Making Art or Making Artists
I had a professor in graduate school who was convinced of his ability to teach us how to think. His assignments were masterfully constructed to push students beyond the norm. Complex situations were presented that required a skillful blending of analysis, critical thinking, and creative problem solving. Successful solutions were consistently insightful and unusual, except perhaps to the professor who had designed the projects and knew precisely what the solutions should look like.
These assignments were widely respected by all but the few students who were self-motivated and driven by a more personal muse. Those students were an oftentimes misunderstood minority, and no one could consistently control or predict the outcome of their creative explorations. They were not particularly good students; they were, quite often, exceptional creative thinkers. And, in numbers that far exceed the averages, this minority went on to realize successful and respected careers.
And therein lies the dilemma in trying to teach college students how to make art. Every assignment – no matter how cleverly crafted – is built upon a presumed outcome and becomes a problem-solving design exercise. The assignment’s purpose is to achieve a successful solution as envisioned by the professor, not to probe the un-chartable path to a personal aesthetic. Most often, this path is solitary and introspective—not the stuff of institutional teaching. With this notion in mind, I decided years ago to alter my personal, curricular purpose from teaching students how to make art to simply making artists.
The process of making artists at the Columbus College of Art & Design begins in the sophomore year. In order to fully appreciate this process, it is necessary to first understand the educational culture this program supports. CCAD is an art college—a narrowly focused institution. Our students arrive on campus with the sole intention of becoming professional artists and, in virtually all cases, with significant artistic skills. They then experience a rigorous foundation year focused on completing their mastery of fundamental skills and enhancing their conceptual awareness. It is my premise that from this point on, art-making excellence depends more on the individual than on the education. Faculty should nurture, challenge, and provide technical insight, but careers will often succeed or fail based on how well the student is prepared to embrace the real-world requirements of a professional artist.
The Making Artists program envisions a successful art career as a tripod. Far from the often-imagined but rarely-realized dream of “make it and sell it,” Making Artists introduces students to an art career requiring multiple abilities in three primary job classifications—making art, making product, and teaching. Each leg in this career model will vary in significance over the life of the artist, but all must be trained for and pointedly put into practice.
The primary leg is clearly making art. This is the reason our students enrolled in college and it is their source of drive and inspiration. Making art was their initial passion and will continue to carry most of their hopes and dreams for creative self-realization. Skilled faculty will enhance a student’s art-making intentions through a blend of enthusiastic support and critical inquiry, while constantly offering up a full complement of technical suggestions and solutions. Within the realm of making art, perhaps the most critical faculty responsibility is to step far enough back from the actual art-making process to let the student own the full experience of failure and success.
The second leg of this career model is “making product.” This is where traditional art curricula and Making Artists begin to part ways. “Making product” is promoted as a way professional artists can develop and produce an art form accessible to a market wider than their individual art may reach. It is a different process than making art, but one that benefits from — perhaps requires — many of the same intellectual abilities. And significantly, producing a product can bring expanded income potential, increased public exposure, and heightened financial security to a professional artist.
In addition to product design and development, this is where we discuss the many critical skills required of all professional artists—bookkeeping, financial analysis, pricing, public relations, career options, visual documentation, networking, licenses, insurance, interviewing, taxes, contracts, leases, intellectual property, marketing, and selling. During this discussion we also objectively address manufacturing options: individual production, industrial mass production, and offshore production. In Making Product, the focus is on the artist’s intellectual and creative capacity, as opposed to his/her personal vision and skill.
Leg three in Making Artists is “teaching art,” more specifically, teaching community art. This leg is addressed in a class entitled “Community Art Education” (CommArt), which has an unusual approach. In CommArt the educational focus is exclusively on technique, regardless of medium. CCAD students are taught to first evaluate the existing skill levels of their students, and to teach specifically to that level. Despite years of mandated K-12 art education, 90% of our community students (from a variety of age and economic strata) have virtually no significant art skills, so we consistently start at the beginning, technical level.
In developing lesson plans and syllabi we purposefully avoid promoting self-expression and creativity; these essential aspects of understanding and making art will follow the mastery of fundamental skill. We initially focus on teaching identifiable skills with measurable results. CCAD CommArt students learn how to break skills down into teachable, sequential steps. Specific expectations for each class taught are set by the CommArt students, and community student failures are addressed, corrected, and overcome. Our expectations in CommArt classes are seemingly modest, but our results –community student enthusiasm, retention, and satisfaction — have been uniformly outstanding.
Community art teaching provides career artists with an additional income stream, increased community visibility, and heightened personal status—all essential components of a successful art career. It requires college students to transform themselves from being primarily knowledge recipients to being knowledge providers. And by focusing on teaching tangible skills, our students provide knowledge that is beyond dispute and cannot be lightly dismissed as personal opinion or convoluted art-speak.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines professional artists as participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs. Early on in the fine arts program at the Columbus College of Art & Design, students are introduced to this uncomfortable but difficult-to-discount definition. I have admittedly chosen it from among many, but I use it in order to encourage students to address both personal AND financial reward in their chosen career, by accepting the tripod career approach embodied in Making Artists. Over the past twenty-five years, I have had the great fortune to work with a supportive administration while I developed this Making Artists program, and it is now being carried on by Cat Sheridan, a former student, who left her position at the Worthington (OH) Arts Council to return to CCAD, head up the Continuing Education program, and maintain the Making Artist perspective. CCAD ceramics faculty colleague Bill Hunt also continues to push students toward a well- grounded education in fine arts. Our primary educational purpose at CCAD was and is art-making, but there are many successful CCAD alumni out in the world today fulfilling the promise of Making Artists.
Following an average college career, Curtis Benzle developed a porcelain studio line that was sold in over five hundred retail establishments, taught K-12 and community art, and chaired the Dimensional Studies department at CCAD. Curtis is currently a Professor Emeritus at CCAD and has relocated to Alabama.
He can be reached at:
706 Randolph Ave., Huntsville, AL 35801
Jennifer Burgie worked with the DC Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative following her graduation and relocation to Washington D.C. Using her Teaching experiences for background, Jenny coordinated community art programming in D.C. and, using her Product perspective, developed a web presence for the organization. After three year with the DC Collaborative, and taking full advantage of the flexibility a Tripod approach provides, Jenny recently left this job and started a new business (www.JennyBurgei.com), painting commissioned portraits and interior/exterior murals. True to the Making Artist program, Jenny continues to create and exhibit her personal collage paintings.
Perhaps my most vocal supporter of the Making Artist program is Jet Schmidt. Jet graduated from CCAD in 2003 with a focus in ceramics. Following graduation, she found a “Product” job with Mayco Color. After two years at Mayco, Jet moved on to be the director of ceramics at a summer camp in Maine and then relocated to North Carolina to develop her own pottery and teach at “Explore Beyond School” in Raleigh and at a local Clay Center. In Jet’s words, “Making Artists prepared me greatly for a career as a fine artist by showing me what I can do. The knowledge I gained in the course has given me the ability to move to a new city and find work easily”. And perhaps Jet’s most insightful observation; “Students may not understand that the skill sets introduced will be invaluable later on.”