Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Joy of Teaching

This week I am lecturing about Earth Art/Environmental Art and some of the great prehistoric sites I mentioned a couple of posts ago. I get all excited about this material because I have personal experience with it. I have walked around Castlerigg, the oldest stone circle in England (NOT Stonehenge). I have traipsed through sheep pastures to visit the Neolithic burial cairns at Kilmartin Glen. I've placed my foot in the spot where early Scottish Kings proved their worth to be crowned on Dunnad Hill Fort. I have also visited Orkey and encountered the wealth of Neolithic remains of astronomical technology and housing settlements.

Castlerigg in the Lake District of Cumbria, England

I try to share it with my students to varying degrees of success. It is hard to "get it" if you haven't actually "done it".

This section also introduces them to Andy Goldsworthy and his art. This they get -- mostly because they can relate to a guy working patiently on a fiddly project, only to see it collapse before his (and their) eyes. I also have them create works inspired by Goldsworthy. It is a real treat for me, because I never know what I will be opening up in the next email from the students.

A few years ago, I developed the visual arts aspects for a team-taught Study Abroad program which travelled to Scotland for four summers. To see students "get it", to have students take me by the arm and tug me to a specific location so that I could experience their vantage point in a newly learned experience just gives me goose-bumps. So often, I plant seeds and never see the fruits of my labor. But in an experience like those Study Abroad learning environments, the seed is planted and grows to fruition before my eyes -- not always, but most of the time.

I love planting seeds and seeing them flourish. I also love to see the lightbulb go off over someone's head. It thrills me to teach and to help students "get it". That, for me, is the joy of teaching.

If you teach, what excites you? If you learn, what helps you "get it" the best -- experience, observations, kinetics (hands on), listening to lectures? What has been your most exciting learning experience?


Richard Shilling said...

Despite living an hour down the road from Castlerigg and driving past there last weekend I have never visited it! And ironically I have spent a fair bit of time finding Goldsworthy's stone monuments that are dotted around the same area. Go figure...

I've visited a lot of sites in the South of England when I lived there but I haven't been to any since I moved to the North-West. I guess it is a hard thing to "get" unless you go there. The neolithic monuments are more than the stones themselves but also the environment that they are set in. I found this to be especially true at Avebury, Silbury Hill and the other sites in Wiltshire. They are very much part of the landscape, Silbury Hill from a certain view slots into a gap in the hills like it was dropped in there like a stopper in a bottle.

I am fascinated by the idea that stone monuments started to spring up as we developed agriculture and for the first time (so the theories say) we started to see ourselves as separate from nature and as such started to create things that showed us as being separate and to start to worship mother nature as opposed to being a part of her. We developed a sense that we could control our environment and to me this is where the descent of man begun (an allegory of the Adam and Eve apple story). At that point we changed from a matriarchal society to a patriarchal (change from worship of the female and fertility, to begin the journey to the worship of power over the land, ourselves, then others and things). Which seems to me to be a natural progression down the centuries to where we are now. On the whole cut off from our environment (yet of course still being part of it) and as a consequence war-mongering and male dominated.

As a hypothesis who knows whether it's accurate. But I find it interesting.

As to your question. Kinetic is where it's at. Since starting to do some land art I look at any monument or even a cairn in a different way. Land artistry goes back a very long way in my eyes, we try to associate a mystical tag with them but it seems to me we just like to build things. Artistry is a natural by-product of our brains and we feel compelled to create things. Land art especially gives the practitioner a deep understanding of materials and forms in nature. There is a spot where I made a Snow/Ice cairn a few months ago and I returned there last weekend to build something new. What fascinated me was how the environment constrained what I was able to do. When I built the cairn I started one evening. The pond where I got the ice from was not frozen to the ground so I could easily chop out sections. It got too dark to work so I went home and returned before dawn. Now the water had frozen solid and I couldn't get anymore ice out so I had to complete the cairn with snow. When I returned to that spot several weeks later the water level was much lower and I couldn't get any useable ice out. What I discovered was how different temperatures, amounts of rain fall and different times of day affected what I was able to build.

The point I'm making (in a long-winded way) is that all the materials, processes and fluctuations in nature constrain and shape what you can make. In some ways land art sculptures build themselves as it is not possible to create exactly what you have in your mind's eye. Andy Goldsworthy's art is all about revealing nature to us (and to himself) through the window of his work. I find myself more and more working intuitively and using whatever I find to shape the ideas. I get deep satisfaction when I create something I like and through the process discover something new about the materials and the whole environment around me. Fresh revelations about nature inspire me and even when I fail to build something that I had imagined I never feel like I failed. It is still a thrill to explore the natural materials and discover that you can't make something because I have learnt something at first hidden about nature itself. It becomes addictive to make these discoveries. To me it is like being a birdwatcher and seeing a bird you have never seen before. As you peel back the layers of the onion and discover something new it enriches the soul.

I never got this when I first saw Andy Goldsworthy's work. I read passages in his books and heard his explanation in Rivers and Tides about how he was trying to find out about the hidden depths in nature, but I didn't get it. My shallow outlook (I have not studied art academically and have no grounding in art history) then was to think it was mumbo-jumbo (as we are wont to do when we don't understand something). Surely you are just building something pretty I thought! But the real thing that has grabbed me now is exactly that aspect, discovering new things while making sculptures is what makes it. The more complicated or difficult to construct the more you have to "know" and understand the material and the constraints it puts on you. So land art is ALL about making things and actually doing it. If you work on something for hours or even days you discover so many more things about it. This is never obvious unless you actually go through the process yourself. Perhaps I am a kinesthetic learner so this is the way I see it, but I do believe it can only be understood by actually doing it. And what is fascinating is you never stop learning. There is always more to find.

To link back to neolithic times. I guess then that we had a deeper connection with nature, and hence a deeper understanding of its processes and cycles. To me this would lead inevitably to building things with the knowledge we have, especially as agriculture started to free us from being pure hunter/gatherers and so started to have time to pursue new things. And whether there are mystical/religious reasons also, the builders needed to know their materials, what stones were available and where they were and to me this is no different to how I define land art. If you are embued with knowledge of your environment, then it is natural to create things with it and within it.

Sorry for the essay but you hit on two subjects that are of interest to me.

All the best.


EmandaJ said...

Hello Richard,

Thank you for your insight! And well said. I'd like to share some of your thought with my students. May I?

P.S. Visit Castlerigg!!

Richard Shilling said...

Of course! And yes I will!