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Thinking Like an Artist

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

—Albert Einstein

In one of my recent blog entries—“Just Imagine! Cultivating Creative Minds”—I stressed the importance of creative thinking in the classroom. Since then, I’ve done a bit of research on creativity, focusing mainly on the artistic process.

I first turned to “Thinking Like an Artist” in Mind Matters: Teaching for Thinking by Dan Kirby and Carol Kuykendall. This book has been around awhile (1991), but it’s still one of the first things I turn to when I have thinking on my mind.

According to the authors, the artistic process requires close observation, attention to detail, sensitivity to pattern and form, and selectivity. But more than a set of skills or steps, the authors refer to an artist’s unique ability to get up close to his or her work, of opening up the senses, of doing and undoing, time and time again.

One Artist's Advice

An artist I know, Judy Sebranek, attests to this ability. She says working on a piece of art “involves all my senses, moving my muscles, sorting through gobs of visual material, drawing on life experiences, reading, and so on.” She does all of these things for inspiration. Then she asks herself, “‘What do I want to express?’ If I figure that out, then the editing begins.” Here, in her own words, is how she works:

  • Move around, hike, visit an art store, read, smell coffee.…
  • Gather thoughts, sketch, doodle, look at pictures.
  • Begin to edit thoughts, attempt to focus, visualize.
  • Compose.
  • Re-compose, take a break.
  • Ask questions: Is it working? What is working? What isn’t working?
  • Step back—view from a different perspective.
  • Get feedback from another artist.
  • Get feedback from a child.
  • Put it away.
  • After some time has passed—take another look.
  • Is it done?

For the writing teacher, the parallels between the artistic process and developing a piece of writing are obvious. They both involve a lot of gathering (prewriting), composing (drafting), re-composing (revising), getting feedback, and so on. One of Sebranek’s graduate art instructors even referred to his students as authors rather than as artists. So there is a lot of common ground here.

I think what truly separates the serious artist from almost everyone else is the passion and intensity that he or she brings to the process. An artist has the unique capacity to become totally absorbed in his or her work. It’s as if their senses become saturated. (Art “involves all my senses.”) And this is not a wild-eyed, undisciplined endeavor, far from it. Creating art is an intense commitment to seeing and thinking and imagining and doing and redoing.

This is not to say that writers can’t bring the same passion to their work because they can and they do. But consider the general population of student writers. Do you think the majority of them really get into their writing? Probably not. Do you think these same students would work more intensely in the art classroom? Probably so.

So what is there about creating art that fosters such commitment?

Well, writing is a sedentary activity: you park your rear end in a chair—and stay there—or you’re not going to get much done. For the most part, it’s just you and the computer screen in front of you. With artwork, you’re thinking and doing; you’re moving around. What you are producing is right there in front of you, in living color. You can touch it, smell it, look at it up close or far away or from the side. You can’t help but become engrossed in the process.

I’m always impressed when I see student art on display, because I can tell immediately that a lot of time and effort has gone into each piece. I remember complimenting my son on one of his art projects, a fresco-like painting. It was obvious that he had given it a lot of attention, and in his mind, he was still working on it. I knew that because he pointed out everything that he wanted to do with it if he just had more time. I wonder if he had the same level of attachment to any of his writing for the semester.

An art studio must be a very stimulating place to work. (I wouldn’t know from experience.) I picture everybody’s work on display and a natural give and take of ideas ensuing. The whole atmosphere must speak creativity and energy and action. What young person wouldn’t like that? Sebranek noted that “the desire/passion to share ideas” is an essential part of the process for her. Few, if any, other classrooms provide such a setting.

Creating a Studio Environment in a Writing Classroom

So what can you do, if you are a writing teacher, to help your students approach their work with more passion and awareness?

  • Turn your classroom into a studio or workshop. I’ve mentioned this time and time again in previous blogs. Conducting a writer’s workshop, filled with creating and sharing, energizes students. It is a must.
  • Make your classroom an inspiring, inviting place to be. Hang artwork, posters, words of wisdom. Provide background music. Have plenty of reading material on hand, offer coffee… Do whatever you can to create some atmosphere.
  • Be sure that students, for the most part, are in charge of their writing—meaning that they decide what to write about (so important) and how they want to write about it. How else will they feel the passion?
  • Expect students to publish their writing. Publishing helps a writer commit to a project and do his or her best work. (Publishing is to a writer what an art show is to an artist.)
  • Provide minilessons or strategies that help your young writers develop their sense of awareness—their ability to see and think and feel at a deep level. Clustering, mind mapping, visualizing, and freewriting are activities that come to mind.
  • Ask an art instructor to visit your workshop from time to time and offer the students suggestions from an artistic point of view. You can, in turn, visit the art studio to see what you can offer to the artists.
  • And last of all, encourage your students to take art courses. What they learn about art should help them with their writing.

None other than John Dewey long ago suggested that art should be made the center of education, rather than a “nice embellishment.” While this may never happen, teachers in all content areas, from English (writing) to science, should turn to the artistic process for strategies and approaches that will help students become more focused and in tune with their coursework.

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