Teaching is an incredibly humbling act. It reminds me of what I know, what I have forgotten and what I never really mastered. Notice how all of those observations focus on me, not the student. That’s the thing about teaching. We do it because we want to help others and the truth is if our students get half as much out of it as we, the teachers, do, then the effort has been an incredible success.
I am mentoring a fifth-grade aspiring artist as part of a fantastic non-profit program in Austin, Little Artist Big Artist offered by Chula Art League. I was randomly paired with a student (recommended by his elementary school art teacher) and we have worked together for ten weeks.
The hardest part of working with young students is deciding where to start. I forget how much I know, how much I now do instinctively. I reflect back to design school days for exercises and realize that many of those concepts are too dense for someone just starting out who has a much shorter attention span for such things. (Sorry, Sylvia…I wish I could make him create an entire concert poster—complete with rows of miniscule type— using only an X-Acto knife and gray-scale construction paper…but it seems a bit sadatistic; plus I get nervous watching little kids, or really anyone who is not a full-time artist or architect, use an X-Acto knife).
I reflect back to the days when I taught elementary-age students. Some projects feel too simple; others too outcome oriented. I don’t exactly know what this young man is interested in, and chances are, he doesn’t either. He just knows he likes “doing art.” I want to give him a few tools so that he can continue down the creative path on his own, at home, at school, even possibly at work one day. I want to help him “see” things around him more clearly, to expose him to the myriad of ways people make a living out of art-making, to show him the infinite ways to find art materials and how to use them.
I have forgotten the magic of the first introduction to a kneaded eraser. If you are not familiar with kneaded erasers, they are soft, squishy grey rectangles of putty-like eraser substance that can be stretched, balled, flattened, pointed and distorted into any number of shapes to suit your erasing or stress-relieving needs. Everyone loves kneaded erasers, but this was my student’s first introduction to them, and I made it happen. That feels good.
We made a pilgrimage to Jerry’s Artarama to peruse the mind-boggling array of art supplies. We lost track of time somewhere between the Chinese bamboo brushes and the tubes of acrylic paint and had to call his mother to let her know we would be late for pick-up. My student happily stroked every hog bristle, sable, and mongoose brush hair and examined all of the different sizes of rounds, flats, Filberts, brights, fans, and mops. He tested different graphite leads and oil pastels and a few fluorescent gel pens for good measure. We contemplated the merits of wood panels and stretched canvas and various weights of papers. Ultimately we had to leave a few favorites behind (you can rip through your art budget in a hot second at Jerry’s) but discussed the possibility of searching for some bargains at Austin Creative Reuse on another day.
I don’t know how much knowledge he will take away from these mentor weeks. I, for one, have learned that he loves chocolate chip cookies, his bike, Michael Jackson and feeling the texture of all art materials (hence, the large supply of vinyl gloves now in my studio). I have had the pleasure of introducing him to fellow artists at Canopy and having small talk about contemporary artists, techniques, and materials comingled with thoughts on math homework, cafeteria bullies and, somewhat surprisingly, our current president. If you have never volunteered as a mentor, or, as in my case, it has been a long while, I hope you will consider doing it. You will be amazed at how much you can teach yourself.
Come see my student’s completed work along with work from other student artists and their mentors at the 11th Annual Little Artist Big Artist gallery show on Friday, April 26 at 7pm a https://mondotees.com/blogs/gallery 4115 Guadalupe Street in Austin.