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What Teaching Teaches You

by Luann Udell on 4/29/2010 12:12:46 PM

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.


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Michael Cardosa

Great piece! Work with an art instructor each weekend and he insists that he learns as much from his students as he imparts to them and probably more.


Judy Mudd
Wonderful post and oh so true! My students teach me new things every week. Preparing for my class gets my creative juices flowing in anticipation. Great reminder of the benefits of teaching!

Helen Horn Musser
Luanne, What a wonderful experience you have had and I'm sure it shows in your work. It is an inspiring article for all of us. Thank you!

Carole Rodrigue
Thanks Luann! I've always said that art for me entails life-long learning. And the older I get, the more I realize that the more I learn, the less I know!

Sharon Weaver
Teaching has never been on my to-do list. I didn't think I had it in me but I recently have written 2 tutorials, Transforming Your Art with Color and Make Art That Collectors Notice, and loved doing it. I also found as I wrote my observations and insights it clarified the subjects and I really learned my own lessons. Who knew?

Debra LePage
This is a very insightful article-thank you for giving us a glimpse of your week. You gave your student the tremendous gift of your time and experience which he will always remember and you were rewarded......very uplifting in these days of questionable civility.

Spencer Meagher
I have always found that I tend to learn far more than the students when I teach.

Michael Cardosa
Hi Sharon,

These sound very interesting. Are they available somewhere?


This article would be perfect to submit to a teachers' or parenting magazine. It sounds like much of the time you had to consciously think again about all those things that had become second nature to you.

Joanne Benson
Sounds like you had a great week! What fun! My daughter and I have painted together on occasion and as long as I don't become a critic we have had great fun! What's good about not having your own child is that they may actually be receptive to guidance! LOL

My daughter and I are planning a show together this summer so that should be interesting....

Thanks for sharing your experiences!

Fay Terry
Great article, Luann! I used to teach kindergarten and it was the same way-seeing thru their eyes was so fascinating.
It definitely enriched my life and learning.
Then I taught student teachers and I really learned from them. Thanks for the reminders about how teaching helps you.

Carol Schmauder
I certainly enjoyed your article and I thoroughly enjoyed your web site. I agree that when we teach we probably learn more than our students.

Rena Klingenberg
Lovely, Luann! What a wonderful week for both of you. I've taught many beading birthday party workshops for girls of all ages - and one thing that happens every time (besides lots of giggling and fun) is that I see all kinds of new possibilities in beads I've had for ages!

Poppy Balser

This is so true. I have only ever taught in my health-care professional career, never as an artist. It really recharges my batteries at work to have a student for a while. (It can be quite exhausting, too, but in a good way!) Glad to hear that you had a great week and thank you for sharing the lessons you both learned.

Keep these articles coming

Diane Tasselmyer
"I learned to step out of the box" smacked me in the face!

Nancy Pingree Hoover
My gallery recently asked me to teach some drawing classes. I'm used to teaching one-on-one but not in a class with a group of people. I wasn't sure I could do it, afterall, I still had so much to learn myself. They eventually talked me into it. I'm now into week four of the class and I'm having a ball!! According to the students, they're enjoying it very much too. I have to push myself to go beyond what I know on the surface and dig deeper for my students, so I can answer questions and so I can fully explain the material properly. I'm always nervous and I don't always remember everything, but I try.

I've always heard that the best way to learn is to teach. If you're conscientious, you'll be working hard to be prepared and you'll learn new things yourself in the process! I have learned that when you teach, you can't be scared to say, "I don't know." No one expects teachers to know everything, but they respect someone who admits when they don't know something but are willing to find out the answers for them.

Nice article! Thanks for printing it!


Michael Cardosa
Hi Nancy,

Sounds like you are doing a great job is everyone is enjoying it! Good luck! Maybe this while open up a whole new avenue for you to meet collectors.


Nancy Pingree Hoover
Thank you Michael! It certainly seems to be getting my name out there. One can only hope something they do brings their name into the ears of collectors. :D


Michael Cardosa
You're welcome Nancy and again, good luck with it!


Luann, that's inspiring! I love working with kids/teens - their minds are like sponges and their imaginations are uninhibited.

Nice Post.


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