myself the same freedom. After about seven years of teaching K-8 and learning so much about life and art, I allowed myself to create some of my own work. Teaching was a passage I went through to legitimize my own ability. While I was encouraging children, I was also encouraging my own inner child again and re-experiencing my childhood joy.
Combating the energy drain
by Dorenda Crager Watson, Columbus, OH, USA
As a long-time teacher I get great satisfaction from the knowledge that I am reinforcing the idea of art as a supplement to a full and rewarding life. There is a downside, though, the absolute energy-sucking drain of all creativity when you get to your own studio!
I do two things to combat this:
1. When I teach, I don’t paint (for myself) and when I paint (for myself) I don’t teach. This has been life-changing in my approach to avoiding burn-out in my own art work, as well as in my teaching. I am a great believer in the saying “If you try to chase two rabbits, both will get away!” Focus is the key in doing excellence.
2. I teach what I want to learn. When I offer a class, instead of only passing my personal knowledge to the students, I regularly integrate lessons that I have yet to learn. This can include a new way of looking at color, a new technique for my medium of choice, or a new approach to a common method — anything to “stir the pot” of procedure. Many times I may “fail” at these lessons; however, I use this as a lesson for my students to be fearless in attempting the unfamiliar.
Teaching is talent shared
by Wayne Wright, Wyoming, USA
We need teachers and we need good ones. A talent is not a talent until it has been shared. If we are so blessed as to be an artist, shouldn’t we help someone just as someone helped us? I think that all artists could believe that in 50 years, a young student in a literature class could come across a poem that an artist wrote and it would make a strong impact in the student’s life. It is the same with paintings. We don’t know Monet, but we do know his work. Work is an artist’s legacy.
Artists can learn a lot from studying the great works. We can put that knowledge to work for us in some fashion or another. Then perhaps, 50 years down the road, we will be teaching someone in a manner which we have never dreamed possible.
Teaching the creative process
by Jeanean Songco Martin, Waynesboro, PA, USA
Teaching the new student how to take the retinal image and “transfer” it through the selective process to a work of art is very exciting. These things are both easy to teach and are essential. The creative process itself is not so easily presented. Why? It is because we are all individuals and we all reach our own creative potentials in many different ways. I agree that too many words and theories can be confusing and debilitating and can actually stifle the creative process. I do not agree with the comment “Seeds of doubt may be sown by knowing too much.” One can never ever know too much. Acquired knowledge is a cumulative process that should never end. As a young art student I soaked up as much as possible until I reached the bursting point upon graduation. The ensuing years involved personal discovery and the cold, hard reality of the studio. I have found that my inspiration for creating art comes from everywhere; my surroundings, my family, my environment, my past work and future aspirations. Regardless of how much information I have processed or how much knowledge of art materials or theories I possess, I always feel humble. I feel like a novice picking up the brush for the first time in front of a new canvas. “Blind energy” is a good thing. When one begins to paint, everything you know should disappear and the emotional side should take over.
Tale of two careers
by Richard Brown
It has been said, “Those who can, do, and those who cannot, teach.” That saying still boggles my mind. I spent the first thirty years of my career as an Art Director in the Advertising Agency business (doing) and the last fourteen years of my working career teaching Illustration and Graphic Design at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario — again by doing. Where did this negative idea come from?
I very much enjoyed both careers and always worked in a professional manner. In the advertising business it was the creative challenges that attracted me. In teaching, the creative challenge was giving of your gained knowledge to a body of young hopefuls eager to be a part of the advertising or graphic design process. There is great satisfaction in teaching and witnessing your students’ progress. Later, I witnessed when my graduates went to their first jobs and then reported that I was a part of their success. That’s satisfaction.
Education in America
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
I have been teaching art in the public schools of Oakland, California for 15 years. Each year the challenges seem more difficult. It has a lot to do with personal electronic devices. I have watched several plagues: The Walkman, the Disc-Man, the hand-held games, the cell phone, The MP3 player, the portable DVD player, and lately, “texting.”
Our school has a strong policy about all of these things, but in truth, it is a very difficult policy to enforce. One day about half my students seemed to be very sleepy. They all had one elbow on the table and were propping their heads up with a hand on an ear. As I looked more closely, I saw tiny wires running up their sleeves. When I walked around the class, I saw that my students were very proficient at palming the ear bud head phone out of their ears. None of these kids had been listening to m10 minute lecture/demonstration. Sometimes kids will pretend to draw with one hand while texting under the table.
An art teacher typically introduces a technique during the first few minutes of a class, a shading technique, for example. Then, the teacher walks around and concentrates on one student at a time, to see how each is doing. Day after day, I find that many of my students have been texting, or listening to rap music, or perhaps even watching a movie and have not heard a thing that I’ve said.
High school in America has degraded to the point that many, if not most, of my students cannot measure a line to a 1/4 inch tolerance. I have students who are six feet, four inches tall and cannot read a tape measure to confirm their height. Teaching high school is the saddest sorrow you can imagine. The only thing my students seem to have is a collective bad attitude. Who needs fractions if you are texting your girlfriend? We have 320 seniors at our school. Many of these kids are brilliant. We have 650 freshmen. Our drop-out rate is huge.
It is heartbreaking. I am sure that the stress involved has shortened my years of living on this planet. Why then am I involved in teaching? I’ve had several very great teachers in my life. I grew up in a poverty-stricken home. Art saved my life. I started to make money with art when I was sixteen. I retired from the museum field when I was 45. I began to teach, as a second career, because I still held a debt to my great art teachers in the public schools of California. Those few people saved my life. The tragedy of my life is that I have so very few students who can learn a whit from me. I am only involved because I am richer than I ever expected. Art has served me well. My students do not really care to learn the slightest thing. Not even the ruler.
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by Monica Kaminski Cavanagh, Ragland, NZ
Wearing the dual hat of art teacher and artist was a challenge for me during the years I taught and I would have agreed with Updike at that time. Creating sample work of watercolor, colored pencil, acrylics or charcoal left me with a longing for more, yet, there was never enough energy left to do so, especially with middle school students.
When I moved to New Zealand four years ago with my husband on a Fulbright scholarship, my longing days were over. Not only was the landscape amazingly gorgeous, the ocean, birds, the Maori people and a peace-loving country allowed my creativity the best adventure I could ever hope for. I had no excuses and came face to face with confronting a growing procrastination that developed from teaching full time in the states and saying to myself “I have no more energy left.”
I was delirious with creative time and no obligations. The energy bubble kept growing. But something was missing. I’m gregarious and missed teaching. Consequently, I got involved in the local community art center. For four years I was involved in a small group of people who, like sponges, soaked up all the knowledge I could give them. But, teaching was now different. It was more spontaneous, on my time terms and with adult students. We became close art friends who shared much. I learned that I had to become selective about who and what I taught to keep my energy level.
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Painting and talking
by Betty Billups, Sandpoint, ID, USA
One thing I always found was that when teaching, or talking, I could seldom paint. I have spent a long time trying to figure this out because there are many teachers who do both! I am not quite sure, but I think that artists who paint to somewhat of a “formula” can teach, talk and paint all at the same time.
I have never found a “formula” for anything that I paint! I know more or less the foundation for creating an image, but it is an ever-changing thing. There are a hundred answers to the same question! I am always on “the edge” when painting. I keep all of my preconceived ideas at the edge of my awareness so that whatever might come through is pure and hopefully original.
Although when talking and also trying to paint, I find myself in a horrible space of almost drowning! The two just do not seem to go together!! Creation is such an elusive thing, for the more we think we are in control, the more we remove ourselves from the actual creation.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Thoughts on teaching…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Garth Palanuk of Winnipeg, MB, Canada, who wrote, “It doesn’t take long for students to sense the ability of an instructor and to judge whether this is going to be a good experience or a bust. So prep, prep, prep.”
And also Kasey Harrington of Kingston, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Wonder and passion lose their power through dissection. Breaking the elements down and codifying them into various responses can be deadly. It is important for artists and writers, dancers alike, to keep their passion in check. Disenchantment is an unfortunate threat, but not an inevitable one.”
And also Michael Chesley Johnson who wrote, “Teaching is an essential form of payback. Most artists (including myself), owe a lot to our teachers and mentors. It’s only fair to take our knowledge and ‘pay it forward.'”
And also Paul de Marrais of Kentucky, USA, who wrote, “Contrary to the modernist dogma, painting is a brainy activity. Thinking, in my view, is always welcome at the easel. Teaching itself is an art form that rewards those who make the effort but it’s not for everyone.”
And also Lori Levin of Pennsville, NJ, USA, who wrote, “I used to go to a Saturday art class in a lovely small town when I was a kid. Whenever we students started talking too much, our teacher, Jim Repenning would say, ‘Less jaw more draw!’ ”
And also Mary Beth Frezon of Brainard, NY, USA, who wrote, “Wow. Did you see the big flash of light in the sky where my brain stopped and said ‘whoa’? This so totally explains why, as my own skills have improved during my time of teaching, my “desire” to actually do something of my own with those skills has faded. OK, time to pull in the reins a bit and as Updike said, teach myself.”