Tales from the Art Side Art Blog
Originally published March 29, 2008 http://artid.com/members/mize/blog/
I have found that one of the unexpected by-products of being a professional educator is that I'm also afforded the unique opportunity to be a professional learner. It has been my experience when teaching kids art, that with a sufficiently open mind and a healthy amount of humility, I have a chance nearly everyday to learn something from the same students I'm there to instruct.
What's even more fascinating is the variety with which these occasions present themselves. Sometimes it will be in the unique perspective and clever thinking of an individual student. Or it might be something I overhear while two kids exchange ideas and offer each other advice. Very often, student performance on various projects is a great venue for gaining valuable information.
However, the most common source for me to glean a nugget of wisdom, is by observing student trends. I don't mean trends in a fashion context (don't even get me started on that!) but rather behaviors or situations that invariably occur every semester regardless of the particular roster of students. For each trend I usually have one or two prepared "speeches" that I give when that specific situation arises. These dialogues evolve and revise themselves with each new delivery, and it is the frequency with which I make these speeches that will often yield some new insight about art and life.
The talk I seem to give with the greatest regularity is the "When Things Go Wrong Speech". Despite their rugged facades and intimidating sarcasm I find that most teenagers are a bundle of self-conscious anxieties mixed with hormones. Nothing seems to unsettle those adolescent nerves quite like an unexpected ink spot or a misplaced brushstroke. And so the speech begins reassuringly while we start brainstorming possible solutions.
Although they don't often believe me right away, I tell them that mistakes are actually a very important part of the procedure when making art. I try to convince them of the fact that we stand to learn far more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. Mistakes are a gold mine of priceless information! They force us to find new solutions and devise plans that we hadn't originally intended, and very often, these can be more stimulating than our original ideas. I like to refer to these moments as "Happy Accidents" (I can't recall, but I think I may have got that from Bob Ross and his "happy little trees".)
Mistakes, I explain to them, teach us how to adapt and go with the flow. They force us to engage in creative problem solving, which is a great activity for flexing your imagination muscles. With the right perspective, mistakes can be an unexpected invitation for personal discovery because they challenge us to confront our notions of good and bad, right and wrong. Adopting a positive outlook to mistakes is a necessity for anyone wanting to seriously explore working in the visual arts because, as we all know, mistakes are simply unavoidable. They are the inevitable sour gift of the art making process.
I tell my students that I can't think of a single piece of artwork I've ever made where something didn't go wrong along the way and I had to find a way to "fix" it. Sometimes I'll share the story of Robert Rauschenburg's award winning print Accident which was made from an accidently broken lithograph stone. Or Marcel Duchamp, who worked on his sculpture The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even for nearly eight years and only considered it "complete" after its large sheets of plate glass were accidently broken while being moved. All these stories seek to illustrate the point that, artistically speaking, accidents can be enlightening.
While in the midst of sharing these thoughts with a student one day, it occurred to me that this same speech could be removed from the context of art and applied very effectively to the subject of life skills. Students are going to encounter far worse trials and tribulations outside of my art room than they will in it. If I could introduce them to a new attitude for confronting accidents, it could potentially be of great service to them someday. It is that very epiphany that has rejuvenated my enthusiasm for giving the "When Things Go Wrong Speech". And now each ill-placed mark and unintended smudge becomes an opportunity for me to offer up a lesson to the student, and a reminder to myself: In both art and life, success is often determined largely by how we react, when things go wrong.