The conversation: On teaching and making art

Ten years ago, teaching art was the last thing in the world I wanted to do.

My thoughts are mine alone, I told myself - my process, my training, my inward arena. The notion of explaining the mechanics of art to anyone didn't interest me.

Since then, I've discovered a new landscape. Far from being a distraction from my work, teaching has become a vital way of crystallizing and streamlining thoughts, sharpening each conceptual tool so that it's as ready to hand as a pencil in the studio - not only the mechanical concepts but the creative ones, too.

But my discoveries go far beyond the benefits of explaining what I know or think I know. Teaching art turns out to be something much larger than myself or my own work. There is an immense opportunity that comes with it to engage with an informal yet genuine community of adults who love art, who feel it in themselves and long to learn about and make it. This is no small thing, and I am witnessing it take shape in my classes.

It taps into and is a part of what I think of as a kind of art ecosystem: a vast, vital circle of learning, viewing, thinking about, appreciating, buying and making art. It includes museum visiting, gallery going, art collecting, fostering and spreading world and local culture, connecting socially both in person and online, and engaging in art conversation that is as vital to the economic and cultural health of the world as it is to the growth and enrichment of individuals.

I think this is especially true now, in the digital age, even as digital platforms for communication facilitate the spreading of art and make conversation about art easier and more exciting. The more people know the language of art, the higher everyone's quality of life and living - and certainly the better for all artists and art-related businesses - which are far more than may come to mind at first.

One student tells me she now thinks about neutral and saturated colors when she shops for clothes. Another said she was able to explain to her niece about value, or relative light and dark, in a photograph. Yet another said the painting class changed her experience of visiting a major museum show because she could see and understand what the artist was doing. Still others get together for Thursday art walk nights. Many have bought pieces of my own work, which they now feel a connection to and say they can 'see' as a result of their art studies. All of this amazes and delights me.

The beauty of sharing an idea is that it expands rather than contracts. Some teachers have secrets. I don't. I share it all. The more I share, the freer I feel in my own work, and the freer I feel to share more. 

In learning to draw and paint, I sometimes remind my class, you tap into a long and rich conversation that runs from the caves of Lascaux to the studio of Amy Sillman, right on into our own studios and beyond.

I offer my students a language in which to participate in the conversation in a real and serious way. It's the language of all the art in the world, and it's the birthright of every person on earth who wants to learn and enjoy it. It ought to be available to anyone who desires it. And so many do - deeply, with all their hearts.

It happens to be the language of my profession and my passion, whether using it or teaching it, and I welcome all who desire to learn it from me. I try to give the building blocks, then get out of the way.

I know that part of my love of teaching is a love of performance - and that my artist's ego is gratified when I see an exercise work and a concept take hold! It is also a feat of endurance sometimes to make it round a room of 10 smart, hard-working adults and be present and energetic with each one. But there is no other way. And the rewards of seeing good work taking hold and individual expression emerging are incomparable to any other job I've ever had. 

What I used to fear - that teaching would somehow infect my own work, that I wouldn't be able to get my own "teaching voice" out of my head, has never materialized.

I go into the studio, close the door, and wander into the woods. As I work and look and put my thoughts down on paper and canvas, there are two voices in the room - mine and the painting's, having a conversation.


Classes at Julia's Studio

Classes at Pratt Fine Arts Center