The Laws of Nature

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Robet Henri Class, New York School of Art, 1902

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

I love to learn and I love to teach. To me, every day is a learning opportunity. When I have the opportunity to teach others, I consider it my sacred duty to help my students expertly express their own unique ideas rather than imitate me. I want them to experience the thrill of self-discovery through art.

In this country, the spring/summer art workshop season is upon us. Some of us will teach at these venues, and others will enroll as students. So, it's a good time to think about how we learn. In his book, Robert Henri offers good advice to students. In the excerpts that follow, we could change the word "school" to "workshop" or "art instruction book/video."

Some students possess the school they work in. Others are possessed by the school.

Let a student enter the school with this advice: No matter how good the school is, his education is in his own hands. All education must be self-education.

Let him realize the truth of this and no school will be a danger to him.

The self-educator judges his own course, judges advices, judges the evidences about him.

No one can lead him. Many can give advices, but the greatest artist in the world cannot point his course for he is a new man.

A school should be an offering of opportunity, not a direction, and the student should know that the school will be good for him only to the degree that he makes it good. (p. 120 - 121)

I've encountered many types of students during week-long painting workshops that I've attended over the past decade. Some students are open to instruction and enthusiastic experimentation. They are the self-educators. Typically, a few students appear to want to learn but really want just to show everyone else how great they are. They spend the whole week painting exactly as they did when they arrived. And then, there are a few students who seriously lack self-confidence and spend the week making excuses and putting up emotional walls. Progress is almost unattainable despite continual encouragement. Inevitably, there's usually one student who relentlessly challenges the instructor with a firm stubborness that can only be interpreted as "there's nothing you can teach me!" I always wonder why that person spent the time and money to enroll in the first place.

One type of behavior among art workshop students that's become increasingly common is intense socializing. Now, I'm no party-pooper, but when I'm painting I must concentrate. Distractions aren't welcome. On the other hand, I do enjoy the comraderie of artists and getting to know some wonderful folks. After all, a classroom should be a friendly place. It should also be a place that's conducive to learning.

No matter what the situation, the responsibility for learning always rests with the students. If we aren't willing to self-educate, not even the greatest teacher can help us. And, isn't it more fun to discover for ouselves anyway?

Your thoughts??


Tonya Vollertsen said...

Good morning Katharine, I'm just sipping my coffee and waiting for everyone else to get here. That is such a good point about being your own educator because there are great teachers out there but everyone you can learn something from is not necessarily a teacher.

Tonya Vollertsen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! I like your teaching style Kathy- allowing the student to decide. The times I teach on topics I know (informally to friends) I always learn so much deeper- I admire teachers- it's a commitment above and beyond the student experience.
The dynamics you speak of are interesting too. Fascinating stuff really. If I ever take another workshop- I'll be conscious to focus on the experience and not to get caught up in the psychology of self.
I'm grateful to be a student today and would love to be an occasional teacher in the future. You are an amazing force Kathy! And a great example too.

Mary Paquet said...

Kathy, I taught high school early in my working days, then adult education (English as a Second Language and GED classes) before joining IBM where I also got to do some teaching, both formal and informal. Your remarks are on target. Now I coordinate workshops for the Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society, and I always find student dynamics just fascinating. As a student I am always willing to experiment as challenged, sometimes with most disappointing results. However, I always take something from each workshop to apply in my personal art, which is the reason I take workshops.

Unknown said...

Good morning, Tonya! - I like a cheery greeting and am honored that you're up early reading my blog. I like the way you put it: "everyone you can learn something from is not necessarily a teacher." It's really all about our desire to learn, isn't it??

Hi Pam - thanks so much :-) I think that the best teachers are the ones who know the struggle through experience. That way, they can understand the what the students are experiencing and also create meaningful lessons. However, the best teachers show students how to learn for themselves.

Hi Mary - you've got lots of teaching experience, which makes you a great communicator. I appreciated the thorough and instructive post you wrote recently about Wayne Thiebaud's lecture. Very meaty and understandable!! BTW - I'm coming to the West Coast to teach in 2011, so if you need another instructor to fill a slot, keep me in mind :-)

-Don said...

I realized as I was reading Henri's quotes that you could also substitute the word "life" in place of school. To me, every day is a learning experience, AND a teaching opportunity. I'm a firm believer that when we quit learning, we start dying.

I really appreciate your observations of the dynamics of those who have taken your workshops. It will make me more cognizant of the way I act when in these type of learning environments - either as student or instructor.


Mark Sheeky said...

Good evening! True what Don says that everything is a lesson sometimes.

I've never really got on well with being taught. The teachers were so slooooooooooow. I grab the bits I find interesting quickly then do my own experiments, often ignoring and annoying the teacher and racing ahead towards my own conclusion. I find gearing down to do a workshop a bore. Are you glad I'm not in one of your workshops Kathy :)?

Myrna Wacknov said...

Your post today really resonated with me. I love both teaching workshops and attending them. I try to be very selective as to the ones I attend but still feel resistance sometimes to the lesson. An interesting dynamic! This helps me understand students in my workshops who resist what I try to put forth. I especially appreciate the students who are willing to try something different and new. I figure the others have paid their money and can waste it any way they want. It still mystifies me why they want to spend the money to do what they always do. Very expensive socializing!

Lifelong learning is what keeps us young and healthy in mind and spirit and makes living exciting at every age.

Unknown said...

Hi Don - yes "life" is a good substitution! I keep hoping that my acute cognitive functions will last as long as the rest of my body, but who knows? Maybe my paintings will be better if I "lose it."

Hi Mark- over the past four decades I've had many students like you. The solution, I found, was to discover their individual interests and give them lots of challenges in those areas. It was fun for me as well as for them. I think that achievers must be allowed to achieve.

Hi Myrna - like you, I'm a little resistant at this point to certain types of teaching. Perhaps the reason that we're both in this situation is because we've developed a signature style and a "voice" already, so we're just learning new techniques.

Dan Kent said...

Kathy (and Myrna) wouldn't Sunny South Florida be a wonderful place for you to have a workshop, hmmmm? I do believe that all education is self-education to this extent: the student has to be ready and willing to learn.

Carolyn Abrams said...

All your comments on this subject are so on the point. I think i probably was every kind of student kathy mentioned at some point. I say i make a terrible student because i'm always asking "well what if..." As a self taught artist i find myself apologizing for not having that formal education. But i have learned so much from so many people and from experiementing on my own, observing and books and life in general. Yes, yes learning is a life long experience and i have so much yet to learn i hope i live to 100!

Unknown said...

Hi Dan - great idea!!

Hi Carolyn - you are an IDEAL student! Not only do you learn quickly and intelligently consider the instruction you're given, you also have the courage to experiment and push forward without becoming discouraged. That's a winning combination!

hw (hallie) farber said...

John Baldessari defined teaching as "setting up a situation where art might occur."

I have learned from every class I've taken, and experiments in workshops often send me off to learn more.

Anonymous said...

I do like ur article~!!!..................................................

Stan Kurth said...

Henri is right on here. The serious artist is self educated, not to unlike a sponge, absorbing and learning as long as he or she is alive.

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - that's a great definition! Thank you.

Hi mackt - Tx!

Hi Stan - a sponge is a good analogy. Thanks.

Unknown said...

self education allows you to study what really interests you.