Thursday, November 22, 2012

An Exploration in Art Education With Amelia Epp

   It is no secret that I harbour a deep seated dream of living in a small rural town, making art and teaching aspiring young minds. I have recently reconnected with someone I have long admired who is doing just that-  the ever gracious Amelia Epp is an artist and educator living and working on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. She also happens to write an impressive blog " I am looking for the join" which is filled with artistic inspiration for both the young and young at heart- loads of lesson plans to help ignite the creative fires, with a strong connection to place and environment.

   I am always so interested in how teachers connect with students on a daily basis as I am constantly looking for ways to stretch and inspire my own children creatively. It was fantastic to hear what Amelia had to say in regards to working with kids- discovering "their possibilities and limitations"- as well as how it has affected her own art practice. I hope you will enjoy being a fly on the wall for our conversation on art, life and education!

 S.K- In her own words a bit of an introduction from Amelia...

 A.E- Before moving here, I completed a masters degree and teacher training program in art education at the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. I was hired onto the teacher on call (TOC) list in the Sunshine Coast school district last November. As a TOC, I teach all subjects and grades, in addition to high school art. I have also taught art classes in the community at an art centre called the Arts Building, at the local community centre, and through the Gibsons and Elphinstone Community School. I've also collaborated with local non-profits and businesses to develop arts curricula and to lead arts-based workshops. I have a studio in my home where I create my artwork. I'm a mixed-media artist and recently I have worked mostly with paper, to create reliefs, sculptures, and collages.

S.K- Teaching kids art all day must be a lot of fun but do you still have the energy & drive to hit the studio at the end of the day? How do you find time for your own art practice?

A.E- Being a TOC is challenging in some ways, but it does allow me to continue working on my own art. This is partly because I do not generally have to do lesson planning and marking, and am therefore free to work on other projects when I leave school in the afternoon. Sometimes I have the energy to work in my studio after school, and sometimes my energy is completely sapped. 
My job as a TOC also allows me to have a more flexible schedule, as I only have to be available to sub 3 days a week. If necessary, I can book off days in the week to work on my own creative projects. My dream employment scenario, at the moment, would be to have a regular, but part-time art teaching job, so that I could spend part of my time in the studio. I find that I derive energy and inspiration from teaching, and therefore benefit from having both social teaching time, and introspective studio time. I also find that the work I do in my studio informs my teaching.

S.K- I'm interested how you decided to go into teaching- did you always want to be a teacher?

A.E- l didn't always know that I wanted to be a teacher. I did know that I wanted to pair my art practice with another career (which is why I studied both Sociology and visual arts for my bachelor's degree). I am fairly social, and like working with young people. I've also always been an observer of people - I watch people's behaviour and interactions and find them to be fascinating. Acknowledging these things about myself, the realization that I wanted to get into education slowly dawned on me. I did some volunteer work with a community centre art program for children, and led an after school art program in a Vancouver public school, to make sure that the direction was right for me. I loved both of these experiences, and knew that I was on the right track. I came to the teaching profession through the field of peace education, and feel really strongly about the power of education and the importance of nurturing critically engaged, thoughtful, and creative young minds.

S.K- Do you find your own personal art interests shade your lessons or has it allowed you to open up to new experiences that in turn help your own art evolve?

A.E- I do. But I also find that designing and teaching lessons pushes me to expand my horizons, which is exciting. In making my own art, I am quite experimental in my use of materials. And as an art student, I've always liked assignments that are very open-ended and that encourage broad conceptual and material-based explorations. I therefore have a tendency to design lessons of this nature for my students. But I have to remember that many people (young and old, and even myself when I really think about it) desire and really benefit from exercises and activities that are more focused, directed, and technical in nature. It's good for me to think about balancing these types of lessons with activities that are imaginative and exploratory. 
Designing technical and focused activities challenges me to practice and develop certain technical skills, which is exciting. Also, through researching artwork to share with students, I've discovered many artists, designers, and architects that I had never come across before. Additionally, I've learned a lot from students' techniques and use of materials. I'm often blown away by students' inventiveness and mastery of techniques.

S.K- Do you have any stand out experiences with kids who just naturally are gifted or just open to art and how do you forester that talent?

A.E- I have, indeed, had many exciting encounters with students who are artistically gifted and/or very open to art. I often discover 'art-lovers' when subbing for subjects other than art. I'll notice a student doodling and drawing in class, and then strike up a conversation about what they're drawing. In art classes, it's always really exciting to encounter these types of students. I feel cognizant, though, of providing these students with the attention and challenges that they need, without singling them out and making other students feel like they're lacking. It's a balancing act. To foster natural artistic talent, I think it's important that such students feel challenged - this might involve providing them with new media to explore, or additional creative and technical assignments. I also think it's also important for them to have freedom to explore their own ideas. 
Just as exciting as encountering students who are naturally gifted and open to art, is observing students who have less confidence in their creative abilities become really engaged with and proud of their creative work. This is, perhaps, more challenging to facilitate. I have a very distinct memory from one of my student teaching placements, of working with a particular 9th grade boy. He was very athletically gifted, but struggled with fine motor skills, and therefore got frustrated easily with painting and drawing. He doubted his creative abilities and was often very unfocused in art class. I will always remember an instance in which something 'clicked' for him while working on a painting assignment, and he called me over to excitedly explain how he was planning to develop his composition. It was the first time I'd seen him take real ownership over an artwork, and show pride in something he had created. It left me trying to dissect how, exactly, this had come to be. It is my hope to help facilitate this experience for all of my students

S.K- In fact how do you foster a talent or just the natural curiosity in children with out squelching it? How to you guide with out interfering in the beautiful innocence of children's art work?

A.E- In my graduate program in art education, we talked a lot about how to discuss art with children and teens - how to comment and ask questions without without interfering and directing. Working with young people in schools, I so often observe that they have been strictly directed in their art making processes, and therefore doubt themselves and ask permission to make changes or additions to their own works of art. I find this very disheartening, as art lessons often seem to be turned into lessons in following directions! 
In my graduate program it was suggested that a good way to begin a conversation with a student about their artwork is to make an observation about their creative decisions (i.e. "I notice that you have…"). I often do this, and then follow up by asking why they made this creative decision, or how they achieved a certain effect. I find these conversation starters to be much more effective than making a simple value judgement (i.e. "I like your painting" or "That's so pretty"). It can also be quite effective to open with a very broad question, such as: "Can you tell me about your artwork?" If a student has a question about what direction they should take with their work, I like to defer to their peers, if possible. This opens up the conversation and gives students a sense of authority and confidence in their artistic skills and knowledge.

S.K- Do you have any favourite exercises or lessons you would care to share?

A.E-Something that we talked a lot about in my art education program was the importance of providing students with opportunities to explore art materials - to discover their possibilities and limitations - before asking them to use materials to create more complex works. This approach really resonates with my own artistic practice, as my process is quite exploratory and experimental. I tend to work with one particular material repeatedly - and maybe even obsessively - until I have an intimate knowledge of it. I've led a number of exploration lessons with children, teens, and adults, which I have observed to be really successful. One such activity involves having students build the tallest standing structure they can with paper or cardboard, without using glue, tape or any joining material. I'm always impressed with students' inventiveness when faced with this challenge. 
There are a number of art education blogs I look to for inspiration, including:

S.K- In your own art practices who are your biggest inspirations? 

A.E- In creating my recent work, I have been thinking about physiognomy, medical issues, and architecture. I am also very inspired by the natural world (I have an extensive collection of dried kelp and seed pods) and by textile design (i.e. quilting and embroidery). I look at a lot of art and design blogs and continuously come across images and artists that I am inspired by. Among many other artists, Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois have been greatly inspiring to me. I have felt a great affinity for Hesse's work ever since I learned about her as an undergrad. I clearly remember seeing her work in person for the first time, when living in Europe for a year in my early twenties. Her minimal, loose, and organic sensibility, as well as her use of repetition has always really appealed to me. I've also been drawn to Bourgeois' sculptures for a long time, and relatively recently discovered her 2D textile work, which is incredibly inspiring to me. My artist inspiration list is very long and just keeps growing!

    Thank You Amelia for taking the time to answer my questions! I am sure I have more- I just need to let this all steep for awhile! I would encourage everyone to check out Amelia's blog- as mentioned it is full of inspiration as well as featuring her own work- which p.s. is lovely. Also if you are interested Amelia posted her portion of the interview with me over on her blog yesterday- I may be a tad biased but it is well worth the read!

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