This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
I always thought I’d be a teacher. I even trained for it—I have an MA in Education, whereas I never actually trained to be an artist.
Eventually I learned I love teaching a little, but not a lot. I don’t like teaching my processes and techniques, either. I’d rather inspire someone to write a better artist statement. When fellow artists raved about the joys of having an intern or apprentice in their studio, I’d shake my head in disbelief.
Well, I guess you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. I had a student in my studio for a week. It was great!
Someone who’s done me many favors in the past called me on a Friday. His 15-year-old son had a school assignment to work for an artisan for 20 hours. The assignment was due in….one week. Trouble was, he didn’t know any artists or craftspeople. His dad thought of me. In desperation (and with much embarrassment), he begged me to help out.
I assured him that I got it. I have teens, too! I looked at my calendar. It was doable, so I said yes.
He begged me not to use his real name for this article, so we’ll call him David. He really was a nice kid. Shy. Quiet. Totally oblivious to women's jewelry or sewing. Not used to thinking about color, design, fashion. This could be painful, I thought.
I was wrong.
Now, twenty hours of internship in five days at the last minute is not the ideal teaching situation. Normally, I’d pick one morning or afternoon. I’d set up a series of lessons, or tasks an inexperienced person could do. “Put him to work!” David’s parents urged. “That’s what he’s here for!” They had no idea there was very little for an untrained person to do. Except clean and vacuum my studio, and I promised him I would make him do that. (I did make him take out the garbage, though.)
Knowing David probably wouldn’t warm too quickly to sewing and embroidery, I decided to teach him basic jewelry-making skills instead.
I gave him assignments to do at home: Read my website so you know who I am. Look at my two online stores and tell me the difference between them. Google “sterling silver” and “Argentium” and tell me why the latter doesn’t develop fire scale during torch work.
We made necklaces, bracelets, earrings for his mom, his sister, his teacher and his friends. I told him a guy who makes jewelry will be very popular with girls.
David learned different ways to create a pendant; to construct a necklace; how to properly open jump rings; how to create different kinds of connections, and which was appropriate where; how to wire-wrap.
He learned how to design with a specific person in mind: Color choices, lifestyle preferences, hair length. He learned why a cohesive “brand” and body of work are important. He learned the ins and outs of selling to galleries vs. selling at fairs. He learned about getting ideas for new designs. He learned about the fine balance between making stuff, exhibiting stuff, marketing stuff, selling stuff, teaching stuff. We talked about pricing, targeting an audience, making connections with customers through artist statements, blogging, etc.
He learned the joy of making something special for someone, with his own two hands, and own vision about what it should look like.
He learned how it felt when they said they loved it.
Now….here’s what I learned that week.
1) I learned to step outside my box.
It turned out that David really wanted to do blacksmith stuff and work with a torch. That translated easily to balling up sterling wire for headpins with a micro torch. It also encouraged me to finally tackle fusing fine silver with my new soldering set-up, and to experiment with hammering for texture. His enthusiasm overcame my feet-dragging, and we did it. We had a great time!
2) I learned the best way to understand the Four Stages of Competency is to go through them.
One of the handouts I gave Dave was The Four Stages of Competency. The first time I tried to fuse a fine silver ring, I got it right. “Wow, this is easy!” I exclaimed. Our next twelve tries were dismal. David said, “Hey, that’s the first two stages of competency!” Which leads in nicely to…
3) I learned a good way to teach is to learn along with your student. ‘Nuff said there.
4) I learned there is a certain energy in teaching that is good to plow back into your art.
I came into my studio with fresh eyes the day after David left. This really is an amazing space! Full of so many projects, processes, materials and possibilities. “Creative space” took on a whole new meaning.
5) I learned that seeing through someone else’s eyes can help me see more.
David’s observations about my website, my workspace, my process, were astute….and fresh. Over 20 hours, there was enough time for that to come out. Sometimes he saw things I’d overlooked, or taken for granted, or simply never thought of before. Except now I can’t remember what it was, because……
6) I learned that young people have much better eyesight, and a good memory.
I warned David that although there’s an order to my chaos, I do lose things easily in here. And every time I set something down, walked away, and then exclaimed, “Now where the heck did I put that??”, he always remembered where it was. That alone was worth it!
7) I had a chance to see my own child from another perspective.
Many times I found myself thinking, this is who my kid is, when it’s not about me being the totally clueless mom and him being the totally put-upon teenager.
So what can you learn from this article?
We all have our strengths and weaknesses, our preferences and our prejudices about all areas of our art. We all have our set routines, our comfort zones, our own way of thinking about things.
Stepping outside them, even for a week, can sometimes take us further than we ever dreamed of. A comfort zone is only comfortable until it gets too small, or we get too big.
Then it’s time to grow….again.
That’s something we should always practice, no matter how much we think we already know. That’s something we should always be willing to do, no matter how old we get. It’s good for our art. And it’s good for us as people, too.