When our kids were small they were regularly stationwagonned over to our local Yamaha School of Music. There, in a well-trodden storefront they became minor masters of piano, guitar and the console of the mighty Yamaha. Before long, with glowing hearts, Carol and I decided it was time for them to appear in the Annual Yamaha Concert Event. In a huge rented venue, 150 kids demonstrated to parents, grandparents and various uncles and aunts the brilliance of the Yamaha method. We’d already filled our home with Yamaha products, so bringing our kids to the concert stage and amortizing our investment seemed the right thing to do.
After a torturous three hours of Fur Elise, Canon in G Major and Bach Inventions, we were treated to the much anticipated Awards Ceremonies. What blew us away was that every kid got an award–some of them pretty impressive. Even Billy Puffer, our neighbor’s kid, who had murdered Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to the point of audience tittering, found himself in possession of a brass object the size of a Volkswagen.
“Most improved student?” I wondered, cautiously. Nope. These kids got awards for merely trying, for merely showing up.
I’m writing to you while waiting for an inter-island ferry. My daughter, Sara, and I are returning from giving our first father/daughter workshop–38 marvelously keen students. As is my habit, at the end we gave a few insignificant but useful prizes to what we thought were the best seven paintings of the week. Consequently, most artists left our workshop without a prize, and Sara and I are starting to worry about it.
These folks had all paid the same fees, worked just as hard and turned out similar numbers of works. Some made remarkable improvement during the event. Sara and I just thought that the work of the few we chose was a bit more successful than the rest of the group.
What do you think? Some of our workshoppers had been painting for 30 years, only to be beaten out on the prizes by some upstart whippersnapper. Is there a possibility that we may have discouraged more than we encouraged? Is there a possibility that we gave false hope to some who might need to further mature?
Oh, and another thing — Billy Puffer now pulls the lever on the Sno-Cone machine at the Duke Point ferry terminal. He no longer plays the piano.
PS: “Prizes are nice, but the real competition is with your performance yesterday.” (Irwin Greenberg)
Esoterica: Our workshop was at a marvelous retreat called Hollyhock on Cortes Island, BC, Canada. Hollyhock offers an alternative lifestyle, vegetarian cuisine, a riot of gardens and pristine beaches with optional bathing in the buff. The whole thing was pretty spiritual. Sara and I maintained a workmanlike focus and brought diversity to the crits and instruction. We made people work hard. We’ll probably do it again — if we’re asked.
Hollyhock (Cortes Island) Workshop with Robert and Sara Genn, 2011
Something for everyone
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA
For some your prizes will be the one shining note in their entire painting career. For some, those who didn’t receive a prize, it will be the straw that finally ends the joy in painting for them, and for still yet a small fraction of others who didn’t get a prize they will strive to prove you wrong and perhaps go on to greater things. And, finally, some simply won’t care.
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Encouragement before praise
by Ann Caudle, Huntsville, AL, USA
When I attend a workshop, I try to put my way of painting away so I am open to what the instructor has to offer. I allow myself to try new or different ideas presented, even if they might be contrary to my current painting process. I might just learn something. As a result, my works produced in a workshop are seldom anything that I want others to see and critique. How can you grow as an artist if you keep doing the same thing you have always done? As a former teacher, I have learned that encouragement is more important than praise. Praise can limit a person’s willingness to try new things once the bar is set with the praise. What if they can’t do as well the next time they try?
For these reasons, I don’t think awards are appropriate at workshops. In competitions, I also don’t feel that everyone should get a prize. It reduces the value of the prize to the point that it no longer recognizes excellence. We only value what we work hard for. Self-esteem is earned, not handed out in a class.
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‘Teach Your Children Well’
by Dave Greene, Newton, NJ, USA
“Oh, and another thing — Billy Puffer now pulls the lever on the Sno-Cone machine at the Duke Point ferry terminal. He no longer plays the piano.”
How often do we ask our children what they really want to do in life? When (or if) that becomes known, how much support and encouragement do we as parents (or as a society) give to them? Is it possible that Billy is happy with his sno-cone machine job? Who would make the sno-cone if Billy didn’t? Wouldn’t it be fair to assume that Billy doesn’t find much reward in playing the piano because it’s something he (1.) has little or no interest in doing or (2.) had no encouragement or support or (3.) has no ability or talent in this area? Should I feel sorry for Billy or feel satisfied that he is a happy sno-cone artist? I have the guilty and conflicted feeling that I look down upon him and his occupation.
If we could only believe and promote the idea that the ‘joy is in the pursuit.’ Instead we seem to promote some relatively meaningless and redundant modes of competition, instant celebrity, wealth, and instant gratification. I think we’re all in need of some improved understanding about what matters. In the end, with art as with most other ‘products and services,’ it appears that what really matters is the ‘other guy,’ i.e. the customer – who is potentially ‘Everyman.’ If your work sells, you must be good and you must be pleasing some customers. If you have no interest in creating art, maybe you’ll be happy as a great sno-cone maker… as long as you and I can feel fulfilled somehow, that is important. It’s great that you and your daughter can co-op a workshop! Congratulations! Apparently, you have subscribed to the Crosby Stills and Nash proposition that you should ‘Teach Your Children Well.’
Self-esteem building blocks
by Dianne Bersea, Manson’s Landing, BC, Canada
I do concur that “prizes,” especially in a workshop situation, may do more harm than good. During a ‘gallery session’ (critique) in a recent workshop I facilitated, I became distracted by a participant’s sloppy presentation method making a rough edge to an otherwise very successful piece. I addressed the presentation issue then moved on to the next person’s work. She later told me that my failure to comment on the artwork itself left her with the impression that her work didn’t merit further discussion. Fortunately I was able to correct that message.
I’m acutely aware of the sensitivity of tyro creatives, especially in a setting like Hollyhock that emphasizes the spiritual path to growth. In my terms, that means developing self-confidence by positive support for each building block in the process. Regretfully this approach has received something of a battering lately with an attack on ‘self-esteem’ which has been charged with creating insensitive egoists. I am constantly reminding folks that ‘self-esteem’ is ‘respect for self and others.’ This is the foundation of empathy… and self-confidence. And the foundation of creative empowerment… the home of sensitive and accomplished artists, tyros and all.
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Getting on with it
by Helen Howes, Norfolk, England
I teach, and I find many students suffer from extremes of low self-esteem. In order to allow themselves to create, in any medium, they must get over this, at least a little. I don’t give prizes, but I do give praise, and I have never seen a piece of work so bad that I can’t say something reasonably good about it. That’s after all the corrections and critique, of course. I think that much of the problem with any art form is in the ‘getting on with it.’
Critiques more valuable than awards
by Kathleen Scott, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada
When I took my art degree, less than ten years ago, I repeatedly got awards. Enough to alienate many of my fellow students. By my third year I realized, it is not talent that got the paintings sold at our student art exhibits, it was the students who also had an inner car salesman.
An ‘A+’ often came with the ability to ‘sell’ the teacher on why the painting was painted that way during a critique. I played that game, but not as good as some. I started pin pointing who I thought I would make it in the arts by how they presented themselves and their art. They were convincing, engaging, had an extrovert side in some form, and usually were somewhat eccentric.
I was often told by my teachers I had, ‘it.’ It is great to have ‘it,’ but ‘it’ doesn’t make an artist great or successful. Dedication, devotion, and a desire that is above the rest of what life has to offer is what seems to make an artist, an artist of note. I have yet to achieve that in spite of all the awards or the Honours Degrees I have. So far, I have managed to stay employed in the arts. I promote and sell the works of others, and occasionally have the opportunity to promote myself. It is so much easier for me to sell other artists than to sell myself. For them, I make a great car saleswoman. They really appreciate how good I am at hanging their shows and making their work look its best. On top of that, I can convey their personality to potential buyers in their absence. I have a great ‘it,’ but it is not exactly the one that got me awards.
In the arts, awards are deceptive. They bolster someone for a moment and paying attention for only a moment is a waste. On the other side of the room may be a person still struggling, just because it is so important to them that their left brain is interfering with the process, but they may be hungry enough to keep at it for a lifetime and get past all that. Who can guess if either of those artists have the ego strength to sell themselves.
Critiques are much more of value. If someone tells you, “That effect works wonders, keep working with it,” you know what to focus on. In turn, if they say, “Nice use of colour, but there is no movement or action in this scene, it seems a bit flat,” you know what to work on. I’d take a good critique over an award any day.
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Juror declines all prize-giving
by Richard Nelson, Maui, HI, USA
I’ve done a few workshops and juried many exhibits, including the Northwest Watercolor Show in Seattle, WA. On that occasion, as with most such shows, we three jurors were asked to pick the prize winners. And as with all the shows I’ve juried, I respectfully declined. Why? Well, I could judge a track meet where there are clear winners in each event. Sprinters ran the 100 yard dash, milers competed for endurance and each of the other events were judged by similar attributes. But how could I justify giving a prize for the best track performance of the day when they’re all competing in different events?
Similarly, if all the artists in an exhibit were painting the same subject, according to set guidelines for interpretation, medium, size, composition, etc., selection for “Best in Show” might be possible. For those in need of a trophy for validation, I suggest more than a glance in that mirror.
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Why risk alienating students?
by Tom Bailey, MA, USA
I accept your point that ‘awards’ are too often offered as door-prizes rather than as proof of an earned honor. But I think that applies mainly to shows and juried events, not to classes. I’m assuming that your workshop was designed as a learning experience for committed students. I think ‘prizes’ based on the ‘success’ of finished pieces are inherently counterproductive.
When I commit to a class or workshop, I deliberately leave my previous ‘comfort zone’ and stow the habits and skills I may have developed previously at the door. I am there to learn NEW things. I force myself to apply what is being taught, even if the exact style or technique is something I will choose to not use later in my own work. My bumbling attempts during class are only tiny first steps. I expect that. I may repeat the same lesson in many ways with none of them reaching full fruition as a finished piece of art. They are probably painful to look at — like the sounds from a first-time trumpet student are difficult to hear… even if, outside of class, that student is a virtuoso pianist.
I give up what I know ‘works’ to try something that may or may not improve my art. The results achieved during the workshop itself are rarely pretty… and almost never lead to complete works. But I always learn a boatload of new, useable information that I take home and use. Maybe those new skills will lead to awards, later.
But I would not want to receive (or, worse, worry about not receiving) awards during the class. I have seen too many ‘students’ ignore the lessons being offered right in front of them. They spend a week and good money to merely continue doing what they would have done if they’d never attended the class at all. They waste a huge, rare opportunity to learn from renowned artists. Instead, their goal seems to be to show off what they can already do and perhaps get a dollop of praise for their work. (Ironically, the problem seems to be proportional to the fame of the teacher). Awards would only compound the pressure as students ‘study to the test.’ And, on a purely business level: why risk alienating the students, your clients, who don’t get an award?
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Competition builds the wrong kind of character
by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada
I am dead against competition within the arts. Actually, I’m against competition anywhere that it can be avoided as it is energy spent moving in a wrong direction. Although I don’t expect it will ever happen, try to imagine a world where we teach children to work together creatively and cooperatively for the good of all, rather than teaching them that competition and winning are what life is all about.
Competition in the arts especially, is to me, a complete travesty. What’s the point of creating more opportunities for people to feel like losers? I had been thinking along these lines for many years when I stumbled across Alfi Kohn’s books, No Contest and, Punished by Rewards.
I highly recommend them if these sort of thoughts have ever crossed your mind. There’s been plenty of research done on the actual effects of competition. Competition builds character? Yes it does; aggressive character. There’s a better way.
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Keep on giving prizes
by Jaana Woiceshyn, Calgary, AB, Canada
Meritocracy trumps egalitarianism, always. Giving praise, and prizes, to those who objectively deserve them, benefits all — including those who did not receive them. (By “objectively deserving” I mean that you can justify the prize by explicit criteria — which do not include the recipient’s good looks or hard work). By giving praise/prizes we encourage those who create values (such as good paintings) to create more, and to improve. (And if they stop creating and improving, their art will be less valuable, and they will suffer.) We all stand to benefit from more good — and better — art being created, as viewers, collectors, or students of art.
As for those who did not receive praise/prizes: it can be temporarily disappointing, but if they are objective, they will ask: how can I improve? How can I create better art? And then they strive to improve as well. Isn’t that what it is all about, creating good, and better, art? We don’t paint in order to receive prizes — but if we do, it’s a nice bonus, a recognition — if the prize is deserved, that is. Receiving a prize you know you did not deserve is worse than not receiving one: if you are objective, you realize that your painting was not as good as those of some of the other prize recipients. You feel embarrassed because you realize that the giver of the prize was motivated by “fairness,” or worse, by pity — and you lose respect for the giver of the prize. And if you are not objective, you may pretend that your painting is as good — and stop striving to improve.
Each semester I give a prize to the top student in each of my courses (I teach competitive strategy in a business school). Most students are motivated by the prize and strive to achieve it. (Last semester, one of the winners was an average student who set her mind to achieving the award — and excelled in my course). But every now and then, I get feedback from a student who says that giving such prizes is discriminatory and unfair, that everyone should get one, or at least the winner shouldn’t be announced publicly. I ignore such feedback. It is based on the destructive philosophy of egalitarianism — which kills motivation and achievement and thus harms us all.
So please keep giving prizes to your best students!
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by Yasmeen Strang, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye nor thank you. So here it is… thank you for a wonderful workshop. I really enjoyed myself and feel like I’ve come home with a new perspective and some really great insights. I would love to do it again so please keep me in the loop.
Here are my top ten things that I learned at Hollyhock:
10. Look three times. Think twice. Paint once.
9. Humming like a bee is cool.
8. Load your brush.
7. Veggies make me feel good.
6. Life is a gift. Art is a gift. Be grateful.
5. Blue glazes.
4. Stop apologizing.
3. Fathers and daughters can be pals.
2. The greatest gift you can give to the world is to be your most awesome self.
1. Go to your room.
(RG note) Thanks, Yasmeen. And thanks to all the others from the Hollyhock Workshop who took the time to write to Sara and me. It seems the weather, the location and the enthusiastic spirit all contrived to make it a truly memorable event. It’s our sincere wish that everyone loaded up, not just their brushes, but with fresh inspiration, new techniques and greater vision toward a stellar future.
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