On Teaching

Nor does any teacher have the right to enforce his existence on his students. I find it profoundly shocking when one can tell, from the students’ works, what particular artist taught the class.

—Robert Motherwell, Apropos “Traditional” and “Modern” Methods of Teaching Art, 1952

This is the first article I’ve posted since January of this year, and the reason for that gap is: teaching. The UGA Cortona program offered me the opportunity to teach painting again this spring, and as always, it was a blast. The program generally attracts a very high caliber of student, and this semester was no exception. My students met their studio challenges with engaged curiosity, and they worked hard to make the best work they could; as a teacher, I really could not have asked for more.

Ohio Wesleyan University 2D Design studio classroom, Delaware, Ohio, 2006.
Ohio Wesleyan University 2D Design studio classroom, Delaware, Ohio, 2006.

I started teaching in 2002, and since then I’ve learned that for me, making art and teaching art require two distinctly different mindsets. In the studio, I need to focus exclusively on the particular process I’m pursuing, to the exclusion of all others. If I’m working up one of the vector art pieces in the Fugues series, it might be fun to veer off on a Diebenkorn tangent and putter around with some painted studies, but it would not be useful. I make better work when I bear down and stick to my chosen parameters, both formal and aesthetic, even if bouncing from idea to idea is more immediately amusing.

In the classroom, I fixate on one very clear purpose: provide students with what they need to solve creative problems. While there are always some common areas for instruction, in painting I find them to be remarkably procedural: how to apply layers to create a stable surface, some handy color mixing heuristics, don’t put paint down the sink, etc. The heavy lifting involves meeting each student where they are, and no two students present the exact same needs.

This semester, one student tackled a complex composition with three human figures, and I had to reach for empirical anatomical data. Another put together landscape paintings using subtle subjective color notes, and we considered the Intimists Bonnard and Vuillard. Still another pushed a large canvas back and forth across the line between figuration and abstraction, so we talked about that line, and about midcentury Modern and contemporary paintings which explored similar territory. I therefore consider Robert Motherwell’s admonition an important one — for me, a classroom full of identical student paintings would be a failure, because it would reveal that I did not listen, or that I was lazy, or perhaps both.

Columbus College of Art and Design Painting studio classroom, Columbus, Ohio, 2012.
Columbus College of Art and Design Painting studio classroom, Columbus, Ohio, 2012.

To meet that standard, the majority of my creative energy goes into the classroom. I’m happy to share it, because it’s a very fair trade (to be frank: I am being paid). Thirty years of painting, drawing, museum visits, gallery tours, reading, research, thinking, and cocktail hour pontificating about painting provide me with a pretty deep well to draw from… but once I’m done in the classroom, I feel spent when I step into the studio.

(An interesting exception presented itself this semester, as I kept making digital photographs on a regular schedule, resulting in the febbraio + marzo series. This was because shooting has become part of my normal head-clearing routine, as I discuss in The World Beyond My Head. In that practice, The less I think, the better it works, so I will not ponder the exception too much.)

This division between making and teaching used to frustrate the hell out of me, as I assumed that I should have enough energy, gumption, or whatever other quality was necessary to juggle studio and classroom, simultaneously making great things happen in both directions. Some artists can do this, but I am not one of them. Instead, I’ve come to see it as a cyclical relationship.

I enjoy teaching a lot, because in return for the creative energy I invest, I witness students synthesizing great solutions to their artistic struggles. At its best, a particular solution is elegant and uncomplicated, a zen-like “a-ha!” When that happens, I know I provided the tools, space, and advice they needed to express what they wanted to express, and to make what they are capable of making.

UGA Cortona Painting studio classroom, Cortona, Toscana, 2016.
UGA Cortona Painting studio classroom, Cortona, Toscana, 2016.

As a teacher, I don’t set out to be liked (for the record, no list of curricular mandates assigned to me ever included “be a mensch”), but over the years I’ve been fortunate to maintain friendships with some of my former students. Watching their art continue to evolve after we work together also continues to gratify me.

But after a concentrated period of pouring energy in one direction, it’s nice to redirect it back into making pictures. I’ve always believed in clearly identifying which thing is the horse, and which is the cart… which act is hitting a fastball, and which is sending the signals in from the dugout.

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