I have been thinking about an essay I just read by Ute Meta Bauer.(quote here) I just came from giving a lecture on contemporary art to freshmen, and honestly they don’t get it. Here in rural America they have almost no exposure to contemporary art, and they are so far outside of the “art world” it seems meaningless to them. They just want to be makers. They don’t read theory, they don’t go to museums. I kind of like that in them. The outside-ness. I wonder if they will be able to hang on to that through the rest of their academic “training”. Can they bring a fresh perspective, hang on to their naivete?

I started out the week thinking about what art school seems to promise students and what it actually delivers. Yesterday was a great day in studio. It really felt like an art department. My students were scattered all over making room for themselves to work, and because it didn’t seem like there was really a class going on, many students from other classes snuck in to work too. The place was just humming with energy! My students spent the day quite happily learning how to make molds and pour plaster, they worked really hard, were not anxious to run out of the door at the end of class (or before). Then last night I went with a student to hear about this work – the hyperbolic crochet reef  – and the intersection of maths and art. That made me want to come home and make hyperbolic paper models that would function as books. Combined the two things had me thinking about craft and the sticky debate around Art vs craft.A thought I will have to shelve for a bit – no time to think about that today!

Then this morning I am reading Jafabrit’s blog post and wondering if it is easier to insert one’s self into this debate and be taken seriously if you are a man like Grayson Perry? (Grayson grew up in my neck of the woods – Chelmsford, he even did a stint at Braintree college). I think I really have some serious thinking to do over the summer about the shape of my classes as I move forward from this point. All of these things have me thinking about new ways to bring skills into my classroom, new unit ideas. Oh for a few more hours in the day!! Not to mention filling my already overstuffed head with ideas for new books, and a possible direction my work could take for the Tangled show with Molly. I am going to need a clone or a patron this summer!!

This is how imagined Utopia earlier this year - blank and waiting for impressions to form and focus

It was in retrospect perhaps not the best of times to have embarked on this fascinating journey into new modes of learning with my first MOOC. I am knee deep in the studio with work for a show in the fall, teaching, looking for a new job, and juggling the Women Create events including this weekend’s big finale of SWAN Day events.

Every lecture I watch, every blog post I read, just sets my little head whirling! I really don’t have any background in educational theory, being primarily an artist who teaches, not a teacher who makes art, so some of the materials are really a bit of a slog for me. I am not saying much online as I read because I am a little embarrassed by the huge yawning gulf of ignorance, I guess I am afraid of saying something permanent in print that I might not be afraid to say out loud in a room. (A valuable lesson here when working with online students – who probably share these fears – how can I move them past this? Should I change my grading for discussion, would it make it more open or so irrelevant in terms of scoring that they would just not bother with the activity at all?)

Thinking about connecting and learning has made me curious about the history of my discipline in academia and about the possibilities for new models of learning. (For the sake of clarification I have a BFA and a master’s in Visual Culture). For me it is too difficult to posit possible futures without at least understanding how we arrived here in this mess. And art education is messy. So I have been reading furiously, trying to learn something about this history. Art doesn’t fit neatly into the colleges where it resides, my first experience with this was quite literal – my art studio classes didn’t fit the standard time schedules of other departments, they were long, I had a hard time fitting my gen. eds. around my studios because a class I wanted to take would start 20 minutes before my studio ended. (curiously the worst offender from my point of view was the art history department – I am sure there’s some hidden agenda in that!). The department I teach in has done a lot of tinkering to try and make our schedule mesh with the “rest” of the school and it seems to me that this has been facilitated by long labs in the sciences which have made the entire schedule more flexible to begin with.

But time is not Art’s biggest problem. As art has transformed into an academic discipline it has moved further and further away from its audience (both the students who “consume” the education and the public). I want to be clear here that I am certain that art is an academic pursuit. As an artist my work originates in research and is informed by my entanglement with “real” life, the end result of my thinking however is not a neatly packaged set of thoughts delivered in a paper but instead a complex visual statement that allows room for the “reader” to bring their own experience to merge with mine (so kind of MOOC-ish, maybe that’s why I feel at home in this learning environment!). My students come to school looking for one thing (skills) and find another (theory). Many of the students that I teach – like me – come to the arena of art because they are makers. I have to be creating with my hands or my personality gets WAY out of control. They enroll in art classes because they have some talent at making – they can draw a representational image, they can paint, or construct. Most of my students are from rural areas, many of them have never been in a gallery, let alone a major contemporary art museum with a modern collection. They are part of the public that is alienated from the “art world”. They don’t get it. They feel they are obsolete before they have even started.

I don’t have a cure for any of this, only frustration. Part of my interest in the MOOC is a desire to expand my thoughts about what teaching/learning can look like so that I can find a way to think about the problem more usefully. I wish right now I had a clone! There is so much to be learned, so much to read, so much to assimilate and unravel, and yet, all my work still to be done. When people tell me they are bored I wonder what on earth they do with their time, how can they have too much when all I ever experience is not enough!!! And so back to work, just wanted to let you know I am still thinking and I can feel all these new connections opening up, its like my brain is breathing again. So thank you to all the diligent learners, all you blog post writers, and the course coordinators for all the wonderful thoughts now swimming in my brain! I wish I had kept a better record of what I am reading where so that I could give you more credit for the novel and glorious things in my head. (Again reminds me to be much more sympathetic to my research students when they loose track of where they found an idea, or how they arrived at a location online!). Alas my “real” life calls – laundry and papers and the siren song of my studio. Enjoy your day!

Yesterday was a great day. In the morning my Visual Survey class was in the library doing research. For the Spring semester I assign research on a living contemporary artist. They have to find out about their work and then situate it in a larger art historical context. Most of my students are art majors, they are taking the course because they have to. I encourage them  to pick someone in their “field” a painter, ceramic artist, whatever. Most often they just pick someone who is easy to research. I am not sure what changed this semester, if I presented the idea in a better way, or if this is an exceptional group of students, because they are working incredibly hard digging up information and critical analysis of some obscure or difficult artists. I have an anthropology student in the group this year – actually a lot of the non-majors are anthropology majors, a non-traditional student and a knitter. She is researching craft activism and yarn bombing, digging in to the contentious debate around art/craft and really excited. I have to be honest, I rarely see students really EXCITED about writing research. Another student wanted to write about an illustrator, and is tackling the debate around commercial/fine arts, and yet another is approaching this same issue but using the work of a highly successful set designer. I have to say that I was on cloud nine coming out of the library yesterday. It feels very successful to help students find how all that historical material is relevant to their life!

Then I went off to my 3D class. I have written here before about how hard this class is for most students, who are worried about their grades, who have forgotten how to just relax and play with the materials. This unit is particularly hard as we are casting. But again, there must be some great mojo on campus this week – they are really working very hard. If only I knew what had switched them on. My suspicion is that many students come to higher education studio classes expecting master classes, to sit at the feet of a master and learn all their tricks and techniques. Anyone who has experienced higher art education knows that this is not what you really get. But during this unit they are actually learning a new skill, none of them had done any casting before, so they feel as if the contract is being honored. Plus the whole thing is very messy – and most students like to get messy. It is a bit of a mystery to me.

If I were a truly excellent teacher I would know exactly how I motivated this bunch of students, so that I could replicate the effect. Alas I am just trying very hard. Perhaps it is just the end of the semester chemistry coming around. Still I am happy to have seen that sudden spurt of enthusiasm, it will keep me running for a while.

“The most valiant thing you can do as an artist is inspire someone else to be creative.”
Jospeh Gordon-Levitt

Getting students to listen to their materials, instead of struggling to enforce their own will before they understand the material’s capabilities is the biggest challenge of teaching 3D design & materials. (Well listening and which glue to use!) This week’s assignment was to take 100 of any everyday object and using the inspiration of artists like Tara Donovan, Tom Friedman, Jennifer Maestre, Joana Vasconcelos, and Zachary Abel.

Here’s what we came up with!

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Some days you feel you can change the world, and on others like today I am firmly reminded why I didn’t aspire to teach in the first place. It is too much weight to carry. And today I couldn’t speak a language my students could understand. Failing to communicate is a cardinal sin – no?

I came home and read Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell). I thought about opportunity and effort. I hovered on the edges of a few MOOC blogs – lurking. I walked up to the studio, I came back down. I am distressed and distracted by this failure.

I wish they could understand that I try. I search hard for ways to reach them. To communicate the knowledge in my hands, the things the material is saying that they don’t (won’t?) hear. I look for a bridge, a way in. I circle.

Slow down – Listen.

When Jen and I applied for the grant funding for the women create project one of the questions we had to answer was about how the project would help us grow as artists. My response had to do with letting go of the final product and learning to play nicely with others. While I am perfectly OK with chaos in my own process in the studio I freely admit that group projects make me very nervous. Today was the first test of my resolve! I demonstrated the paper creation process and then I had to step back and let the workshop participants take over. Of course they didn’t do it “right” (my way) but embarked wholeheartedly on an adventurous exploration of the possibilities of the materials! It was really amazing to see how many different variations could be created using essentially the same process and materials. It is good to be reminded that I don’t know everything!!! Everyone had a lot of fun and the pamphlet journals that we created were bright and eclectic. I was really delighted to see that the students were really excited, everyone was brainstorming possible uses for their journal. I think it is safe to say that we made the biggest mess ever in the art room at Infinity and I can’t thank Shane and her staff enough for being such gracious hosts! You can see pictures and read all about the process at my post on the women create site here.

Our last exploration in the first unit was to work in wire like Calder – hoping to inspire the students to loosen up and experiment. It always amazes me that college students seem to have forgotten how to play! First we developed some continuous line drawings from multiple perspectives and in a variety of mediums, and then tried to translate those images into wire with varying degrees of success. I tried to encourage the students to use a single continuous piece of wire, rather than fuss with joining separate pieces together, but it wasn’t forbidden (playing remember!). The results were quite varied in their success. I apologize for the terrible pictures, but hopefully you get the idea

 

For our second project we watched between the folds – (if you haven’t seen it I just want to recommend this video – it is mesmerizing!) to get some inspiration and then we embarked on some paper folding of our own. I was a little disappointed, the students didn’t take many risks or experiment with the paper, instead most opted to make a model from an existing pattern – a lesson learned for the instructor! Here’s what they came up with