In his essay “The Hegemonic Eye: Can the Hand Survive?,” artist and teacher Chris Staley writes, “Art making is an essential part of the human condition. To make something special is fundamental to our humanity-from college freshman wanting to decorate their dorm rooms to wanting to dress up for a special occasion. This making things special is a form of caring.”
In his essay, “An Education for a New Theatre,” (which is not just about theatre – and not just about artists), Scott Walters writes, “So much of our education in the arts is focused on artistry as a product to be sold in the marketplace. I think we also need to teach young artists that part of their responsibility is to share the process with others. Instead of seeing themselves as “special” and separate from their community, instead of seeing their role as “saying it to their faces,” young artists need to commit to using their talents in service of others.”
You see that little hyphen-dash between these two quotes? That’s me. Sorry if it’s a bleary, teary little piece of punctuation, but that’s how things go when you’re sorting stuff out.
These two teaching artists are not sharing opposite perspectives – far from it. But with a finite amount of time and energy (hat tip on that phrase to Doug Woods from the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts, who taught me – well, everything), on what does one concentrate energies in arts education? Is it more important to make special, or to share special?
The answer is both, of course. But that answer provokes some other big questions.
I’ve been teaching at Art Camp for the last two weeks. A class full of 6- and 7-year-old students were making their first coil pots the other day. I watched two children, side by side. One girl stumbled with the technique at first (their hands are so small), but then hit her stride and added coil after coil, making a tall, graceful cylinder appear on her board. She smiled as her piece got bigger, ignoring most of the classroom chatter, deeply focused on her work.
Beside her, another student was in constant conversation with two other students near her at the table. She had built with coils before, and thought she would give her friends some advice. With her attention more on her peers’ work, her own piece sagged, as she built out too wide near the bottom with wet clay. I watched as she studied it for a minute, then she announced to me across the room, “This is for my nana. She’s coming to the art show. She likes little vases.” A couple of minutes later, she announced, “I’m done,” and continued coaching her friends.
In most areas of study and work, collaboration is the buzzword these days. But when is it too soon to collaborate? Do we need focused time to deepen our understanding of content and process before we bring something to the table to share? Should we expect people who have only surface knowledge of a subject area to bring deep, special ideas the table? Or is it enough, sometimes, to practice ‘making special’ just for one’s own development or interests?
This is the rub of the post I recently wrote for TAJ. In this post, I brazenly assert, “There is nothing special about the teacher who fences off content and space from her colleagues, avoiding shared experiences and protecting her turf. I worry that this is the sort of teacher I’m becoming.” But there’s part of me who is very proud to become that teacher. I want to protect the opportunities for my students (and for myself) to just do art – to get immersed in process, to explore an artistic theme deeply, to lose track of time. I don’t think that artmaking always has to be about the conversation, or the links to other disciplines, or how we, as artists, support others or other disciplines.
Or, maybe, this conflict between making and sharing, between depth and the rush to collaborate is bigger than what goes on in the art studio.
From Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking: “Indeed, your biggest challenge may be to fully harness your strengths. You may be so busy trying to appear like a zestful, reward-sensitive extrovert that you undervalue your own talents, or feel underestimated by those around you. But when you’re focused on a project that you care about, you probably find that your energy is boundless.”
It’s easy to imagine the quiet, focused student I described above getting lost in the noisy workspace of the 21st century classroom. From talking with her during the camp session, I can safely presume that she would rather be reading a book than playing collaborative art games. I want her to know that this is not only okay, but good (at least as long as there are still books left to read). The ability to focus on making a really great coil pot might be undervalued if it’s not connected to bigger goals of collaborating or supporting others – areas in which the second student might shine. And yet, with a bit more practice, this quieter student will be capable in a technique that is thousands of years old, and able to use her knowledge of the skills to synthesize her ability into new projects. Meanwhile, the second student will continue to coach her peers and invent new uses for her collapsed pots.
Cain has some advice for both of my young students: “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers — of persistence, concentration, and insight — to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems. make art, think deeply.”
I’m not going to get too stuck in the hyphen. I have to teach them all. I also have to find my own dot on the line between practice and contribution, and that’s turning into a fairly consuming journey. But I wonder if depth and practice will become more valuable and precious, as sharing and collaborating just gets easier and more expected?
Perhaps we should develop the knowledge, depth, and talent before we are in such a hurry to share it.