is the only place in the museum that someone can have a first-hand encounter
with what it means to create. As anyone who has had this experience
will know, creativity must be experienced to be truly understood. Reading
about a creative experience can give you information regarding it, experiencing
your own creativity allows you to know it.
It is for this reason
in particular, though there are others, that I have never felt obligated
to use the museum’s collections in what might be considered a more traditional
approach in the studio to teach about the object, its history, techniques
the artist used to create it, etc. Certainly there are times when this
may be useful, but not for beginners.
I was heartened the
first time I read the preface of Peter London’s book, No More Second
Hand Art: Awakening the Artist Within and came across this paragraph:
is as natural a human endeavor as speaking…However, whereas normally functioning
people, having once learned to speak, go on speaking throughout their life,
very few people continue making images. Most of us are severed from
this native ability to visually “speak.” It would seem
that a major
contributing factor must be how we have been taught to make images.
We have learned to be embarrassed by our efforts. We have learned
to feel so inept and disenfranchised from our own visual expressions that
we simply cease doing it altogether.
I was heartened to
know that a nationally prominent educator was voicing what I knew anecdotally
to be true, yet disheartened by the same notion. This led me to ask
what has now become a mantra for me: How do we structure learning opportunities
in the studio that are authentic, engaging, and enabling for the students?
Our approach to studio
teaching has developed over many years of trial and error. There
have been many influences leading up to our approach but one in particular
that has helped move us into more focus of late.
When I started working
at the museum in 1995 I was hired for a newly created position that came
with the title of studio manager. The studio had started its current
incarnation the year before with local artists being hired on contract
to teach a few classes. The interest level of the public in these
classes precipitated the beginning of a bonafide studio program and the
need for someone to develop it. At the time the museum’s Education
Department had started using a teaching methodology in the galleries known
as the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). My introduction to the VTS
was through attendance at a conference where the co-founders Abigail Housen
and Philip Yenawine were speaking. Philip gave an impassioned talk,
which he began by saying he felt that having art in our lives is a necessary
part of being fully human. He went on to say that his goal of “enabling
people to connect to art in ways that are meaningful, lasting, and pleasurable
to them has become more of a mission than a job” for him.
Although Philip was
talking about finding a way of engaging people in the viewing of art, I
heard my interests and intentions for teaching art-making echoed in his
As I mentioned, Abigail
Housen, a cognitive psychologist and Philip Yenawine, a veteran museum
educator, developed the VTS methodology. It grew out of 25 years
of groundbreaking research and has been field tested in various parts of
the world for over ten years.
looks at cognitive development in relation to viewing art. It gives
us a window into the complex thought processes that occur as one looks
at and begins to develop a structure for understanding art. The information
gleaned from her research allowed her to create a developmental theory
that tells us, with relative certainty, what the characteristics and thought
patterns are of people in different stages of aesthetic growth.
Based on Housen’s
theory, the VTS methodology was created as an active learner-centered approach
to looking at art, one that supports and nurtures aesthetic growth. During
recently completed longitudinal studies the VTS has been proven to produce
stable and lasting growth over time in viewing skills and in thinking and
communication skills in virtually all students as well.
During VTS lessons,
a teacher facilitates discussions about works of art using a series of
carefully structured developmentally-based open-ended questions.
The conversations are interactive and fun. Although the process is
mediated, beginning viewers examine works of art for extended periods,
and debate possible meanings; they engage in a practice identical in type
to the most expert viewers. The experience is authentic and deep,
something that is not possible through typical introductory tours that
focus on specific areas of information about a work of art, chosen by the
After several years
of in-depth study of the VTS methodology, I am finding a parallel structure
for effective teaching in our studio programs is emerging. In both
instances one of the objectives is to create situations in which authentic
first-hand learning can occur. The focus is on the student.
The instructor takes on the role of a facilitator rather than giver of
information. The methodologies promote active rather than passive
learning and both approaches have a focus on group discussion and interaction.
To give another example
of our process, as I walk into another Art Discovery session in one of
our Detroit studios the approach to making a creature from clay evolves
As the children enter
the studio they are asked to find a seat on either the inside or outside
of the circle of tables in the center of the room. Each child is
given a large but manageable amount of clay. They are asked to make
a fat coil with it and join it to their neighbors' until they have created
one giant circle of clay with children sitting on both the inside and outside
The children are
engaged in a discussion about creatures. They are asked what they
think a creature might look like, how it might move about, etc. Again,
the use of questions to stimulate their imaginations and visual imagery.
All ideas are written on the board. The students are then told they
will be creating a giant creature together. A decision is made regarding
the location of a head and tail (sometimes there is more than one of each)
and the work begins. Wings sprout, legs grow, and scales develop
with great abandon. There is quiet discussion from time to time but
mostly focused work. As the children are working they may run into
stumbling blocks because the pieces they have made are too skinny to stand
up or the wings too thin to do anything but flop. As technical issues
arise the instructors discuss options with the children and explain what
they need to know to achieve their sought after results. When it feels
that the energy level in the room has just about peaked and before it begins
to wane, everyone is asked to stop working (a very difficult proposition
for some) and walk around to see all of the other parts of the collective
creature. There is always discussion at this point as they notice
new things. After they are seated again they are given fresh clay
and told that now is their chance to make a creature of their own that
will be fired and they will be able to keep. Energy and enthusiasm
are always palpable and we rarely have a child who says, "I can't do this."
Or, "I don't know what to make," as can happen in other approaches.
In this process they have brainstormed ideas as a group both visually and
verbally. They have become so engrossed in the process that they
never had time to feel intimidated about starting. For us, this is
a measure of success. Another measure of success is when we can look
around the room and see that each of the finished pieces is different,
unique, and the children's creation, that children have not resorted to
re-creating Pokemon or other commercial characters from popular culture.
This seems to be an indication that the motivation given was stimulating
and open-ended enough to spark their inner imaginations.
If, on the other
hand, in either session we had told the children they were to make dinosaurs
rather than creatures I expect a few things would have been different.
All of the children would have had a pre-determined notion of what a dinosaur
is supposed to look like from either books or movies. Given this
I suspect the pressure to make something look a certain way would have
gone up, and thus the “copying” of others’ dinosaur interpretations.
I also suspect there would have been a number of children in the class
who just weren’t interested in dinosaurs and therefore would not have been
motivated to participate.
discussions at the end of a session provide an opportunity for reflection
and it can serve as a form of assessment as in, “Kenyatta, tell us about
your creature.” “Did you have any difficulty as you were making it?”
If she had difficulty with something the class could be asked if they had
any suggestions for her, ideas could be brainstormed and all might come
away with a solution for future sessions. Another
purpose of facilitated group discussion at the end of a class is to celebrate
each child’s accomplishments and to give them the opportunity to share
what they have done and to tell the stories behind their work. A
child’s artwork almost always has a story behind it. Their stories
also serve as a window into their thought processes and provide opportunities
to know one another better.
We don't always work
with clay, though for those of us who have been seduced by this medium
know there is nothing else quite as engaging. Sometimes our discussions
serve as the starting point for the development of stories for which the
students create their own hand-bound books complete with illustrations.
Sometimes our discussions lead into painting or printmaking projects.
In addition to Art
Discovery we offer many other studio programs. As part of our community
outreach we offer multiple-session programs for senior citizen groups,
adult clients of social service agencies, students in youth detention.
Programs for the
general public include drop-in workshops, drawing in the galleries, panel
making workshops for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and a full
range of focused two-hour programs for children in the areas of clay, painting,
printmaking, cartooning, and videography; one-day and week-long summer
camp programs and for adults in the areas of figure drawing, clay (handbuilding
& throwing) and painting, teambuilding workshops for business groups,
and specialized programs for art teachers.
it comes to working with adults in clay
we hope to inspire the same level of excitement and enthusiasm as the children
have when they are listening to their "eggs". We try to create opportunities
that will open people up to personal journeys in creativity.
One example of this
can be seen in our teambuilding workshops. The participants in these
sessions are generally business professionals. They are often those
individuals who left behind their art making endeavors as children because
they were made to feel inept. Often they are fearful of participating
and enter the room with disparaging remarks. I
start by giving them clay. I ask them to make 5 small balls about
the size of oranges. This serves as a way for them to start feeling
the clay, exploring it, and getting "dirty" before they know it.
I tell them I am going to give them words to model in their clay, one piece
at a time, each taking only about a minute. (Something I adapted
from experiences I had in workshops with M.C. Richards and Paulus Berensohn).
I give them words that are feelings or emotions, nothing concrete in which
there could be an expectation of what the outcome should look like.
They go through them one at a time, inevitably there is laughter at what
emerges from the clay. It loosens them up; they are making objects
in clay before they have time to say they can’t. It is fun, and it
lays the groundwork for us to move on into a more collaborative process.
It seems to me that
whether we are teaching children or adults, it is our collective challenge
to develop teaching strategies, whatever they may be, that engage and enable
our students to participate fully in the arts. To the extent that
we don’t, we diminish the potential of ourselves, of others and we contribute
to the marginalization of the arts in general.
Studio programs at
the Detroit Institute of Arts are taught by a team of seven artists.
We regard our teaching as a creative process in itself; one that is alive
and growing. We continually move between theory and practice, meeting
regularly to develop, discuss, assess, and refine our curriculum and teaching