Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Art of Failure

One of my art students once told me she wanted to paint a desert scene, but was afraid she might mess up.
"What's wrong with messing up?" I asked. "Messing up is what needs to happen from time to time if you want to make art. You are allowed to make mistakes here."
"Really?" she asked.
"Me too?" another student asked with an incredulous giggle.
"You too. If you're too afraid to make mistakes, you won't make much of anything."
"Yay!" the second student exclaimed.

It is a daily battle, trying to help my students understand that the process for learning requires an occasional fail. No baby learns to walk without lots of falls. It's "par for the course." Babies don't quit and refuse to try again. At what age do we become afraid to mess up? Why do we become afraid? Is it a result of constant correcting, public shaming, lowered grades or high stakes testing? I don't know. What I do know is that a crayon mark outside a line will not result in humanity's doom.

Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind if you want to learn how to make mistakes, and make the mistakes count.

1. Forgive quickly, especially yourself.

Growing up, I'd often hear my mom sing, "Oops! I made a mistake that's all." I knew that she'd never make a big deal out of my spilled juice or tube of lipstick run through the laundry. It's part of life. You clean it up and move on. I have learned to forgive myself and others and move on quickly as a result. When a blind student drops a ceramic piece and it breaks, I say, "Looks like we're going to need to clean this up. Would you like me to help you get the broom?"

The first pancake in the batch will probably be runny, the first word written with a new calligraphy pen will be shaky. Even the best of print-makers know that they'll have to toss some of their etchings because the ink wasn't consistent. No big whoop. They always keep extra paper on hand for that very reason.

2. Fail harder!  

When my students let fear prevent them from taking the risks needed to make good art, I tell them that they're not failing hard enough.  It's my rebranded version of "If perchance you don't succeed, try, try again." 

Ira Glass explained it this way, "Nobody tells this to beginners. I wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work get into it because we have good taste. But there is a gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it's just not that good, it's trying to be good, it has potential, but it's not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn't have this special thing we want it to have. We all go through this and if you are just starting out or are still in this phase you gotta know it's normal. And the most important thing you can do is a lot of work." (Italics added).

The book ART AND FEAR discusses a ceramic classroom, in which half the class was to be graded on quality and the other half was to be graded by quantity (weight). Surprisingly, those who were graded by the amount of objects made, ended up with a higher quality product. It takes lots of practice to get good at ceramics. With each piece, they were improving until the end result was better skill and a better product than those who had just spent their time fussing over the quality of a single piece.

2. Rebound (with humor)

Once you see mistakes as part of the process, then you don't need to waste time having a pity party or doubting your ability to ultimately succeed. This allows you to make more work and get to the success part faster. It's call emotional resilience.

In my early twenties, I was a missionary in Japan, and when I'd approach people on the street, they'd almost always wave me away and tell me they were busy.  Instead of throwing in the towel after hours and days and weeks of rejection, I found myself laughing about it. I'd think of myself as part of John Lovitz and Tom Hanks Saturday Night Live skit. Rejection is easier when you don't take yourself too seriously.  Ultimately I tried harder to get through as many rejections as I could, and of course, found many people with sincere interest, during the process.

I am so thankful I learned to be rejected by those few guys (whose names I won't mention here) at Jr. High dances. What a gift to know that rejection or mistakes aren't something from which I can't rebound!

3. Learn from your mistakes.

Sometimes a mistake will end up being a glorious end to itself. The inventions of cornflakes and fudge were results of failed recipes of something else. More often than not, however, our failed recipes end up inedible. My cousin's chickens died as a result of being fed cookies made with cups of salt instead of sugar. When mistakes make a project unsalvageable, don't look at is as a waste of time, look at it as an education. Label the sugar canisters and don't feed the chickens salt.

There is a stark contrast in quality of life between people who seize opportunities to learn from their mistakes and those who do not. If the manuscript turns out to be a dud, determine what made it so lousy (under-developed characters, confusing transitions, lack of description) and be sure to address those issues in the next story you write. Accept reasonable advice from people who know more than you.

Gesso over the failed painting and start fresh with new-found knowledge.

4.  Allow yourself to change course. 

When I left high school I knew I wanted to be an Art major, but I had no idea I'd focus my degrees on printmaking. In fact, I had no idea that printmaking was a thing. One required class is all it took to hook me. This led me to the man who would become my husband and whose job, as a printmaking professor, would bring me to Georgia. I never would have guessed I'd be living in the deep south. It also never occurred to me that I would be teaching art full time at the Academy for the Blind. Why would it? Even though the school had existed for over 150 years, the job of art teacher has only existed there for about five. Every phase of life is a stepping stone to the next phase. Enjoy the journey and don't be too rigid to change directions when an opportunity arises.

Anne Sullivan, the "miracle worker" who taught Hellen Keller said, "Keep on beginning and failing. Each time you fail, start all over again, and you will grow stronger until you have accomplished a purpose-not the one you began with (perhaps) but one you'll be glad to remember."

If you want to try something, try it! There are possibilities to follow that you never realized existed.

5. Fake it until you make it. 

Every time I've had to shift gears and change my course, there has been a learning curve. The only way to learn how to be a mother of three is to be a mother of three. The only way you can learn to be organized is to organize. And even when you've mastered something, you may still feel like you are winging it from time to time. That's not completely unusual.

David Bowie, legendary rock star who died recently said, "I never really felt like a rock singer or a rock star. I always felt a little bit out of my element."

The same student who was afraid to paint a desert scene uses the word "can't" way more than I am comfortable hearing.
"Can you draw this circle for me? I can't draw circles very well," she begged.
"Do you know why I got to be so good at drawing circles?" I ask her. "Because my teacher would't draw them for me. You don't get better at doing something by having someone else do it for you."

Pretend you already know how, and then do it. If it's not perfect, do another one. It's OK. We've got lots of paper.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Dream Catchers Craft

Dream catchers were originally used by the Ojibwa people before they were adopted by other Native American Nations. This woven hoop is to be hung over the bed to catch the bad dreams like a spider catches a fly in her web. The good dreams trickle down through the ribbons and feathers to gently land on the head of the sleeper.

One of my students requested that I assign this project, and i was happy to oblige. i didn't have time to order metal hoops, so we just used some basket weaving supplies, and made our hoops out of reed, wrapping yarn around the outside, and occasionally gluing to make a circle.

We used twine or yarn to tie on the side of the circle and then make stretch it loosely 1/8 of the way around the hoop and loop it around again. After 8 loops, you've got a circle, with an octagon of string. Without cutting and tying, continue around, looping in the middle of each side of the octagon. As the string is pulled snuggly, the straight sides point in. Continue looping inward layer after layer until you reach almost the center. A bead can be added before knotting the end of the string. This is symbolic of the spider in the web.

Three or Four long ribbons can each be folded in half on one side of the hoop, and the ends of each ribbon wrap around and go through the half way fold to make a little hitch. Ribbons can be beaded and then feathers glued onto the end. The beads should pull down over the glued ends for a nicer finish.

Here's to catching the best of dreams and making them come true in this new year!

Student Art Sale Success!

I am constantly looking for ways to motivate my Art students. They don't seem to care very much about grades, in fact, the threat of a bad grade almost always backfires; it makes them feel like I'm an authority figure trying to judge and control them, rather than a teacher trying to help them succeed. I've noticed that they all care about friends and family members, however.

I have some students who will spend twice the effort on a project if they have someone in mind for whom to make their art. An upcoming niece's birthday will give an assignment enough added purpose, in the mind of a student, to make the pieces a superior. Most students will put forth more effort if there's food involved, and almost all are motivated by money.

So I decided this year, we should have a Christmas art sale.

Matt Forrest, a new printmaking professor at Georgia College and State University showed up at my classroom doorstep one day with talent and a desire to volunteer. I mentioned an art sale and he immediately got busy taking pictures of my student's paintings and printing them out. I mounted them onto foam board and shrink wrapped  (AKA plastic wrapped) them for a professional touch.

Matt also printed some copies onto a special paper. He taught my students how to soak their images in water, peal off the plastic portion of the paper and place it on mugs that I had ordered from Crate and Barrel. It takes a little effort to keep the image smooth as it dries, but we managed to keep most in tact, and then we baked them in the oven at about 300 until it became glossy, like the rest of the mug.

We also sold ceramic ornaments displayed on a Christmas tree. Students worked collaboratively glazing and painting ornaments that they didn't necessarily make.

We kept the pricing simple and reasonable. Mugs and prints sold for $10 each and each student got to pocket the money for his/her product while still holding onto the original artwork! The ornaments sold for $2.00 a piece and we earned just enough for a pizza party. Helping students make products they can be proud to display and comfortable marketing is so rewarding for me, as a teacher.