The unschooling of art

Dear Artist, “Unschooling” is an educational philosophy and practice that allows children to learn through natural life experiences. Play, games, fantasy, hobbies and social interaction are supposed to take the place of traditional schools. The theory is that current curricula and grading systems are counterproductive to the goal of a broad education. The term “unschooling” was coined in the 1970s by educator John Holt. It’s not to be confused with “homeschooling” where kids are taught standard curricula by parents. Critics of unschooling have concerns that unschooled children will lack social skills, structure, and motivation — especially in the job market. Proponents of unschooling maintain the exact opposite — a self-directed education in a natural environment makes a child more equipped to handle the real world. Many of us run our creative lives like unschooled kids. We work for joy, go here and there, treat our work as a hobby, indulge in wishful thinking, and have lots of social interaction. The question is — if unschooling is so effective and superior, how come there aren’t more brilliant artists around? More to the point, how come there’s so much substandard art out there? Further, what type of education makes for superior art? Fact is, great art comes from both the schooled and the unschooled. It may have more to do with the old business of “character.” In our game, character is the confluence of four virtues: high motivation, high curiosity, high work habits and high ego force. Funnily, among the folks I compete with, those four virtues are most often found among the unschooled. Another interesting aspect of unschooling has to do with credentialism. Unschooled folks enter the jobosphere uncredentialled. They may have no degree, affiliation or parchment to back up their capabilities. Recent studies in the field of medicine, of all places, have revealed a few surprises. In some cases, the least credentialed doctors had the best human skills, on-the-job learning capabilities, and most success with treating patient maladies. In my case anyway, I’m not quite ready to allow a non-credentialed proctologist to practice proctology on my precious proctor. Best regards, Robert PS: “What makes people smart, curious, alert, observant, competent, confident, resourceful, persistent — is not having access to more and more learning places, resources, and specialists, but being able in their lives to do a wide variety of interesting things that matter, things that challenge their ingenuity, skill, and judgment, and that make an obvious difference in their lives and the lives of people around them.” (John Holt) Esoterica: In measuring yourself for those four virtues — motivation, curiosity, work habits and ego force — you can get an idea how your own chances stack up. Then again you might just become a roaring success by being lackadaisical, ignorant, lazy and without confidence. In the funny game we call art, it’s been done. Regarding ego force, we don’t always like people who have it. If you have it, and need to be liked, you ought to consider letting most of it come out the end of your brush.   Appreciation of John Holt by Ellen Shipley, Santa Clarita, CA, USA  

“Mother Nature welcomes Thorprint”
by Ellen Shipley

We loved John Holt. My husband and I read all his books and even contributed occasionally to his newsletter, “Growing without Schooling.” We unschooled our son, augmenting his public school education with life experiences and trips to museums. We followed his interests, much as we follow our own. He didn’t turn into a painter, but he’s a poet and a musician. We owe so much to John Holt’s teachings.       Unschooled and unskilled art
by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia  

“Waymouth reflections”
mixed media
by Mike Barr

I suppose there are many unschooled artists who have made it big time, through lots of brush time, determination and of course a passion for what they do. I think it is unskilled art that is the most frustrating. The dark, unfathomable, grotesque, ordinary and totally unskilled art seems to get the nod today. The art world has become the modern day version of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” story on a grand scale and the voices against it are few.         There are 4 comments for Unschooled and unskilled art by Mike Barr
From: Les Ducak — May 06, 2011

It is the phenomena I can’t understand: why are the voices against ” the dark, grotesque,ordinary and totally unskilled art” so few? Perhaps we have become victims of loud voices screaming for all-inclusiveness. Your painting is stunning in it’s execution.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — May 07, 2011

Hi Mike! I love that wet pavement! I can just feel the rain. I am originally from SA, and am most intrigued — where is Elizabeth East — somewhere between Port Elizabeth and East London? ;-) Your comment is topical, seeing that the world’s worst art joke is currently being decided: who wins the Turner Art prize this year?

From: Mike Barr — May 07, 2011

Yes Les, its all about partipation now instead of striving for excellence.

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — May 09, 2011

Oh, now I feel a right eejit. I see you’ve changed “SA” to “South Australia”. Scuse me for jumping to conclusions. ;-)

  The brilliance of unschooling by Steve Sedam, Murrieta, CA, USA  

original painting
by Steve Sedam

As an artist, printer, designer, and father of two unschooled children, I took an interest in your topic, “The unschooling of art” — and took umbrage with your characterization of unschooled kids. Your initial description of the philosophy behind unschooling was right on the money, but your follow-up misses the mark. You state, “Many of us run our creative lives like unschooled kids. We work for joy, go here and there, treat our work as a hobby, indulge in wishful thinking, and have lots of social interaction.” Yes, unschoolers work for joy, but you imply that otherwise, unschooled kids run their lives like dabbling, unserious Sunday painters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unschooling provides for kids to find their talents early, build them and focus on becoming experts in what they do best. Unencumbered by time-wasting, soul-sucking requirements of the failed educational system, they blossom into individuals who are curious, sensitive, and intelligent, who pursue their interests with deep passion and persistence. They are the avante-garde, the innovators, inventors and authors who have marked our culture. They are the DaVincis and Edisons of their day. In fact, take DaVinci as an example — one out of so many cultural figures we would now describe as “unschooled.” Apprenticed at a young age, he lacked what we would today consider a “well-rounded” education — but he learned his craft and his genius was allowed to blossom. And no one cares what his SAT scores might have been. There is 1 comment for The brilliance of unschooling by Steve Sedam
From: MARTI — May 09, 2011

I agree with you……..we unschooled our six children and they were so surprised when they went to college and found that people took classes just for a grade and not for interest. They still love to learn and we still have the encyclopedias by the dinner table to be used in dinner conversations…….unschooling was the best for our family.

  Uninhibited and unguided by Lynda Davison, Covington, TN, USA  

acrylic painting
by Lynda Davison

I am one who falls into the “following your nose” category of artists. Never had lessons, never refer to a color wheel, I don’t “draw,” I don’t “blow up” images from photos and paint them, I can’t name many artists or styles. I just put the paint on the canvas as my nose leads me. I like to think it lets me be free to “explore” art as I go uninhibited, unguided, and all over the place. I began painting about seven years ago to prepare for retirement, knew I would need some type of creative outlet. Now having been retired for two years, art is at least a part of my day — every day. Unschooled — but I guess it works for me.     There are 4 comments for Uninhibited and unguided by Lynda Davison
From: Anonymous — May 06, 2011

It definetly works for you!! I see so much hard edged art copied from photos, I wonder where is the creativity in that?? Keep up the great soft edged work.

From: Lynda Davison — May 06, 2011

Thank you so much :) Encouragement is always welcome!

From: Marie B.Pinschmidt — May 06, 2011

Great job, Lynda. Keep following your nose.

From: Lynda Davison — May 07, 2011

Thanks very much, Marie :) So far, so good -so I will, lol.

  Experiential education by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France  

“Blue Circles of Light”
original painting
by Jeffrey Hessing

Having spent most of high school in the boys bathroom, which was populated with budding artists poets and singers, and having graduated from University without ever reading a book (I have made up for lost time in that respect), I am an ardent unschooler. The traditional approach in school is the opposite of creative. We are taught to please other people and to integrate their standards of good and bad, right and wrong and to match them. We are taught that mistakes are bad and learn to fear making them. We learn to do the right thing, give the right answer. This is true even in art school. But in art there is no right answer. There are no rules. For every rule of color harmony, composition or perspective I can show you a great artist who broke it. Once, say in the 1950s, completing school was an almost certain guarantee for finding a job. This is no longer the case. No one is sure of getting a job after graduation and there is a very low percentage of people who actually work in the field they studied in University. One can learn to be a good or competent artist in school but no form of education will teach how to be a great one. How do you teach someone to bear their soul, or even to be in close touch with it? It takes a lifetime and, unlike most disciplines which become easier with time, painting becomes harder as you go on in life. Harder to go forward, and deeper, to evolve in an organic and sincere way. One reason that there are not more artists in spite of the number of students spewing out of art schools each year is that they are not equipped for life as a professional artist. It takes tremendous courage and faith to live and work hard with no security and often little or no respect and recognition. It takes a level of creativity equal or above that which goes into the painting to live as an artist. Re high ego: This is probably helpful on the marketing side and we see it in artists who rise to the top, but in my personal experience the creative drive comes from damaged egos. It is a search for love and acceptance for individuals who feel unworthy. This feeling of unworthiness and need for love cannot be satisfied by one person. The artist seeks (subconsciously sometimes), acknowledgement from the entire planet and for all time; to enter into the history of art. Finally it would be nice to have a more positive name for the process than ‘unschooling’ like “experiential education.” (RG note) Thanks, Jeffrey. In fact, a term now often used is “experience-based learning.” There are 5 comments for Experiential education by Jeffrey Hessing
From: Mark Nakell — May 06, 2011

“bare their soul”

From: Maggie — May 06, 2011

Maybe he meant “bear their soul.” Growl.

From: Ellen Shipley — May 06, 2011

Damaged egos. Oh, that’s so right on.

From: Laura — May 06, 2011

I strongly disagree with the ego comment. People, don’t try the get “damaged” in order to be creative. If you happen to be healthy, enjoy your luck and know that you can be a great artist! Your good health (body, mind or ego) is not going to prevent you from that.

From: Rick Rotante — May 06, 2011

Jeffery – you saved me an hour of writing. I agree wholeheartedly and second you comments.

  But where do we get the rules? by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA  

“Touch of Green”
pastel painting
by Paul DeMarrais

I was asked to judge a show yesterday at a gallery. The artists belonged to a local art group. This was my first judging experience and I was a bit apprehensive. I felt the need to put aside some of my bias and be more open as less ‘judgmental.’ Odd how that works! Looking at a hundred paintings in an amazing conglomeration of styles, I was struck by how primitive many of the paintings looked. There was certainly not an excess of schooling going on. I thought about all the ‘rules’ that were broken, all the design ideas not considered, all of these limitations that would have been helpful in upgrading the final results. It made me consider the value of the rules and ideas of painting. Knowing the rules hasn’t crippled me but NOT knowing them didn’t appear to be helpful. There are 4 comments for But where do we get the rules? by Paul deMarrais
From: Rick Rotante — May 06, 2011

Again, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve judged shows and the only option I’m ultimately left with is to pick the least objectionable works submitted. I am very leery of accepting invitations to visit shows of artists for fear that they will ask me to comment on their work. I’m running out of things to say, and not get into hot water. I know this comes off as arrogant, but, be honest, there is little in the way of real art at the local level. Training may be looked upon as irrelevant in art and this is evident in the quality of work out there.

From: Anon — May 07, 2011

“little talent at the local level”…Hmm, one would think that every artist probably started at the “local level” – unless they were just born into an “art circle” of some type? Where did you start, Rick? and were you an instant success? Again, training doesn’t guarantee an artist will be good, and the quality of some “trained” artist’s work is often just as poor…

From: anon — May 07, 2011

hey anon – are you one of these?

From: Anon — May 07, 2011

on of “these” whats? lol 1. an art judge 2.arrogant 3.local talent 4.trained

  Running the gauntlet of art school by Cindee Moyer, IA, USA  

“Indian Summer”
mixed media
by Cindee Moyer

I was an art school student in the ’70s when that ‘unschooling’ became popular. Looking back, I feel I missed out on some much needed ‘schooling’! As a painting major, I recall my very first painting class. We were told to ‘paint.’ Arghhh… what? With what? And why? Looking around the room I watched as everyone else seemed to dive in confidently. I had honestly expected some instruction (whatever was I thinking?). My first painting began as a Gibson Girl portrait because that’s what I was interested in at the time and my instructor walked up to me and said, literally, “What the hell is that?” Hmmm. I guess I wasn’t supposed to paint that. He walked away and I began to scrape up oil paint with my palette knife and began letting my frustrations slam onto the canvas in living color. He loved it!! And thus began my first semester as a palette knife painter. The colors were beautiful I have to say. Alas, second semester, new instructor, new painting style. It was all about the grade and I seemed to gravitate toward a second painting style to survive. I did learn one thing. I never would have tried the palette knife if he had even said, ‘I don’t hate it.” He challenged me to go outside my comfort zone even though I didn’t know it at the time and all because I wanted that approval. Today, although approval is great, it is my own satisfaction with the end result that I measure. By the way, I don’t paint any more, I make dolls. There are 2 comments for Running the gauntlet of art school by Cindee Moyer
From: linda mallery — May 06, 2011

She is spectacular!

From: Jan Ross — May 06, 2011

Having been schooled at an art ‘academy’,where the instructors were all professional artists, not college professors, I NEVER heard a comment such as the one made by your instructor! How can one pursue any new endeavor with such negative messages floating in her head? Your instructor obviously lacked tact. You also learned how NOT to teach or comment on someone’s art. Your piece, Indian Summer is lovely, so it’s great you’re still enjoying your creativity.

  Schooling the social skills by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA  

“Offshore Platform”
acrylic painting
by Liz Reday

It wasn’t until I was forced to learn about developmental disabilities that I became aware of the importance of social skills. This is not something you learn from being schooled or unschooled, it’s something you’re born with. Children along the autistic spectrum have only one thing in common, lack of social skills, but if they are diagnosed in a timely fashion, they can improve this function. It doesn’t matter if you have good work habits, curiosity, talent, intelligence and a five star education, without social skills you will never reach any success in your chosen field, (with the exception of the remarkable Temple Grandin). We’ve all read about the wildly successful business geezer who flunked out of high school but somehow managed to put together a multi-billion dollar business empire. We’ve also read about the starving artist who worked as a busboy in the N.Y. restaurant frequented by blue-chip artists and ended up becoming one himself. These people have excellent social skills and are able to persuasively put themselves across to the people that count. Why does this matter to artists? I submit that the artist who gets out of the studio and connects with galleries, art dealers, famous collectors and makes himself a likable character in a genuine way, stands more of a chance of success than the introverted but wildly talented artist who doesn’t like socializing. I sympathize. I find it extremely draining to stand in a gallery where I don’t know anyone and make small talk with whoever passes by. But I’ve seen successful artists in action, and they appear to enjoy the attention, and more importantly, they seem to effortlessly connect with the folks that matter. They seem to have a built-in navigation device to attract the politically powerful, the socially prominent, the gallery movers and shakers. Whether you are in school or not, your ability to socialize with the folks on the top of the totem pole is more important than all the talent in the world. Where do we learn how and when to talk about our art? How can we pick up on the subtle body language and the innumerable social cues amongst the swirling mass of humanity at a big gallery opening? How can we come across as a genuine person and not as a smarmy salesman who repeats the other person’s name so many times you want to scream? Why are some people so magnetic when they’re just standing there saying nothing? What kind of school is going to teach us this stuff? There are 3 comments for Schooling the social skills by Liz Reday
From: Jim Carpenter — May 06, 2011

Hmmmm, maybe we need to go to those openings and *study* the demeanor of the artist and see how he/she attracts the wealthy moths to his flame. Learning through observation! Then practice. :-)

From: Rick Rotante — May 06, 2011

Liz -forgive me for missing you opening. I, for one, can talk with the best of them. In fact, take any side in an argument and I would take the opposite side just for fun. But, when all is said and done, I would rather have an agent make all my appearances for me. I hate being at my openings. Seeing friends is great, but I’d rather be home working on the next show. I know the importance of “being there” But I’d rather forgo the experience and trivialities of silly conversations by those who know little but want the attention.

From: PainterWoman — May 06, 2011

Good point(s). Sometimes I think art assessment and popularity (especially locally produced) has as much to do with who knew who as it does with the work itself. But that might just be sour grapes… didn’t make the jury hurdles in my first foray into a “show.”

  Report of a successful unschooler by Gail Nagasako, HI, USA   I enjoyed this piece but need to give you a little more input on “unschooling.” I unschooled our son — he only attended school for 1 1/2 years in high school, mostly because if he didn’t then he wouldn’t have the experience of school at all and we both felt it was something he’d want to have experienced. He got a 3.8 GPA while there (a B in a class that he did a sloppy job on the busy work). But what I want to share is that unschooling is not the same as “just work for joy, go here and there, treat our work as a hobby, indulge in wishful thinking, and have lots of social interaction.” It is about experimenting, finding your passion, having the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, to indulge in a much wider variety of activities than schooling would permit and to participate in schooling when that serves your need. You ask, “The question is — if unschooling is so effective and superior, how come there aren’t more brilliant artists around?” The answer to that is that perhaps these people probably are products of the school system and have lost that natural curiosity and intense passion that young children have. Ever notice how kids “binge” — they are really into one thing for a short or long time and then another. But in school, we are pushed to do an hour of this and an hour of that all day. So we become dilettantes. Those “unschooling” artists are likely just spending their hour doing art, and then on to something else. Our son was into bodyboarding and rollerblading and became a professional rollerblader, competing in X-games, Gravity Games, and competitions all over the US and in Europe and Moscow last year. He only placed out of the top ten in the world once because he had an injury. Otherwise he’s been in the top 5-8 worldwide since turning pro 10 years ago. But he also found a passion for videography filming his skating. Now he is a very in-demand videographer, doing mostly high end weddings but also music videos, executive events, Xterra, segments for TV and real estate tours. His websites are below: See how unschooling works. I hope this helps clear up the reputation of us real unschoolers.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The unschooling of art

From: Marvin Humphrey, Napa Valley — May 02, 2011

Yes, the best art comes from personal enthusiasm, which can’t be directly taught. And no, I wouldn’t gamble with MY proctor, either.

From: joe yeno — May 02, 2011

education has produced some of the worst art i have ever seen. it is no wonder since so many art teachers turn out such moribund and poorly executed trash i can’t understand how they graduated college with an art degree. don’t mistake education for raw talent.

education is NO substitute for HARD WORK and devotion and never giving up until you have done your best to produce the best you are capable of. if you are lazy and dull witted you are sure to make junk,education or no!!! this is where we find ourselves today in many cases and in many life pursuits besides art. there are a lot of button pushers seeking instant gratification out there . anyone who knows success knows there is no “easy way ” only constant searching and striving to be the best at what you do not to get some stupid piece of paper on a wall. i don’t know what is worse ,art patrons who need to be told by someone that art is”good” before they will buy it or galleries that pedal junk and get away with it or people with art degrees who are really only idiots with a sheepskin on the wall to whom creativity is an anathema .
From: Susan Holland — May 02, 2011

When my son was six (in the 70’s) we were invited to an Open Schooling meeting where I was encouraged to enroll him in a special class at the public school. We visited two possible classes, one traditional and the other “open.” The scene inside the open classroom was like an old Bendix washer! The scene inside the traditional classroom was orderly, quiet, and serene, with the students actually sitting at desks working on assignments. We chose the latter. My son is one of the most creative people I know, with the quality of high work habits being very much present. His freedom with the other three is obvious —  entrepreneurial, and inventive, his business(es) have not yet foundered in the economical downturn. They are art and furniture design businesses, I might add.

From: Darla — May 03, 2011

Regimented education can be soul-killing, as anyone knows who has sat through an interminable class where no one wanted to be there, even the teacher!

But unschooling confuses ignorance with freedom. Surely most of us need some education in order to live in the world and have a career. Sadly, an art degree doesn’t mean you actually learned anything about art. A real art education would include color and value theory and practice, lots of drawing and painting, art history, business, marketing and current events in art. Oh, and practical tips on painting in different media. That kind of education makes you more free, because you learn what’s possible and don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
From: Rene Wojcik — May 03, 2011

Unschooled is basically saying unstructured. Eventually unstructured gives way to structure. Structure comes from schooling by a teacher, a mentor or can be self-taught. You have to have someone in your life that can provide you direction and structure in order to give you a chance to become a success. However, if you don’t have some inner talent, a calling, desire, ability to focus, enthusiasm, drive, ego, etc. you will have a difficult time in life or in art.

From: LD Tennessee — May 03, 2011

Your one statement sums it up, “Fact is, great art comes from both the schooled and the unschooled.” As for the addition of those virtues (character), they still can lead to “sustandard” art…so it’s back to square one,lol.

“Art” is a puzzle that will never be solved. Your tons of writings and all the individual responses are testament to that, lol.
From: Robert Redus — May 03, 2011

Good morning Robert…no doubt education has not only produced the best but also the worst, and if education is being used as the device that does or does not define an artist we are in a sad state. Your “four virtues”, merely says what it takes to be in the game, and in the game with true intention. An artist with a good education yet no talent or ability, who incorrectly aligns the education as proof of artistic skills…is no different than a talented self taught artist who refuses to enhance their skill with education and knowledge in art history, techniques and the information from those that are genuinely great vessels of information, because thy don’t need it. I went to art school, the very best thing I did, as my desire was to shorten the academic learning curve/process…expand the possibilities that academia had to offer, yet still pursue what were my interests. As Ernest Dimnet said, “Children have to be educated, but they have also to be left to educate themselves.”

From: Jackie Knott — May 03, 2011

Humans are creative beings regardless how they are educated. We are also individuals – some are better suited to structure and others thrive with more freedom. No one method is universal and our educational system (US) drowns in it. The two young men who founded yahoo, Jerry Yang and David Filo, credit their Montessori schooling as young children for their success.

The one common characteristic of all successful people is vision, and some have a greater ability to see beyond the norm than others, and that is especially true in art. We have a glut of artists because of human creativity – instead of art, another interest that applies the attributes of an artist might better be considered as a vocation. I’m convinced a lot of students elect art as their major because they haven’t a clue what they want to do with their lives. Art is not something you do for lack of intellectual curiousity: it not a casual undertaking but an all consuming interest. Poor work habits are the scourge of any endeavor. If you can’t make yourself go to the studio every day another vocation wherein you are told what to do might be a better fit. Part of college is getting up and making an 8a class, not necessarily what you learn when you get there. Above all, an artist never ever stops exploring and learning.
From: Patricia Kambitsch — May 03, 2011
From: Doreen Flanagan — May 03, 2011

I really enjoyed the video you attached to your last letter Painting as Tribute. I think it is the best one you have done to date. (Maybe I have not seen them all). I am particularly interested in your choice of the music that was used. It really gave me that feeling of deja vu as I watched the painting unfold. It was beautifully played as well, and I have sent the video to my music teacher who also loves art. Doreen Flanagan

From: Ellen Cuppen — May 03, 2011

I loved watching the Video Painting as Tribute and the tranquil way it was filmed. The resultant painting was just what you described so vividly. The scan showed so much that could be painted.”

From: Julia — May 03, 2011

I am not sure how much artistry, imagination and self expression is in a proctology, but for sure there is a lot schooling, practice and credentials behind it!!! In art education is important for sure. Should student of Salvador Dali paint like Salvador Dali? Is this a credential we are looking for?

Illustrators, graphic designers need to submit portfolio when applying for work – school diploma is not enough. I guess when in need to employ an artist for a particular job credentials might be important for some people. Art collectors especially those who just start their “investing in art” adventure can be mesmerized by big names of teachers and schools. True artist learn how to see and present it’s own vision during lifetime and no school, no teacher, no method can do that. Skills are important and most can be thought, but the real artistry stem out from the psyche of individual. I am in favor of basic training – drawing, perspective, composition, design, tools and tips, safety everything else is passion and self actualisation. So if i am going to invest thousands in a painting i want to make sure the value will increase = older and established artists (Real Estate) . If i am going to buy a decoration for my home i look for splendid painting i love and great price = younger and less established artist (GIC). Looking to some possibility in investment = middle point career artist and damn good research. (Stock Market or Mutual Funds). My conclusion: Proctologist needs left brain solid experience, education, credentials and references – Artist needs portfolio and CV – everything else is an icing on the cake.
From: Arnold K. King — May 03, 2011

Robert’s letters are the ultimate in dialectic. This one is a good example. It is a dialogue between two people and points of view within the one person, with the ideas and opposing views just laid out for examination. Robert’s idea is to prod people, particularly creative people, to think about certain issues. This lively and intelligent forum is the result. I particularly look forward to these responses.

From: Evangeline Munns — May 03, 2011

A lovely sensitive, beautiful video—I love your thinking and your art

King city, Ontario, Canada
From: Dane Smith — May 03, 2011

Painting as tribute was enjoyable to me as it helped me to stop trying to make every thing perfect per se. stop looking and starting seeing what is in the background the subtle colors, the history, try to capture the variations in color, loosen up, I have trouble there, make the colors more subtle, try to capture the smell in the air. watch the shadows.

From: Ellen Shipley — May 03, 2011
From: Nella De Luca Lush — May 03, 2011

I so much enjoy your letters. Being able to find exactly the right thing when it is needed. As artists we have few things in common, it is a universal language. To listen to ourselves is a skill much more difficult than to listen to an instructor and do exactly as he says, individualism is our main goal and it comes with a price. I say that to be a good artist we need to say goodbye to hear and stay true to ourselves! Thank you for always providing food for our thoughts, ciao.

From: Marney Ward — May 03, 2011

Today was Election Day in Canada and in my riding just north of Victoria, BC, we elected Elizabeth May, leader of the Green (environmental) Party of Canada. She is the first Green Party candidate to be elected in North America, and as she is the only elected member of the Green Party, their party also has the highest percentage of women elected, 100%! She came out with a great quote that seems relevant to the whole schooled/unschooled issue. “Amateurs built the Ark; Professionals built the Titanic.” Touche.

From: Jeanne Long — May 03, 2011

Though I agree with much of what you say in this post, I must disagree with the part about “high ego force” and the creation of great art. Time and again, one hears artists’ descriptions of a state where the ego falls away and an incredible work of art comes through them, not from them. Consequently, one might conclude that great art is the result of the absence of ego, and, as you say, may come forth from either the schooled or the unschooled, depending on that person’s grace in transcending their ego.

From: Claudia Roulier — May 03, 2011

Robert, I think that the hardest teachers I had in school, the ones who expected high quality work, the ones who made your knees shake in the critique were the ones I worked the hardest for, were my best teachers. Unfortunately today, since we can’t criticize art since everything some one makes is art and we are not to judge others art. That is the biggest pile of baloney I have ever heard …..we all judge each others work, maybe some honesty (not brutal or mean) is needed.

From: Murray Van Halem — May 03, 2011

A little girl asks her father what he does all day when he goes to work. He says, “I go to the college and teach adults how to draw and paint”. In astonishment the little girl says, “You mean they’ve forgotten already!”

From: Alex Nodopaka — May 03, 2011

I enjoyed your erudite article on un-schooling. As you said so humorously, it is hard to beat an experienced fingering job up your proctor.

Personally I have tried to de-school myself from academically learned bad habits, but to this day, except for my sculpturing I haven’t been able to achieve the heights of Klee or Kandinsky and that’s probably because of fear of success. That fear prevents me from being discovered. I mean give me a break, stick people worth millions? Well, that’s what it would take to de-school oneself and to come up with a counterpart to Constructivism since Deconstructivism has already been invented or Drip-ism in which J. Pollock and S. Francis have excelled. So how about Procto-logism?
From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — May 03, 2011

This could have been the only thing you wrote today:

“Regarding ego force, we don’t always like people who have it. If you have it, and need to be liked, you ought to consider letting most of it come out the end of your brush.” Loved it, made my day! Works even for those of us who don’t particularly need to be liked.
From: Susan Warner — May 03, 2011

How I LOVE reading your letters! It is a joy to read the language so beautifully put and with humor thrown in to boot! Particularly the sentence referring to your “proctologist”!

I STRIVE to blend the confluence of the four virtues as you described them. And I will remember to let the “ego force” come out at the end of my Brush!
From: Eddie Tok — May 03, 2011

“In my case anyway, I’m not quite ready to allow a non-credentialed proctologist to practice proctology on my precious proctor.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s : proctor-supervisor, monitor: one appointed to supervise students (as at an examination), so proctor with the meaning of anus does not exist. Πρωκτός is the equivalent word of anus in Greek.
From: April Riley — May 03, 2011

I loved the video you did on Tribute to Painting. Please do more of these. Also, you have a wonderful speaking voice and listening to your narration was melodic.
From: Gavin Logan — May 03, 2011

And then there was the fellow, when asked what he was going to do in Las Vegas, replied, “Sit on my proctor and gamble.”

From: Marti O’Brien — May 03, 2011

“Unschooling” was of great interest…Myself being one of the “Unschooled.”…Very cool. Thank You. And…I got a real chuckle out of your last comment.

From: john Ferrie — May 04, 2011

Dear Robert,

I see a lot of people raising their children in this “unschooling” or as I call it “undisciplined”. Parents see their children as “gifted” and therefore do not need to guide them, as it seems to stifle their creativity. They allow their children to run around in restaurants, speak out and act out when they shouldn’t and god forbid they should hear the word “no”. I think they are into a harsh slap of reality when these children become teenagers and they forget those formative years are more about challenging their parents than they might be ready for. This same thing happens in art. People give up any technique or craft for a more “Organic” approach. They do tragic performance pieces (usually something with gauze). Or they do really bad paintings and everyone is supposed to be blown away by it because it has never been done before. The saddest thing is, technique is required when it comes to art. And learning from another is the fastest track to knowing how to apply these principles. Art school is not for everyone and I have certainly not learned everything I can about being a painter. But I always love when I learn something new. You can learn something just by looking at someone else’s work. There doens’t have to be a test, you don’t have to remember it all, but just open your eyes, shut your mouth and look…. always, John Ferrie
From: Bonnie White — May 04, 2011

Your “P.S.” and “Esoterica” are priceless thoughts to get me through the day. As I labor over a shovel doing that outside work that can only be done in the spring — I will hold visions of ego flowing off the brush, making the colors more meaningful and brilliant.

From: Rich Mason — May 04, 2011

After reading “Unschooling,” which was very interesting, I wondered what the percentage of us unschooled painters was among the many attempting to leave our mark. Probably no way to ever know. I then viewed Painting as Tribute again, and again. Not to look at the painting in progress but some of your words drew my attention. You are so right when you say painting is easy to do but hard to do well. It is truly a life long endeavor if taken seriously. It’s a constant struggle to improve with each painting. At least for me that’s the case. My time spent at the easel provides the freedom of expression and individualism that my pioneering spirit requires — that is what I would like to believe. After watching and listening I felt that our painting is a tribute to whatever had our attention at the time. Something personal we give to the world. It’s a good feeling.

From: Barbara Sherman — May 04, 2011

Speaking of character, I served on the Board of the Art Students League of New York for many years and one of my jobs was interviewing, with one other woman, all scholarship applicants. We devised a rating system — 1 to 5 for talent, 1-5 for need, with 10 being a perfect score and a guarantee of a scholarship. But how to judge the intangible character, or what the applicant would contribute to the community in terms of energy and spirit? We came up with 2 trick questions:

1. If we can’t give you a scholarship, will you still come? The correct answer is, “I’ll get here any way I can, whatever it takes!” 2. Would you be willing to work for an hour a week in the school to make the money go farther? And the correct answer? “Of course, I’d be happy to help.” You could not get a ten without answering these questions correctly. The interesting thing is, when the “Professional” artists came in to judge for Merit Scholarships, where they only looked at the work, every single one of our 10’s was awarded a merit scholarship. I can only conclude that character shows up in the work. Thanks for your letter–it’s always interesting and helpful.
From: Rose Moon — May 04, 2011
From: LD — May 04, 2011

For Marney : The quote is fabulous, but not originally hers;

The Globe and Mail (Canada) has the phrase from 1979, from Globe and Mail resident wit Richard J. Needham (1912-1996).
From: Ron Brown — May 04, 2011
From: Al Phillips — May 04, 2011

One thinks of Andrew Wyeth when reading about this educational philosophy. Tutored and mentored by his famous father and allowed to “play” with his toy soldiers, set designs for dramatic productions, drawing, painting, etc., he was allowed to develop his innate abilities and aptitudes. We think of how fortunate he was. However, for every Andrew Wyeth there are scores of artists who were fortunate enough to be given the advantage of early formal training that made a vast difference in their development and success. How many young potential artists do we lose because the opportunity is never there early on?

From: Antonio Basso — May 04, 2011

Great article. Be careful with strong egos. They might not let you be authentic and free.

Antonio Basso
From: Yolanda May Martin — May 06, 2011

Robert Genn’s message content was thought provoking. The ‘high ego force’ is a phrase I have not seen before, and yet it is so descriptive of leaders and achievers. It is the propelling fuel of initiative overcoming the inertia of stale mate, status quos, and apathetic, conforming acceptance of existing environmental or social negatives surrounding us.

There exists an operative social conditioner which chastises persons for being too egotistical, and why is that? Conceit is not a virtue, and it is linked to being too egotistical and self centered (selfish). What is the magic that separates high ego force from egotistical and conceited? Perhaps Robert is linking high ego force with self esteem and belief in one’s abilities to overcome obstacles, to be able to make productive progress by eliminating problems? Persons who say “I can” versus those who say “I can’t” have high ego force. The traits and attributes of achievers distinguishes them from non achievers. Can persons achieve if not being self motivated, action oriented, and having a strong knowledge of who they are regardless of others preferring they be someone different, or others attempting to change either this or that in them? It is essential to know when to listen to others, but to not abandon self determination and personal self development as determined by your innate self directives. Polonius: This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee! Laertes: Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord. Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82
From: Teddy Pruett — May 06, 2011

Several years ago, I entertained the thought of entering a university art program. I had taken my portfolio of work – fiber art, think quilts but not like your granny made – to a community college art professor who had graduated from the program I was considering. She studied my portfolio carefully, and said “Your work reminds me a lot of Faith Ringgold. Don’t go to school – they will take all of this out of you.” So much for an art degree. I didn’t go, I just kept sewing. Have been in some pretty great exhibits since then, too.

From: Anon — May 06, 2011

One thing sounds odd to me here. Most of the feedbacks about unschooled kids come from their parents, describing what a great job they did. There is very little coming from the unschooled kids, or their friends and associates. I get a feel that the parents hover over their kids as ” lifetime agents”. I mean no offense by that, my parents were highly disinterested and I would have loved to have them more engaged. However, I learned at early age that I have to be the initiator of most things that happen in my life, which eventually turned out a very useful thing and yielded some successes. Do the unschooled kids really get to become their own people, or (e.g. Wyeth), permanently attached to their parents? There was a Program on TV about generation Y with stories of parents phoning kid’s bosses when the kid doesn’t get a raise…

From: Tulsa — May 06, 2011

Misunderstandings about the meaning of “ego” are rooted in religion. America with its historic influences labels ego as shameful. Most of other cultures recognize ego as a necessary aspect of any human being. Ego strength is desirable for any kind of leadership. That’s the nature of things. Artist or a sheep, we all get our ego from genes and early upbringing – so let’s use it in a good way!

From: lorraine Stiefenhofer — May 06, 2011

What a wealth of pertinent comments you make, Mr. Hessing. It was a beautiful and enriching experience to read. Some things that popped out like lights going on, were “…painting becomes harder as you go on in life….” I’ve been derailed for awhile now because I’m mentally evolving into the next stage, at least I hope so! And, “…no form of education will teach how to become a great one.” So true. And, “…damaged egos.” It’s from that process, that we may develop into what is possible for each one of us. Good luck, Lorraine

From: Mattie Benish — May 06, 2011

I paint with the undisputed authority of the naif. I am as such accomplished and in no way a pretender. That people not only tolerate, but purchase my work, never ceases to amaze and confound me. Because I like doing it, I’m grateful for an audience, no matter how screwy it seems to me.

From: Marie Lyon — May 09, 2011

Were you referring to William Proctor, the Proctor of Proctor and Gamble? I wouldn’t take a gamble on his efficiencies either.

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — May 10, 2011
From: Bill Polm — May 10, 2011

You wrote: “The question is–if unschooling is so effective and superior, how come there aren’t more brilliant artists around? More to the point, how come there’s so much substandard art out there? Further, what type of education makes for superior art?”

To me, the partial answer is, we need both, both are advantageous. In writing these things, I’m aware that you no doubt know all them already. But at any rate…The traditional approach involves a lot of discipline, sometimes unwanted, but sometimes helpful just that same. But academia alone is not enough. Always there is the ivory tower of classroom instruction (one version) verses “the rubber meats the road” of experience Without the latter, learning is incomplete. Years ago I helped edit a book by a professor on learning styles, at a time when the concepts were just really catching on. Learning based on different temperaments that require different learning styles. For the social groups work well. For the introvert — she prefers learning on her own and often does well. Some love lectures, the ol’ talking head approach. So, it is also true that some approaches to learning work well with some, others not so much. I myself learn best on my own; but some books, some classes accelerate my learning. However, many waste my time for the most part. Like they say, figure on learning one good thing per book, workshop, etc. So, to me, it depends on the person trying to learn. Yet most find something to gain from most approaches. However, if a person can discover his learning style and accommodate it, major in it. P.S. As Bruce at once wrote, approx quote: The best way to learn to paint is to watch yourself when you paint and note what works and what doesn’t. P. S. #2 for fun: June 2007, at a Stephen Quiller Summer workshop, at a generous evening gathering and meal at his home, Stephen pointed out one of your paintings on his wall. My comment, after studying it a bit: “Robert’s a good man.” His reply — nodding his head yes, “he’s a good man.” Thought you might enjoy that! Regards and thanks for all your thoughtful and insightful twice-weekly letters!
From: Paula Griffin — May 10, 2011

Your four attributes of character in art was an interesting one. I forwarded it to several family members, and what has followed has been an interesting discussion on character, and how we encourage it in ourselves and in our children. Our grandchild’s approach to clarinet was discussed, as was employee behavior when the boss is out of town.

From: unschooling — Aug 04, 2011

Schooling the social skills.

     Featured Workshop: John Stuart Pryce
050611_robert-genn John Stuart Pryce workshops   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.

The Ancient Ones

acrylic on rice paper/printmaking paper by Teyjah McAren, Canada

  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 Lang Wing Shen who wrote, “Learning specific skills and techniques in our particular field cannot be avoided if you want to produce decent work.” And also Ole Petersen who wrote, “I’m one to follow my nose and I don’t care if it’s good or not as long as I don’t get too frustrated and not have a good time. Okay?”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.