The conversation about race and trauma in America at this moment (and for four hundred years) is extremely relevant to art students and art teachers. This episode of On Being with Krista Tippet informs much of what I have had to confront to make artwork and support students in making artwork. I hope you will take an hour to read my experience and listen to the podcast linked below to learn my views on being and making artwork.
Many years ago, I was a young college professor. I left college teaching, thinking I would leave teaching altogether because I was miserable doing it. I’d worked 10 years to get there and I felt I was horrible at it.
After some years away from academia, as I started teaching in new settings, I came to understand that my misery was not particular to teaching a subject I loved, art. But it was that academia, and schooling in general in my day, was a system that was set up to compartmentalize human beings. Leave your home life, your primary relationships, your financial state, your physical needs, your spiritual longing at the door; and learn what I deem is most important in the moment. It is productive. People learn a subject. Art creation takes learning the skills and properties of an art medium, that is inherent in the work. But artwork, and the act of creating it, is also about considering the big picture issues of this world: what makes meaning; visual symbols & literacy; how does our culture (& others) express these spoken & unspoken things visually. Artwork asks big questions, and to grapple with them, one needs a solid foundation. The whole human has to be addressed and nurtured when dealing with the intensity of these questions or it is unsustainable.
So despite the academic setting & my goal to teach a tangible skillset related to an art medium, what often rang the loudest to me were the profound emotional traumas that each student was dealing with in their own way, with their own bodies & lens of the world. And the support they needed. And how ill-equipped, unprepared, untrained I was to offer anything of service in the face of the hard realities they were faced with. I knew about clay, or pencils, not trauma therapy. I was failing them.
After a few years away from teaching, I slowly started teaching private lessons. And doing my own work on my own trauma. I learned what had been missing in my classrooms back then, the skills I needed to be able to gracefully encounter someone’s vulnerability when they were both humbly learning and simultaneously exposing something profound & unspoken about their experience, beliefs, dreams, questions about the world. It took me another 10 years of work to be a decent teacher, who could work with and in service of the whole person, the creator of the artwork. I still get nervous that I’m not being helpful or that I’m unintentionally causing harm. Many, many people have traumas around the power dynamic of teacher/student because the imbalance is inherent in the structure. I still have a ways to go, things to learn, to be as beneficial of a teacher as I wish to be.
Of the most valuable things I’ve learned, is that artwork is physical and it manifests from the body. It simply does not exist without being informed by our bodies. And our bodies hold the space for all of our experiences. The way our body is shaped and perceived by others informs our world view.
One of the main essences I am tasked with as a teacher is to hold space for each student – and this is a part of why I prefer private lessons to group classes- so that their body can be present in the lesson and perform the skill I am asking of them. This means addressing the whole person. Sometimes that means the skill acquisition is less important in that moment if a stressor/incident/trauma/concern is present. Often times when that is given space and due attention, it dissipates, and skill acquisition can resume. Sometimes it needs our attention for longer.
This podcast, an interview with Resmaa Menakem, a trauma therapist, best describes the subtle cues that I tune in to with each student. So that I can hold the space for their world, and be a safe space for them to really settle into their bodies so that they feel the liberty to create and develop physical skills. It also addresses how race, privilege, class, body form is not separate from this, but is inherent in these bodies we move in through the world.
I share this in hopes that you’ll take 45 minutes to settle into your own body and listen. And that by creating space for your experience, you will be more prepared to make space for another’s experience. It is uncomfortable at first. I nearly left a career I’d worked 10 years toward because of it. But it gets quieter and easier when we learn to get out of the way and open the space up for others to BE. It promotes a vitality and wholeness that is rare in this culture, but it is so rewarding. This is a large part of why I love my work with my students. I am touched by their generosity of spirit and their willingness to share themselves with me, every day.
I invite you to listen:
On Being, with Resmaa Menakem.