Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Welcome to Issue 16 of ProWax Journal

Steven J. Cabral, The Constant Battle Between Me and I, 2016, oil and cold wax on canvas, 40 x 50 inches

Back when I was the Lifestyles Editor at Glamour magazine (it was my day job) we used to say, "Dress for the job you wish to have." The same is true with the art choices available to you. Select the organizations, groups, publications, and institutions for the career you wish to have. If you are happy being an amateur--and let me stress that there's absolutely nothing wrong with being an amateur, i.e. someone who paints for the sheer love of it with no aspiration to making it a career--then by all means align yourself with "encaustic art." But . . .

. . .  if you aspire to be a professional artist, or if you are a professional artist already, then you owe it to yourself to focus on entities with a demonstrated higher aim. No one's twisting your arm to stick with "encaustic art" or, conversely, to venture into the larger art world. The choice is yours. There are many options out there. I would say this: Look at the artists who have the career you wish to have. Where do they show? What groups do they belong to? What events do they attend? What issues are important to them? Let them be your role models.

With that idea in mind, we’ve launched a new feature, Editor’s Choice. I’ve asked our editors and feature writers to select an artist, artwork, exhibition, book, film, or event that interests them. Each issue we’ll feature a few. Not only do we have role models, we feel the responsibility to acknowledge the work of others who, while working in encaustic, are looking beyond the boundary of  "encaustic art." The painting that opens this post is by Steven J. Cabral, a young artist with a finely honed sense of geometric abstraction and damn good painting chops as well. You’ll see more of his work in the feature, as well as short takes on artists who are responding to our current political situation with resistance in art and action. 

Finally, with this issue we launch on a new platform, Blogger. We’re the same ProWax Journal you have come to depend on for information by and for professionals working in wax and encaustic, in more or less the same format. Please bookmark our new URL, www.ProWaxJournal2.blogspot.com, and follow us by email (signup is on the sidebar). But feel free to visit our old site, where Issues 1 through 15 will reside as an accessible archive. I’ve created links to the archived issues from this new site, too.

As always I hope you'll comment on this post or any of the others. We don’t operate in a vacuum. We’d like to hear from you!

And if you like what we're doing. please consider donating to support this publication. The Donate button is on the sidebar. We take no ads and no one gets paid, but sometimes there are bills incurred. Your donations will help us continue. Thank you.
--Joanne Mattera, editor-in-chief

Q&A, Part 1: Material Culture

with Patricia Miranda

By Nancy Natale

Doilies in a variety of colors, dyed with many different natural products, in Patricia Miranda's installation, Laced, at I-ParkEast Haddam, Connecticut, October 2016

Patricia Miranda extends the definition of “practicing artist” by engaging in interdisciplinary roles and projects that bring together art, science, history, and culture. She is an artist who is also a curator; she is an educator who supports and assists artists in developing and empowering their vision and artistic expression. I had heard about her work with artists from several friends who had attended her professional critique classes, but I was largely unaware of the art she makes herself. Her work is a revelation to me since I also work from a basis in materiality.

Patricia’s emphasis on materials begins with the inks, dyes, and paints that she uses to create her work. Those products are not just colorants or the means to an end, but connect her own work to the history and culture of materials that have preceded her. With her art-making, Patricia seeks to poetically translate materials in ways that allow viewers to comprehend meaning in a new and deeper way.

Nancy Natale: I am fascinated by your production of the materials you use to make your work. How did you begin making your own paints, dyes, and inks?

Patricia Miranda: I began working with natural dyes and pigments many years ago through a deep study of the history of art technologies, something I teach about regularly. My research began specifically with medieval panel painting and illuminated manuscripts, still a love for me today, and eventually expanded to a much wider study of art history in both time period and culture. This research was focused on the making or craft side of these works as well as the symbolic meaning attached to the processes by different cultural practices.

Raw materials ready to be prepared into natural dyes and paints. 

My process was to research a painting genre and technique and then replicate it according to the original practice, as a way to get inside the process, the history, and the material. This study gave me extensive experiential knowledge of materials and a deep understanding and intimacy with the language of materials, how they function, feel, look, and express themselves in unique ways. It was a way to get inside the process, the history, and the material, to know it in my body. I think all artists have this relationship to their materials in some way.

It also taught me how paintings were constructed and used historically and the ways in which people utilized indigenous resources alongside imported materials. Because of this lifelong pursuit, you might even call it a love affair, today I can answer almost any question on how paintings or books were made, in just about any time period or place, as well as other genres of artwork such as sculpture, although painting is my main focus. This includes encaustic, for example, and its use in painting going back to Egyptian Fayum portraits. 

NN: How did this study connect you to the history of materials you use?

PM: Throughout the world in every culture, artforms had a common thread in materials used to make them. This seems obvious to me now, that the earth is our common home and resource. Where else would we get materials? And this is true of everything we use, from food to architecture to weapons to art materials. The earth is the only place we can draw from; and everywhere people had stones, bugs, flowers, and clay. There were variations in what was indigenous, imported, traded, and acquired through conquest in distant places. 

Images from the installation Red is the Color of Mourning at MAPSpace featuring interactive preparation of natural red dyes

At the time of my research, the material culture link struck me as a way to form connections between seemingly disparate cultures, time periods, and ideas. It was a way to tell a story of history through the use and movement of materials. This was not to flatten out or make equivalent the ways in which people used these materials or to ignore the inequality of distribution of materials and the conflicts over resources. Rather, it offered a way to explore cultural material as storyteller, as witness to both difference and commonality across the world. I can tell a complex story about both materials and human history through the exploration of cochineal, for example, a scale insect native to Meso-America that traveled the world transforming the dye trade, playing a crucial role in the Spanish invasion and conquest of the Americas.

NN: How do materials influence the content of artworks? 

PM: One aspect that is related to my studio work, and which I consider crucial in teaching art, is how an artwork is enacted through its material language. Each material has its own syntax, its own grammar, its own history, which accompany it when we artists use it as a means to communicate. From my perspective, content is born out of material, not imposed upon it. Every artist finds materials that speak to them, develops a fluency in those materials, and collaborates with them to communicate their vision. Kyna Leski’s book, The Storm of Creativity, talks about the fluency and language of materials in this way, which I found particularly poetic. This includes the physical language of the materials, as well as the cultural, historical, and artistic use.

As an educator, I work with artists to grasp this symbiotic relationship, to explore the inherent content of their material, to speak through the language of that material, or to find material more congruent to their ideas. Artists are meaning-makers; whether working with physical, ephemeral, or conceptual works, material gives us a voice as artists.

NN: What is the significance to your work of the pigments and dyes you make?

PM: At this time in my work, natural pigments and dyes communicate in a language that feels compatible with my ideas, and within which I can continually investigate and expand my grammar of communication. I don’t use a material because it has some imagined purity or is easily beautiful or has historical significance. A material on its own does not make it art. New meaning needs to be created through an interaction, an intervention, a transformation, or a juxtaposition. We need to interrogate our materials, figure out their limitations and expansions, see how they align with our content, how they inform and differ, and test them into new meaning. However, the work has to be free to become autonomous—collaborating with materials without a preconceived end allows that to happen and helps prevent the work from being over-determined or didactic.

NN: I think it’s important to note that your work has many more layers of meaning to which your mediums add and support. Would you speak about the derivation and history of oak gall ink, for example, as a major material reference?

PM: Oak galls are the source for one of history's most common inks, from ancient times up to the 20th century. Oak gall ink was used for the Dead Sea Scrolls, for all European manuscripts before the printing press, for historic documents such as the Declaration of Independence, and for Hebrew Torah, which is still written with oak gall ink. It was also used as dye for cloth and carpets.

Oak gall and leaf
Image from the Internet

Found wherever oak trees grow, the oak gall is caused by an infestation from the oak wasp, which deposits its eggs on the branches and leaves of oak trees. The tree reacts by forming a gall around the eggs; the wasp gestates and then bores a hole in the gall to escape. Oak galls are high in tannins and gallic acid, and make a beautiful iron-gallic dye. In fact the word “ink” comes from the Latin word encaustum which means to burn in (also the root for encaustic), because iron-gallic dye is caustic and eats away at any surface. You can see this in illuminated manuscripts, where the text seems to be eating into the parchment. A palimpsest, for example, is something that was made possible because of iron-gallic ink, as pages written with this ink on animal skin parchment were often scraped and written over. Since the ink “bites” into the surface, scientists can x-ray the pages to read the earlier scraped-away text beneath. This ink was also used as a dye for cloth and carpets; its caustic effects can help authenticate ancient carpets because of the way it wears away the fibers. Oak gall ink was used all over the world and in the west until the 20th century.

A shelf of oak galls and a wall of drawings in Witness, Elegy of Forgetting 

NN: Your installation, Witness, Elegy of Forgetting, brings alive the cultural significance of oak gall ink in a dramatic and evocative way. Would you tell us about it?

PM: This project was exciting, as I was able to explore in a deeper way the idea of material as witness. Witness, Elegy of Forgetting, posits the oak gall as silent witness and participant in the writing and recording of history. It is my way of exploring the ongoing destruction of libraries in war and conflict. Since I was creating an artwork that used historical narratives but was not a historical document, it was important to find poetic ways to make visible the links between history being recorded, then obliterated, and of new histories being written. As artists, we create the circumstance for the encounter so that the viewer may find their own way to meaning. 

Two views of Witness, Elegy of Forgetting, 2014, mixed media installation

In the Witness installation, a sixteen-foot scroll catalogued my research of every library recorded as being destroyed or severely damaged in human conflict, going back to the Library of Alexandria and continuing to early 2014, when I exhibited the project. (Libraries are still being destroyed, sometimes as collateral damage, sometimes in a deliberate attempt to rupture a culture.) Over the scroll hung a glass separatory funnel filled with ink made from oak galls, which dripped from the funnel onto the scroll, "re-writing" a new history. Drawings on calfskin vellum prepared for Torah explored the oak gall, its scientific properties, and the recipe for ink. Small magnifiers on one wall depicted photographic images of actual library destruction from the 20th century, including from World Wars I and II, as well as Sarejevo and Kuwait. On another wall was a shelf displaying oak galls in their natural state.

Three views of magnifiers from the Witness installation showing destroyed libraries

With the Witness project, I used the humble oak gall as a metaphorical lens through which to consider this history, utilizing the effect of this odd, parasitical insect that doesn’t make its own nest but causes the tree to make it. That nest, or gall, has been transformed into ink and used to record human history for more than two thousand years, up to the 20th century. I am interested in an expanded project that uses materiality as a way to view larger stories, and to reveal how we are not separate from nature, culture, and history, but embedded actively and continually within it.

NN: I am interested in the way you transform found or repurposed artifacts such as books and doilies by placing them in different contexts. Would you speak about your installation of doilies during your residency at I-Park as well as the way you were able to gather and employ natural ingredients on site for your color?

Paths through the woods of I-Park traced with cochineal-dyed doilies in the installation, Invasive

PM: I was so fortunate to be awarded the residency at I-Park in East Haddam, Connecticut, last October. What an amazing place run by the most generous and supportive people on the most beautiful piece of land. I can’t recommend it enough! 

Dyed doilies bound to trees with oak gall-dyed twine in the I-Park installation, Tethered 

My doily project was in some ways a big surprise for me. I had brought a number of different projects to explore while there, not expecting the doily one to become important or even thinking at all about putting them outside, although in hindsight this seems an obvious idea.

I had a whole group of family linens and lace, some possibly going back to Italy from my grandmother, and others I’d been given, collected, or bought. I wanted to do something with them but wasn’t sure what. Doilies seemed such an incongruent language for me at the time, but I couldn’t get them out of my head. I started dying them with cochineal, indigo, turmeric, and brazilwood, to see what might emerge. On many walks around the land at I-Park, as the seasons were changing and the colorful landscape was fading to grey, I felt that the doilies began to demand that I take them out into the landscape.

I did several different projects: one called Invasive with many small, circular doilies, all dyed crimson with cochineal, laid throughout pathways on the land. Another, Tethered, used triangular doilies sewn together and tied to large trees, totem-like, with twine dyed with oak gall dye from galls I collected on the property. The third, Laced, was a whole group of doilies of different shapes—square, circular, triangular— dyed in many colors from cochineal, indigo, brazilwood and turmeric, that I strung taut between a series of trees. The trees by that time were grey and leafless; so these projects punctuated the landscape in an interesting way. It was a fruitful beginning and I plan to explore and push this idea further in the future.

Detail from Miranda’s installation, Laced, at I-Park

In the next issue of ProWax Journal, the Q&A with Patricia Miranda will continue. In Part 2 of our conversation, Artist-Run Culture, she will speak about other influences on her work and about the ways that artists can shape their goals and lives.

Patricia Miranda is an artist, educator, and curator using interdisciplinary projects to make connections between art, science, history and culture. She is founder of MAPSpace, a project space in Port Chester, NY, where she founded a Collaborative Workspace Residency Program. Patricia has been Visiting Artist at Vermont Studio Center, the Heckscher Museum, University of Utah, Purchase College SUNY, and has been awarded residency fellowships at I-Park, Weir Farm, and Vermont Studio Center. She received a grant from ArtsWestchester/New York State Council on the Arts, and was part of a year-long NEA grant working with homeless youth. Patricia is Practitioner-in-Residence in the BFA program at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts of the University of New Haven, and is leading Lyme’s inaugural study abroad program in Prato, Italy, for Spring 2017.

Patricia is faculty in the MFA program at New Hampshire Institute of Art, and teaches curatorial studies in the MFA program at Western Colorado State University. She served as director and curator of the gallery at Concordia College - New York from 2008-12. Patricia also develops education programs for K-12, museums, and institutions, including Franklin Furnace, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Institution. She has exhibited at Wave Hill, Bronx, New York; Castle Hill Center for the Arts, Truro, Massachusetts; Cape Cod Museum of Fine Art, Dennis, Massachusetts; the Belvedere Museum, Vienna, Austria; Metaphor Contemporary Art, Brooklyn, New York; and Kenise Barnes Fine Art, Larchmont, New York.

Patricia will be the juror for the 11th International Conference exhibition, Sense of Place, at Castle Hill Center for the Arts. At the Conference she will present an interactive talk on Professional Practice and will critique work for a limited number of artists. Patricia will also teach a week-long workshop, Paint Explorations with Natural Dyes & Pigments, at Castle Hill in July. Consult the conference schedule on the Castle Hill website for times and availability. 


By Deborah Winiarski

With no beginning and no end, the circle represents – across time and cultures – perfection, inclusion, wholeness, the Self, harmony, the infinite. The circle protects and unites, confining what’s within and keeping out the unwanted. The circle and the curve imply movement – the planets’ journeys around the sun, the cycles of life and the seasons, the perpetual motion and energy of all that moves, the rhythm of the universe.  It is no wonder that, over the centuries and around the globe, humankind, in its search for the spiritual, has included circles and curvilinear forms in created objects, icons, architecture and art.

Fanne Fernow

Fanne Fernow, Nimbus 30: You're Killing Me, 2015, encaustic on panel, 12 x 12 inches

“My work is prayer and meditation.  I use copious dots to honor the holiness I see in the world. I love mantras, repetition of sounds, images, ideas that become larger and more important with each glance.  It is prayer with a backbeat.”


Ruth Hiller

Ruth Hiller, intersection, 2015, pigmented beeswax on panels, 24 x 42 inches

“Having been schooled in a rigorously minimalist fashion, I am driven to create “outside of the standard straight edged box”. Soft Geometry juxtaposes my interest in geometry and my desire to deconstruct strict parameters. I search for the curved intersection of nature and geometry through my use of materials and shapes.”


Nancy Ferro

Nancy Ferro, Greenpiece, 2013; found papers, found objects, graphite and beeswax on wood; 22 x 22 inches

“My favorite quotation is a fragment written by Isaac Bashevis Singer, ‘...the patterns of continuous creation.’ Using a variety of both found and common materials, I draw from the past to create the present. This juxtaposition of past and present, both visual and conceptual, is at the essence of my work.”


Binnie Birstein

Binnie Birstein, What Lies Beneath: pool, 2012; encaustic and india ink on panel; 48 x 36 inches. Photo: Patrick Vingo

“Mixing and combining opposites, playing with analogies and ambiguity, I create a distorted mix of reality, imagination, and space. My work is dark, ambiguous, and dream-like. Feelings of dissonance with a sense of mystery and unease prevail. What Lies Beneath is a series of work all about energy and spatial ambiguity.”


Amy Ellingson

Amy Ellingson, Variation: blue, 2014; oil and encaustic on two panels; 78 x 72 inches.
Photo: John Janca/Artbot Photography

“My work is an attempt to confront the enormity of contemporary virtual experience while asserting the traditional, historic, human activity of painting. Using ephemeral, computer-generated images exclusively as my source material, I create paintings that physically assert themselves through the materiality and permanence of historical painting media.”


Lynda Ray

Lynda Ray, Turntable, 2016, encaustic on panel, 12 x 12 inches

“My paintings are containers of time with overlapping transparent layers of color forming a whole. Organic, geometric shapes and space vie for dominance. My process sometimes produces unexpected contours like the curve of the macrocosm, which is bent by mass and energy.”


Deborah Kapoor

Deborah Kapoor, Bloodlines, 2015; encaustic prints on paper mounted to wood circles;
20 x 7 x 3 inches

“I am interested in the connection between nature and the body. In the Slash and Burn series, I consider the process of transformation from one state to another, as it relates to temporal metaphors of geological forms and human emotions.”


Corina S. Alvarezdelugo

Corina S. Alvarezdelugo, Introspectus, 2015; cast encaustic, artist-made paper, and mixed media on found object; 12 inches in diameter x 10 inches deep. Photo: Christopher Gardner

“While working on this recent series, I imagined myself detached from existence, self-reflecting on what was happening around me. I found myself questioning my future path. I foresaw changes. During this time of introspection and repair, rehabilitation happened as the work evolved.”


Essential Questions: Artist Fatigue

Edited by Jane Guthridge

Those high gallery desks can feel  intimidating. That's by design. They're a form of protection for the gallerists who wish to be in the gallery without engaging with each person who comes through the door
Photo: Andy Freeberg from his series, Sentry

At the 10th International Encaustic Conference, Miles Conrad described a situation he calls “artist fatigue”—the exhaustion art dealers and editors feel after meeting so many artists eager, even desperate, to get their attention. We asked ProWax members to respond. Brian Goslow, managing editor of the New England-based Artscope magazine, gave the most cogent response, which we share here.

"Responding from the standpoint of being the managing editor of Artscope magazine, I can certainly sympathize with those overcome with the feeling of “fatigue” that comes from what seems like an endless parade of requests for coverage. As we head towards our 11th anniversary, there can be up to 100 emails a day to review and consider along with the writing, editing, story planning and social media postings for any given day.

“Much as a gallery has only so many exhibition slots in a given period (or, if they’re in the early stages of business, are looking for a set number of artists for their roster), we have approximately 25 story spots for each issue, covering a two month period and the six New England states. We try to spread the coverage over as many different genres as possible and as many different venues as possible. I suspect the answer of the question how to get our attention is much the same as it would be for a gallery: Take your best shot but don’t overdo it because the more material you “throw” at someone, the more they might be inclined to ‘get to it when I have the time.’

“For me, the main question I’m asking during my daily email review is, Where might this fit into our magazine coverage? A simple and clear subject line that has the artist’s name, genre, theme of show, venue and show dates is most helpful because I’m making an initial, quick decision on whether it’s a show I could see covered in an upcoming issue magazine (thus moving the email into a file for the months of the matching issue) or into a week-by week-collection of folders for potential social media coverage.

“Approximately seven weeks prior to our next issue, I review all the press releases we’ve received up to that point and make a first selection of shows I think would make for a strong issue. An artist I’m already familiar with that I’ve wanted to get in the magazine, or whose work I’ve seen a number of times in person, will always get extra consideration. (In terms of relating to the Pro-Wax group, visiting the International Encaustic Conference exhibitions always puts those artists whose work is on view onto my radar so that if I see they’re having or part of a show, I’ll do some follow up.)

“So you’ve got our attention (or a gallery’s initial attention). How do you hold it? If you’ve got a Facebook, Instagram or Twitter page, try to post something on a regular basis that allows those interested in your work to follow its progression, growth, shifts, and your new projects. Going on a residency or having your works shown at a major exhibition or fair? Tell us! Tell everyone! There are times I haven’t had the opportunity to cover an artist I was fond of because they hadn’t had a show, but did get that opportunity as part of a larger overview article. It also shows those galleries you’re trying to attract that you’re serious about your work, career and always striving to grow and find new opportunities.

“On Instagram, it’s important to test which hashtags grab people’s attention; one would expect #encaustic would grab the crowd here but it might also capture the fine-tuned collector for a specific genre that you’ve never heard of; similarly, gallery owners or directors looking to fill roster holes or who are interested or looking for specific kinds of works may also see your work. Much like the buyer who’ll know what he or she wants when they see it, you can’t reach that person if they can’t see your work.”

Inset above: Cover of the April/May issue of Artscope


Secrets, ideas and advice

We close with Goslow’s “little secret” and some advice from other colleagues.

Brian Goslow
I’ve found that posting towards the end of the day, the period when a gallery’s work may be done for the day but it will be open for another hour or two — especially on Sundays — they’ll be browsing Instagram to see what’s new. Where some social media “superstars” can get thousands of “likes” and “hearts,” I’ve come to find galleries and museums will only click that button if they truly like a work. For me, from an editor’s standpoint, it’s a great tool to get professional response to an artist and their work, especially if I feel my positive response might be due to knowing that person or having a familiarity with that work. And if you see a gallery or museum “likes” or “hearts” your work, it can’t hurt to send them a follow up email or note letting them know you noticed . . .  and ask them if you could send them a link to or package of your work as a larger introduction.

Shana Dumont Garr, director, Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Massachusetts
A few ideas:
1. Be easy to find, with an up-to-date website
2. Stay up to date on social media, especially Instagram
3. Be really thoughtful and even sparing about whom you reach out to, and personalize emails and letters
4. I have heard from some artists who get pretty good coverage that sending a paper press packet to journalists gets more responses than a digital press packet.

Dan Addington, artist and owner of Addington Gallery, Chicago
Know when it’s cool to talk about your work and when it’s not. Talk to me about painting—not your painting—but the work in the gallery, or art history. I might then ask you, “Are you an artist? What kind of art do you make?” By all means respond when the gallerist opens that door. And know how to talk about your work. My conversational firewall is moveable, because I’m also trying to approach collectors on behalf of my artists, and I don’t know initially who’s an artist and who’s a collector.

Wendy Haas, private dealer, Chicago:
Be respectful. Don't corner me and monopolize my attention. You cannot hound your way into a successful dealer relationship. Definitely keep your website current, keep me up to date on your work (press releases, show cards, emails).  In particular, I enjoy seeing exhibition/installation shots—context is very informative. But accept that "no" could easily have nothing at all to do with how much I like your art.

Even if we are not formally working together, I value being considered your colleague and want to feel like I can engage with you without pointed expectations. That is far more likely to make me comfortable reaching out to you in the future regarding opportunities with me or anywhere else that might interest you.

Joanne Mattera, artist and editor of ProWax Journal:
That high desk separating you from the dealer can appear daunting, but if in conversation the dealer steps out from behind it to chat informally, you know you have made a connection. Where it will lead, who knows? Proceed collegially but respectfully. My colleagues here have offered some great advice. I’d add this: Whether in conversation or in writing, keep any request short and accept a no (or even a non response). As an art blogger and occasional exhibition curator and juror, I've had artists email me to ask accusingly, "Why didn't you include my work?" That passes the line from artist fatigue to artist abuse.

In Five Words: Linda Cordner

Curated by Debra Claffey
In Five Words is a regular feature of ProWax Journal in which we go literal, lyrical, and poetic. Visual art does not exist in a vacuum, it sings along with poetry and prose, music and rhythm. Each issue we ask our feature artist to comment on one of their works with five single words, chosen to add meaning and highlight intent.

Pulled Under, encaustic on board, 24 x 24 inches


Art/Community/Education: The Art of Teaching

By Milisa Galazzi

I’m back with a new name for my column. What was Artist Communities is now Art/Community/Education (Art/Com/Ed for short) to better reflect a broader range of ideas. This new column focuses on individual art makers, the ways they/we work together, and how we share what we know.  For this piece, I asked four accomplished artists, who are also successful art educators, to consider my questions about the art of teaching. Toby Sisson and Sara Mast teach semester-long courses in the university setting, while David A. Clark and Lisa Pressman teach entrepreneurially in multiple-day workshops in art settings across the county as well as internationally.

Toby Sisson with student
"The gift for me in being a teacher lies in doing work that facilitates a deep engagement with the practice of art making and supporting students who want to generate their own vision and practice."

Milisa Galazzi: How do you define the art of teaching?

Toby Sisson To answer this question, I will share a favorite quote from The Art of Teaching by Jay Parini, an educator for over 40 years. Parini begins his book by asserting, “A teacher is charged with waking students to the nature of reality, providing rigorous introduction to a certain discipline, and creating an awareness of their responsibility as citizens trained in the art of critical thinking.”

Sara Mast I take what I do seriously and reject art being tossed off lightly as ‘fun.’ My view is that the creative intelligence at the root of art making (and of creativity in every field) transforms society and culture in profoundly significant and life-altering ways.

David A. Clark The art of teaching is about helping students get out of their own way. I want to help my students see the path of their work and how their work fits into a much grander world. It’s my job to push them off the edge and also to be their parachute.

MG: Some educators say that 'teaching is a gift.' What does this mean to you?

Sisson The gift for me in being a teacher lies in doing work that facilitates a deep engagement with the practice of art making and supporting students who want to generate their own vision and practice. The relationships I’ve developed around a shared passion for art have sustained me in ways that other connections have not. Among my closest friends are classmates and professors from undergraduate and graduate school. And I’ve been fortunate to have friendships with several former students that have endured the passage from novice to colleague.

Clark I believe that teaching is an honor, not a gift. With that honor comes a lot of hard work. I feel a huge responsibility to my students because they are paying a lot of money to study with me. I want to give them everything I can offer. That is hard work. It’s also the most deliciously rewarding work!

MG: When a student and a teacher truly connect, magic can happen. Describe that magic from your own experience.

Pressman For me the magic happens when a student has the Aha moment—the moment of recognition, realization, and connection when thought, emotion, process, and materials are all in sync.

Clark  I had a student a few years ago who had one of these moments right at the start of a class. I knew immediately. She was using the materials in ways that were completely her own, and the work she was making was off the charts. I went to her workstation and said, “What you are doing is really special. Can you feel that?“ and she said, “Yes.” So I said, “ I’m going to continue to teach the class and I hope you watch what we are doing but do not  interrupt the flow of what you are doing. Feel free to ask questions and to ask for help, but keep doing what you are doing.”

Sisson  I feel a special connection to my students who are most engaged with their artwork. Almost every year, there is a student (or more than one, if I am lucky) who demonstrates insatiable curiosity and fearless ambition to pursue their inquiry wherever it might lead. They do not focus on grades or worry about what the other students might think of their ideas. They are seemingly possessed by the spirit of art making and answer only to the work itself. This, in turn, inspires me with magical optimism.

Mast  When I walk into the classroom I am engaged and ready to collaborate with students to take their work to the next level. My enthusiasm and excitement for their process of discovery creates a supportive atmosphere where every mark, be it hesitant or confident, is cause for celebration. Everyone's voice is important, and I emphasize that it's not about 'what' they paint, it's about 'how.'

MG: When students are in an emotionally safe teaching and learning environment, they tend to grow at a faster rate. How do you make your teaching and learning environment emotionally safe?

Pressman  I begin my workshops sitting in a circle where everyone introduces themselves to the group. This usually gets rid of the nervous energy and creates a cohesive learning environment. Early on in my workshops, I spend about an hour facilitating quick visual warm up exercises. This group activity really helps the students get out of their heads and into their work. In addition, good humor helps so much in creating an emotionally safe space!

" I describe my classroom as a lab where the freedom to experiment is most important."

Lisa Pressman

Sisson I am careful to create an environment where everyone’s humanity is respected; self deprecating talk is discouraged in my classroom. I am a strong supporter of artistic freedom. Although viewing particular works of art or discussing challenging ideas may make some students uncomfortable, the growth that comes from moving past perceived boundaries is valuable. Truly great art is always disruptive on some level and should seek to question our most deeply held beliefs, not simply reinforce the status quo or become simply decorative.

That said, the construction of an emotionally safe space lies in the approach one takes in preparing students to do the hard work of challenging themselves and others. Being respectful and open is a first step in modeling the type of learning environment I hope to create. Expecting and accepting a certain amount of discomfort when confronting change is another way to create a safe learning space. Finally, understanding that moving across difference is the work of a well lived life, despite the emotional risk involved.

Mast  My course structure aims at providing my students with a strong scope and sequence of skill building and conceptual underpinning, one layered upon the other as one builds layers in a painting. My pedagogy supports and encourages both divergent and convergent thinking and making.

Clark  This is a difficult question to answer because each student has different needs and different levels of bravery. I tell my students that there are no rules except the rules of health and safety. If my students have an impulse to do something, as long as it is not dangerous, then I encourage them to do it! The gold always comes from exploring the what-ifs. The only thing wrong as an artist is not following your instincts. I tell my students that as an artist, your ideas may work and they may not, but there is no shame in trying them out. Mistakes and failures will happen and sometimes they lead to gold! Failure is a temporary state of being and success is forever.

MG: What are the markers of a student struggling to learn and grow in your classroom? And what do you do to support such a student?

Sisson  Encouraging a struggling student often requires addressing the whole person rather than just the problem at hand. If a student does not complete a project, or has repeated absences, or is frequently inattentive, it is usually a symptom of a bigger issue that likely does not have anything to do with art making. When see this, I will talk with the student individually and suggest that s/he seek the services of the campus counseling program. I do not feel equipped to diagnose or treat emotional illnesses and I trust the professionals to assist troubled students.

Mast I make every effort to foster student initiative and serve as an inspiration. I work one-on-one with students during each class so that I can best assist them in expressing their unique intentions and aspirations.

Clark Usually a struggling student will make jokes or share self-deprecating remarks. S/he might make frustration sounds or retreat from the group. Additionally, the pace of art making slows when a student is struggling. Frustrated students labor over things and tend to second guess their choices or attempt to find the 'right' way to do something instead of their own way.

Pressman I can see when a student is struggling because it often  looks like frustration and sounds like a lot of sighing. I will spend some alone time with these students trying to pinpoint where the frustration is coming from. Sometimes I will do some kind of demo with them, or change their focus—suggest they paint with their  eyes closed, for example. I also may ask them to stop working and walk out of the studio. Sometimes the point of the lesson is to simple get through that frustration!

“It is my job to push [my students] off the edge and to also be their parachute.”
–David A. Clark

MG: We’ve talked about struggling students. Now let’s address successful students. How do you identify them,? And how do you continue to challenge them? 

Sisson  As a teacher I am very mindful of process as well as product in the classroom. Successful students are willing to abandon themselves to the process of learning more readily than those who are focused on achieving a pre-determined outcome. Successful students are not as concerned with seeking my approval as much as they are interested in collaborating with me to find solutions to the questions they develop around their own work. I continue to challenge successful students by asking them to go deeper, not just broader, in their pursuit of knowledge. When they hit on a topic that sparks their creative energy, it is vital that they explore that as fully as possible. Learning to stay with something, rather than moving on to the next shiny bead of an idea is often difficult, though it is essential to developing an authentic voice.

Clark  When students are experiencing success, there is a kind of ease to the pace of their work. There is a heightened level of focus and a fluidity between the way they look at the work and the way their hands engage with the materials. When students are on to something their pace quickens yet there seems to be a cloak of intimacy to the way they work. Even after I leave the room, successful students will often remain present in their own space with the materials and their ideas. 

Pressman  I can usually see when a student is totally engaged because s/he will produce more and more work and exhibit no frustration, just pure joy. I will challenge a successful student with prompts such as,  'Now use colors that you have not used before' or 'Now limit your palette,' or I will simply give them a concept to spin off on.

Mast Successful students generate their own energy and passion for their work. I am there to cheer them on and support their creative flow. They want the feedback--they want to grow. They are not afraid to dig deep both with me and with their peers on what more the work requires. Open dialog and fresh ideas percolate in a classroom where strong students are role models for their peers. It is thrilling to watch student self-consciousness drop away when experimentation and a sense of play are activated through a communal commitment to trust the process.

MG: Exceptional teaching requires extraordinary patience and focus. How do you nurture yourself as a teacher?

Sisson  I love making art. Sharing that enthusiasm with others is a great joy for me and comes rather easily. Effective teaching, however, is something that I have learned over time. I was quite purposeful in college and graduate school, paying close attention to how information was communicated most successfully by my teachers. Halfway through my education, I decided I wanted to be an artist/educator and though I did not yet know what form that combination would take, that goal became part of my life plan. I sought out mentors among my professors. I was candid about my goals and emulated my role models. 

As for nurturing myself as a teacher, I do not think of my work as a job but, rather, as an important part of my identity, one that requires self-care every bit as much as the other parts of my being.

Mast My own research passion for interdisciplinary exchange and creative practice in ‘artscience’ gave rise to the design of a new Honors course, Radical Creativity, a teamtaught course with my colleagues in Physics and Architecture. As S.B. Kaufman, the New York University cognitive psychologist and creativity researcher, states, "Openness to experience is consistently the strongest predictor of creative achievement." The cultivation of intellectual curiosity and openness to new experience is fundamental to my teaching philosophy.

Clark I stay at the top of my game by not teaching too much. I would rather teach three awesome classes a year than eight mediocre ones.

Pressman  I learn from every interaction I have with students. Each workshop I teach helps me to tweak, develop, and focus what will come next both in my teaching and in my own art making. When I am not teaching, I am in the studio. That back-and-forth of teaching and painting is continually fulfilling and informative to me and my students. Additionally, I take weeklong workshops myself from time to time, because I think being a student helps me be a better teacher.

"I believe that my enthusiasm about teaching and learning creates a productive learning environment that gives each student an opportunity to grow, evolve, and uncover his/her own voice and vision."
--Sara Mast

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