thoughts on teaching
I'm not sure why—maybe due to some especially interesting conversations that took place--but when I left my teaching gig in Telluride, CO a few days ago I had new insight into what my classes are about. For over two years, since I began teaching, I've thought of my workshops as being about technique and basic instruction in using cold wax medium, with oh yes, a little philosophy, aesthetics and information about abstraction thrown in around the edges.
That's certainly true…but the artists who take my workshops consistently bring up other issues that have to do with personal challenge and growth as much as they do with painting technique. The highest compliment I receive about my classes (and this comes at me fairly often) is that they are life-changing. This has always floored me…how can that be?? But I’m starting to see that while the technical stuff I teach is plenty challenging, it may be the emotional and mental demands of the class that are the most powerful--at least for artists unaccustomed to process-driven, intuitively developed painting.
For example, I often hear in class how hard it is to submit to the process of painting, to abandon preconceived ideas in the beginning, and to allow each step in the painting to reveal itself. For many people, this is a daring leap into trusting intuition, and requires a flexibility that feels out of character. The saving factor is that cold wax is a very “forgiving” medium, and changes can be made quickly and as thoroughly as the artist desires. This fact seems to be the biggest factor in allowing people to loosen up and try things out, and the rewards for being flexible and intuitive become very apparent. In this type of painting there really are no mistakes--nothing ugly, muddy or otherwise disastrous that cannot be corrected.
A related challenge is to push past initial stages of the painting, to be ruthless in non-attachment to precious areas of paint, until the work acquires enough color interactions and textural layers to be rich and exciting. Trying to build a painting around one area that works early on is a sure recipe for a stiff, overly controlled end result. In my opinion this speaks of a lack of confidence, because efforts to preserve those “happy accidents” are due to the artist's belief that once this special bit is buried, nothing equally lovely or better will happen later in the process. In fact, although exciting areas of paint may appear early on in the thinner layers, the most magic happens when there is plenty of paint, lots of layers—when there is deep potential built into in the work. (Here I can see parallels here to relationships, to meaningful work, to anything in life that is rich and non-superficial.)
With practice, many seemingly random or accidental effects can to some extent be predicted and pursued with intention. But knowing this requires practice, a lot of patience, and mental discipline. Taking the first steps in a workshop can be a revelation, but true understanding of this process happens over time, and patience with oneself in the learning process is part of the big picture.
The issue of wanting finished paintings by the end of class also comes up often—again, this is a challenge to patience, and the need to stay with a painting until it is resolved in its own time. I don’t encourage the idea of finishing paintings in class, because this shifts the focus away from experimentation, and fully exploiting the possibilities of the medium (some of which will become evident only when the painting dries more thoroughly than it will in a 3-day class.) But I acknowledge that for some artists, being able to take a completed painting home is important, and I stand by.
Here’s what tends to happen, though--even after spending considerable time trying to come up with a finished piece, the artist will often abandon the effort-- perhaps in frustration. The point of letting go of the preconceived goal, though, can be a breakthrough. It allows the artist to return to trusting the process, letting the painting unfold. Sometimes a painting does reach a finished state in class, but when this happens, it seems to come out of grace rather than striving...another lesson that relates as much to the bigger picture of life outside the studio as it does to painting.
There are also life lessons to be had in the group dynamic of the workshop—not particular to my own class I’m sure, but to any group of people seriously engaged in a common, creative endeavor. The people I've taught have been, without exception, friendly, inclusive, engaging as a group. I almost always end up with students from diverse art backgrounds in the same class—from practicing, professional artists, to people re-entering the art world at retirement, to beginners looking for an entry point. Yet these distinctions seem unimportant in light of the sharing, openness and encouragement that prevails. This atmosphere is important, especially for people without a lot of art experience. One woman in my last class told me she was glad we’d saved introducing ourselves and our art background until lunchtime on the first day—if we'd started out first thing with that, she'd have wanted to run away! As it was, she figured out in the first few hours that it was a welcoming atmosphere. It's great to break down the usual categories of who has status in the art world and who doesn't, and to see what can be learned from each other (I always come away with new ideas from my students, and a great deal of respect for everyone willing to engage in the intensity of the workshop.)
All of the lessons and challenges above are ones I am still working on myself—they are difficult to know and integrate deeply and consistently. Yet I think that the mental and emotional tension of these challenges provides essential energy in the studio—the moments of joy and frustration, the knowledge of insights, the depth of experience. Sharing these struggles with students is the connecting undercurrent of the class, running beneath and alongside the demos of technique and practical information, and the general camaraderie of the group.