Monday, January 18, 2016

Practice and Peer Relationships

I've been thinking lately about how space to practice holds space for relationships among practitioners even at very different developmental levels.  If it's about how you perform or the product you make, it quickly becomes hierarchical - some are better than others.  We connect when we relate as practitioners.  I think of a beautiful moment at a music concert when a world class cellist signed her CD to my son, a beginner.  She wrote, "to a fellow cellist."  They both practice the same art and she chose to relate to him around practice.
It seems to me we need spaces to relate around practice rather than responsibility or position.
I have spent a lot of time facilitating groups for adults and kids together in the studio.  It is the uniqueness of the relationships with the adults I remember the most.  I got to know adults through their relationships with kids and with materials.  There was an intimacy in the way we shared the vulnerability of exploring in a child-like manner while creating.  
In the studio the focus was on the here and now and often work time was marked by quiet concentration.  It could be several months of working together before I would learn about the occupations of the adults in the class.  The one I remember most vividly was a high school principal. If I'd learned that when I first met him I might have been intimidated or made assumptions about him. I got to know him first just as a dad making stuff with his daughter - no authority - just there as a peer.  I think it may have been a gift to him in some way too.  If I'd begun the first class with everyone introducing themselves and saying where they are from and what they do, he would have had to carry his position with him into the space.  
Another time, a mother and her 10 year old daughter registered for a family class and I called her to tell her the other children in the parent/child pairs were all much younger.  I offered the daughter could join a class for just kids with more participants closer to her age.  She appreciated my concern but let me know that she and her daughter really wanted to spend the time together.  And they worked together beautifully in the studio, with each other and with the other families who joined them each Saturday morning.  It was only at the last class when this mom asked about a reflective material and said it would be great for her science class that I learned she was a teacher.  Again, I was honored she had taken the time to be my student and my peer and that she had been humble enough to enter a learning space just as a participant with her daughter.  She clearly had lots of experience being the leader in a learning space but in this case she chose to focus on her role as a peer.  
I've written on the Art at the Center blog about the wonderful opportunities for peer teaching I see in studio learning with kids.  I will be writing more in coming posts about ways to nurture peer relationships through a focus on sharing practice.  

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).

Monday, January 4, 2016

Process, Product and Practice

I've been thinking a lot lately about practice and how it relates to process and product in art making. My training as an art therapist focuses on the gifts to be found in the process.  To say it's about the process and not the product frees the maker to explore, to express and not to worry about making "Art."
I am interested in ways that practice can hold space for art making to be about the process.  This practice includes habits, routines, and even the discipline necessary to frame a space for making.
Habits and routines help participants to feel a sense of agency.  A friend of mine described it as the shift from a student asking the teacher, "can I?" to asking "how can I?"  The first question asks permission, the second question is looking for guidance in using materials to achieve a personal vision.
The focus on practice is what allows participants to own and reflect on their process.  Part of practice is just showing up and being willing to try.  It takes courage to show up and it takes consistent showing up to build a practice.
My favorite definition of discipline comes from John Cage, "...discipline conceived as a means of sobering and quieting the mind, freeing that mind from its likes and dislikes, taste and memory, making it subject to the Mind outside it."  Practice connects us to community, to other practitioners, to a sense of tapping into a source beyond the self.
When focused on practice, people may make things but the real product is in the inner life of the maker - the reflections, insights and felt states of being.  At the same time, the objects made often deepen and evolve in ways that are surprising even to the maker.  It shifts from an act of imposing will on materials to conversing with them.
Madeline L'Engle writes, "When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens." Creative practice is about building the relationship between the art maker and the materials and process so that when the work is ready to speak the artist is ready to listen. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Studio as Sanctuary

"We go to sanctuaries to remember the things we hold dear, the things we cherish and love. And then - our greatest challenge - we return home seeking to enact this wisdom as best we can in our daily lives."
- William Cronon

Art at the Center began as a community studio inspired by the model of ateliers in the schools of the city of Reggio Emilia, Italy.  In these schools, the atelier or studio is not so much an art classroom as it is a place to explore materials as languages.  The focus is on using the tools and materials of art making to represent and share experience.  These spaces deepen learning by offering children and adults opportunities to explore and share discoveries together.

The idea for Art at the Center was to offer a similar kind of space to children and families in the community.    The mix of ages and experiences enriched our gatherings and allowed children and parents from different school and neighborhood communities to connect around making and sharing materials in the studio.  We often saw families new to the area find connections to other communities through their time in the studio.  In this way, the Art at the Center studio served as a bridge and point of connection.  Another goal of the work was to begin a practice that would carry on at home and in communities.  I felt successful if children left classes ready to carry on a practice of making at home.
The best feedback from parents was when people shared how the studio provided a space to just be with their kids, to give up some of the responsibility of parenting for a bit and just enjoy time together.

For me, the studio offered a sanctuary or place apart for gathering and sharing.  The opportunities for peer relationships, shared routines and regular gathering time helped to hold this space for community to grow.

The quote at the top of this post comes from William Cronon, an environmental historian.  It was sent to me as a link to a post from Shenandoah National Park.  For me, making and spaces for making offer a similar sense of calm and quiet like what I find being in nature.

In my own practice, I increasingly find that it is less about the details of the physical location and that once I have a practice of making and sharing, the spirit of the studio travels easily with me. This past summer, I made collages aboard a small sleeping compartment on a two day train ride from Chicago to Seattle. I painted watercolors in the very back seat of a school bus traveling 6 hours into Denali National Park on a rainy hazy day.  The practice of making in both settings allowed me to create a quiet space for myself to really enjoy the beauty and natural space around me.  My creations provide traces to help me better treasure these times and to remind me to look for nature and beauty nearby now that I am home.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Studio as Centering Space

A studio is a sacred space - a space to explore and form relationships with materials, with others and with a deeper sense of self.  The act of making quiets the mind, invites us to be fully present and opens us up to connections.  Moments of connection spark curiosity, wonder, gratitude, and the urge to share what we discover. Sometimes we leave traces in images and objects we make; other times are more fleeting and leave their mark in new ways of seeing, empathy for another or a feeling of groundedness and connection to something greater. Community helps hold and tend this space - a creative and spiritual home for solitude as well shared experience.

I wrote this statement a year and a half ago as part of a process of reflecting on what was central in my practice teaching art classes to kids.  What surprised me the most was that the words flowed very freely once I stopped trying to write about art and started to write about space.  For seven years Art at the Center offered classes in a community studio setting.  In my household, the business was never referred to by name, it was always, "the studio."  Looking back, a year after leaving our location on Sherwood Hall Lane, I realize the studio was a centering space, it wasn't the art that was central, it was the people that gathered there and the practices and routines that brought them together.  

Writing this statement was a beginning of shifting from a focus on art as central to a focus on a space for making as central.  In the last year, my work has increasingly moved to working in communities.  I find myself sharing creative practices to support deeper connections in places where people already gather. 

At the same time, I have been dedicating more time to my own creative practice and finding that creating space for making in my life offers for me many of the same benefits of mediation.  It centers and calms me and provides a grounding point.  

This blog is a beginning, a place to reflect on and share ideas around creative practice.