Two Paragraphs of my Teaching Philosophy for Studio Art.

Looking for feedback from all the writers, artists, and professors out there.

I welcome comments, emendations, corrections, thoughts…

As a teacher my key goal is to facilitate the students growth as an artist. By this I mean to create an environment that, on the one hand, is stimulating and challenging enough to confront the student with new possibilities and concepts, and on the other hand, provides a secure enough place for the student to express their ideas in their work. I aim to establish a setting that is both collaborative and instructional. This encourages the student to know their value as a person and as an artist in a way that cultivates their desire to push themselves to new levels of excellence. Encouraging, rather than forcing, the introspective process in art making, allows the student to see that the process—at times painful—of stripping away false selves can yield a highly privileged and unique educational experience: working with concrete material, with images, with one’s hands in such a way that the inner self is reflected; an experience that I personally have only encountered in art education.

As an artist and as a professor of studio art, I want students to see their primary calling as artists; that despite the enormous challenges of making a living as a studio artist, it is within their possibility to do so, at least in some form or another. While it is absolutely essential for the professor to transmit in-depth instruction in technique for the production of quality artwork, having a substantial grounding in critical thinking, verbal and written skills along with art history will buttress the student’s sense of professionalism and career-mindedness. From experience, I have seen that students who are able to talk about their work, and their process as an artist, have excelled in their artistic output and ability to position themselves in the art world. A secure classroom space allows the student to feel she or he can share freely about their work, interested to hear from fellow students and professors without the fear of personal attack. The desired goal is that the academic process results in the personal satisfaction of sharing verbally as well as visually, encouraging students to create innovative artwork that is deeply their own.

35 Comments on “Two Paragraphs of my Teaching Philosophy for Studio Art.”

  1. I’ve been thinking about the idea of “artspeak.” I wish I’d been encouraged to talk (and listen to others speak…) more in art school. Practice in a supportive environment … Now I’m just skeptical hearing of most of it, and resort to “making” over talking about it. (Nicely done Mark. Planting thought-seeds and stepping back and letting them grow …

  2. As an artist myself I appreciate the environment that produces the safety and freedom to be vulnerable! All too often artists hide behind their work because they have the luxury of being vulnerable without being vulnerable. & while I enjoy interpreting someone elses work without the footnotes of their inspiration/motivation I think it’s important for the artist to know what it’s like to share their version of the journey. Art only becomes more significant the more the artist dares to be vulnerable and raw for their audience! And often times the public wants to know what compelled the artist to choose and then complete the work the set out on. A teacher that is capable of teaching both technique and discipline in tandem with creativity and vulnerability is priceless!

  3. Too vague and philosophical. Teaching statement speaks of your teaching methodology. How do you teach, how do you assess your students growth, what school of thought do you follow, are you a progressive, existentalist.. (subject centered vs. student-centered teaching models) I suggest you read about Bloom’s Taxonomy, most universities follow this model.. You need to go beyond the studio and studio practice an view artist within parameters of a global community, how does Gen-Ed enhance the educational experience of student… Hope this helps a bit…

  4. JohnWCarlson says:

    Mark,I wish I had had you as an instructor in college.Don’t get me I learned a lot but sometimes it was akin to a french kitchen.You really nailed it with challenging but secure environment.That is so essential to have that solid base with which to feel confident to experiment and deal with the mad dogsi.e.critics of which there are an ovetabundance.I really like your approach.

  5. I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you for such a great read. I will graduate in May with a BA and am both eager and fearful of a post-curricular environment (taking a year off before I go for an MFA). I refuse to be another art major that graduates and never makes art. My particular program is small, but because of two fantastic professors, I don’t regret not going to a larger art institute one bit.

    Everything you said was spot on, and I especially relate to the need to not only know what your work is about, but being able to articulate that. The work I make is minimalistic and appears simple to produce, so I get plenty of questions whenever I show. In my experience, with contemporary and minimal work, there are more questions to answer because the viewer assumes the work is conceptual. They want in your brain, and you have to let them in, because once the photograph is hung, it isn’t yours anymore anyway….in a sense.

    That said, learning how to write a strong statement and speak orally about my aesthetic and intention has been crucial in getting exposure.

    Thanks again,


  6. judith sacal says:

    I am an art history teacher and a plastic artist as well. Rule #1 to anyone who wants to get closer to art: art is a special language, you have to learn the basics if you want to understand it, it means history, theory and philosophy. No one is smart or gifted enough to understand everything that happens in the art world.

  7. If I was an Art teacher I would school my students in history, theory and philosophy because in my opinion, that’s what an artist should know inside and out. I grow tired of going to art galleries in Los Angeles and not being able to have a single conversation with any young artist because they don’t know their stuff. Most artists in LA seem to just want to put out super clean commercial art that would be sold at Urban Outfitters or some other trendy store. Some might be more original looking than others, but they clearly stuck in a Neo-Pop world that’s cornered them. We forget that artists in the past schooled themselves by making trips to Italy, France and Spain to absorb everything they could get their hands on. Young artists today often think they’re so cool and above it somehow…for me it’s getting old.

    So, if I was a teacher my attempt would be to build ‘em up and then tear ‘em down in this fashion.

    1) School them in the history of Art with reading and weekly chapter review with a heavy emphasis on Renaissance through Post Modern. I wouldn’t be concerned if they like it or not because they need to know their trade and by the end they will rethink their entire approach to art guaranteed.

    2) Philosophy: Certain interpretations of Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche are important precursors to postmodernism. With their emphasis on skepticism, especially concerning objective reality, social morals, and societal norms, all three philosophers, for the postmodernists, represent a reaction to modernism ending in Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

    3) Introduce them to the theories of Clement Greenberg and his views on Abstract Expressionism. Oh also, school them on the Dada Manifesto-make them read it and a solid introduction to André Breton.

    4) Next introduce them to Arthur Dow’s art education book (1st published 1899) “Composition” which introduces Buddhist/ Japanese concepts into the creation process. This is what jump started Georgia O’Keeffe after she left painting from 1908-1912. (I did my thesis on this) The Japanese had many concepts of nature and how to see the world that students should immerse themselves in, or at least know about.

    5) The goal: After they get a full art education/philosophy and study Eastern art education methods, they will possible come to the conclusion, the same conclusion that Clemet Greenberg, Jackson Pollock and Joseph Beuys came to: We cannot separate ourselves from history. And if they think they’re an island and can work outside of this knowledge, someone like me will remind them to go back to school and learn their trade.

    More on Postmodernism can be found here

    Art and literature of the early part of the 20th century play a significant part in shaping the character of postmodern culture. Dadaism attacked notions of high art in an attempt to break down the distinctions between high and low culture; Surrealism further developed concepts of Dadaism to celebrate the flow of the subconscious with influential techniques such as automatism and nonsensical juxtapositions (evidence of Surrealism’s influence on postmodern thought can be seen in Foucault’s and Derrida’s references to Rene Magritte’s experiments with signification).

    Some other significant contributions to postmodern culture from literary figures include the following: Jorge Luis Borges experimented in metafiction and magical realism; William S. Burroughs wrote the prototypical postmodern novel Naked Lunch and developed the cut up method (similar to Tristan Tzara’s “How to Make a Dadaist Poem”) to create other novels such as Nova Express; Samuel Beckett attempted to escape the shadow of James Joyce by focusing on the failure of language and humanity’s inability to overcome its condition, themes later to be explored in such works as Waiting for Godot.
    The anti-foundationalist philosophers, Heidegger, then Derrida, examined the fundamentals of knowledge; they argued that rationality was neither as sure nor as clear as modernists or rationalists assert.
    It is possible to identify the burgeoning anti-establishment movements of the 1960s as the constituting event of postmodernism. The theory gained some of its strongest ground early on in French academia. In 1971, the Arab-American theorist Ihab Hassan was one of the first to use the term in its present form (though it had been used by many others before him, Charles Olson for example, to refer to other literary trends) in his book: The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature; in it, Hassan traces the development of what he called “literature of silence” through Marquis de Sade, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, Beckett, and many others, including developments such as the Theatre of the Absurd and the nouveau roman. In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard wrote a short but influential work The Postmodern Condition: A report on knowledge. Richard Rorty wrote Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979). Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes are also influential in 1970s postmodern theory.

    -Sharon Fitzgerald, MA

    • All good reading material and great recommendations. Most of which I am familiar with and much of it I have read during my graduate degree in intercultural studies in California and undergrad in philosophy in Iowa.

      In Portugal, where I studied fine art for 3 years at the Univ. of Lisbon, the study in art history is far more thorough in the educational system. They begin in stream-lined secondary school programs and are required to have 3 years of philosophy or aesthetics in University at FBAUL, [University of Lisbon].

      Having said all that, I don’t think it necessary to educate them to be published writers and philosophers, unless they chose that as a parallel career. I do think its important to keep them involved with reading, and less of the internet—good advice for myself nowadays—in a way that develops acute critical thinking skills. Its not how many sources the student cites, its how insightful the questions are, which of course does come from learning how to dialogue and read. That being said, the more ongoing study in the history of the art the better, as long as give the primary time slot to make studio art. I want the students to see that I am still learning about these things and actively looking at artwork that is different than my own; from which I can model a “learning posture” to the student.

  8. helen says:

    I agree with Mako – this is where the artist becomes a collaborative force – with the market, client, vision, patron, etc. Schools must prepare for this at the level of innovation.

  9. Thanks for this generative conversation. Much of how art is taught today does not address the whole equation of the market, art and culture. We need to help students see that they can be a catalytic agents to help others see as well.

    • Would love some elaboration on this Mako.. “a catalytic agents to help others see as well.”

      Agree about the socio-economic question of “the whole equation of the market, art and culture.”

  10. There is so much I could say on this subject, but I will try and be as succinct as possible. First off I wanted to thank you for being the kind of teacher that would do anything to provide his/her students with what they need, to inspire, guide and nurture growth. Like the first person who commented on this post I had a teacher that old me he was teaching us skills that anyone could learn. He said it was like driving a car, anyone could learn the basic skills, but not everyone would be a Michael Schumacher. The skills he would teach us were just tools he said, and Art was what you did with those tools and it’s not the tools themselves that are important.

    I feel this is the foundation all artists need within, that it is what you do with the tools you have not the tools themselves that makes one an artist. It is the reason someone like a Basquiat can be a great artist even though he arguably had few “tools” to work with. Those tools can become a barrier sometimes too, as Picasso noted, it took him a lifetime to learn how to paint like a child again. I feel too much emphasis on technique can also hamper an artist’ growth, therefore intense skill training should be accompanied by free playing, drawing, like acting exercises, to liberate. This is necessary because skills are often accompanied by rules, and rules without freedom can snuff out the flame of creativity.

    I also have a problem with Art as a career. Being an artist is often today synonymous with being a designer. Much of the voice of self is missing from art today and I think this could be weeded out more if schools today would take more of a role in guiding the right people towards the right vocation path. Aside from all of this, the biggest barrier I see to an artist’s education is knowledge of history, it is the meter stick by which we inform and measure ourselves. I see too often a total ignorance in regards to what has come before.

    Today, I feel we have exhausted the concept of a new group movement, if one uses the example of say Surrealism being a rehashing or continuation of DaDa, it would seem pointless to have a third incarnation no? I feel today we have new media but not new movements as groups. Instead Art has become internal and personal. The story of the artist is ever present in their work, it might be relatable to a group but it is not a group work like say Cubism. By this I mean, unlike with Warhol , where “artist as celebrity” and fame was at the core, now “artist as a unique voice” in a world of averages and Gaps and K-Marts has become the new movement, a singular and personal point of view is therefore paramount.

    To be a successful art teaching institution today one must teach the art student the proper tools, freedom to play, and knowledge of the past, but also self knowledge as a “lense” to focus and temper that that was learned to gain that unique voice.

    I hope that was not too much diatribe.

    All the best,

    • Not too much Matthew. What you shared was great. I often dream about working as a group… or a collaboratively, although not in a dictatorial Jeff Koons kind of way.

      I’m not sure really how a “movement” in art would look today. The question is huge though, isnt it?

      • Yes it is huge, community is now through commonality by choice not forced. Individual voice has been freed, it is an exciting time, like with the advent of the camera obscura, that drawing was freed to be used as an endin and of itself, so is the art world free to speek from a unique and personal POV.

  11. I am struck by your comment of allowing the student the space to “create an art that is deeply their own.” I found myself struggling against several art professors over the years who were deeply rooted in the Modernist point of view about art, and I therefore spent a good deal of time feeling as if there was something wrong with me for wanting to create an art that is about more than just the image itself. I am now in graduate school at Goddard, in the interdisciplinary program which has a whole different mind set, one where the student based on progressive education and frees the student to find themselves and their place in the world no matter how much they cross genres and disciplines. The students must learn to find their deepest selves and be able to articulate that self through more than one art form. It is indeed a fine line for a studio art professor to walk between instructing the student in the making of good art and allowing the student the freedom to find their own true selves, especially if it differs from the norm or the professor’s own beliefs. I am glad you are keeping that knowledge as an integral part of your teaching plan.

  12. mckie says:

    I guess it depends what the student needs. My degree is in philosophy, and I have made a living as a writer all my adult life. So my problem isn’t explaining what I’m trying to do, but doing it.
    I’ve always drawn, but I find myself painting more and more each day. I’m in the odd position of making my living from one craft where the tools (how to use grammar, vocabulary, all the writer’s armoury) have become second nature, and learning another where I’m technically much less competent. But just as the best advice for writers is to read everything you can and write every day, I think looking at as many pictures as you can, and drawing every day (particularly trying to copy effects you admire, and draw still lifes) has done me more good than anything else.
    What I’d find most useful now is purely technical instruction of the kind my grandfather got at art school in the early 20th century, and which, fortunately, I got some of at second hand.

    • I am very fortunate to have had technical academic training in drawing from FBAUL .. Univ. of Lisbon in Portugal with a professor that insisted on first learning technique and pushing the exercise of drawing from live model. …along with other classes in painting from a live model. I couldn’t count the hours now, but they were many.

  13. dora says:

    “… students who are able to talk about their work, and their process as an artist, have excelled in their artistic output and ability to position themselves in the art world.”
    I agree. As a fine art major, I was required to take English for Art Majors Only, which was geared toward helping artists verbalize the art process, ideas, etc., into words both oral and written, so art language learning is very important. Normal people like to understand an artist’s work through his/her own unique voice, thereby furthering their art career. How far can an artist go by saying “I just put that color there because I felt like it”?

    • Yes, its unfortunate that some students see the study of Art as an easy fall back discipline to study since they couldn’t make it in academics. Learning the correspondent vocabulary of art is essential, if only for one’s own personal enjoyment of the practice.

  14. Hi Mark
    I was very fortunate to study under an American Artist, Ren Patterson, who obtained a residency at our secondary school in Ireland during the eighties.
    He was an exceptional man with a great talent. Not only was he a gifted painter, but the way in which he imparted his love of art to his students has stayed with me all my life.
    I’m afraid I wasn’t so priviledged when I branched into fine art at college. I felt constrained and eventually left before completing my course. I admire your philosophy and only wish all tutors were like you.

  15. helen says:

    i guess that i meant that having to learn to critique each other “in a collaborative” environment – through your guidance and stimulation of discussion, creates a place for growth. this can be side by side, as it is with fine arts education.

  16. helen says:

    ah – spelling vacuUms

  17. helen says:

    i agree: “a substantial grounding in critical thinking, verbal and written skills along with art history will buttress the student’s sense of professionalism and career-mindedness.” gives the artist/student confidence. the secure classroom or forum if you will aids this. sometimes asking the students to participate in a collaborative venture opens up the sense of community. even artists do not work in vaccums! while i was in design school years ago, this type of assignment fostered camaraderie. it also taught us how to adapt to constructive criticism.

    • I wanted to say more about ‘modeling a learning posture’ and ‘working collaboratively’ but a friend of mine who once worked in admissions for Harvard commented that the idea came across as ‘too parallel’. I understood him to mean that I need to give a sense that as a professor I would be leading, instructing and creating a place of growth where knowledge could be acquired, rather than just hanging with the students as buddies. Art eduction is unique in that respect, however, since there is a lot of work done side-by-side.

  18. I couldn’t agree more with your philosophy, and it’s very well put.

    My first drawing teacher in college made us learn “art vocabulary” for the very first assignment, which we thought was to make us sound like snobby artists. But we soon realized that it’s just another language that an artist needs to learn in order to correctly convey thoughts about their work and the work of others. It’s not about being snobby, it’s about sharing a common language that leads to understanding.

    • Agreed. A doctor in a an operator room, needs to say “Scalpel” …not “that sharp knife-thingy for making incisions in the flesh” … the patients would be dead by the time she or he had to explain every term. They are not trying to show off their great medical vocabulary. The analogy applies to artists and art historians.

  19. Encouraging discussion about one’s work is crucial. I myself struggle with describing my paintings verbally but for some buyers it is enormously important to be led with the artists explanation. The more comfortable a student can be with the “language” of art the more they are prepared for the business of selling and being successful at supporting themselves with their art.

  20. Thanks for the feedback, Heidenkind aka Tascha. I completely agree with your drawing teacher.

    I believe the skills are teachable and its not so much by so-called ‘innate talent’ that one learns to be an artist, as much as it is by creating a conducive environment, offering clear instruction and having students who believe in the force of their own will.

  21. heidenkind says:

    I agree with the secure classroom space. I also find the idea of getting students to talk about their art interesting.

    My drawing teacher (who was the best professor I’ve ever had) started off the class by saying he was teaching a skill that anyone could learn. For me that really helped, because then I didn’t have the pressure of being “artistic.” He focused on teaching us as many techniques as he could.

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