Conversation #3: Wondrous Things | J. E. Johnson

This is the third in a series of three (lightly edited) e-mail conversations I had with artist J. E. Johnson earlier this summer about many things related to teaching one’s art. You are encouraged and welcome to ask questions or add to the conversation in the comments section, below. Our first conversation can be found here and our second is here.

Malke Rosenfeld
ALT/space Curator & Editor


Jul 21, 2013

Hi J.E.

I am enjoying this correspondence very much. Thank you for your explanation of how you view the difference between art and craft. I wonder why there is such a clear divide between the two for you and, if you move further in this new teaching direction you are exploring, the two sides might become less polarized?

When I first saw your clock making activity I saw it for what it was – building, learning specific skills for cutting, not a lot of agency on the part of the kids – but I was still drawn to what you were doing. I could see from the rest of your blog how much your artistic values played into other things you do.  I wonder if there will come a time when the experience for your young students will be less about assembling and more about discovery.  Think of all the time you put into figuring out how those gears went together – a whole line of inquiry that might be supported and scaffolded so that, eventually, your students could design and build their own clocks from the very beginning.

Overall, and despite all this discussion about whether there is a difference between art and craft, the more I learn about your teaching work, the more I am convinced that you are an artist-teacher, or a teaching artist, or whatever the title.  In my work editing ALT/space I have become more aware than ever how many different possible ways there are to teach one’s art.




Jul 23, 2013


Yes, this is a splendid dialog. You have no idea how much I appreciate that fact that you are not only interested in but understand my reflective attitude toward teaching.

There’s a lot to respond to here but I’ll try to focus on this issue of what it is to be a “teaching artist” and whether I would call myself one or not.

I sense that a “teaching artist” can imply a more holistic and improvisational approach to teaching. If this is so then yes, I am most definitely a teaching artist. In addition, the study of clock making and time keeping allows for opportunities to pick up the threads of nearly any subject: astronomy (the heavenly bodies and measurement of time), poetry (“To Enjoy the Time by Robert Herrick), physics (pendulums and gravity), religion (Richard of Wallingford, son of a blacksmith and the Abbot of St. Albans and designed the first mechanical clock), geopolitics (John Harrison’s clock that made it possible to accurately navigate longitude), and philosophy (Descartes and the mechanistic world view). The avenues for inquiry are endless and each of these byways provides opportunities for students to engage in creative work. Right now, on the heels of my success with “Gears and Gravity,” I am developing the pedagogical and practical framework for future classes and this inquiry always brings me back to what I know best, which is teaching craft.


Richard of Wallingford via Wikipedia

From a pedagogical standpoint, we have already touched on some the tensions that I have struggled with. One thing that has been important to me from the beginning is that students should be empowered to cut their own gears.


As I discussed my class with other makers, they frequently suggested that I just CNC (short hand for Computer Numerical Control router) or laser cut the parts for the kids to assemble but this attitude is so antithetical to what I feel is important to teach elementary school students. We heavily unitize CNC technology at UT for art making and I advocated for a CNC router for many years until we finally got one. However, in this current environment where 3D printing taking an ever more dominant place in our plans for future of technology education, I want to make sure that we don’t lose sight of our abilities to make wondrous things with very little expense and very little high tech.


“Cool factor” drives much of this focus on 3D printing but there are also cultural attitudes that view all repetitive work to be menial. From my own experience of watching people learn craft, which nearly always depends on some amount of repetitive effort, I don’t believe this to be the case. So for these reasons I must disagree with you when you suggest that I might work toward the goal of making my teaching “less about assembling and more about discovery.” If you could have seen the joy and exultation that erupted in my class room when the kids meshed and spun their handmade gears for the first time you would know what I mean. There is magic in it – assembling is discovery.


I want to thank you again for your encouragement and gentle prodding. All through our correspondence I have wondered, “Where do these opinions come from?” and “What motivated me to teach this class?” Ironically, by writing these reflections on tacit knowledge I now suspect that my passion for teaching craft is tacitly rooted from my own old elementary school hurts and struggles.  As I continue to develop “Gears and Gravity” and whatever follows I will be seeking out opportunities to use art and craft to help young students make wondrous things and discover their otherwise hidden talents and ways of understanding.  Maybe I have even found my true calling.


J. E.

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