Studio Mysteries

June 1, 2009

Curriculum: Always An Issue, Never Not An Issue

Filed under: Thoughts On Teaching — Anya Galkina - Studio Mysteries @ 4:41 pm

Contrary to what Contemporary Art dealers would tell you, painting and drawing are above all skills.

When I say “skills” I also mean “skills that involve using your body” – in that respect, visual artists engage in an arena that also includes Olympic athletes, opera singers, concert pianists, ballet dancers, and actors. All these groups involve high level of performance, where the person expresses something transcendent and extraordinary, and brings every aspect of self together to create that something. The final creation is greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts exist and include many worlds – the emotional, the intellectual and the physical.

How to teach someone so that they develop this expressive capacity is an art onto itself, and teachers in all the art forms I mentioned come across some similar pedagogical problems that need to be solved.

One approach that is time-honoured and makes common sense is to progress from simple to complex, and from “one thing at a time” to “many things at a time”. You don’t start a beginner juggler off with fifteen chainsaws – you start with three soft balls. The Russian teaching methodology for drawing and painting insists that you don’t go anywhere near a live model at first, and hone your analytical and motor skills with simple forms, progressing from spheres and cubes to cups, fruit and teapots, and so on, gradually increasing the complexity of the subject.

The French atelier system espouses similar ideas about progression, where you don’t even paint until you get certain drawing skills down. You also don’t get to tackle colour at first, working only in grisaille until you have mastery over paint handling and working with value.

What I notice as an issue in observing North American atelier schools and students is that the level of training varies wildly from student to student. In a Ukrainian or Russian academy, everyone studies the same curriculum, having also gone through the same curriculum in preparatory art school, and having taken the same entry exams – so everyone is at the same skill level when they start the post-secondary program.

In an atelier system, no such standardization used to exist, but certain mechanisms are designed to compensate. Ideally, the student is given tasks appropriate to her individual level of mastery, and studies for as long as she finds it necessary.

Here, at LAAFA and other Ateliers, we have a more-or-less the same curriculum imposed on people who come from all sorts of backgrounds, with very different amounts of exposure to structured, systematic instruction. In this context, it doesn’t make sense to me, to have everyone study the same course material at the same time. The gaps in training are too different for every person.

I have decided to work towards a teaching practice, as well as producing art, and one of the things that I will do is take the “simple to complex” progression into account, but design exercises and course material based on individual needs of every student.

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