Ignition at any speed


With very little effort on my part, a number of short teaching and/or guest artist speaking engagements have found me. Two or three drifted in over the summer, and then several new ones suddenly popped in in the past two days. (I should say: with very little overt effort on my part as far as attempts to obtain them; I understand and appreciate that they’ve appeared because of my past efforts).

This suits me superbly at the moment; it keeps my hand in, yields some cash, and provides me with a lovely loose structure while I intentionally allow myself to drift a bit, to continue to heal, to dream, experiment and build towards the next phase.


Today’s photos were taken in and around a high school (!) or, rather, a private prep school, half boarding school and half ‘day students’. I had no idea such places existed in the area, but this one’s over 150 years old, and looks exactly like a movie set for one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Basil or Josephine stories. (Many, many years ago, during my last ‘independent artist / educator’ phase, I gave a couple of classes to art students from this Academy, but they were held at a studio location in the city; I had no clue about the students’ usual surroundings).  I gave two talks there yesterday, in an arts building equal to or surpassing the facilities of many colleges I’ve visited.  The students were not appreciably different from high school students anywhere, except for a certain high level of politeness and the fact that it was ‘pajama day’, so I talked with 45 young people mostly dressed in tartan flannel.

I brought artists’ books and objects from my own collection, showed my work, and talked about the wide range of engagement artists choose to have with The Book.  After one class, a few people hung back to talk a bit more, and one young woman waited till everyone else was gone, clutching a particular piece by a former grad student, to say: “I really, really like this.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  I didn’t know people could do this!”


Shortly after I got my MFA, many many years ago, I had a day’s work sitting in the Art Institute of Chicago, doing a book demonstration and feeling rather ridiculous as museum-goers drifted by, a few stopping to watch for a few minutes, even fewer occasionally asking the same tired questions. Then, a thirteen year old girl stopped, her eyes lit up and she became thoroughly mesmerized. She stayed while her family went on to the rest of the huge museum, and didn’t take her eyes off my hands for a single second.  She also said, “I’ve never seen anything like this! I didn’t know people could do this!” Her mom came back and we talked about where she might be able to take a class.

Over the years, I came to recognize and rejoice when that particular look came over a student, whether it was in the first class or the fiftieth.  It’s The Spark.

This is what good teachers work for: to ignite and to sustain.

During my recent past, I was told, repeatedly, by people who truly, truly, truly ought to know differently, that if you are a teacher who is popular with students, it is simply because of a personal character flaw. Specifically: “You just want to be looooved” (inflection: a whiny sneer).

That premise is so ridiculous that I won’t even go into the rest of the platitudes that accompanied it, and apart from a feeling of utter disgust each time I heard it, I ignored it. I write about it today because somehow, these two incidents, bookending the years of teaching between them, made me think about The Spark.

Frankly, it’s great when students ‘love’ me. (For one thing, it makes classes rather pleasant).  But whether they ‘love’ me personally or not is absolutely beside the point. What I want, what I strive for whenever and however I teach, is for students to love…the…work, and above all else: to love themselves involved in the work. That is the spark, whether it comes at the moment of recognition that this is something they want to be involved in, or after years of struggle with that involvement, or anywhere in between. And if you can provide that, yes: the people you help to recognize it in themselves will probably ‘love’ you. (But then I always feel it’s respect for your efforts, not ‘love’).

In any case, it’s good to know that I can travel around with my flint.