Thought for today.

It’s funny how you see things differently with time. I often think about what makes an excellent teacher. This week I came to a new conclusion. A good teacher works toward becoming better at lesson planning and at being more effective in the classroom. I’ve tried to work hard at those things, thinking that it would free up more spare time so I could work on my personal artwork. (It’s hard to teach college art classes and still have energy to keep making and exhibiting your own art!)
Anyway, like I said, this week I changed my mind a little. An excellent teacher works hard at continually improving the basic nuts and bolts of teaching, so that more time can be spent relating to, and engaging with, the students. You can be the most effective preparer of lesson plans in the world, but if your students are anxious to rush out at the end of class, you’re not actually being that effective of a teacher.
An strong indicator of how well you’re reaching your students is how many of them linger at the end of class and for how long. Thirty minutes after class, if students are still there wanting to talk to you and wanting to work on the projects….then you’re much closer to achieving excellence in action.

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Artist Statements

At times, I’ve both hated and loved the idea of artist statements. I believe them to be a good thing, because of the dialogues they can start. It can be tough for visual artists to put into words the many reasons WHY they make something, but it’s so worth it. At the very least it refreshes your own understanding as maker, and believer in creativity.

So here is my artist statement, trying to describe the very core of why I make things,

Memories are important to me. One of my earliest is of my Grandmother whispering Spanish words to me that I would then go and speak to my Grandfather to see if he knew them. It was a simple game, but the feeling of running between two people stuck with me. It is a feeling that would continue to get stronger as I became more aware of the world and of myself. As I grew, I tried to make more sense of the seeming dissimilar parts of my existence: the spheres of life with which I had a connection, but didn’t seem a full part of. I struggled a lot with relating my Hispanic heritage to my Caucasian one, and relating my personal faith to organized religion and to my art making. In my mind, my life was a continually wandering of a metaphorical no-man’s land between cultures, and groups. So I explored how and what to identify as, and which labels to use to describe myself. Before I called it art, my first acts of creation were mimicking people around me in order to explore the labels and groups I wanted to belong to.

This mimicry evolved into an exploration of liminal spaces, like the gap between ideas and imagery, the physical space between two other physical spaces, or even the role of maker versus natural process. The art that I make is an attempt to navigate these areas. Each series of work that I have created explores the idea of “in-between space” in separate ways, with different media, imagery and conceptual statements. I often work on two contrasting series of work at the same time in order to balance creative thoughts, like my two current series of one illustrative and one abstract. I blend and mix media, text and images, religious ideas and secular imagery in my constant search for understanding the liminal space.

Looking back

I’ve recently been going through and doing some Spring cleaning of my studio, and all the paperwork I’ve accumulated over 4 years of teaching college art classes. With all the snow we’ve been having where I live, there wasn’t much else to do when I wasn’t shoveling.

I wrote new versions of my Philosophy of Teaching, revised and reworked Artist Statements, and came up with new lesson plans I’m excited to try out next fall!

Also, adding up all the classes and students I’ve had the privilege of teaching and working with. I was so blown away when I realized I’ve taught over 400 students! The time has flown by, and my life is definitely been made richer by all those conversations about art and life.

I’ll be updating here whenever I have time with some of those documents. Be sure to check out www.johnruggles.com for more images and updates as well!!

Reframing

I just finished the first week of a new semester of teaching college drawing classes. Looking into the faces of 40 students who don’t think they can make art, and don’t completely know why art is important reminds me of how crucial art is to education. But for art classes to be considered part of the core curriculum of a school, they must do more than just teach a skill set. For art to make the impact it’s capable of, it must teach life skills. And in my opinion the best teachers, regardless of subject, make each class carry a larger lesson on how to live adult life better.
My approach to drawing is to teach a student how to see better; how to be more aware of themselves and of the world. That is the basest foundation of art in my mind. It is learning about ourselves, our communities, and our world through making and experiencing change. It is changing what and how we believe.
Applying paint or charcoal to a surface immediately changes the image before us. By participating in the act of creation, art students can be taught how to create change in their own lives. Through critique, the art student can be taught self-awareness and how to step outside themselves to look objectively at their actions. By acknowledging mistakes, and making effort to improve, the art student learns to accept the process of continual growth that forms an active adult life.
Art can change the word, by changing us.
What I learned in art class is impacting my life years later. I learned a lot from the painting classes I took in college. And one particular lesson has been fresh in my mind the last month. Artists don’t always make an amazing piece of art. Painters don’t consistently paint a masterpiece. In fact, most of the time, we make a lot that are bad. Some painters throw out, or destroy, these bad paintings. Others paint over the mistakes and reframe them as something new. This ability to look at a mistake and build on it to create something successful, if applied to our personal lives can change the way we see. Reframing, coincidentally, in cognitive psychology refers to finding ways to see people, things, and events in new or different ways. In other words, learning to see better. Our perception of ourselves, and of reality makes up what we believe. If we can change how we see (change our beliefs), by reframing our view, we can change our actions, and therefore our lives. Art taught me how to reframe my mistake paintings into good paintings. It taught me how to change my beliefs so I can change my actions.
Art, if taught with these sort of life skills in mind, can actually foster the development of successful, mindful adults who are meaningful contributors to society. It can teach us how to have better, happier, and more stable lives.
It can change everything.

If

If is a powerful word. It carries hope and optimism, fear of failure and defeat. It can be obsessive and doubtful. It can be joyous and full of faith. If is a good word. But more important than the power of a word, or the power of a color, is the person who uses them. We can spend lives using colors and words without truly understanding that their power comes from how we use them and what we build with them. Do we grow worlds of vibrant color that change our communities and make lives better? Do we speak hope and faith into bridges that unite people’s?

I think that the secret of great leaders, artists, and people is finding the calmness that comes from maturing in truth into adulthood. The rites of passage previous generations had are missing in our contemporary world of instant gratification. We are producing men and women, (and clearly, mostly men) that don’t understand what being a grown up means. And the words and colors they use are blown away by time and wind. The things they build don’t last. They sit in their fatalistic boats, and are blown about, rudderless, in a raging sea. But there is an IF. A hope. A recovery of adult self is possible: A recovery of calm and control.

Rudyard Kipling knew. He knew what it took:

IF

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

 

 

Learning to See

I am an art teacher. Well, to be more specific I am a drawing teacher. And I never wanted to be one.

I wanted to be a painting teacher. And before that, I was intent on being a Professor of American Literature. But, I ended up teaching drawing.

For a while I wasn’t sure how to respond to people when they asked what I did for a living. I believed in education, and believed in art education, but somehow I still felt like I needed to make light of what I did. I might start talking to a stranger in line at some store, or meet someone at church, and whenever we got the point of the conversation where my job came up…I felt awkward.

The visual and performing arts are such a needed area of a complete education, but they are still the first to get cut in times of decreased budget. I knew that some people don’t find value in art classes. They seem frivolous to some people.  And I realized that they had a point.

The art classes that many students have taken exist outside the world of valuable academic thought, or real world skill acquisition. They are two hours a week filled with students making things. Having moments, where students can express, and create is integral in a functioning curriculum that expects to produce well-rounded individuals. But that still wasn’t good enough. And it made me begin to think about how to increase the viable integration of skills learned in a drawing class into the set of skills a student develops in order to succeed in all the subject areas. In shorter terms: could taking a drawing class help a student be better at math? or at writing? or at ethics?

I learned the hard way, that as a beginning teacher, I was made up of all the good, and bad teachers I had in the past. The lessons I could pick up from the good teachers, carried information worth integrating into current practice in order to push for success in the classroom. And the bad teachers I had served as examples of what not to do. Even any of the teacher education courses in college, while applicable, may not actually make a distinct difference when confronted with an actual classroom full of students.

The point was, and is, how to continually improve the ability of an art class to equip students with applicable skills that they can carry into other subjects, and into the real world after graduation that will help them to be meaningful, contributors to their communities and society at large.

And for the drawing classes I teach, I try to achieve that in this way: Focusing on Learning to see.

(And I owe a lot of this mindset to the professors I worked with while at graduate school.)

Learning to draw can be done in a procedural way, where the students learn a step by step procedure to follow to be able to draw a certain object. Or, it can be taught in an experiential way, where the students learn by experiencing what drawing is and improve through practice.  My approach is to form a combination of the two, where experience and procedure inform and react to each other.

I talk about learning to drawing in terms of learning a new language. We need to learn the basics before we can learn to put flare and nuance to our sentences. The first and continual lesson is learning to see. We must relearn how to see an object more accurately, more sensitively in order to be able to draw it better.

In terms of our mind’s ability to recognize and process information the theory goes like this: it’s easier for us to rely on long-term memory to solve problems. Relying on our conscious thought can be overwhelming, especially when confronted with a new idea. So we learn to see better by practicing specific in class exercises to form a new way of thinking that isn’t relying on long-term memory. Essentially, when a students tries to draw a face, they are drawing a face from memory, even if they are trying to draw the person sitting in front of them. To learn to draw in my classroom, means learning to think differently first.

We continually re-emphasize this developing ability to think in the present and process that present information faster. We spend time talking in collaborative exercises that focus on how seeing the world around us more accurately impacts our lives outside of the classroom. We look at how individuals make a difference because they saw a need to innovate technology, improve working conditions, or fight against racial or social injustice. We read poetry and write papers. We emphasize discussion and development of ideas during in class drawing sessions, and during group critiques of completed work. As a group we confront fear of failure, and public criticism by emphasizing the importance of reaching the ceiling of our knowledge and that each time we push ourselves to the limits of what we know…we know more the next time.

I believe in the ability of art  to make a difference in the education of a person. I want the students to see a different perspective by learning to see, and go away better people, better citizens, and more aware of the world they are going to be a part of.

For drawing, or any art class, to be considered a relevant addition to the working curriculum of a school, we must continually strive to find ways to make the skills learned in these classes applicable to the overall success of a person, both in school and in the world. We must make it more than just expression. It must be, in some part, about learning how to live.

I’ll leave you with two thoughts. One is from a students paper from one of my drawing classes, and the other is from me.

“If you set aside even a moment for art appreciation, it can open up your eyes to a whole new world through someone else’s perspective.”

I don’t make light of what I do anymore, because the focus isn’t on what I do…the focus is on what the students are able to do and how they are able to grow.