Tuesday 23 February 2016

We Got the Power!

colour pencil on paper

What keeps many artists motivated? A strong connection to feeling and emotion that drives their creative process.

I teach adults to make objects with art-making media. That’s the simple description of what goes on in the class. The complexity is teaching them how to make those objects be art, as opposed to being artistic or creative. What’s the difference, you ask? Emotional truth. Art happens not only when someone masters a tool, medium, technique or style, but when that process is powered by feeling. For something to be ‘expressive’, the art world’s word for emotional truth, it must express SOMETHING. And that’s where adult students run into serious trouble.

Now, the best place to go looking for true feeling is at the moment of first contact with an experience, whether that experience is physical, like riding a horse for the first time, sensory, like stroking a dog’s fur or touching a snake, emotional, like hearing about a loved one’s accident, or intellectual, like having an ‘aha!’ moment in a science experiment. All types engender strong feelings that remain with us long after the experience becomes history. For many of us, however, the clearest memories of feelings are of those we remember from childhood. By the time we’re adults, we’ve learned a number of feeling-suppressing techniques, like moralizing or judging, or ways of explaining, justifying or wallowing that obscure the pure, original experience. Our response as been-there-done-that sophisticates becomes not about remembering the feeling but considering what we did or thought about it, or what others expected us to. That makes imbuing works of art with emotional truth very difficult for students.

Example: In responding to an assignment given to her by another teacher, a friend recently tried to identify the emotion a favourite story inspired in her. The object was for her to then render not the story as an image, but the emotion it inspires in her. That’s a sophisticated exercise that depends on the student’s level of self-awareness: in a state of self-observed reverie, the student must recall the story’s emotional impact, not its content alone or the thoughts or ideas it subsequently inspired. Children do this naturally. Many adults have to relearn it.

This is the story my friend turned to for her assignment; she recounted it to me as it was told to her (there are apparently various versions but they aren’t the object here) :

Six men are stranded by a snow storm in their far north camp in the woods. They are away from their families, and it’s Christmas. The Devil appears to them and makes them an offer. He will send them home for the holidays and return them safely to their camp IF they refrain from swearing or cursing the entire time. The men agree. A canoe appears and they embark though the river is frozen. Suddenly, the canoe rises up and flies as they row. As it covers distance, the men agree that they will not drink during the revels; if they remain sober, they will avoid all temptation and be safe. All goes as planned with five of them, but the sixth drinks, swears at home, and on the way back, he falls out of the canoe and curses. Thinking the Devil won’t have heard, the men manage to haul him back in, maybe they gag him (that part was unclear in the telling) but when they arrive back at their camp, the canoe dumps them all in the snow. Do they end up in Hell? My friend didn’t know. In fact, she didn’t remember ever actually hearing any other ending to the story, though she inferred that the men had been damned by the one’s indiscretion.

In contemplating why this story resonates with her, my friend told me she had trouble trying to create an image to express her feelings. It is a favourite story of hers, but all she could think of as a related emotion was fear. The story’s moral was clear to her: sin and be damned.
“Are you religious?” I asked.
“No,” she answered.
“Why fear then?”
“I’m supposed to fear; it’s an example.”
“To some maybe. But is that what keeps the story alive for you, its moral?”
“Well, no.”
“Anyway, you’re thinking about it through your intellect, not connecting with your feelings. What struck you when you first heard the story?” I asked.
“The flying canoe!” she answered.
“What about it?”
“What a wondrous thing!” she marvelled. “What a sight that would be to witness!”
“There you are!” 

So her task, no simpler now but more true, is to somehow render an image that will convey her wonder. How much more compelling that expression will be than one programmed by other people’s interpretations of the story, by what it’s supposed to convey (perhaps only in that version)! However she chooses to render her image, it will be emotionally true to her experience of it. Now that will be a lesson well learned!

Thursday 11 February 2016

Starring Role

Starring Role
colour pencil on paper relief
C. Ascher

For a number of years, I agreed as a special favour to an artist friend and fellow teacher to be a guest speaker in her class. Besides teaching at the art centre where I am also a curator and an administrator, she teaches at a local university in the art education department. The class in question is meant to prepare potential art teachers to enter the secondary or alternative adult art educational system. My contribution to the class was to address the students as a professional working in not-for-profit art centres. Despite being squeezed into a regular class, I usually spoke for far longer than my allotted time and answered many questions thereafter.

For my first couple of visits, I was paid $50.00 by the university. This is a ridiculous amount for a university to offer a guest speaker, but I was told my friend had obtained it to cover my gasoline and parking costs since her class didn’t qualify as a ‘lecture series’. Since she felt the exposure to professionals was an essential part of her students’ education, for my last appearance when the university didn’t even pay that amount, my friend bought me  lunch.

Despite agreeing to speak to the class, I could not understand a university that puts teachers in a position where they must rely on volunteers to expose their students to professionals in their field, especially in education. Far from educating them to that profession, the message is disrespectful of both the profession and its practitioners. The teacher gets paid to teach but not the expert contributing to that teaching. The university is paid to provide a learning environment for all students equally, but not all guests are paid to help provide that learning.

I certainly understand that budgets are tight and volunteers and donors can add a dimension to the learning experience. Yet I have never known a guest from a university to volunteer to speak. At any rate, I would never expect it. As an educator, and despite working in a not-for-profit sector, I pay my guest professionals, They have invested time and money to achieve the level that makes them valuable as speakers, and it is my responsibility as a host to make sure that achievement is respected. In that regard, part of my responsibility as an educator is to make sure the students or audience to whom my guests present are aware of the value they are receiving. Also, if I am paid for my work, if the institution I work for charges for its work, then there is no excuse for us not to pay our guests for their work. 

This year, the class has been taken over by another person who has requested that I return as a guest speaker, again for one hour of a regular class, with no mention of any kind of renumeration. I guess the assumption is that since I agreed before, I’ll agree again. Now, I also cannot understand a university-level educator who invites a speaker to her class without first taking the trouble to speak with the guest, explain the working conditions and ascertain that the guest will indeed be willing to donate his/her time. The students’ edification may not be motivation enough.

Why did I accept the invitation before as a volunteer  but will not now? Whereas I at least knew the original teacher’s skills and teaching philosophy, I don’t know the new teacher, have no idea what she covers in the class, or her attitude to art education or to art itself.  These details are important for my agreeing to address the class as well as to my preparation for the presentation and the method of its delivery, especially since the very means by which I was  invited goes against all I believe about education, art and the respect of artists.

At the very least, as a professional in a complex field of practice - does the university understand that teaching art is a complex field of practice? -  I would expect that the class spend time preparing to receive me by doing research and agreeing on a series of key questions relevant to their learning. This was not proposed. Lastly, I was asked to cover a demanding, multi-faceted subject, with visual aids yet, in a mere hour squeezed into a business-as-usual class context. All this demonstrates an alarmingly casual, even dismissive attitude to me and to ‘our’ profession.

I have not accepted to speak in this new teacher’s class without renumeration. Instead, I have offered her and her students a free tour of the art centre where I work, a two-hour session during which I will answer the student’s prepared questions about adult art education in a so-called alternative context. It’s a test. Do they value what they ask of me enough to at least make the effort to adjust their schedule and gather where my talk will make most sense? We will see.