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/
The very idea of functioning in the marketplace often brings up feelings of fear and dread for artists. Add to that the sense of being an outsider and you have an inner construct of resistance and defensiveness (you reject me?—I reject you!). As a result, some artists simply never step out of their studios with their work, while others resign themselves to the effort, but do it sporadically and badly, carrying their baggage of resistance.
As a full time, self-supporting artist, exhibiting in multiple galleries for decades, I have followed my natural curiosity about how things work, consistently gathering information from my galleries, my artist friends, and my collectors about how art and sales are successfully made. Finding myself frequently passing this information on to fellow artists at openings and other events, I decided to more actively share my knowledge, forming in 2006 my first mentoring group. Blending the modalities of coaching, support groups, and seminars on career development (and designed to be affordable for artists), my groups have been filled through word of mouth.
It pleases me greatly to help other artists mitigate their anxiety about the process of entering or participating in the art marketplace. Many times artists are in isolation, reinventing the wheel, when the information that they need is fairly straightforward. Other times, situations have their own wrinkle and require the targeted advice that comes from experience. In either case, I love sharing what I know, and also enjoy working with the highly diverse bodies of work presented by the artists who I mentor.
Mentoring support is designed to help artists in any and all areas needed to help them progress on their paths, both artistically and in the marketplace.
The areas in need of support vary from artist to artist, but include:
-Focusing on art-making via a body of work that explores, with consistency and depth, a unique set of interests.
-Learning to network effectively with other artists and developing a collector list; the use of email, social networking, websites and blogs.
-Helping the artist understand the difference between the venues available for exhibiting art: finding those that are appropriate to their work and experience; discussing how these relationships work and how to navigate them.
-Creating all of the written pieces that are a requirement for the exhibiting (and submitting) artist—resume, artist’s statement, bio—and in the process, becoming comfortable with any piece of writing called for in future relationships and events.
-Pricing: framing, mounting, or 3-di presentation; studio and file organization; selecting work for a show or submission; and open studio or studio tour events.
-Learning to speak about one’s work, which then applies to all of the situations where that not only gives the artist an edge, but also allows them the confidence and peace of mind that they can conduct these conversations effectively (and even have fun doing it).
-Issues of self-confidence, not getting waylaid by setbacks, and developing a proactive habit of ethical self-advocacy.
My intake workshop is the intro to this work, but can also stand on its own as a way of advancing and inspiring an artist’s career. This is a day-long seminar that includes much information necessary to understanding the functioning of the art world, and an opportunity for each artist to show their work and air their issues, followed by advice from me and feedback from the group.
Monthly meetings are three hours long, and open to all who have attended an intake workshop for new artists or have had a private consult with me. With a current pool of about 40 artists, each meeting capped at six artists, the mix for any particular meeting is always interesting and invigorating. Each artist brings in work or concerns that are current, with a round-robin discussion that gives the artist time to seek advice for particular or pressing concerns.
Private sessions are in the artist’s studio, when geographically possible, or through a combination of email and phone. All of the above areas are covered, with the targeted focus of one-on-one. I am available to help organize and select work for an upcoming exhibit; sequence the hanging of a show; help prep an artist’s studio for an open studio event; and work with the public if the artist is not prepared to do so.
Phone consults are available as needed, often in conjunction with emailed images or documents requiring feedback, sometimes supplementing studio visits and/or monthly meetings.
“In the six years that I have been working with Christie, her mentoring has opened up a new vocabulary and path of action for approaching art as a vocation, as well as a broader appreciation for what other artists are accomplishing in their practices. Producing art can be a lonely process, and Christie has provided many opportunities to get feedback on work, find outlets, meet other artists and most importantly, work out the next step.”
Kari Feuer, 2012
“When I finally bit the bullet and enrolled in my first mentoring session with Christie, one of the other participants was shocked that I was there, asking for help with my career. Well, I was stuck and unsure about what to do next. My work was, and still is, at a good level but my career was stalled. I had always admired Christie’s grasp of the business of art and I wanted to learn, so there I was. I am moving forward now, thanks to working with Christie; and I have peers with whom I can discuss ideas, in a safe, calm, and respectful environment. I now, when finding myself in an art situation that I am unsure how to handle, ask myself “What would Christie do?” And I do it. And it works.”
Polly Law, 2012