Teaching as improvisational art using learning as the pallet

Bird Droppings December 3, 2022

Teaching as improvisational art using learning as the pallet

I wrote the basics of this article nearly sixteen years ago and thought of an artist friend, now a computer programmer, trying to define her art and searching for her meaning in life. My friend often reflected her political views and emotions through her art. A few years ago, my family had a family game night at the request of one of my nephews and his wife, inviting us all over to play various board games and computer games and eat. Eating is an integral part of all family gatherings and perhaps a socializing aspect that often gets overlooked. Maybe one day, I will write on the socializing aspects of a family get-together and the intertwining of food. But a Trivial Pursuit question I did not know the answer to caught my attention. “What Impressionist painter started an art community before committing suicide?”

“The more I think about it, the more I realize there is nothing more artistic than to love others” Vincent Van Gogh

By chance, the answer was Van Gogh. When I first read this, I thought about an ear coming in a box and how unromantic that is. Perhaps sending body parts while you are alive is an art form. But trying not to be sarcastic, many aspects of our lives could be construed as an art form, such as love, teaching, and caring. Each goes beyond a simple definition. Within each are pieces that you do not learn in class. If Vincent Van Gogh had shown a picture he drew or painted during one of his manic spells; the art teacher would have told him to take art lessons. Today those same paintings are considered classics of impressionism. I am sure Picasso was laughed at somewhere along the line for drawing women in cube form or simply as a splash of color upon his canvas.

What defines an art form versus simply reality? I would not pay millions to have a Picasso or Van Gogh even if I had the money. Perhaps I would prefer to see and experience rather than to own. Those who pay millions are often more about the publicity than the art.

“The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.” William Faulkner

Defining the moment in words, paint, or sculpture, perhaps even a bit of broken glass is art. In a tiny chapel outside Atlanta, I saw a stained glass window many years ago created by a renowned artist, an elderly Trappist monk from Conyers. This was his last work at the age of ninety-two. The brilliant abstracts in the windows were red and purple, depicting the Christian sacraments. The windows were alive as you sat in the chapel, bathed in the brilliant light from the windows.

“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” Henry James

I was thinking about Faulkner’s idea of art and how we can take a piece of life and preserve it. Artists are taxidermists, each working within their medium. Is love simply that special moment carried further to remind you what once was? Could teaching be passing pieces of reality to another who will have those pieces at some point in time? Even the painting of Van Gogh is his art, just the capturing of an image. Interesting how we do so quickly now with digital cameras, scanners, and computers. Even in my photography, playing with color and movement as I capture images.

“Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end.” James Joyce

“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” John F. Kennedy

“There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose because before he can do so, he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.” Henri Matisse

Nearly ten years ago, Mel Brooks was honored at the Kennedy Art Center for his contributions. I found myself drawn to these writers’ quotes today, especially as I read this statement by Henry Matisse. There is a secret hidden within Matisse’s words for all art forms. Our history and previous experiences often limit us, be it love or an art form; for Matisse then, each love, each new piece of art should be fresh. Each should be special. In trying to categorize and synthesize, we lose the true essence and aspect of love and art. When we try to define and label the box of love, do we lose pieces as we can in art? Teaching is in a very similar situation. Teachers often try and teach each lesson as they taught the last. First, you must forget all the classes that were ever taught, a difficult task for any teacher.

“If I didn’t start painting, I would have raised chickens.” Grandma Moses

“Often while reading a book, one feels that the author would have preferred to paint rather than write; one can sense the pleasure he derives from describing a landscape or a person as if he were painting what he is saying because deep in his heart he would have preferred to use brushes and colors.” Pablo Picasso

Nearly ten years ago, a student brought in several dozen photos she and her sister had taken of each other. One of the photos caught my eye, and neither of the girls saw any significance, as very few others when I see things in photos. But that one photo caught the student’s personality, and I put it on the wall in my classroom. That is art for me. Recently one of the sisters came by to visit and noticed the picture was still there and how much that meant to her. Where and how does it become art for everyone? How does teaching become energized to the point that it is art?

It has been some time since I wrote a rather long email to a dear friend who is a pastor in Pennsylvania. I used the word empathy several times. An artist, in whatever medium they choose, has to have empathy, and a pastor is an artist dealing with the spirituality of parishioners and so much more. As I researched art, many paradoxes seemed to crop up even within the definition.

“A nonscientific branch of learning; one of the liberal arts.” “A system of principles and methods employed in performing a set of activities: the art of building A trade or craft that applies such a system of principles and methods: the art of the lexicographer. “Dictionaery.com

Art is nonscientific, yet it is also definite in other ways. I find art perhaps more scientific than science. Interestingly, we attach theory to reality in art, and in science, we connect reality to theory. Teaching in and of itself is taking reality and attaching theory to it. We have a block of information that, by various means, we have to interpret to a student, and hopefully, they will come close to what we are trying to teach. For several days I have been discussing or mentioning symbols and recognizing symbols as to how we understand our reality. It is through symbols we convey information about reality.

“To impart knowledge” Dictionary.com

“Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments. An artist recreates those aspects of reality which represent his fundamental view of man’s nature.” Ayn Rand

I was thinking back several years to a teacher searching the closet for teacher’s manuals and transparencies to teach a subject they had taught for forty years. I was a bit taken aback. How do you teach a subject for forty years and now get stressed over a manual and transparencies? You should know the material, which should not be the same for every class. The delivery of the material is a critical issue here. I was curious as I watched and observed the mounting stress for this teacher as no teacher’s manual and transparencies could be found. Fortunately for the students, their regular teacher made it back in time.

“There has to be one how did anyone teach this class before me.” A former teacher

That same week I watched a teacher take the same subject and walk into class dressed as a knight; maybe it was a goat herder, with literally a virtual reality game. This was in a history class, and it came alive. The teacher divided the room, and each team was given various attributes such as being near water, having fertile soil, possessing seeds or goats, etc. One group was assigned a gold mine and nothing else. There was a bit of reflection and thinking for the students. Then the essential question was asked, how are you going to develop your civilization? I am curious which group learned more about the start of world civilization, from the forty-year experienced teacher or the lowly goat herder. Art is an interpretation. In teaching, we often interpret ideas and events. It also allows the student to analyze and learn from that thinking process.

“I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.” Augusto Rodin

“Inside you, there’s an artist you don’t know about. He’s not interested in how things look different in moonlight.” Jahal-Uddin Rumi

“Not even the visionary or mystical experience ever lasts very long. It is for art to capture that experience, to offer it to, in the case of literature, its readers; to be, for a secular, materialist culture, some replacement for what the love of god offers in the world of faith.” Salman Rushdie

We can be artists in our field; perhaps empathy is the key. It is reaching that inner spark in others so they can feel what you feel, what you see and hear, and understand what it was that inspired you.

“Great art is never produced for its own sake. It is too difficult to be worth the effort.” George Bernard Shaw

“What distinguishes a great artist from a weak one is first their sensibility and tenderness; second, their imagination, and third, their industry.” John Ruskin

Perhaps Ruskin has defined what constitutes a great artist in whatever medium or pallet you choose. I wish we could as quickly declare peace throughout the world. If we can bottle and sell empathy, then peace could be a reality. I worked in my herb garden yesterday, trimming dead branches and stems. I watched the sky and the afternoon sun setting, listening to the quiet of my backyard walking about. This was very soothing. I wonder, can growing herbs be considered an art form? Please keep all in harm’s way on your mind and heart and always give thanks to Namaste.

My family and friends, I do not say this lightly,

Mitakuye Oyasin

(We are all related)


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