To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.
Joseph Beuys, 1969
I recently had a solo show here in Lima. It was something I needed to do to mark my return to the city but, at the same time, having a full time job teaching art in a school, getting my show ready was incredibly stressful and exhausting as the work that I exhibited was intensely personal. The process was hard, partly because of the emotional commitment required to finish the work but mostly because I was effectively doing two full time jobs, one as an artist and one as a teaching artist.
I admit that there were moments when I wished I could do just one or the other but, deep down, I always knew that my show was benefitting from my teaching just as my teaching undoubtedly benefits from my practice as an artist.
My students were part of this exhibition in many intangible ways. My International Baccalaureate (IB) Visual Arts diploma students were starting their own artistic journey It was through immersing myself with their own processes and bodies of work and guiding them in clarifying their own practice that I clarified mine.
The IB Visual Arts Diploma Programme is an intellectually challenging course that requires students to produce a body of work which is personal and build connections to themselves, their culture and the world. They´re not expected to follow a single theme throughout the two years of the course, but to present a coherency and progression between the themes they choose to work on as well as discussing their artistic choices and editing a body of work. As I produced my own artwork and asked myself the same questions I ask my students, I realized that I had been mistaken about my exhibition´s theme and focus; I had been working thinking the pieces were about memory, family and reconnecting with my roots, when they were actually about death, loss and letting go of the past.
‘The Absent Father’, one of the artworks presented in the solo exhibition ‘God Only Knows’, developed during my first year teaching at San Silvestre School in Lima, Perú.
Going back and forth between these two roles of artist and art teacher, oftentimes in the same day seems like having a split personality; I am not thinking of the obsolete medical term but rather of my dual practice which involves inhabiting two worlds that fight constantly within me. They both demand my time, my mental space, my energy and my complete attention and devotion. Like fierce enemies, they eat each other up but also in total contradiction, inform each other and need the other to exist. Having said that, I have frequently been unable to balance these two forces and the permanent tension they create is often times hard to deal with.
This was the constant conversation topic with teaching artists in New York; I spent numerous hours discussing possible solutions with my museum coworkers. No one had an answer, everyone complained: if you have a job that gives you money, it eats up your energy and time and therefore when you have money to buy supplies and rent a nice studio, you have no time to create; on the flip side, when you have no job you have endless time to create but you have no money to do so or even survive. Where is the balance? Is there one? And, to make matters worse, what if you believe, as I do, that you can make better art as a result of your teaching?
Teaching in the galleries during a family tour as part of the museum´s 25th anniversary at The Noguchi Museum in New York.
I think the balance can come from allowing oneself time to wear each hat; when I´m teaching I want to be fully present as a teacher and not think about my own work and vice versa. In the past I used to keep thinking about my students after work hours, when in my studio, but I have worked hard to learn not to do this and be fair to my own artwork. I have come to understand that my art is connected to my students even when I am not focused on them. I learned about these connections from Buddhism and have been incorporating Buddhist ideas into my current teaching practice as an artist who teaches. I also draw inspiration from the examples of artists who successfully fused both worlds, especially of artists like Joseph Beuys, who was a prolific teacher whose life could not be separated from his art, nor his artistic practice from his teaching.
One of the last teaching artist residencies I developed in New York was at a nonprofit organization that provides alcohol and drug abuse treatment and prevention services to youths and adults. My group was composed of people who had been through a lot in their lives and were court mandated to be in the facility. They had little or no knowledge of art and were at first uninterested in anything to do with it. Many had chosen to be in the workshop to be away from the facility, several were medicated and others could become very violent or aggressive. Working with them was a real challenge for me, which is exactly why I wanted to do it.
Throughout the residency, my students took a closer look at their lives and found possibility and connection through art. Many times, the artwork became a mirror that showed them their true selves and this was sometimes hard for them, but it also showed them how beautiful and deserving of happiness they were.
Teaching brings me into contact with situations and audiences that enrich my life and therefore my artwork. The constant inspiration I receive from my students, young or old, is what keeps me going through it all. Working to unify my art and my teaching is, I believe, an act of love and humility. It is hard to make art while teaching it fully and responsibly and I don´t think this life is for everyone. But I do think that, as in every act of love, teaching artists receive as much as they give.