Viewpoints: Art is for everybody

Published: 8/9/2019 1:15:53 PM

Anyone can develop a capacity for art-making and art appreciation. I know there are people who will read this and say, “Not me! I am hopeless,” but I disagree. Many folks give up when they believe the learning curve is too steep. Thoughts like, “I can’t draw,” or “I don’t get it,” have the tendency to stop people in their tracks. Art-making is native to us. All children create artworks. The people who push through frustration, practice for extended periods over time, fail, revise, and try again, are the people that are frequently deemed artists. It is important to understand there are myriad ways that one can make art.

When I was a student I did not immediately self-identify as an artist. The title seemed too lofty-too inaccessible. I thought all artists could reproduce images out of their heads with photographic precision without the crutch of source images or transferring techniques. Years later, students come to my class carrying the same notions. The narrow definition of artist remains. I see my work as an art educator as broadening the definition so that it encompasses enough perspectives that there is something everyone can connect with.

My high school art teacher helped me to find my way into art, and it is not merely a coincidence that I eventually found myself on the path to being an art teacher myself. I learned that all history can be seen through the lens of the things people have made throughout time, the definition of artist expanded exponentially. The idea of an artist’s name/identity/ego being attached to their work is relatively new in the scope of human history. At this point in time we have as much access to artworks, artists, and their stories as we ever have. You can virtually travel around the world and see high-quality images of work that just a few years ago you would have needed to physically travel to in order to experience.

My current classroom practice is underscored by the assertion that art is truly for everybody, and anyone can learn to engage in the creative process. You can learn to read an artwork much like you read a poem. Constructive conversations can happen around what one thinks the artist’s intent might have been. Also, there is value in exploring how an artwork connects to the viewer’s lived experience. While I know that not all of my students will leave high school and pursue careers as professional artists, all of my students can benefit from developing their skills in problem-solving, creative communication, reflection, and public speaking. Within the art studio students can collaborate on drawings and studio challenges. They learn to express their stories through shapes and forms and surfaces. They articulate their strengths and weaknesses and learn to set specific and actionable goals. Students take risks and share their process in front of their peers and their teachers. ConVal High School art students engage the greater community through extended learning opportunities like our recent show, “Making the Rules,” which was nurtured in part by the fantastic team at the Sharon Arts Center Gallery.

As long as I have been a teacher in this community I have also been an arts organizer. The first incarnation of The Thing in the Spring (2008) was the root of a labor of love that is still going strong over a decade later. A couple of nights of concerts at the Toadstool Bookshop and Harlow’s Pub alongside Broke: The Affordable Arts Fair at the Town House has grown into a sprawling event that features so many points of entry and all are welcome. The Thing in the Spring highlights thoughtfully curated events featuring high-quality and diverse musicians/artists/writers from all over the world. The Broke Arts fair created opportunities for people throughout our community to interact directly with artists, while providing artists with a venue to sell their artwork. Dozens of #convalartsalumni have been featured as Broke vendors. All of our events are driven by the desire to make excellent art events accessible to our community. We work throughout the year to acquire sponsorships, grants, monetary and in-kind donations to keep our tickets low-cost. In 12 years the vendor fee for the Broke Arts fair has only been raised once, and remains at a very competitive level.

Live art events create space for something that seems to have vastly diminished over the past ten years: an opportunity to experience something new without the help of a curatorial algorithm. Personally, I move through most of my day aided by podcasts and playlists that inspire, occupy, and entertain me. My students insist that they learn best when they listen to their music. A defining characteristic of this moment in time is that there is so much content at our fingertips at all times, and one needs to make a concerted effort to experience something new. I would like to challenge you to take the opportunity to listen/view/read/watch an artwork that is entirely new to you and see if you can expand your definition of what it means to be an artist.

Mary Goldthwaite-Gagne is an artist, educator, and community organizer who lives in Peterborough with her husband and daughter. She is a teaching administrator at ConVal High School where she has taught since 2007. She is the co-founder of The Thing in the Spring and lead organizer of Broke: The Affordable Arts Fair.

Goldthwaite-Gagne will be part of the Ledger-Transcript’s Community Conversation about the value of arts in the region – Tuesday at 7 p.m., Aug. 13 in Bass Hall of the Monadnock Center for History and Culture in Peterborough – along with state representative Jeanne Dietsch, director of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts Virginia Lupi, MacDowell Colony Director David Macy and Arts Alive Director Jessica Gelter.


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