Teaching Art to All Ages

Notes from a community educator

Do you remember how free you felt drawing as a child? Having worked with both youth (ages 6-12) and seniors alike in just the last two months, I have been thinking about the differences and similarities in working with different age groups. These are some of my observations.

There are always more voices in the art workshop room than there are students. It’s the voices of everyone who has told us over the years that we can’t, shouldn’t, are no good. We each have these that we have accumulated and internalized over the years. Children have fewer of these voices, although the voices of their parents, older siblings, teachers, and friends are often present. The first thing is to identify these voices as coming from somewhere other than our own mind.

To help with this, I like to use an exercise in unlearning our critical voices, which I adapted in 2014 from Anne Lamott’s book Bird By Bird. In the book, Lamott writes:

Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail and drop it into a mason jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on, and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel like shit because you won’t do what they want — won’t give them more money, won’t be more successful, won’t see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume-control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guiltmongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your shitty first draft.

[Addendum 7/19: I need to make it clear that, after publishing this blog post, I realized how Lamott’s version of this critical mice exercise relies on a violent paradigm of imprisonment that I do not want to propagate or uncritically normalize in the classroom. That realization brought home for me how prevalent this impulse is to lock things up. So I have been reflecting on and exploring abolitionist approaches to this same exercise, and that led me to Charles L. Lawrence III’s article “The Fire This Time: Black Lives Matter, Abolitionist Pedagogy and the Law,” from the Journal of Legal Education in 2015. It is an important read and I recommend it to anyone reading this post. It is important to me as a facilitator, especially as someone who has worked with youth in the court system, not to convey that someone’s creativity requires anything else to be locked up. How might we adapt Lamott’s “locking up the critical mice” exercise through a lens of restorative or even transformative justice? If you have thoughts, I hope you’ll drop them in the comments. I would love to be in dialogue with other folks thinking on this.]

With the college freshmen I was teaching at the time, we read Lamott’s essay and then I passed out sheets of paper that had the outline of a mouse I’d drawn, and students wrote these voices inside the mice. I collected them all and read them out loud anonymously. As students heard critical mice that were similar to their own, or different but similarly admonishing, they made audible responses. It is easy to feel that our fears are uniquely ours. I then sealed them tight in a jar that sat in the window of our classroom.

Critical mouse: "Stop rambling on about insignificant details. It's boring."

This critical mouse told my student, “Stop rambling on about insignificant details, it’s boring.”

It can be painful to encounter these voices. My great aunt, Auntie Connie, had a parakeet named Poncho. Like parakeets, children repeat what they hear. To realize later in life that all along we have repeated what others have told us about our own abilities is to encounter a need to grieve. We grieve for the inability of others to support us in the ways we needed. These pivotal moments can happen in a second. It’s when you tell someone you think you trust about a creative idea, or you show them something you created that you are proud of or unsure of. And they say, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” Or worse. When you think about your own similar moments, where do you feel it in your body? I feel it in my cheeks sometimes, a flush of shame. I feel it in my throat, needing to swallow an idea back down. And I feel it in my jaws and chest, the anger of the time and confidence lost.

A jar full of critical voices sits sealed in the window of a classroom overlooking Lake Mendota.

A jar full of critical voices sits sealed in the window of a classroom overlooking Lake Mendota.

The only thing that can be done is to identify these voices and drown them out. Maybe this is Newton’s Third Law of Creative Motion: each negative voice must be met by one of equal magnitude and in the opposite direction. As soon as I realized how present these voices are in every classroom that I teach, I began to intentionally work to counter them, for myself and for my students. To provide new messages that can be internalized. These come in the form of reassurance and they are important for teaching art to any age. Some of my favorites include: “There is no one right way to do this.” “You can be as silly or as serious as you want.” “It’s okay to not know what you’re doing right now.” This aspect of my teaching owes great influence to the approach of my own teacher Lynda Barry, who only permits one response to student work when shared aloud in class: “Good!” But it can be repeated more than once, and often is: “Good! Good! Good!”

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My teacher Lynda Barry on the last day of our workshop together.

Teaching art to seniors has many things in common with teaching art to any other age, particularly in a community setting, and that’s because our inner artist is always the same age. What changes is how close or far away students have grown from it. I recently taught a workshop on writing and drawing comics at the Queens Center for Gay Seniors in Jackson Heights, New York. We met in a basement room, gathered around two round tables. I asked at the beginning who has drawn before and with the exception of one active artist in the workshop, others reported either no drawing experience, or none since school. In many cases teaching art to seniors means that entire decades or even a half century may have passed since they drew. “You probably can’t tell, but I used to be quite good,” Michael tells me at the senior center. “My high school put me on a special track so that my art classes would count toward my GPA. When my mother found out, she pulled me out of the track. She was very upset. You can tell what kind of house I grew up in. My mother could tell there were things about me that she didn’t like, and being good at art was part of it.” It struck me then how these voices throughout our lives that tell us we are not artists are so often related to the voices of homophobia, sexism, and racism. They are voices of shame about who we are. And they are toxic to creativity until the second we can identify them. When we identify the negative voices, and when art teachers help students to identify them, the voices stop using us as their fuel, and we begin to use them as our fuel. The process of un-learning these negative voices can be a process of decolonization. It can be an act of resistance. This is one role of the art teacher.

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Writing and drawing comics at the Queens Center for Gay Seniors.

The voices show up for children too, though it is sometimes a much more straightforward process to dispel them at this age. For youth, they may show up in ways that look like a fear to “waste” the good paper, a fear of going about the activity in the “wrong” way, an anxiety about being laughed at by their peers. All of these potential roadblocks can be anticipated and dealt with through supplies chosen, instructions given, and guidelines set as a group for how to treat one another and each other’s work. It is important to understand that many of the negative voices in a young artist’s mind are not even the voices of their parents or teachers or peers, but in fact the undealt-with voices of other people that plague their parents or teachers or peers. We are doomed to parrot what we have not realized we are parroting. Identifying our own negative voices is therefore not only a responsibility to ourselves and our own art, but also to those around us. In this way, the work of identifying the negative voices, the couldn’ts and shouldn’ts we have internalized around art, is similar to the process of working through trauma. We are sure to pass it on if we don’t. Teaching art to all ages presents an opportunity and a mandate to commit:

The negative voices stop here. I will not pass my artistic injuries on to others.

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A book of odes to color, written by youth ages 6-12 in a workshop I led at 826DC.

At times, students of any age are skeptical of excessive praise. There is a sense that real artists need criticism in order to get better. This is not the case: the things we create are not problems to be fixed. But this idea can cause anxiety for both the art teacher and the art student in a workshop setting. While I was earning an MFA in Poetry, I heard from someone that the quickest way to damage an artist’s confidence is to tell them that everything they make is wonderful and perfect and needs no change. The damage there is not from the positivity; it’s from the lack of specificity and unwillingness to engage with what someone has made. We all want an easy fix sometimes, and for someone else to have the answer. But even more important than providing the right answers, an art teacher can focus on paying attention, looking closely, and asking the right questions. A tip or an open-ended question can go a long way. “What is your favorite part?” “What would you add if you had more time?” “What stopped you here?” Artists of any age need inspiration and information, both of which can push the work forward. (This is why libraries are some of the best art teachers, and why art instruction belongs to the work of libraries.) My teacher Lynda Barry once described people’s astonishment at learning that she does not provide conventional critiques of student work. “How does the work ever get better?!” people ask. “What I have found is that the good work happens anyway,” she says. I have found the same. The good work happens anyway.

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Drawing on the walls at Madison Public Library for the first annual Big Draw Madison.

When I was becoming a librarian, I was placed for my field practicum at The Bubbler at Madison Public Library, focusing on arts and media programming. This experience, and my mentorship from Trent Miller and the other librarians there, was fundamental in shaping my approaches to teaching art to all ages. We were required to keep a journal of our practicum experience and one day in November I wrote the following:

As part of the Bubbler’s Juvenile Justice program, I helped teens today at the Detention Center make their own stop-motion animations, and I am thinking tonight about the one who shouted gleefully, while moving his props around, “It’s like I’m a kid again!” He was maybe 14, still a kid by many measures, but maybe hasn’t felt like one for a long time, or at least hasn’t felt like one in that way that is possible when we are absorbed in play, moving images around to make a world we can live in. I think there are good ways and bad ways to feel like a child again, and this kind of play that can make the good way happen– it’s one of my favorite parts of teaching art and media with those who know well grief, loss, trauma, violence, monsters, ghosts, and other demons. My teacher Lynda Barry says of this kind of work: “It’s not like therapy; therapy is like this.” (And like this. And like this. And like this. There are a million ways to move images around and none of them make the ghosts smaller but they do make us bigger.)

What I learned from this is how quickly students of any age can fall out of touch with their inner artist, with how quickly life gets in the way, but also, how quickly students of any age can reconnect with their inner artist, and how powerful it is to witness that. It is almost as powerful for the art teacher to witness this as it is for the art student to experience it. It feels good to unlearn our critical voices and play for no reason. No matter how old or young your students are, this is one of the most powerful things you can facilitate. Of course, there are considerations when teaching different ages, in relation to developmental levels, supplies and physical ability (Can your students comfortably write by hand for five minutes? Is the print of your hand-out large enough for them to read?), and relationship to memory. But these factors cut across age and cannot be generalized.

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Calvin experimenting with facial expressions. Cartooning Class in UW-Madison PEOPLE Program, 2015.

What astounds me is that at any age, my students’ parents are also present in the art classroom, even or especially as present absences. The dreams, fears, unacknowledged griefs, traumas, voices, images, stories, languages, desires, of my students’ parents are in the art classroom with me. It is important to account for this. In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa writes, “I had to leave home so I could find myself, find my own intrinsic nature buried under the personality that had been imposed on me.” So it is that the work of individuation happens alongside the work of art. This is powerful. Teaching art to all ages looks like supporting students in learning to hear their unique voice among the static and to trust it, to see their own images and believe in them.

Questions and Reflections:

  1. What critical voices do you need to unlearn? These are the voices that crop up when you are trying to write or draw or do anything else that you love. They’re the voices that give you pause or make you close your sketchbook in frustration. What do the voices say? Where did they come from? Make a list of these critical mice. It’s important to capture them in detail, and to identify their origin, so that you can set them aside.
  2. What will you replace them with? This is the part where we meet the negative voices with positive voices of equal magnitude and opposite direction. For example, if one of your critical mice is always saying, “I can’t do this,” you might counter it with a simple “I can do this. I am doing this.” Start a new list just for these positive messages. This is also a great list of messages to pass on to your students.
  3. Who are the positive voices in your life? We can counteract the negative voices with messages from ourself and from others. Write down three positive voices in your life. These can be people you know well or they can be books or artistic heroes. Make a plan to call or read or somehow soak up one of these positive voices today.

Resources:

826 National. “Theory of Change”.  <http://826national.org/impact/1104/theory-of-change&gt;

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999. Print.

Barry, Lynda. One Hundred Demons. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2002. Print.

Butler, Octavia. Collection at Huntington Library. Butler’s affirmations to her self are powerful examples of how to counteract the voices that say we can’t and shouldn’t. In her notebooks, she writes, “This is my life. I write bestselling novels… So be it! See to it! I will find the way to do this.”

Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee, 1992. Print.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education As the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Koch, Kenneth. Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1970. Print.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1995. Print.

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