Thursday, September 04, 2008

To Correspond. . .

The Summer Art Inquiry is something that has been going on at NUA for the past three years.
A group of Students explore many facets of a particular theme for the 5 weeks. The previous two programs were "Mapping" and "Shrines." This year was "Correspondence and Mail Art." The group of 13 students have a pair of mentors and each student receives a stipend at the completion of the inquiry.

I got to be one of those mentors!

The summer was a challenging mix of experiences and adventures, which in the end had great rewards. Summer programing makes the studio feel unlike the regular year. The two distinguishing characteristics are the duration of each programing day and a different set of expectations for the students. Leaping from meeting after-school for 2ish hours twice a week to meeting for 4 hours, four days a week is a big deal. By no means is this full time or even part-time work, which some of the students have experienced, but for the most part students are used to classes which last less then an hour. The students take a while to build up the endurance for the longer days, but by the second week we developed a good routine. The languid summer air of the studio did not aid in sustaining attention spans. Many days felt like we were melting into the worktables around the studio, but this summer will be the last one filled with humid memories, because now we have A/C! Unfortunately for this summer's students and mentors the air conditioner got installed just last week. . .

Also, the summer is a radically different experience because of the different set of obligations the students have. Students apply for the program and then have a certain expectations to meet in order to receive their stipends, such as fulfilling all of their hours. Some students were out for doctors appointments or other reasons and they made up their hours outside of program time. Also each student must complete an independent project, but more on that later. . . These stipends are a critical element for the students, many of whom would otherwise need to be working during this precious time out of school. And in fact some students work in addition to coming to our programs, others go to summer school in the morning and then come to the studio in the afternoon, and many seniors begin work with our college advising partner College Visions. The stipends give the students the opportunity to make some money and expand upon their creative practices in a familiar environment. Because of the stipends I found myself in a position I am not used to as a mentor at NUA, which was kinda being a supervisor. Part of mentoring is about ennabling us to be accountable to ourselves, but it just felt a little different. Maybe it was the heat, but being a mentor this summer was hard and I continually had to check myself. Generally as a mentor part of me wants to give space to the students to work out their own solutions, part of me wants to sit down and just make art with them. . . but this summer there was another nagging side of me that was continually pushing along the agenda of getting the work done. This nagging side lead to some friction between me and the students. I was away for two weeks during the program {see What I did this Summer- What Cheer Brigade west coast tour}. When I returned the students responded to my nagging by continually joking that "You've changed, California changed you."

Unrelated to their jibes I regret being away for those two weeks. When we first laid out the programming calendar it looked as though part of the time I was away would be dedicated to a collaboration with RISD's summer Fusion program in digital media. But then schedules changed and I found myself feeling an irresponsible mentor. On tour I sent some postcards to the studio and phoned in a couple of times to check in with students- how their independent projects were moving along, how other experiences and projects were informing their thoughts about correspondence. But when I returned from my travels I felt a certain disconnect from the generak feeling of the group. It is a crucial part of the practice at NUA to cuiltivate significant relationships, and sustaining them requires a lot of dedication, missing those couple of weeks, I lost out on some of the growth on those relationships.

At the end of the program we got together and did a feedback and reflection session about the students work with Peter Hocking. This was at the height of the students and I being at odds, so of course they vocalized thier feelings that "California changed Andrew, because now he doesn't dress like a scrub, and all he does is harrass us to get our work done. . ." {note- I got a new pair of pants, so unlike the rest of my wardrobe they are not covered in paint, yet}. I not only expected this sort of hillarious rant, but I wouldn't want the students to be any other way, they're so funny. In response to the students talking about my nagging, Peter talked about the way "the labor" of art looks. Working on art looks slightly different than how we normally expect work to look. This is by no means the case for all artists, but art is often a reflective and observational process. And reflection and observation can be fairly passive, and in fact are not always even a concious proecess. As we go through our day we are constantly taking in lots of information and ideas. . . and in the back of our minds it's being turned over, examined, fit together with other pieces. . . Then we may see something that makes it all click into place, a project idea comes together. While this is all going a mentor may ask a student what are you working on and the answer will be "I don't know." That is the perfect answer! And as a mentor during the year I found it easy to support students by working together to explore their ideas and observations. But for some reason I felt the pressure of fulfilling the expectations of the summer program, and couldn't quite figure out how to support students in the same way. . . again, maybe it was the heat.

Peter spoke quite elegantly about this dynamic between the neccessary time and space to generate ideas and how this may be percieverd by others. . . As a mentor and an artist it is a good reminder, but also a slippery slope. Culturally we don't have the greatest perceptions of high schoolers. Besides being freightening, Teenagers are often represented as lazy and unfocused. So when we talk to high school students about the process of making art not necessarily looking like work, the converstion goes right into the chaotic intersection of the social perceptions of teenagers, the social perception of artists, and actual artistic processes. But you don't just sit down at a table and say to yourself I am gonna make some art right now, and "POOF" there it is.

Ramble, ramble, ramble. . . anyway. . .

Next week a little overview of some of the projects we did. . . and a preview of the up coming exhibition!

Also, I am still pondering this upcoming year and reflecting on the last one. We are recruiting a lot of new mentors this year, over a dozen. My thoughts linger on how do we share the knowledge of those who just left the studio with those who will be joining it?

Also next time we will check back with the melting crayon in the window.

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