Teaching: Creating Community and Fostering Independence
Lately I have been musing about how, as teacher and mentor, my ongoing job is to instruct and support, while my long-term goal is to nurture the confidence that leads to independence. The ability to solve one’s own creative problems springs from having the integrated information, skill set, and resoluteness to do so. By facilitating all of this, the teacher’s job is to work one’s self out of a job.
Most teaching is done in a group setting, and then camaraderie, cross-pollination, and sometimes competition enter into the learning process. The group dynamic is both a draw and a distraction.
Artists most often work in the solitude of their studios, which can be a major adjustment for those new to the process who are struggling with issues of a steep learning curve, motivation, and self-confidence. Most of my students and mentees are fiercely drawn to art-making, but then wonder why they have a hard time getting into and spending time with their studio practice. This leads to the undermining fear that if they were the real deal, true artists, they would be consistently highly motivated. Or at least have the discipline to get on in there, no matter how they feel.
Drawn from conversation with many dozens of artists over the years, my observation is that a perceived lack of motivation is most often internal resistance that stems from very common fears: fear of failure, fear of success, and most of all, fear of meeting one’s self. And therein lies the importance of the solitary activity — meeting one’s self is the life work of an artist or thinker, and will rarely be accomplished in a group setting.
The habit of the studio lies, therefore, in the discipline. There are various ways to get yourself over the resistance, something that I discuss with students and mentees. And once you’ve done this a few hundred times, the resistance fades. For many years now, my studio positively beckons, but I do remember being in my 20s and having to summon willpower to leave my apartment and walk to my studio in Union Square in NYC, as happy as I was each and every time when I got there.
The downside to being alone in the studio is that artists are working in isolation to the point where they can get locked up inside their own heads, losing track of the commonality of our problems, aspirations, and fears. That is when the group camaraderie is needed — some honesty, some laughs, communication and idea-sharing on the subject that we hold dear.
What is too much solitary exploration, and what is too little?
This comes down to the varying needs and goals of the individual. Some students aspire to great heights of skill and originality; others might be engaged in open exploration of the path, seeing what evolves; and still others are in it simply for the process. These mindsets can also change over time. In all cases, progressing in skill and understanding is the process over the long term, and is the common denominator.
But how we, as teachers, deal with the differing needs of our students is key. It is all too easy to be problem-solver-in-chief. It is much harder to assess where each artist is in their process — a moving target — and provide what is needed, when it is needed.
This might be a lot or a little, perhaps just planting a small seed and encouraging the student to grow it. As the soup of information thickens for a particular artist, they need less advice and more reminders of what they already know, and sometimes a question in answer to their question is most productive.
Some folks do need more reassurance than others —i t is hard, for instance, to absorb information while in the throes of anxiety. And I have often had students who enter my workshops with plenty of ability and a healthy awareness of it, who are coming to me to kind of top off their information. There are always many variables.
Teaching in any form is as much about the student as it is about the subject matter, but the subject matter is the vehicle. An experienced tracker and tracking teacher once told me that his students arrive in the woods looking for transformation, but he focuses on the tracking and lets the transformation take care of itself. This tends to be my approach, especially with painting, which, as an activity, is a challenging and rich world of its own.
That said, my next blog post is going to be on a topic that comes up frequently with my students — how easy it is to get locked into a mental loop of running yourself down. My first yoga teacher used to call this the “crap tape”, a litany that we start reciting in our heads when the mood slides downward. So there are times when I am fully prepared to step aside from the subject at hand — painting or art career — and talk about this emotionally treacherous habit that undermines any endeavor.
Artists need to follow a quiet, solitary, ignore-distractions path when they set to work, even when they are in a group setting. Sometimes we can get into the zone more than others — no guilt or self-blame (avoiding the crap tape). But distractions are increasingly a way of life, and can become a habit that destroys focus, the fertile underpinning of creativity.
“‘All of humanity’s problems,” the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in 1654, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Three centuries later, the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky shared his single most urgent piece of advice to the young: learn to enjoy your own company. And yet today, in the golden age of solo living, Pascal’s words ring all the more urgently true and Tarkovsky’s counsel seems all the more unattainable. The age of Social Everything makes the art of solitude appear increasingly difficult to attain, even terrifying.”
~Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
Emersion in our chosen practice is what we need to ground ourselves so that ideas can flow. Following a creative thread takes time, thought, trial and error; the slow-food method of art-making. Through instruction and group learning, students can cultivate and enhance the habit of concentration. From needing substantial help from their teacher, they can progress to consulting their own thoughts and problem-solving toolkits.
We are ethically, as teachers, responsible not for creating a scenario where the student needs us forever and always, but for nurturing and informing each student according to their needs until they can, ideally, work independently.
It is bittersweet to see our students leave us to go it on their own. But we should be proud of that moment, the moment when, for a particular student, we have done our job well and made ourselves obsolete.
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See my blog post on creativity and happiness for more: https://scheeleart.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/creativity-and-happiness/