All posts by jbax9

I learned to communicate from mechanics, preachers, actors, and artists. I am a teacher and an artist - two things that ought to be one.

Vita Brevis…

Last week I had the opportunity to take part in a project that ArtsBuild, a local arts agency here in Chattanooga, sponsored. I was one of 15 artists brought in to make work with area high school students.  It was a great experience, and I was proud of the work that the two students who worked with me did.  I was contacted just a week before the event and told we would have four hours to complete their work and mine and that the work would be exhibited at a concert event and later auctioned to help raise money for art supplies for local schools.  

So what do you do that can be done in four hours?  Four hours sounds like a long time.  It is not.  I mean, yes, if left on my own, I can execute a drawing in less than that amount of time, but to come up with something that I’m comfortable sharing?  Then there was the issue of the student work.  Think of it this way.  You are a baker.  If someone said you have four hours to make a cake from scratch, you could do that, right?  But what if someone asked you to invent a new recipe and mentor two novice cooks in the process of baking three different versions of this cake in the same amount of time?  

And then there was the exhibit.  Exhibiting and auctioning kids’ work is a great idea in many ways.  It puts the student in the role of a professional artist whose work is recognized and valued, but there is a kind of disappointment for the student in not getting to keep what they’ve made and are proud of.  So I decided to do linocut printing with them.  It’s not my specialty or anything, but it’s a fun process, probably not something they regularly get to do in their school art classes, and it produces multiple images so the student gets to keep something of their work.  Because we were limited on time (and to keep costs down) we did a reductive print process (a friend calls it suicide block) where the artist works out a multiple color print using only one block.  The resulting prints are limited since with each successive printing you destroy some of the block.  

Student linocut in progress
The kids did great the night of the event.  My group ended up being among the last to get done.  Or almost done.  The kids’ work was done (pretty much) in the time allowed, but framing had to wait till the next day.  

Coolidge Park, Student linocut print
Grandmother and Child, Student linocut print

My work?  As for that, I got caught up in facilitating what the kids were doing and most of my work had to be completed in a stressful rush the next day.  But it did get done.  The work was exhibited (and sent home with the artists).  And then I slept.  

Put me in the corner. Please. Linocut print by me.

Now I have to go back and clean up what’s left of my studio space after frantic printing and framing.  It was stressful and exhausting.  I hope I get to do this again soon. 🙂

Honors and Accolades


I get to work with adults a lot, which is great.  It’s nice to talk with other educators about what they do and to see the fantastic things that they are capable of. And sometimes I hear from them that what I’ve done is good.  That’s a boost to the spirits.

I also get to work some with college students, who are adult-ish.  It can be humbling and exhausting to work alongside a 20 year old. And sometimes they tell me they enjoyed a class or appreciated something about the work we did.  And that is very gratifying.

And sometimes, when I’m really lucky, I get to work with kids.  I get to struggle with materials, manage chaos, deal with behavior, etc. but we make stuff.  And sometimes, just sometimes, a kid tells me that they like something that I did.  When I hear that, I know I did something right.  Kids are honest critics and enthusiastic fans, and the standards by which they judge your work are their own.  I once showed a class of kindergarteners how to draw a face.  I didn’t think much of what I was doing, but they applauded.  It took days for my head to come down again to normal size.

If you haven’t done so lately, go make stuff with a kid.  It’s worth it.

The Power of Reflection

This week I was awed by a shared storytelling experience hosted by the Salvation Army in Chattanooga. In A Walk in My Shoes, the stories of local people, many of them homeless, are shared and retold by actors and storytellers. This summary doesn’t really do justice to what the program accomplishes. Here is a link to a short video about the project:

If you see it, you should know that the man featured in the video is no longer homeless and he attributes this project, in part, for how far he’s come.

As an art educator, what struck me as I listened to Ms. Dye describe the work was that this is an exercise in learning and growing by externalizing our experiences and reflecting on them critically in a shared safe space. I don’t say safe in the sense of easy, but in the sense that we can look on our own experiences and choices externally with others who look with us at the experiences rather than at us.

I kept having flashbacks of very uncomfortable critiques of my artwork in my early years of college. I had to listen to all that was wrong with a given piece that I had not done so well and then share in the criticism.

I hear people say that we need to learn from our failures and provide situations where it is ok for learners to fail. I agree. But I agree in the sense that we need to provide opportunities for learners to REFLECT on their failures, their successes, and even those experiences beyond their control. I feel strongly that no work of art is complete until the maker has viewed it and reflected on it. Without response, the creative process is incomplete. And for students, that process needs to be facilitated.

The most profound things we can do sometimes are to talk with each other about our challenges, the snags and failures and difficulties we have overcome or been overcome by. I cannot think of any place in school or elsewhere that provides those conversations better than learning in the arts.

Why educate?

Student Art ExhibitI am occasionally asked what I think about this educational issue or that, and I can very easily rant upon my soapbox about any and all of them. But what strikes me about many of the arguments we have about how best to educate or who should do the educating come down to very different ideas about the primary purpose of education.

Lately, it seems, the whole job of schools is to produce people who can make money and grow the economy.

In the past, it was about instilling our children with a common cultural identity (sometimes by destroying the ones they already had).

Some among us have even argued that for a democratic society to function well requires a well-informed citizenry.

There are strengths to all of these, depending on how they are implemented. The problem we face is that in this country we tend to latch onto one idea and spout about it as the only thing that matters. Lately educational policy has been pushed toward functional literacy and numeracy with the idea that schools are factories for producing workers for American businesses. I don’t entirely disagree with the premise that preparation for the workforce is one function of education, but if it is the only thing we consider, then there is no room for anything that does not directly show an economic benefit. Is the quality of a human being merely the amount of money they can earn? Is, then, the highest of human achievements membership on a Fortune list of the wealthiest muckity mucks?

Before we can really have a conversation about how we educate, we need to have a clearer agreement about WHY. Our why determines what we teach (and don’t), how we teach it, and what gets the most time and energy in a world where time and energy are finite resources.

So the next time you read an article about teacher quality or standardized tests or changing standards ask yourself, “Why are we doing this?” and “Is this getting us what we need from education?”


A voice from the founding fathers

From Benjamin Franklin’s proposal for an academy in Philadelphia:

BenFranklinDrawing is a kind of universal language, understood by all nations.  A man may often express his ideas, even to his own countrymen, more clearly with a lead pencil, or a bit of chalk, than with his own tongue.  And many can understand a figure, that do not comprehend a description in words, though ever so properly chosen.  All boys have an early inclination to this improvement, and begin to make figures of animals, ships, machines, etc. as soon as they can use a pen, but for want of a little instruction at that time generally are discouraged, and quit the pursuit.

Drawing is no less useful to a mechanic than to a gentleman.  Several handicrafts seem to require it; as the carpenter, ship wright’s, engraver’s, painter’s, carver’s, cabinet-maker’s, gardener’s, and other business.  By a little skill of this kind, the workman may perfect his own idea of the thing to be done, before he begins his work; and show a draft for the encouragement and satisfaction of his employer.


Blessings & Curses

Concept Art - EnvironmentThe really exciting thing about technology is how inexpensive and available many processes are to us in the classroom.

The really terrifying thing about technology is the massive amount of stuff we have available to us and the expectation that in addition to the processes we’ve already become comfortable teaching, the things we were taught to do, we must engage in things that we do not feel fully prepared to take on.

We are faced with questions like:

What is art now?  What does it mean to be an artists and what skills do artists need?

How do the answers to these questions change the choices I make in materials, time spent, and learning experiences for my students?

These aren’t just questions for higher ed or high school.  If the nature of the field has changed, and the skills needed have changed, then the way we teach and what we emphasize changes all the way back to kindergarten.

Yes.  Composition is still composition.  Drawing is still drawing.  These are things that I think will always be foundational.  But we can’t prepare students for art in the 21st century and beyond by only providing them with the tools of the 20th century and before.

I confess that I am conflicted about this.  There is no question of whether this process or that is valuable.  They all are.  The challenge is, given limited time and resources, where do we place or emphasis?

It’s all about the stuff.

Student Collage

Each discipline has its own pleasures and pains.  Dancers have the joy and simplicity of using only their bodies as the medium of their work, while bearing the burden of a need for constant maintenance and discipline of that tool.  Visual art is necessarily material in nature.  Even art created digitally requires the artist’s physical interaction with keyboards, mice, graphics tablets, screens, etc.  We have the joy of messing with STUFF – our interaction with the world is visual and haptic.  We are the children who terrified our parents in places with fragile and expensive merchandise.

But this handling and manipulating comes at a price.  To teach art is to share this joy of creating with students, but every day is a process of design and construction followed by cleaning and redesigning.  A friend and former teacher once told me that half of his job was custodial work.  In my own career I have spent hours washing paint out of ice trays with a water hose behind the school, collected enough paper scraps to repopulate the thinned forests of South America, and spent countless hours cutting, collating, folding, tearing, arranging, etc. etc. etc.

Every day is like a dinner party.  You spend hours getting ready so that some people you like will come and enjoy what you have made.  Then they go away and leave you to clean up the mess.

Ocean Habitat-1I just finished working with a great group of second graders on a series of lessons that involved making little habitat installations.  We built forms out of paper bags and masking tape, covered them in papier mache, painted them to suit a variety of habitats and added bodies of water, created vegetation with paper sculpture, then populated the habitats with animals modeled out of clay or model magic.  The results are really nice, but it’s easy not to realize that for every hour I spent with the classes, at least two happened outside of class.

The products demonstrated students’ understanding of the habitats they had researched, but just as important was their exploration of the different kinds of materials we dealt with, and from my perspective in my role here at the university it was an opportunity to give that experience to a group of second grade classroom teachers as well.  These four ladies took up that challenge quite well.

DSC08091Now the project is complete.  I did a little repair work yesterday on a few animals who needed surgery, and today, I’m heading over to take photos of the completed works.  The really daunting part now is re-organizing my supplies in the aftermath of the project.  The dishes are in the sink.  Now I have to roll up my sleeves and get to work.