Tales from the Art Side Art Blog
Originally published March 4, 2008 http://artid.com/members/mize/blog/
"When do we get to do what we want?" I've been teaching kids art, specifically teenagers, for nearly eight years. I've taught at three different schools and in two separate cities, and yet I've always been haunted by this query. "When do we get to do what we want," is the battle cry of the creatively suppressed adolescent who has lurking deep within them an artistic arrangement that would redefine society as we know it. If only their tyrannical art teacher would release his aesthetic strangle hold and allow them to share it with the world. The real issue here, as art teachers worldwide already know, is that should you concede, this question will instantaneously be followed by the equally frustrating statement, "I don't know what to draw."
This is one of the fundamental challenges of my vocation, creating an environment that nurtures creativity, inspires innovation, and insists on originality; a task that has become increasingly difficult amidst the information revolutions sparked by Google and Wikipedia. When we have such a vast collection of information and imagery accessible to us in a matter of mere seconds, students have a hard time understanding why they should spend two or three days developing their own ideas. So in essence, my objective has become two-fold: In addition to trying to teach the students methods that encourage originality, I need to instill in them an understanding of why it's important.
Thankfully, for the first part of this challenge, there is a formula of sorts. Granted, true originality is one of those intangible qualities that some people possess in excess. I'm not too proud to admit that I've had students whose originality far exceeded my own and for a time, the teacher and student traded roles. But by and large, originality is something that often eludes beginning art students, and for them we have the comforting confines of a structured process.
Hanging prominently in each of our art rooms is a poster that outlines the procedure for "Visual Problem Solving." The first step is research, which is essentially asking the students to make sure they know exactly what is expected of them before they begin. This is immediately followed by thumbnail sketches. The visual equivalent to brainstorming, students are encouraged to come up with as many quick, crude sketches of potential ideas as possible. The more thumbnails they generate, the more likely it is they'll end up with something original. From there, we challenge them to try and combine numerous ideas from their thumbnails into a rough draft that will then be worked into their final compositions. We follow this sequence for every project in every class in the hopes that it will become habitual.
I constantly remind my students to not go with "the first thing that falls out of your head and lands on the paper." I try to assure them that your first idea is rarely your best idea. I tell them that this is how "real" artists work and it's not just an annoying chore I make them do for my own sadistic entertainment. In other words, I do my best to convince them that if they do take the time to doodle out twelve ideas, and then combine four or five of those into a rough concept, odds are they will have something truly original.
But why is that important? How do I make the drudgery of slowly developing an idea attractive in comparison to quickly finding something online and then regurgitating it? Our first line of defense is another poster, beautifully crafted by one of our advance students, and emblazoned with the title, "Trite Imagery." Displayed on this poster is an assortment clich__ icons that have been saturated in the public media: peace signs, yin-yangs, hearts, smiley faces, sports logos, cartoon characters, etc. Our general rule is that if it's on the poster, it shouldn't be in your artwork. And although this works fairly well at filtering out a lot of unimaginative thinking, it still does nothing for explaining to them why originality is significant. Restriction alone does lead to understanding.
And that draws us to my awkwardly vulnerable conclusion where I'm forced to admit that this is an area of my profession in which I feel sorely deficient. I have a few token speeches I make at the opportune time that ascribe to the benefits of standing out in a crowd, of thinking for yourself, and being unique. I show them the work of forward thinking artists that challenged the traditions of their times and found their way into the history books. And I try my best to practice what I preach and lead by example. But when it's all said and done, I often feel like they're just not getting it. They're playing along, but their not buying in. I sense that despite my efforts, they are not grasping one of the crucial elements that make the visual arts such a fascinating human experience. And it's in those moments that all I can do is remind myself I have another one hundred and twenty kids coming in next semester, and God willing, I'll have some new ideas.