Scattered Candy Still Life: Learning Through Failure

Painting is hard. I will admit, this is something I forget. Suddenly I am there in the room with fourteen students desperately needing my attention and I am overwhelmed and growing impatient and running out of ways to explain these skills I have come to take for granted.

I am hearing my students struggle and seeing their fear of failure and their frustration take form on the canvas. Simultaneously, I am beginning to doubt every aspect of this lesson I thought I had planned so well. I am wondering why the tools I have given my students to make this exercise less painful,to in fact build their confidence, are instead doing the opposite. Like I said, painting is hard.

We try and try, students and teachers, and the truth is sometimes we get a product so different and at odds with what we set out to achieve. In failing to meet our expectations it is easy to dismiss this work as itself a failure. I wonder instead if the problem is not with the work but with our point of view.

Process over Product. It is a buzz phrase in the art community and especially among teachers like myself, who aspire towards a choice-based or TAB (teaching for artistic behavior) classroom. It is simple in meaning and complex in implementation. The best way I have heard it described is like this: Imagine that your classroom is a car, but instead of the teacher sitting in the driver’s seat, the student is. Learning becomes student driven, with the teacher riding alongside, assisting and motivating when necessary but always with  the student’s own ideas at the core of the journey.

The reality of this approach, this giving up of control on the part of the teacher, is that the product becomes unpredictable. The payoff is that student learns to take ownership over their learning experience and to confront and work through challenges because they are personally invested in the outcome. They understand, in a real and concrete way, what it means to take an idea and develop it. Learning moves from being about the success with which students can follow a set of directions to the creativity and tenacity they build within themselves as they begin to ask their own questions, and in answering those questions, to cultivate their own artistic voice.

Looking at these quirky paintings now, I am struck less by the ways in which they are disappointing and more by how authentically they communicate “process.” Inconsistencies in perspective, failure to grasp the concept of reflected light, and weirdly large areas of negative space tell me that the students were there figuring it out.  Process takes us from a blank canvas to a finished painting, but it is rarely a straightforward, nor easily made, journey. I can see the struggle in the work, and I can also see the learning.

As a collection, I do not consider this assignment in line with the values of a Choice Classroom. It is narrow in scope and offers little to no room for personal expression. At its core, it is a lesson in technique. Like my students, I too am figuring it out. Daily, I am torn between the desire to produce beautifully rendered images and sculptures and the knowledge that sometimes (most times) success is discovered through error, and a sincere letting go of control on my own part. I am exploring new methods for teaching technique that enhance and expand a student’s visual vocabulary without becoming the focus of the art making. I am learning to live with and grow from assignments that do not go as planned.To, in fact, see these projects as some of my most successful.





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