Making Special | Kate Plows

It is the last day of the the three-week summer arts residency for high school students, where I spent most of my energy and passion this summer. We are wrapping up the last class in a now-spotless studio, a space that had been covered floor-to-high-as-could-be-reached with student drawings just 24 hours ago.  My students are looking at me expectantly, tears in a few eyes, waiting for some closing remarks or at least the start of our last class discussion.

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Studios, 24 hours earlier

I smile at this group of twelve hardworking, talented young artists.  I take a deep breath, and tell them softly, “You are not special.”

A few quizzical looks and chuckles.  ”No, really.  I mean it.”  They get quiet.  And then I explain.

For the past three weeks, my students have worked upwards of nine hours a day on their art.  The program was selective, based on a portfolio and written statement, and tuition-based, though with plenty of need-based scholarship available.  At the end of the program, they could receive college credit for their work.  They chose to apply and attend for a variety of reasons – some to try on the shoes of being an art student; some to check out the hosting college; a few to exchange some pressures back home for artistic pressure that seemed more exciting.

On the first day of class, I gave them each their own studio space (several gasps at this), and an assignment to introduce another student by creating an artwork about him or her.  With a few suggested interview questions and the provision of some basic supplies, they were off and running.  I had set empathy as a theme for the summer, and the first step was to get to know one other person well enough to communicate something important about him or her.  The works created from this prompt were open and moving, as were the students’ remarks when they shared what they had created.

From there, we investigated different ways we use our hands; re-invented blue examination booklets into ‘examinations of influence’; created installations in nature with torrential rains as our collaborator; developed a book project with a group of writing students; and recorded in-depth interviews to use the sound in large-scale drawings.  Everything that they made during the residency was collaborative and based on developing sensitivity to each other and to the world around them.  We created art every day in a rhythm of hard work, support, and care for each other.  I was less a teacher than a collaborator and guide, focused on creating a physical and philosophical space to feel safe, take risks, and make a lot of work.

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Collaborating with the environment

This felt very different from my day-to-day life as a classroom teacher. Time, priorities, support, inspiring colleagues, and students with defined interest in art all affected this distinction.  I tend to think magic had something to do with it, too.

Inevitably, I came to care for my students a lot, and they knew it.  So, my closing day remarks did not initially seem to make much sense.

“You’re not special,” I repeat.  “You were presented with an opportunity.  Someone – a parent, a teacher – believed in you enough to send you here, or at least to allow you to come here.  They saw some talent in you, a spark, and supported you in exploring it.”  Some nods.  “I believe that was a good choice.”  Smiles.

“But the thing is – you’re going to go home, and no one is going to understand or believe that you just spent nine hours a day making art.  It’s going to be hard to talk with your friends about this.  They might not get it.  They might not care.  At least – not the way you all do.”  Careful, Kate, I caution myself.  More tears would not be good.

“What you need to know is that we all have that spark.  It might not be for art – that’s probably sort of rare, right?  But maybe your best friend has a spark for… I don’t know… running.  Or independent films.  Or basketball.  Or making really cool jewelry and selling it on Etsy.  It’s sometimes hard to talk about that spark – to legitimize whatever it is that we find we are passionate about.”

I have their attention now.  ”But your job – if you want to find any sort of real community after an experience like this – is to use that spark to make other people special.  Get them talking, the sort of deeper talks that we had here, from the very first class.  Find out what makes your friends, your teachers, even your parents tick.  Support them.  Show them opportunities like the one you had this summer.  Let their experiences inspire you to keep expanding on your own.”

“We become special when we acknowledge each other’s specialness,” I tell them, to more than a few sniffles.  “Go do it.”

Teaching can be an isolating profession.  As for teaching the arts in a climate where the subject is under scrutiny for relevance?  You sometimes feel alone on a desert island, constructing a fence around whatever territory you have been able to establish. There is nothing special about the teacher who fences off content and space from her colleagues, avoiding shared experiences and protecting her turf.  I worry that this is the sort of teacher I’m becoming – except when experiences like this summer remind me that I still know what magic means.

What I did not realize when I was sharing these remarks with my summer students is that I was really advising myself.  To find real community as a teaching artist, I need to be more intentional about finding out what makes my day-to-day colleagues and my school year students tick.  I have take down the fence, and pay much closer attention to supporting, learning from, and collaborating with their experiences.

The entry point might not be “art,” per se – chances are, it’s not.  (There are reasons why I taught twelve students at the residency, while my school’s sports camps are filled to capacity.)  But my content area is the most versatile of the lot, one that has the power to help others see what is special about their own perspectives and experiences.  There’s nothing new about this – it’s the role art has filled for millennia, in functional, spiritual, representational, abstract, and instigative ways.  In his essay The Hegemonic Eye: Can the Hand Survive?, artist and teacher Chris Staley writes, “Art making is an essential part of the human condition. To make something special is fundamental to our humanity-from college freshman wanting to decorate their dorm rooms to wanting to dress up for a special occasion. This making things special is a form of caring.”

I’m not special.  If you’re reading this post, neither are you.  But we have it within us to create art, opportunities, and relationships that are.  It may be that the most genuine art, and the most authentic teaching, happens when we affirm the specialness of another person.  It may also be that this personal approach is how we can best keep the teaching of art at the center of these vast, sweeping changes in education and in our world.

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