Teaching Art…. a journey of unexpected rewards

Years ago, when I was just starting my artist journey, a neighbour asked if I would teach her son how to paint. I had never considered becoming an art instructor; I wanted to be an artist, not a teacher. But life has a way of putting things on your path that bring unexpected rewards.

I said yes to this neighbour’s request thinking, I should at least try it. That decision opened a beautiful and fulfilling side of my career as an artist. It rapidly took proportions I didn’t expect. And, go figure, I turned out to be a really good instructor, largely because I love teaching art and I love my students. Today I teach four after school classes a week, one or two adult classes and the occasional community workshop. I limit the numbers of hours I teach to 10 or 12 a week so I can preserve my creative studio time and, so I can always be excited to welcome my students.

Many of the kids I have taught over the years started with me at the age of nine and left when they moved out of town to attend university. And, I feel proud to share that as I am writing this, seven of my former students are studying art in post-secondary school. I believe that my students stay with me for a few reasons other than what I teach them: they know how much I appreciate them, they feel at ease in my studio and they get to work on projects they choose. Most studios or art instructors assign projects to their students. In addition to the insane amount of preparation this requires from the instructor, that way of teaching art doesn’t promote continuous learning.

The only way to become a good painter or drawer or sculptor is to keep doing it. Students rapidly tire of assigned projects and just stop going to class. By allowing them to choose the focus of their creative work, be it the subject or the form, I ensure that they will continue to feel the motivation to come back every week, year after year. That’s how many of them develop strong skills. This way of teaching demands flexibility and availability on the instructor’s part. I never know what my students will want to work on, so I need to be ready for anything. I hate to say no to a project and always want to find a way to make it come together. So I only take six students at a time. That way, I can easily afford to personalize my teaching for each student’s skill level and chosen project.

One of the things I knew an artist should do in order to maintain a life-long career is to build a community of people who appreciate and recognize their work. What I didn’t realize when I took that first teaching contract was that my students and their families would constitute a large part of that community. Because of them, I’ve never felt isolated or ignored. And more importantly, I always feel like I am contributing to the world by making other lives better and more fulfilled. Over the years I’ve received many beautiful testimonials from my students and from their parents that speak of the difference I have made in their lives. They say that I’ve been a positive and enriching presence and contributed to their personal and artistic development.

Two weeks ago I was presented with the Linda Knight Award for my contribution to the Elbow Valley community through art. I am proud of that award and thrilled that my personal passion for art has had so much positive impact on the people around me.

But, as they say, ‘there’s no such thing as a completely selfless act’. Teaching brings me a lot of satisfaction and allows me to keep up to date with the world. My teen students are my social media and technology tutors.  The kids keep me young and they help me see the world as they do, full of possibilities and wonders.

Naively optimistic: the artist’s most important personality trait

“What ultimate quality does an artist have to have in order to succeed?” I could tell that my student’s mom, who was asking this question, was hoping that her son’s talent would be obvious to everyone and be enough to be successful. And that once he had a body of work completed and accepted by a major gallery, his career would take off.

If only it was that simple.

When the way forward is clear, things feel easy.

I thought for a minute and agreed that he does, indeed, have a talent. But I also know a number of gifted artists who gave up their creative careers along the way. Talent is not enough. So I said, “I believe that every artist has to be naively optimistic in order to keep at it. Because he will undoubtedly face rejection after rejection for years to come, and have to define his own practice with very little guidance.”

Any artist will tell you that, for a hundred gallery or project applications he sends out, he will receive only a few positive replies, especially in the first ten years of his career. And now that the web has made finding opportunities easy, this has dramatically increased the number of applicants, and the number of rejections.

He will also have to decide for himself how to find his way through the maze of the art worlds because there are many ways to be an artist – and many ways to make a living at it. He could be a commercial gallery artist who creates work that appeals to home owners and collectors. He can be a public gallery artist who creates experimental work. With in those, he can be a graphic or new media artist, a sculptor, a photographer, a painter or an installation artist. If he studies art in post-secondary school he might get a glimpse of some of those possibilities but, even then, it’s really only a glimpse, and it will require lengthy investigation and introspection to figure out where he might fit.

A lot of times, the way forward is unclear.

He will have to be comfortable with the unknown. There are few veterans of the arts who have the time to show aspiring talents the way forward. He will have to piece his career together as he goes, scavenging information and knowledge where he can find it. He will have to be adaptable throughout his career because most successes are happy accidents that follow relentless dedication and experimentation. Success relies on recognizing and chasing opportunities when they appear. Those opportunities are as much the result of risk taking and quick decision making as they are of planning and a dedicated work ethic.

Today the dramatic changes occurring in the art markets represent new challenges for all artists. The rapid growth of online sales, the decline of gallery sales, the new marketing practices all present new opportunities for the artist. They have the potential to put the power in the hands of the artist, bypassing the system’s validation. But today the artist is hard pressed to invest his energy in the right place at the right time… all the time. Keeping up is almost impossible and by the time he’s figured it out, he’s likely lagging behind the trend.

He will also have to develop an immunity from criticism. He can’t please everyone. As an artist, half the people he meets will dislike his work or be completely indifferent to it. Some might passionately hate it! (I still wonder why people care so much? It’s just paint after all!) There will be times when his best friend or his brother tells him, “I really don’t get what you’re doing,” despite having discussed it many times.

And I’m afraid that early in his career he’ll find himself living in a world that defines success in a very different way than he does. But that’s a subject of its own and better suited for a future blog. So, suffice it to say, if you want to be an artist, you have to be naive enough to face the reality of the art business and not let it get in your way. Most art school graduates around the world don’t last more than a couple of years in the art world. They give up for a number of reasons. To tough it out you have to ignore the difficulties, the unclear destination, the negative feedback, and the isolation due to your work being misunderstood. There’s a huge commitment required to establish your presence as an artist. You just have to keep moving forward in search of answers you may never find.

On good days, we feel that we are exactly where we need to be.

I say all this with no resentment or regrets. Twenty years into it, I love my job and would not trade it for the world. Over the years, an artist’s work leads the way forward and he discovers who he is as a person and as an artist. And as he does, people start taking him seriously and opportunities multiply. That takes time, a lot of it.

For me though, all of that makes the work worth doing. I’m searching, looking for meaning and answers and discovering more about life and about who I am, who we are, along the way. But ultimately, the answers themselves don’t really matter. The thrill of pursuit is what keeps me going. Because being on that quest for meaning is what artists do; it’s the ultimate joy!