Category Archives: Teaching

Vocation

Part of my work as a college professor involves preparing students to graduate. How do you prepare an art major to enter today’s job market? There’s no easy path. Art education has a bit more definition, as does arts management, but art? So what to do?

I teach students how-to:

  • Write an artist statement and an artist bio
  • Create an artist resume
  • Establish an online presence through websites and social media
  • Talk about one’s art in formal and informal settings
  • Document the work
  • Plan/Prepare/Create/Install an exhibit—including making your own shows in unusual places
  • Look for residencies, exhibitions, jobs and then how to apply (And the importance of reading the directions!)

I require students to purchase and read the following books–listed in the order that the students rank their usability and relevance:

These nuts and bolts things prepare the student for some aspects of the life of the artist. But the greater thing I try to do is to get students to answer the question Do I feel the need to be an artist deep in my soul? I truly believe that the path of the artist must be a calling or a vocation. The path is laced with many challenges and obstacles. One must really want it to be even remotely successful. And one must be willing to do the hardwork necessary to succeed, even when that hardwork doesn’t seem to relate.

Rilke speaks to this in Letters to a Young Poet, asking the young poet questions to help him clarify if he is ready for the commitment. But there are three questions that can also be asked that can help too. These questions can be used for any soon-to-graduate college student, or anyone looking to make a change in their life.

  1. What am I good at?
  2. What do I LOVE to do?
  3. What does the world need?

Answering these questions may be easy or hard for a student, and listening to the real answers may be even harder. But as the questions are being pondered and answered, it’s super important to go out and try stuff. To get internships, to do stuff for friends, to volunteer, to try as much as possible, and to ask everyone you know about opportunities. You never know who might just know someone who knows someone who gets you that killer opportunity.

Some students are really good at this. They are persistent. They use their creative problem solving skills developed as an artist to find opportunities. And they find stuff. And then when they find something and do it, they are more likely to be chosen for the next opportunity because they have at least a little experience. I try to instill into my students that they must take an opportunity when it comes. They cannot wait for the next one, because the next one might not come. We each create our own luck by the hard work we put into our lives. Some students get this. Some don’t.

Going deep into the forest of the mind.

Going deep into the forest of the mind.

These three questions come from Theologian Michael Himes of Boston College, (This is a really good link, it’s a transcript of a lecture he gave about the three questions–if you are wanting to make changes in your life, click the link.) He adds this in regards to discernment:

One vocation embraces all our other vocations: to be a human being. We are called to be as intelligent, as responsible, as free, as courageous, as imaginative, and as loving as we possibly can be. All of my other vocations, all of the many ways in which I live my life, must contribute to that one all-embracing demand, that one constant vocation to be fully, totally, absolutely as human as I can possibly be.

And this leads us back to the questions, sitting with the answers, ready to act—

I invite you to ask the questions of yourself, to see if the work you are doing right now is what you are good at, what you love and what the world needs. If not, what would happen if you changed something to get just a little bit closer to what those answers reveal?

Paulus Berensohn

Paulus at Penland

I first met Paulus in 2000 at Schumacher College in Devon, England. We were both enrolled in a class with Thomas Moore and Joan Hanley (now Hari Kirin Kaur Khalsa).

Paulus was talking to another man, Peter Adams, at the outdoor bar on our first day there. We began to talk and I learned that he was a former potter. I took a chance that he might know of a book that I had read as an undergrad, whose title I couldn’t remember, a book that inspired me to concentrate in ceramics and to make many of the choices that I made in my early 20′s. So I described it to him, and he looked at me and said, “I wrote that book, Finding One’s Way with Clay.” To this day I get chills up and down my spine when I remember this moment.

Over the past twelve years, I’ve had the opportunity to take a class with Paulus, visit with him, and exchange cards. And these small moments of time with him have influenced my own teaching as well as how I want to be in the world. My past two weeks at Penland allowed me to see him a few times, to be reminded of how I want to be as a teacher–encouraging, gentle, inspiring and expansive.

Paulus is an inspiring teacher, someone who finds the right words to help the creative soul find it’s way in the world. One of his ways of encouragement is to invite people to find their own way of hanging out in their journal, be it doodling, writing, realistic sketching, collaging, whatever it is. This past week, he talked a lot about seeing. To sit with whatever you are looking at and let it come to you, to be quiet, and turn off the computers and smarty-pants phones and let it come to you.

He also asked us this question, “what story has infected you?” And he means this as what stories do you believe about yourself that may need to be discarded and other stories that could be highlighted. I keep coming back to this question in myself, as I go forward on my own journey of trying to be the best person, teacher, mentor, lover, friend, sister, daughter I can be.

What stories have infected you? How do you hang out in your journal, sketchbook that feels really good to you? Would love to know…

A return to Rilke

I return to Rilke when I am feeling particularly discouraged. And to this letter. This letter haunts me, because I feel the call, that desire, that needling in the night to go to my studio to work. I was late for work a couple of times this week because I couldn’t help myself and picked up a paintbrush and began to adjust an image. And then before I knew it, 25 minutes had passed, and I had to abbreviate all the other things that needed to get done so I could get to work. All I can think about right now is my studio work, MY studio work. Not my work at PRESS, or my teaching obligations, but how am I going to squeeze in those moments where I can paint. My last entry expressed my fantasy for that free day. In the end, I got my wish, as March 1st was a snow day. And what did I do? I worked in my studio for ten hours. I ignored all of my other obligations and painted and painted and painted. Just thinking about it gives me bliss. I hope for more of these days, but in a regularly planned way. I hope days of bliss for you too.

And now, Rilke…

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all of that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart; acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if you were denied to write.
 
This above all: ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer.
 
And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your  life, even into its most indifferent and slightest hour, must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it. Then draw near to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to  say what you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes great, fully matured power to to give something of your own where good, and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity. Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty–describe all these with loving quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. 
 
A work of art is good if it has spring from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgment of it: there is no other. Therefore, I known no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside.
 
Letter dated Paris, February 17, 1903
 
From Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, translated by M.D. Herter Norton, WW Norton & Company, New York/London, 1934

Common Place Books and Homeplay

I’ve been creating Common Place Books for many years now. I began compiling them long before I knew they actually had a name. Some are in spiral bound books that I began in high school. These are fairly random collections of poems, quotes from movies, sayings of friends, lists of things to do…

Others date from my time when I was studying theology at Yale and are filled with the words of theologians, philosophers and prophets. More recently, my dear friend Andrea Savitri Dasrath Hazzard and I have been sending a book back and forth that is becoming like a Common Place Book. We’ve been writing poems and quotes and creating pictures that are related to the moment.

I turn to these books when I am looking for encouragement, inspiration or a distraction. All of the above is what takes me to them today.

It’s time for me to get ready to go back to school. I’ll be starting my fourth year of teaching full-time at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. I always look to the start of the school year as a new year, forget January 1st, the first day of classes is my new year. And what shall this year hold for me and my students? Hopefully loads of great experimentation, artwork and learning. I’ll also be juggling keeping PRESS open at the same time. Wish me luck.

So I went to one of my Yale books and found this lengthy passage from Madeline L’Engle’s, (who spoke at Yale while I was there and I got to meet her for like three seconds) Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, MacMillian, 1995, pg 167.

I share it today as a reminder for myself and my incoming students the importance of discipline and work and how to look at it as play.

A life lived in chaos is an impossibility for the artist. No matter how unstructured may seem the painter’s garret in Paris or the poet’s pad in Greenwich Village, the artist must have some kind of order or he will produce a very small body of work. To create a WORK of art, great or small, is WORK, hard work, and work requires discipline and order. 
 
I learned slowly that, for me, this must be external as well as internal…One problem with the word WORK is that it has come to be equated with drudgery, and is considered degrading. Now, some work is drudgery, though it is not always degrading. Vacuuming the house or scrubbing out the refrigerator is drudgery for me, though I find it in no way degrading. And that is drudgery is a lack in me. I enjoy the results and so I should enjoy producing the results. I suspect that it is not the work itself which is the problem, but that it is taking me from other work, such as whatever manuscript I am currently working on. Drudgery is not what work is meant to be. Our work should be our play. If we watch a child at play for a few minutes, “seriously” at play, we see that all his energies are concentrated on it. He is working very hard at it. And that is how the artist works, although the artist may be conscious of discipline while the child simply experiences it. 

During my summer class we renamed homework to homeplay. I’m going to try to do that during the fall, too. Let’s see what happens.

-isms of a Teaching Artist

Some time last semester my students began to keep track of various phrases that I say over and over to them. It all began with someone pointing out that I regularly stop class and say “Take time to admire your work.” And not just in a pat-on-the-back sort of way, although that’s often good too, but in a way that acknowledges the areas that need improvement (like craft or content) AND the areas that DO work–areas that are well-crafted and cohesive.

This past week, nearly every day students came to PRESS to work on projects for their Art 335 Painted Papers. Prints. Book Arts. course that I am teaching at MCLA this summer. One night we all stayed past midnight, the class runs officially from 6-9:15 pm, and PRESS was a hub of creative energy. Students from all walks of life chatting and creating–sharing compliments and ideas, and all of them loving what they were doing. This is why I teach–to help foster connections between students and to inspire passion for making art in others.

It was this night that THE LIST of Melanie-isms began.

In no particular order, here are things that come out of my mouth on a very regular basis in the classroom and studio:

1. Take time to admire your work.

2. There’s always a way.

3. You can do it.

4. I don’t know, try it. (This is an interesting one and related to the previous post–I often know what will happen when some combination of materials are used together–but like any experiment, I believe it’s important for the student to try it themselves and come up with their own successes and failures. This leads them to their own replicability of processes.)

5. It’s just as easy to make ten as it is to make one. (Julie Chen once said something like this to me, that if you’re gonna put all that work into making ten books, you might as well make 100. Hopefully one day my students will be ready to hear that line, too!)

6. Remember to breathe.

7. Consider your craft.

8. I can’t answer that for you, only you can answer that.

9. And something about monkey mind and distractions, and finding a way to settle down the avalanche of thoughts that can paralyze concentration and creation. But no one can quite remember the exact words.