Friday, January 15, 2016

Practice as a Container for Process

In my last post I wrote about the relationship between product, process and practice in art.
Currently, I have committed to making something everyday for a year as a way to encourage myself to practice (  For a visual artist, practice is about making things.
Much of my thinking about practice comes from watching artists in other disciplines.  I especially think about musicians for whom practice and repetition seems more natural language. As part of their process of learning to play instruments, my children are required to practice. At the end of the practice session, they don't have a something but they have the benefit of having spent more time with their instrument and with a piece of music.  Sometimes they even just play around with sounds and rhythms they can make with their instruments.  We count this as practice too - it's all part of learning about music as a language and the particulars of an instrument.
For visual art, we play with materials and techniques.  And, as with music practice, there is great benefit to repetition and familiarity with materials.  Practice includes not just the doing but the planning, set up, and clean up of an art experience.  Just as my son playing the violin needs to learn to care for his instrument, beginning artists learn to care for tools and materials.  This means that artists not only enjoy the flow and mix of colors on the page but they are part of getting out tools for painting, setting up a work space, and taking brushes to be washed when a painting is complete.
As I work with organizations to share a practice oriented way of working, the routines around how materials are used and cared for are as important as the work with materials.  Recently, a preschool teacher told me how much her class is enjoying clay and how much she enjoys the time too.  She said it really helps that the kids have a role in cleaning up and setting up the experience.  They work with clay often enough that this has become routine.  With young children, work with clay is about the process.  They create with the clay but do not save their creations as products.  Clay used this way is great for young children because it allows them to just focus on the process.  The practices around adding water to store the clay and cleaning up tools, table and hands are the same ones used in a potting studio.  Having these practices in place helps kids grow up with the material and eventually transition from manipulation and exploration to making pots and sculptures.
The practices are also the key to the teacher's enjoyment of the time with clay.  When routines are in place to ground the work with materials, the children take more ownership of their making and the teacher can be more present to really witness and enjoy the process.  The work up front to put routines in place pays off in richer experiences and deeper attention to work as children grow in their practice.
Contrast this with a classroom where clay is brought out just once as a special experience.  The teacher does all the set up and then sends the children out to play so she can really clean the classroom.  The process of the kids with clay that happens in the middle is very similar in both situations.  However, the kids who head out to play without being part of clean-up miss out on the chance to build the habits of a practice.  It is also no surprise that the clay only comes out once; it's a fun process but is also messy and potentially exhausting for the teacher.
Process-oriented activities offered in this way can also run the risk of feeling like a packaged experience offered to the kids for their consumption.  It easily develops into kids asking, "So now what?" as in "what ELSE do you have to entertain me?"  I quickly learned that the best answer to "I'm DONE!" was "What is it you need to do next?"  By having a routine in place for clean-up, I encouraged kids to slow down a bit and turned the table on them for what's next with a chance to practice our habits for caring for materials.  Similarly, when they were ready to begin something new in the studio, I could ask, "What do YOU need to get to be ready for paint?"  (A jar of water, brush and towel.)  Once children had these routines in place I could then allow them freedom to choose where to work and move from one activity to another with greater freedom.  Practices set up a structure to optimize creative freedom for participants and allow for a greater attention to process.

Some of my best examples for building practices in the studio and in classrooms come from the wonderful and generous art teachers who make up the list serve group Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB).

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