Lessons I’ve Learned from Being a ​Teacher and an Artist

This year I’m starting my fifth year as a full time art teacher at a large Bay Area public high school, and it has been 9 years since I began teaching. I am also a practicing and exhibiting artist.

It has, at times, been a struggle to balance the demanding task of teaching and the time needed to develop ideas and execute creative projects. I am passionate about my role as an art teacher, and want to offer my students as many opportunities to develop their artistic skills and ideas as I can, but I also know myself and how important keeping my art practice alive is to me.

I know so many teacher/artists who struggle as I do and we all have to find our own ways of striking the balance needed to engage fully with both teaching and making art. ​​But over the years I have learned a few things that has made striking this balance easier; ways of thinking that are helpful to me as an artist that I teaching has taught me.

I learned not to idealize the lives of those artists who make art full time.
When I first started teaching, I taught part-time and filled in the gaps in income with restaurant, catering and coffee shop jobs, and in the summer teaching at a camp. The only chance I had to be in the studio was after work or the odd weekend day I actually had off. I used to be so envious of those artists I knew who were spending day after long day in their studios just doing their art. And if I wasn’t getting myself in the studio, or was struggling with my process, I had the easy out of always blaming it on my day jobs. It was okay if I didn’t carve out creative time for myself because I was a victim of circumstance – I had other jobs and that is why I wasn’t prioritizing studio time.

For the past two summers I haven’t worked very much (except the odd teaching gig here and there) and I know now that having that uninterrupted time is not the end all be all magic I thought it would be for me. I did spend a little more time in the studio, but I didn’t experience any huge shift in my process or become wildly productive. Once I realized this I also came to understand that for years I was taking something that was really just a fantasy, this idealized state, and telling myself it was a core truth of my life. I told myself that I could only reach my potential as an artist if I had uninterrupted studio time and that my ideas couldn’t flow if I could only get to the studio a few hours a week after work. But what I found to be true for me was actually closer to the opposite of this. There is something about being busy that makes me more creative, more productive and trust my intuition more. When I have more time, I just have more time to second guess myself and nd that there is something more exciting about the studio time I squeeze in during my work week. Late studio nights on a school night make me feel like I’ve found extra hours in the day somehow.  I find that I often enter the classroom the next morning, not tired but invigorated. Now when people tell me they spend all their days in the studio, I don’t get that twinge of envy, I actually feel a twinge of gratitude knowing now that’s just not what I need.

I learned to stop tallying up how much money I spend on making art.

I have had a studio space since I left graduate school in 2009. At times I would beat myself up over the monthly expense of the studio and how I wasn’t even close to breaking even with selling my art. At the time I didn’t have much income from my various jobs and having a studio seemed like a ridiculously gross extravagance. I would beat myself up over the expense of having the studio all the time. It was the running tape in my brain. I would tell myself “you are delusional, you think you’re an artist but you are really just a sucker throwing your money away for nothing.” It’s not like the voice in my head was the only one telling me this message; acquaintances, friends, and family all commented on how expensive the studio was in comparison to the little to nothing I was actually making on my art.

Despite this, there was another part of myself that told me that having the studio was important, that it kept me tied to that part of myself I discovered in graduate school; the wiser, stronger person at the core of me who knows I have something to say and things to make and that to be happy I need to be

making things. This was still a battle for many years. In addition to the studio expense, I would tally up all the money I spent on materials, framing, and shipping costs for shows and that big fat bottom line would send me spiraling into self doubt and even self disgust. This is not the ideal headspace for creativity. In fact it is the kind of stuff that will kill your spirit. I came to this realization slowly and I started making little exchanges in my mind like, “I don’t have a gym membership and many other people do, so it’s okay I have a studio” or “I never eat out so it’s okay to buy a brand new screen.” They were baby steps in helping me let go of the guilt and feeling of self indulgence I had on spending money on something that wasn’t earning me money in return. But those steps began to shift my thinking and now I have completely let go of worrying about the expense of my art making. It is not because I’ve decided to be reckless or frivolous or because I’ve become fabulously wealthy all of a sudden – but because I trust myself a lot more.

Now I know that I’m not throwing away my money. I’m investing in myself, both in my own development as an artist and  as a human being. I make art to learn, to discover and to teach myself. It is how I practice lifelong learning and it is how I stay engaged and curious in life. When people ask me now if I make enough money off of my art to cover my expenses, I say no without any shame or guilt. ​
I tell them, “art is my hobby, it is what makes me happy and feel alive,” and that usually ends the conversation with smiles all around. Because I have my teaching career I don’t need to rely on my art to make ends meet. That is the benefit of having a job outside of my art and it gives me the peace of mind to let go of running numbers in my head.
I learned that teaching is a lifeline for my creativity.
I am constantly revisiting the basics of art making: color, line, shape, space, value, texture; seeing and experiencing them with new insights as I find new ways to teach them and see the ways in which the students apply what they are learning. I am surrounded by students who ask questions that push my thinking and who create works of art that express, at times, such raw emotion that it reminds me why I even make art in the first place. Rather than taking me away from my own work, being in the classroom is fueling my passion and giving me new tools and experiences to draw from, both visually and conceptually. Each year when I meet a new group of students, I am overwhelmed by the potential in the group, in their different stories and modes of expression and it is humbling, it makes me realize how much I have to learn.
I get to witness my students having their first art breakthroughs. There is an excitement my students experience when something clicks and they are proud of what they created and I get to experience that with them and feel proud right along with them. It has really helped me re-broaden my understanding of the purpose of art, to get back to the roots of it; the things that I understood when I was a kid. I’ve been able to shed the pretensions that I collected in graduate school- the incoherent theory, harsh criticism and narrow definition of what art is and isn’t. Now I spend my time focusing on the making of art. There is something profound about creating something you are proud of that can transform an individual, I’ve seen it happen in my classroom and it is remarkable. I work to guide my students in building up their confidence, to learn to trust their ideas. Through doing this, I find I am also reminding myself to trust my ideas, and to be more fearless as an artist
I learned to let go of ideas I am no longer excited to make.
I used to be a slave to my own ideas. Like many artists, I would get an idea for a particular project and begin to map out the details, planning the materials and imagery. And with some ideas, I would begin to lose interest in the idea as I planned. But instead of trusting my instincts and abandoning the idea I would push myself further into the process, telling myself that I just needed to fully commit and that my lack of enthusiasm was just a form of distraction.

For instance, there was a time when I lived in San Francisco with a bunch of roommates I met through Craigslist. We all had different schedules, but at around 10pm each night, we would all be more or less at home and we got into the habit of watching Dallas on DVD together.  I never watched Dallas the first time it aired so I was captivated by the aesthetic of it and its over the top drama. I started to notice patterns in the scenes that were archetypal in other TV shows and movies that have to do with American wealth. I decided that I just had to make a bunch of large scale CMYK silkscreen prints of Sue Ellen descending the staircase with that ostentatious/tacky crystal chandelier in the background.  I downloaded screen grab software and painstakingly went through the episode DVDs searching for scenes that fit my vision for this series of prints. I even went through the trouble of making oversized positives for one of the prints. But then I just lost interest in the idea. I wasn’t motivated to make it, but I pushed through that lack of excitement and forced myself to persist in the process. I ended up making all sorts of mistakes while preparing the screens, and then I discovered my paper was cut the wrong size and my registration system wouldn’t work, and the whole thing spiraled into a disaster.

​​For years later I lugged around that set of Sue Ellen positives, from studio to studio and each time I pulled them out of the tube and saw them, at that point partially stuck together and yellowing, I would get a pang of guilt like I abandoned something important. Rather than throwing them out, I would stuff them back in the tube and carry them to the next place they would sit for years, untouched.

​It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I could just let go of the Sue Ellen positives and move on. I was in my classroom and I had a student who had been working on this really intricate drawing of a cityscape that was half black pen on white paper and half white pen on black paper. He had been focusing on it for over a week adding tiny details, like every window in the skyscrapers. And then one day I walked by his table and he had a nearly blank paper in front of him. I asked him “what happened to your city drawing? The one you’ve been working on the past week?” He looked up at me and casually said “Oh that, I started over, I wasn’t feeling the other one.” I was flabbergasted, “but you spent so much time on it! It was so intricate!” and he said, “yeah but I’ve got a new idea now.”  It was kinda shocking to me how calm he was about abandoning his old drawing and how engaged he seemed to be in making his new idea. There was no guilt, no heartache, just moving on to the next idea.  It was pretty easy to see after, that  my Sue Ellen idea is not the gleaming jem I was destined to make. It is just an idea. A kooky idea that didn’t pan out. And that is okay. Maybe one day I’ll revisit it in a different context, maybe not. I realized the heartache I felt over it just wasn’t worth it.

I learned that being part of a community is key.
I had sort of a unique experience because I went straight from college to graduate school. I know this is uncommon, and maybe even ill advised, but it is just how my life worked out. Because of this experience I had 7 continuous year (from undergrad to grad) of having a consistent and ever present art community at my fingertips. So when I graduated from my MFA program in 2009, I deeply felt the loss of that community I had enjoyed for all those years.

I discovered early on in my teaching career, that finding kindred spirits among other artists, forging relationships and maintaining those relationships is one of the most important parts of my art practice. Sometimes it took work to find these relationships, other times it felt like chance or fate that brought me together with a particular person at just the right moment when we both had the time and were open to developing a friendship.​Being a part of an artist community became even more important after I began teaching full time in a city 40 miles from where I was living. I had very little time in my life during these years, not only because it is a tough job that takes a lot of time and energy but also because I was commuting over two hours each way by public transit to work. But I continued to make art during those busy years, mainly because I had friends encouraging me and counting on me. My friends invited me to drawing nights, to participate in group shows and to make art for auctions. If it weren’t for these little projects, I don’t know how I would have kept up my art practice.

These relationships are not at their heart about networking. Although knowing more people who are in the arts does lead to opportunities,they are about finding those who share your passion for making and for taking the risk that so many others are not willing to take. When I am with my art buddies I feel understood. I know that like me, they get home from one of their often (many) jobs with an idea burning in their minds. That like me, they cringe at yet another call for entry with a fee, or the hell that is framing artwork. I also really like their work, I admire it, I collect it, and I am amazed by the part of themselves they show to the world through their art that you might never see just being their friend.

​I’ve lived in three different cities during my teaching career and each time I’ve had to plant the seeds of new friendships by finding out where the artists are, showing up at openings and events, introducing myself, and offering my skills and ideas. As my community grows, it only expands the possibilities I see for my life and my work.
These things I’ve learned seem like common sense I as read them over to myself, but they are things I still must remind myself of as I do the work of teaching and making art each day. Working to quiet the voices of self-doubt and self-pity and turning up the volume on the voices self-assurance and confidence in my own mind. Another way to look at it is I’ve learned to strive to match my inner teacher with the teacher I am for my students.

As a teacher I am patient, flexible, open minded, and encouraging, I act this way because it is what is required for my students to succeed.  People don’t learn through harsh criticism, shame and rigidity- these things only chip away at the trust and confidence we need to develop our ideas. To those of you who are artists, I hope these insights resonate with you whether you also teach or not, this culture will not make space for your art practice you will have to do this for yourself. So be your own best teacher and keep making art.

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