Teaching Workshops

cropped owl


There is a very big discussion going on now about the use of other instructors work and teaching materials going on right now. It is sad that we have to go over this so many times and even sadder still how some of us want to justify the practice. I saw this on a post I shared on facebook, “If you don’t want your work, techniques and processes taught by others, then don’t put them out there.”


Are artists/craftsmen supposed to spend all that time and not put their work out there? Putting it out there is what is making a living for many of them. Teaching workshops on how they got to that point is also a source of income for them. So yes, we are going to put it out there.

Where there is a problem is with those who do not put the efforts into developing their own work when it is so much easier to just copy what is there. They might feel entitled to whatever the instructor has done by simply enrolling in a class. It is all there for them to use as they see fit.

So let’s look at how easy this is to do by taking some examples of popular workshops being taught in venues that cater to classes with “product” as the goal. Note that I am saying the reason the students enroll is because they are assured that they will make at least so many of “these things” in an allotted time. Now if the instructions are handed out with each step toward that goal made perfectly clear, (preferably with illustrations by way of drawings or better yet, photographs), there is a certain guarantee that those goals can be met…..in the class and long after it’s over. Add to that, to make sure everyone is totally happy; all the same materials are included. In other words, in a book arts workshop, all ten students will have three blank journals with a mass-appeal decorative paper cover and marbled endpapers. How simple is that?

And now you will likely have a percentage of that class planning on ways to alter what they learned by redoing the handout, changing to another size book with different popular papers and preparing their proposals on the way home from class. I know this sounds cynical. But in the field of book arts it is easy to do. Most of the techniques of book binding are pretty well known and well documented via instructional manuals, internet and the friends who showed you how to do it last week when they took a class you couldn’t attend.

In a perfect world it would be nice to credit their instructor as they pass on what they learned, but seriously, were their instructors the ones who thought up these books in the first place? Not likely. So much has been out there for so long now; it is a bit difficult to pin that information down unless it is an exceptionally well-known person in the field. That is why I have seen few people take these unique workshops and then go out and teach it. Personally I would rather buy one of those instructors’ books than have a copy with my own name in the back. Some might even be so proud of their work done in that instructor’s style and class that they will enter it into a juried exhibit; which is another violation of ethics that seems ridiculous to still be happening. And still others have told me in the process of taking a class from one of those instructors with a well-known style that they learn so much by watching his process.

That is a big difference….teaching a process…..not a product. By taking a class based on process over product so much of what we learn can be applied to our own studio practices. We are not overly concerned by how the end result looks or for that matter if there even is a physical result when class is over.

Those who teach painting, printmaking, weaving and other technique-based classes don’t seem to have the same problems as those who teach toward a specific product. You simply can’t guarantee that ten students are going to make the same lovely watercolors, well executed editions or number of fine scarves by the end of the class. There are too many variables based on the abilities of each student. But each and every one of them will have learned the processes they need to be familiar with to get better at what they are doing. And shouldn’t that be enough? How many of these students do you think are going to be able to take these classes one time and plan their proposals to teach it on the way home?

 Not very many.

They will need to spend much more time in their studios to even come close to being able to consider teaching these techniques. Of course, some instructors can help them get there sooner by giving out specific well-illustrated handouts but there is nothing like experience to help out the student who has questions and expects answers.

The mistake, the BIG mistake that artist/craftsmen make is thinking that they need to teach their signature work. ….the pieces that have made them recognizable in their field…..the one piece that potential students have seen in publications, on the internet and in fine galleries….and is therefore guaranteed to fill their classes. It is too bad to see this unique work cease to be; seeing it offered up by someone from the class or someone who figures it out from a video or photograph. It’s not the same, but close enough, close enough to even use the originator’s name and say it is an “homage” to the them, their inspiration.

This has never happened to me that I can remember. Well there was that time over thirty years ago when someone copied a little book I had paid a printer to do on basket making. They copied each page, stapled them together and sold them for more than my $6.50. My printer told me to use his lawyer who sent the person a letter to stop and desist doing this. And I got a letter from them saying I had ruined their career. I had put it out there; they had bought a copy and made their own. They were entitled or so they thought.

Now there is nothing I do that someone wants to copy. My exhibition work is too involved, my book forms follow their content, and my sculpture uses pieces that I don’t even know where it came from; and all of it tries to keep up with a mind coming up with ideas it honestly thinks need to be fixed in a visual form.

As for myself when it comes to teaching, I keep the class description full of process and little if any mention of pieces produced in the allotted time. I never give handouts other than a syllabus of each day’s goals for morning and afternoon. I encourage them to take notes if they want something in print because they will be better at using the words that will make what they are doing clear for later use. I used to hand out a bibliography because there were so many books available on the subjects  relating to my workshops like “collections”, “containment”, “space”, etc., but now there are too many and who reads books that much anymore?

But once the students arrive and are looking at me to share some incredible insight, I ask what they, each one of them individually, wants from the class. Then I proceed with seeing that they get it. It’s the way I teach. We are all going to learn together how to get the results we want and all the possibilities we can on how to get there.

So this is just about all I have to say on the subject other than it is too bad that so much of others’ efforts are so easily taken for granted and used for the self-promotion of those unwilling to put in the time to make their own mark.