My mentor in college had a rare, rare gift. She dealt with the work of her students from the inside out. That is, she had the ability to understand your work’s intentions, to find out where you would like to take the piece, and to advise you on how to actually communicate that intention to your audience.
This was useful to me as an artist, but even more as a teacher: deeply useful feedback doesn’t start with the teacher’s ideal style or product. It starts with what the student would like to achieve.
Sounds basic, right? But I’m finding that giving that kind of feedback needs practice, practice, practice.
I teach a lot of standalone classes, 2-3 hours long. My biggest challenge, in that brief amount of time, is to connect with each of a dozen or more students long enough to pick up on his or her aims – and then help them forward.
In a monotype workshop a few weeks ago, I got lots of practice giving feedback and then getting out of the way while students made decisions. The group was flexible and fun, willing to be stretched, and all knew each other well. And I think every student left with something they were proud of.
Not that there weren’t bumps along the way! One student in particular hated everything she made with the initial assignment in mind. After our mid-class check-in, she decided to go in the opposite direction. Immediately, her body language relaxed and she completed six pieces in quick succession, which truly took advantage of the unique properties of vellum + akua ink (lots of lovely transparent color and some light texture). They also fit her poetic interests – small, boiled down to essentials, intimate.
I was happy to see my assignment pushed out of the way while she charged headlong in her own direction. In a lot of different ways, every day, we have to make those decisions. Do we keep going in the same direction? Do we stick with what other people want or expect from us? How do we figure out what we want?