What Artists Can Learn from Teaching

Ariela Gittlen
Nov 16, 2016 11:04PM

There’s a mountain of evidence that arts education is valuable, even transformational, for all sorts of students, from young children to inmates at Rikers. It has been shown to improve emotional regulation, teamwork, and academic performance. Under the right circumstances, it can even act as a catalyst for social justice.

But flip the script: How does teaching influence teachers? Whether it’s critiquing an MFA painting class, giving a museum tour to a group of six graders, or leading a drawing workshop for developmentally disabled adults, working artists are often at the front lines of arts education. Many see teaching as a valuable practice, beyond simply a means of financial support. It may even shape how they approach their art practices. Below, six artists weigh in with the lessons they’ve learned from their work as educators.

Be More Adventurous

“Looking at the wild, inventive things my students created visually affected me,” says Gina Beavers, who became an artist to watch with her 3D painted reliefs of images culled from Instagram and makeup tutorials. Beavers taught in the New York public schools, first as a teaching fellow and later as an art teacher for elementary and middle school students. “Having ideas for my work percolating behind the scenes of the day-to-day of being an art teacher allowed me to be less precious about my ideas and more adventurous,” Beavers writes in an email. “I started thinking: Why not try it and see what happens?” It’s no surprise Beavers’s work is boundary-pushing and ambitious as she toys with the limits of painting as a medium.

Don’t Privilege One Practice over Another

Teaching has trained Marilyn Minter to not privilege one practice over another. “Sculpture, painting, photography, video—I approach them with the same interest and attention,” she writes via email. “I look for the best artists in every field so I can tell my students about them. I think young artists should be vampires.” Minter, who has been teaching for around 30 years, is currently a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Best known for her photorealistic paintings that evoke the fashion industry at a slant, the artist wasn’t initially so confident about her ability to engage her students. “Some of the students were the same age I was at the time, so why would they listen to me?” Her virtuosity provided the answer: “I showed a lot of technical tricks, and they paid attention!” “Pretty/Dirty,” a retrospective spanning four decades of Minter’s career in video, photography, and painting, is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum.


Curiosity Is Key

“The curiosity that is at the heart of my teaching—How did an artist make something? Why did they choose a certain process? How will viewers react to those choices?—that curiosity is also at the heart of my studio practice,” explains Mark Joshua Epstein, whose paintings and works on paper are complex celebrations of pattern and color, exploring notions of queerness via abstraction. Epstein, who is currently a freelance educator at MoMA, the Jewish Museum, and the Whitney, relishes the uncommon access to great art that comes with working in a museum. “I get to study objects when museums are closed to the public, and that is an absolute gift,” he writes in an email. He also draws inspiration from the careers of artists before him: “I get to see artists who worked so diligently to get their work into public view. It encourages me to just keep at it, keep going to the studio and showing.” Epstein’s mixed-media compositions will be shown with Vane at Pulse Miami Beach this December.

Collaboration Is Influential

“I’ve learned that the role of teacher or student is about compassion. Whenever I begin something new, I begin as a listener,” writes Mary Mattingly, the artist whose socially engaged work addresses politics and sustainability. Her current project, Swale, a 130 foot-by-40 foot floating food garden docked at Brooklyn Bridge Park, was created in collaboration with plant nurseries, community groups, and local schools. Mattingly also applies this approach as a professor at the Pratt Institute and as a Core Critic at Yale. “I treat teaching as co-learning through a collaborative project,” she explains. “I believe students are most engaged when they’re evaluating, explaining and sharing by examining differences together.” How has teaching influenced her practice? “I’m a more extroverted artist,” Mattingly states simply.

Palm Tree Boyfriend, 2007
Freight + Volume

Play Can Be Transformative

“I get to see what communicates widely and what doesn’t, I get to experience art through fresh eyes every day,” writes artist Rebecca Goyette of her role as an educator at MoMA. Goyette is known for her often bawdy and elaborately costumed video art, performances, and sculptures. “Ghost Bitch U.S.A.,” her recent solo show at Freight + Volume, included a film in which a coven of witches mete out an especially painful brand of justice on Donald Trump. “Although I make moves in my artwork that are more irreverent and politically charged than I can in my teaching life, the humanity, humor, and visceral connection to the materials remain the same,” Goyette says. Working with LAND Studio & Gallery, the Brooklyn-based nonprofit serving artists with developmental disabilities, has been particularly influential. “It’s amazing to introduce an introverted person to the world of performance art and costume play. It’s uplifting and transformative.” Art and teaching are symbiotic practices, she says: “Being on fire in one always leads to gold in the other.”

Teachers and Students Should Be Brave

Patricia Cronin, artist and professor at Brooklyn College, teaches undergraduates from all over the world. “Ninety percent are immigrants or first-generation Americans, living in multigenerational households, and almost all are the first person in their families to go to college,” Cronin says via email. “Their stories of struggle, commitment, and courage really move me.” It follows that Shrine For Girls, her installation that began at the 2015 Venice Biennale, was a meditation on the global exploitation of girls and women. In many ways, courage is Cronin’s watchword, which she passes on to her students: “No one ever talks about how brave you have to be every day in your studio.” Leading by example, her own work often boldly addresses female sexuality. “Making radical, singular works is what art is about,” she says. “Artists aren’t supposed to be herd animals; that’s for accountants.”

Ariela Gittlen