art education

Art and Design, spirituality

The Role Of Art Education In Art

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Over the last four years I have been teaching at the university level.  This hardly makes me a seasoned individual in academia.  I have, in various ways, lived in academia for years, either from a distance with a spouse who was a teacher, to having taught in graduate school, and teaching in my studio practice as well as at the university level. But here is the thing.  I knew about SOL’s and how there had been a bru-ha-ha over them.  It is clear now what the problem is with this type of testing as it relates to art…(at least TO ME).  There are a number of challenges that impact teachers and the students that they teach as it relates to the SOL’s.  But there is one issue that doesn’t seem to be addressed much, if at all…and I am going to bring it up here for the simple reason that it impacts me as a teacher.

For people who are used to linear processing and solving problems using rational predictive schemes, it may be difficult to see how something like art could be of benefit in and of itself without hanging a purpose or job or expected outcome on it.  It turns out that art has been very hard to quantify.  And I suspect I know why; like the right brain, seeking to stick a quantity on an experience with the creative or artistic is extremely slippery.  You can measure gravity, space, a rock, and how much rocks can be ground in a day at the gravel plant, or how many cars you can build in an hour in Detroit, or how many essays a student can write about the rise of the consumer culture in the U.S.   But there is an aspect to the creative that escapes this.  And I say that it should for the very reason that this aspect of the creative that is so slippery is also the very aspect that allows us to conceive of things that were a moment before, incomprehensible to us.  What I am saying is, how do you measure something that you do not yet know, but WILL be able to know in a moment’s time…..and yet, the thing that you know is merely a product of something larger…we can measure cars as they travel through a tunnel, but we are unable for some reason to measure the tunnel.  The tunnel, if you haven’t caught on yet, is creativity.  But unlike a tunnel, I don’t think you can measure creativity….only what it creates.  You know?  How do you measure something that has so many dimensions and is changing so fast and much?  How do you define it when everyone says “I know it when I see it.”  The very fact that we know it when we see it means that it cannot really be measured very well.

So those who would insert themselves into the creativity game by coming up with SOL’S  wind up creating art experiences based on a rational understanding for how problems are solved.  As if creativity itself is something that can be parsed and kneaded in order that it give up an expected result. Now don’t get me wrong, having a project where students learn about color theory or methods for composing a painting or drawing are all important.  In fact, I am actually all for artists copying the work of other artists not to try and pretend that the artists work is their own, but in order to try and learn what that artist was seeking to do.  This is why some artists can be seen copying the works of Vermeer, or Monet, or Degas.  They are not innovating, but learning something. At the end of the day, though, once you have learned all of this stuff, you are going to have to DO something with it.  And what you do with it is greater than the sum of its parts.  What results is not always necessarily a formula. At all. Paint by numbers if you must, but all that will ever do is to help you to comprehend why certain ways of painting will yield a given result.  It is a fact-finding mission. This is a far cry from the rarefied air one finds oneself in when you discover the big “Ah-ha!” of the inspired moment.

The result of the SOL generation is that we have students who want to know the rules for creating.  They want to know HOW they are supposed to arrive at their creative moment when what I am asking them to do is to arrive at that place themselves.  So I wind up explaining WHY my assignments are as vague as they are; I am asking them to follow certain very specific requirements all in the hopes that they learn the material I am asking them to work with but to also have enough room for their own innovation to shine. My teacher Tom Walsh used to say that the best beginner projects were the ones that had very specific requirements with the broadest range of interpretation.  That means that I might say “Create a wire-frame sculpture using wood dowels and some form of epoxy that is a minimum of 2 feet in one dimension and at least six inches in another dimension, with the third dimension being up to you.  At what point does a line begin to create a sense of volume when it crosses other lines in space?  How do you create the illusion of volume while using these lines in space? Choose two of the following Principles of Design to base your work on: movement, tension, harmony”

The challenge is that many students are used to much more specific projects and actually get anxious when given greater freedom.  Really?  I explain to them what I want them to learn and that beyond those few simple things, the rest really could be up to them. “Just make it cool, guy and gals!  You know what I mean, right? I am talking about being creative, innovative!” I am asking them to take responsibility for their educational experience.  And because I value freedom so much, I give them as much as I can because someday they will be faced with having to come up with ideas all on their own without the benefit of a project to push them forward.  I am aware that in the beginning students need the structure of an assignment in order to learn a given media or technique.  Sure, absolutely, but this can be done while giving the student the freedom that they will one day need to work within if they are ever to be self directed artists.  Out of this will flow discipline that is unlike the kind of discipline they know that is meted out by their teachers.  This is actually about what happens when you mature as an artist.  I actually believe that this is important to begin doing as soon as possible.  I believe that our children, even at age 18 to 22 have the means to begin to experience this freedom in their work.  The more they are able to experience it, the better off they will be.

There is a place for learning technique.  There is also a place for being inspired to create in such a way that we each grasp that creating is itself sometimes a mysterious process, an irrational one, but beautiful and rewarding. The FEELING that comes moving through you in such moments is actually something that is sustaining in and of itself and will, if we let it, change a life.  It can break up the rigidity of the belief-constrained self in order to break out into new ways of thinking and seeing. It is what the journey has been about in art except that this process has been something experienced by only the bravest of our kind.  it is something native to us all and the sooner we can experience it for its OWN sake, the better. Our creative spirit is less a thing that can be bounded by any one discipline, but encompasses our whole lives because it is what we are deeper down.  Impoverished is the life that does not know this the way one might know breath or ones heartbeat.  These ought not be special occasions, but ubiquitous ones.  Living a creative life is one of the most rewarding things a person can experience.  It fulfills, unifies, and even heals. It does not require a belief or dogma and cuts across all borderlands of belief, liberating and enlarging ones own self in selfless ways.

The problem is that you cannot measure joy, and so much of what art does is to bring joy.  You can’t measure it.  The problem, you see, is that when we are so busy wanting to measure everything, you miss those things that fall outside of the bias, which suggests that only what we can measure is worth anything to us.  But you see, the joy of creation is where it is at when it comes to art.  It is what we each lose as we grow up and is what we have to each rediscover as we make our ways back into art as artists.  Sometimes as artists we try to be the best we can on a technical level in order to make up for our lack of childlike wonder and joy that made us such natural artists as children.  You see, this is what is missing, and if we are to grow a better generation, it will mean that we did it with the arts as much as we did with math and science and all the rest.

Art and Design, glassblowing

The Essence of Inspiration


My students at the university aren’t always happy with me.  The ones who are independent self starters seem to have no trouble, but the students who want to be led and “taught” how to make a piece of sculpture most often wind up pouting a lot.  I understand why this is, and I am there to teach processes and methods and tool usage and all the rest.  However, most of what I offer is basic information that has to be brought together into a synthesis that is the creative moment. This means that the student has to go beyond mere tools and methods in order to realize something of consequence, and to do this winds up feeling like a lonely place.  This is not where the teacher can go.  As a teacher I can nudge and encourage and give my own ideas about how to kick start the moment that lead to inspiration, but its very much leading the horse to the water.  This is the fact of art.  Process, method and technique wedded to something that has nothing at all to do with such concrete things and is instead the deep waters of our own insides, our own creative selves.  It takes a bit of courage to bare ones soul in such a way.  There is a lot of very careful work that happens in schools, I think, as a result.  I mean, really, who wants to bare their souls for all to see and poke and prod?  This is what all of those dreams we have all likely had where we discover that we forgot to put on clothes after taking off to school or work and wind up feeling panicked to find ourselves in such a position.  So discovered, so vulnerable.  Meshing bravery with vulnerability isn’t the most comfortable place in town, but it is most often the very place where innovation begins, where all new ideas start –  be they in science or art.

The rational and practical fact-based world is brought into the wildly creative and imaginative in order to drive a process that leads to creating art.  I realize more and more that what I seek to teach above all is a self-reliant attitude that oozes with confidence; a confidence that comes by way of experience.  Doing.  Making.  It is a curious conundrum; confidence most often comes by way of learning and then doing.  However, in great art, not knowing how one will accomplish a piece is most often what leads to a far greater work than if you follow the more obvious steps.

Confidence allows the creative to flow.  I try to teach my students that some of art is a leap of faith.  they say, “But I don’t know how I am going to DO this!”  and I say in return, “It is like you are standing on the side of a cliff before a river.  All of your friends have all just jumped into the river and you are now standing with your arms crossed, shivering, afraid that the water might be too cold, or the water too fast.  You just have to jump in, and when you do, you will realize all of this was really just about your fear.  You just have to jump in and do it.”  When I began telling my students this, they began just jumping in and the result has been some pretty remarkable work.

I try to apply the same things to myself.  It is easy to stay in ones comfort zone, but the remarkable in life emerges when we go out on a limb.  Even just a little.  So it was several weeks ago that I was asked if I could do a tree of life design in glass as a gift for someone.  I had never made anything like this before.  It would require me to work in a way I had not done previously.

I said yes right away.  I ordered the glass which was a glass I had not worked with for over fifteen years.  I work with a glass called soda-lime.  It is a composition that has been relatively unchanged for millenia.  It is the basis for all of our container glasses from beer bottles to champaign flutes.  It is in our plate glass, windows, and automotive glass.  Its working characteristics are pretty specific.  It is a known to me.  Borosilicate, which is the glass I had to order for this project, is a very different kind of glass.  It contains boron which imparts a great deal of  thermal shock resistance to the material.  It is what all labware is made out of and is also used in cookware.  I connected my torch because the glass is worked with this appliance and I simply began to make the tree.

Being able to do this piece was a kind of blessing in disguise.  It allowed me to work at the torch with a material I had pretty much avoided for years.  Just this past year I purchased eight torches to make up a new addition to the studio which will enable students to come work glass at the torch as well as the “big glass” that is part of furnace work which is what most people normally think of when they hear the term “glass blowing.”  But torch work is also glass working and it is every bit as much fun as its “bigger” counterpart.  Being commissioned to do this piece helped push me along in getting some things worked out technically and it also showed me just how much fun it is to work at the torch.  If I am going to offer glass of this type in the studio, I really need to be the best proponent for it. And I am sold.

In the coming months I will be building a special work table that will house all of these torches.  Each torch will be hooked up to lines for gas and oxygen.  I will make small kilns for preheating glass bits and for annealing beads and small glass elements.  The studio will unfold one more page in its capacity to bring the gospel of glass to the masses here in the New River Valley (NRV).

I am now done with the piece. I wont say I am Gods gift to makers of trees, but this project showed me a rich bed of potential that I had not known before had I simply passed on it.  Packed and now on its way, I am glad for the gentle prod, the perfect nudge.   Sometimes it just takes a gentle nudge to make the jump into the water….which perhaps is a big part of the essence of inspiration.

(I will post a pic of the piece as soon as I am able)