On the Art of Teaching

"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."
Henry Adams 1838-1918 (American Historian)

It's not until you teach something to someone that you understand it really well. Breaking down your own creative act,  first by identifying your personal strategies, and then by dividing them into a sequence of steps, forces you to reflect on what things aren't as well as what they are. This exploration steers you in lots of valuable directions. It leads you to the vocabulary needed to articulate your private visual language. It helps you recognize the kinds of mistakes students are likely to make and head them off at the pass. And it awakens new ideas, pushing you, the artist, further along your creative path.

A major distinction between the work of a teacher and that of an artist is the proximity to the creative act. The artist initiates and implements the work, investing her entire self into the art. Teaching is also creative but in a very different way. The teacher initiates by sharing an approach but someone else implements. It requires the ability to derive satisfaction from other people's accomplishments. To be content with being  the source of inspiration rather than the one inspired.

My teaching style is to demonstrate specific techniques, share my design approach by offering guidelines (not rules), and then weave them together into the creative act that tickles my soul -- right before your very eyes. I resist oversimplifying the process. The new view is offered as a creative springboard, leading not to imitation but to experimentation. In exchange, I get to  look over my students' shoulders and vicariously engage in the creative process with the trepidation and exhilaration of every new beginning.

When you play both roles simultaneously, an inherent tension often strains your performance. On one hand, teaching is respectable. It not only offers financial benefits, it makes you legitimate: you get paid for being an expert. But doing it well requires an extensive involvement of time and energy that intrudes on the time you have to make art. The need to transact business and to write in support of the teaching consumes more precious time. Further, there is the concern that by sharing a process so closely associated with your identity as an artist that you risk losing the uniqueness of your accomplishments. In my case, if kaleidoscope quilts become ubiquitous, the impact of my work becomes diluted.

In spite of the ambiguity, I believe creativity thrives on teaching, infusing subsequent effort with renewed intensity. Producing a body of work tends to be an isolating experience, best accomplished by self-imposed social quarantines. Teaching puts you on the front line. Playing to a live audience lets you try out your newest material. Interacting with those who are influenced by your work allows you to view it in a new light. The creative cycle is complete: the artist turned teacher becomes the learner.

From: Quilter's Newsletter Magazine, June 1999/No 313