Moody, Minimalist Landscape Painting

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.

____  ______________________________________  ____

See my blog post on creativity and happiness for more:

11 responses

  1. Marcia

    such a nice piece, Christie! Thank you! as always, you are an inspiration.

    December 28, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    • Thank-you, Marcia! You are teaching in such a different context—I would love to hear your thoughts on these topics as they relate to teaching academic subjects to undergrads (if they do relate)!

      December 28, 2017 at 4:06 pm

  2. A rich and thoughtful piece that lays out some real goals for student and teacher- thank you!

    December 29, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    • Goals in progress! Thanks for the comment, Mary.

      December 30, 2017 at 5:10 pm

  3. I gravitate toward collaborative art projects but am resistant to people telling me what to do. I try to listen to their point of view and sometimes it is helpful. Keep up your good work.

    December 29, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    • The best collaboration is when there is really equal idea-sharing and listening among the artists. It can slow things down, the process, but also be really rewarding when it works.

      December 30, 2017 at 1:19 am

  4. Pingback: News, Pictures, and a big Save-the-Date as we Launch into 2018 |

  5. I always feel that I learn as much as my students do. The repetition of basic ideas never hurts, and the challenge of the different ways to present them. In addition, obstacles I may be experiencing in my own work can pop up indirectly for discussion too. I can sometimes work things out or have a break through thought while trying to explain my own painting challenges. The student, teacher relationship definitely works both ways!

    December 31, 2017 at 8:27 pm

    • So glad you brought that up, Jenny, a whole other point—the reciprocity of the learning!

      December 31, 2017 at 11:29 pm

  6. Cathy

    I have read and reread this post several times, and each time I wanted to write my reaction but my words never seemed sufficient to reflect my deeply emotional response to this remarkably insightful writing. In so many ways I felt as though this was written only for me, your acumen so accurately describing what I feel, what I struggle with … and what ultimately brings joy. Identifying these things as a ‘commonality of our problems’ moves the mindset to a community experience even as we work independently, in solitude, but now never quite alone.
    “Internal resistance”, “meeting oneself” and ultimately recognizing “what we already know” … such powerful exposition to clarify the rabbit hole we often find ourselves falling through … the ladder up and out!
    Having spent many years working with you, as a student, a mentee and sometimes taking a step back and being an observer, it is this piece that coherently describes the aggregate of your teaching, sharing … and caring … process.
    Thank you for this, Christie!

    January 11, 2018 at 5:05 pm

  7. That I offer a “ladder up and out of the rabbit hole” makes my year! (And last year, too.) I appreciate you taking the time to formulate and write your thoughts — thereby making a gift of them for me.

    January 12, 2018 at 2:14 am

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