Following the student art show this weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about art education and how we learn this marvelous thing we call art. My thoughts quickly went back to a recent conversation with a former schoolmate. But before I get to that, let me digress a bit and share a few thoughts about my personal journey toward becoming an artist.
I often lament the fact that I am self-taught. The pastel portrait workshop I attended and the lessons I’ve followed on The Virtual Instructor website are the closest I’ve come to having any actual art instruction. I do think of myself as an art student, but one who is completely home-schooled without benefit of any formal standards. I create my curriculum based both upon my needs and my desires in art. I do a lot of what I love, and then for good measure, I throw in things that I know will be challenging.
I’m learning now, however, that being self-taught as an artist isn’t unusual, and it may actually be very beneficial. Although I’ve often wished I could attend an art school, maybe I should be very glad that I don’t have that opportunity.
In September I traveled to my old hometown for a class reunion. I looked forward to the event in hopes of seeing one classmate, in particular. Growing up, one of my best friends was Verna Zurn. She was, without doubt, the most talented artist I’ve ever known. After high school, a lot of things happened in her life and in mine and we soon lost touch. I went to this class reunion in hopes of re-connecting with Verna once again. I couldn’t wait to see her and to tell her the unbelievable turn of events, that I had actually become an artist.
I will admit to being a bit surprised at her somewhat visceral reaction. “If you want to be an artist,” she said at once, “don’t go to art school. They’ll knock that right out of you.”
The words did take me aback a bit. Art school is where talented people — like Verna — learn to take their art to higher levels… isn’t it? Verna did make a career of it, working as a commercial artist. She no longer does any sort of art, unless you count knitting and crocheting. She doesn’t draw; she doesn’t paint. For her, it seems all the joy has gone out of art.
I find that sad, and I also find her words very intriguing. Yes, she went to art school. Yes she became a professional artist, but where it was once something natural to her, something that sprang forth from her soul, her art seems to have become just a job.
Of course, I know that I would never make it through a real art school. It’s merely the idea of art school that appeals to me. I envision art school as a place where students can try different things, receive constructive criticism, and receive guidance to develop their artistic passions. Most likely it’s not like that at all, and I’m glad I won’t ever find out first hand what going to an art school is really like. If you’ve been to art school, I hope you’ll share a few thoughts in the comments.
There are, of course, many artists who are self-taught or largely self-taught, a phrase I read often in artist biographies. You’ll find several gathered together here:
Another artist re-iterates Verna’s advice almost word for word:
From my reading this morning, I learned, too, that while in our Western culture we view art school as a mark of professionalism or validation, this is definitely not true in other cultures:
“Outside of the Western canon, the idea of being self-taught can mean something quite different. Indeed, in some regions of the world, artists who operate outside of any prescribed system are seen as more advanced than professional artists, and the rules and formalities implied by the latter category are seen to stifle creativity altogether.”
— Jon Mann —
At some level, of course, we all have a lot to learn when it comes to art, and just as there are many different paths to follow in art there are also many different pathways leading us there. Art school is only one of those pathways.
Being self-taught ensures that I can pick and choose my own direction. I can determine which roads I want to follow and decide for myself where I want to go. It might take me longer to get there. Maybe I’ll never become the artist I really want to be, but that’s all right. I enjoy having the creative freedom to explore art in my own way.
All in all, I think I’m very glad now to count myself among the ranks of self-taught artists. I will no longer feel the need to apologize for my lack of art instruction. Instead I will consider it a badge of honor and courage. Come what may, I will continue my art in my own way, and I will always be the artist I am meant to be.
I want, too, to share my love of art with others, to encourage others — both aspiring young artists and older ones like me — to give art a try. I want to help others by sharing what knowledge I’ve gained, through sharing resources, by offering ideas and suggestions for learning about the art experience.
As I said yesterday, art does matter. What doesn’t matter is how we go about learning it. Art school might be the right choice for some, but it’s definitely not for everyone. That shouldn’t stop us, though, from creating art and expressing what is in our heart.
Art may be given short shrift in schools these days, but we can bring art into our homes and share our love of art with children, grandchildren, friends and more! I want to think of myself now not only as an artist, but also as an art ambassador, ready to share the joy of art wherever I go.