Transcript – Episode 47

Announcer:  This podcast is a project of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency committed to building creative communities and inspiring creative minds.

Lois Hetland:  Art may be the only place where this notion of “Wait a minute, no, you’ve got to make some mistakes.  Now what are you gonna do with that?  You’re not making mistakes, you’re not pushing hard enough…” and this has to do with the fact that art is about being right there at the edge, at the periphery of the known, and moving into unknown territory.

Anita Walker:  Hello.  I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council.  Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud.  I am so glad to have an opportunity to have a conversation with somebody I met, I think it was close to eight years ago when I first got to Massachusetts, who really opened my mind to what creative thinking is all about and how to understand how the art really changes the way we think.  Lois Hetland is Professor at MassArt, and, Lois, your book, your first book, and now I understand there’s a second book, is called “Studio Thinking.”  It’s where you really delved in and took apart what happens when we learn art.

Lois Hetland:  That’s right.  Thank you so much for having me, Anita.  It’s a pleasure to talk to you.  It’s actually the same book, except that it’s the second edition.  It’s been adopted by lots of people who are teaching art educators, and it’s very gratifying to see that it seems to have legs.  So what we did was we worked with two high schools in the Boston area that both specialize in art, the Boston Arts Academy, and Walnut Hill, which is an independent school out in Natick.  And for a year we picked five teachers and we videotaped their classes, and then we went and we looked, and we said, “What are they teaching?  Why are they teaching it that way?”  And then through a process of taking things that we thought we understood, and showing them back to the teachers, and saying, “What are you doing, and why are you doing it that way,” we had a chance for them to correct us, and then we corrected each other through argument.  What we ended up with is eight, what we call studio habits of mind.  These are dispositions, and a disposition is something that is more than skill, so it includes skill, but it also includes the attitudes that make skill dynamic, but put skill to use.  So we’re not teaching just the skills of these habits, which I’ll name in a minute, but we’re also teaching the inclination to put those skills to use and the alertness to know when that makes sense, when you would actually do that.  So it’s a whole.

Anita Walker:  It’s a huge difference.

Lois Hetland:  It’s a very big difference.  You know, if you teach somebody how to read and they never pick up a book, it’s an inert skill.  What’s the point?  You wasted your time.  So what we’re saying is you need to teach skills in the context of their use, so that the attitudes about how to use them develop, as well.

Anita Walker:  So let’s find out what the eight habits are.

Lois Hetland:  All right.  Well, they are in no order, and we’ve been very careful about this, because some people, the first book we had them arranged alphabetically in a line, and people thought that meant that there was a hierarchy.  There’s no hierarchy, so I’m just gonna start somewhere so that nobody will get confused.  Observe is one of the habits, and so that’s the skill of observing, looking longer, giving looking time, seeing details, changing perspective.  They are all sorts of things that artists do, and in other art forms, this would be listen, or attend.  There are different ways of thinking about it, but you also have to have the inclination to observe.  In other words, as you’re walking down the street an artist takes the time to look and see a whole lot more than a regular person does.  And then there’s also the alertness to, ooh, that’s something interesting to look at.  I’m gonna give that some time.  I’m going to use– how can I look at it so that I actually see what’s there?  So observe is one of them.  Reflect is another.  Reflect has two parts.  It has to do with talking about art.  Artists in this day and age have to talk.  They can’t just– and they have to be able to write, so they can’t just make their art.  The art doesn’t stand alone.  You have to actually be able to talk about it and the ideas.  So one part of it is question and explain, and that’s something that we saw teachers teaching all the time by getting kids to talk to each other, and to talk to them, and to ask questions about what they were doing in their project.  And the other part of it is evaluate, and so that’s like how do you make judgments?  It’s very, very tricky.  In art it’s a very sophisticated thing to make a judgment.  And so we have to have, to teach our students how to think about quality in ways that allows them to look at the work that they’re doing now, and to move it forward toward a higher quality, and that’s in a field where quality is changing all the time.  So, for example, when Duchamp made his fountain, which was the urinal, you know, that was turned down from the show that was supposed to be anybody gets in, but this was actually turned down, it was so bad that it wasn’t even allowed in, but now it’s an icon of readymade art, and it led.  That’s the sort of thing that happens in the arts, that you have to be very sophisticated to understand what counts as quality, so this is a whole disposition around making good– making judgment about quality; so observe and reflect.  A third one is stretch and explore, happens to be my favorite.  This one, I think, really fits in with creativity, the idea that artists are very good at walking to the edge of their competence, standing there and saying, “Yeah, but I want to go over there, and it’s like I don’t have the skills to go there.  Whatever.”  And then they leap off, and often they fall.  So what it does is it turns mistakes inside out and upside down, turns ‘em on their head, so that mistakes become not something that are shameful, and something to be avoided, and something that prove that you’re dumb, but instead mistakes show, mistakes are inevitable.  They will happen if you’re pushing at the boundaries of what matters, and then you use them.  You use the mistakes diagnostically to understand how you could do something differently that might result in a different outcome, or you use ‘em as a source of new ideas.  Another habit is understand art worlds, and we really made this plural worlds, because when we first said understand art world, we meant pretty much everything that an artist examines or works with in their world.  But the people heard it as high fine art, high art, you know, gallery art, and we didn’t mean that at all.  We mean street art, folk art, community arts, whatever, and there are two parts to that one, too.  One part, and these kind of come from Chitsa Mahai [ph?], who had a theory of creativity and artistry that says that there is the individual, and then there is the domain, which is the stuff of art, the objects, the whatever, and then there is the field, which is the people and how they interact.  So we called it “Domain and community.”

Anita Walker:  So we’ve talked about observe, reflect, stretch and explore, my favorite, too.  I’m with you on that, and then understanding the art world.

Lois Hetland:  The art worlds.

Anita Walker:  “S” on the end.

Lois Hetland:  Yes.

Anita Walker:  What’s next?

Lois Hetland:  Far more.  Develop craft, which also has two parts.  One is about understanding technique, the materials and tools of the domain, and the other is about what we call “studio practice.”  That has to do with how do you care for the tools and materials and works of the domain, big, big thing in art education, because it you have somebody who goes into a studio course, and they take art, and they’re supported by the way the classroom is set up as a studio, and they make a lot there, and never make art again, because they don’t know how to set up the environment that produces.  So we need to teach kids how to begin to make an environment that supports their artistry, that supports their creativity, and that’s what the studio practice part of develop practice.  Then, and this is a really important one, just because this is the one that so many times people would think this is what it really is.  We’re teaching craft in an art class, and it’s important to say, “Yes, we are teaching craft, but we’re never teaching it alone.”  We’re always teaching it in conjunction with these other things.  It’s like we’re developing craft by stretching and exploring, or we’re developing craft by observing and then envisioning, which is another one, and then we develop craft, or we use craft to express, or whatever, but it’s never done in isolation.  When it is done in isolation, I think it’s pretty much malpractice.  And the other thing about develop craft is it’s not just using craft well.  It’s the inclination to use craft well.  We have to build kids’ desire to use craft to say what they’re trying to say in their artwork, to convey what they’re trying to say, and we have to make them be alert to times when craft is an important consideration, and times when it’s not.  There are parts in the artistic process when, if you’re thinking about your craft, it’ll just freeze you.   You’ll be absolutely paralyzed, and you will not be able to make art.  Engage and persist is the next one.  I love that one, too.  People tend to kind of go to the persist part and think it’s all about discipline and sustaining attention, and it is all about that.  You really have all sorts of strategies that artists do to overcome blocks, and to keep at it when it’s hard.  I always think that we should stop saying Protestant work ethic, and say “artist work ethic,” you know, because I’ve never seen people work harder than artists.

Anita Walker:  Yeah.

Lois Hetland:  It’s amazing.  But the engage part is really important, and so often, particularly in schools, there isn’t a discipline that’s saying, “What do you care about?  What matters to you?  What is it that fascinates you, or perplexes you, or that you’re really curious about, and the arts go directly for that, so engage in the thing.  Find the thing that matters and then persist in making work.  Two more, envision.  Envision is sort of the opposite of observe.  Observe is you look out into the world and you see stuff.  Envision is what you see in your head.

Anita Walker:  Imagine?

Lois Hetland:  Yes.  It’s like imagining, and artists have all sorts of ways.  There’s conceptual drawing.  There’s thumb nails.  There is storyboarding.  There is brainstorming conversations.  There is random games.  There’s all sorts of– there’s drafting and revising.  There’s critiques.  There’s all sorts of things that happen.  Envisioning I happen to love, and it’s kind of also on the opposite of reflect, because envisioning, you’re envisioning in the simple system of the art form, and so in reflect you’re using words.  And then the last one, which is not the last one, but it’s the last one, but it’s the last one we’re talking about today is express.  And express is more than just expressing feelings.  Express is about meaning, and meaning is that art means something.  Art is a way of conveying some thing that is hard to say or maybe impossible to say in words.  Isadora Duncan, the dancer, said, “If I could say it I wouldn’t have to dance it.”  And so it’s like express says, “Yes.  We have to say this in the simple system of the art form.  We’re gonna use our craft to say that, to express the things we’re trying to say.  But again, it’s not just– you’re gonna be going back and forth between craft and express.

Anita Walker:  So one of the things that I’m still, is running around in my head, which was the very first thing that you said, was, okay, we understand the meaning of the eight different habits, but how do you become inclined toward them?  How do you– is just merely knowing them move you toward inclination, or how do you teach inclination?

Lois Hetland:  Yeah.  It’s a very good question, because it is not the same way that you teach a skill.  You can teach a skill didactically.  It’s like come over here, honey, I’m gonna show you how to cut with this mat knife so that you don’t cut your thumb off, you know.  But it’s like I’m not gonna show you how to be inclined.  So inclination, as near as I can understand it, and this is sort of what I’ve seen, and what other people have done, and what I do, is first of all be passionate yourself.  When teachers are modeling their own passion, curiosity, inclination to act, to make, to do all the time, that’s a way of building a culture in your classroom.  It’s like you’re building a studio culture in your classroom, and the studio culture is one where people are talking to each other about their ideas, and asking each other questions, so the social component of the studio is what motivates students to be inclined a lot of times.  Also, the passion of their engagement, so it’s you find the passion.  One friend of mine calls it “the artistic itch.”  And it does feel like there are things that are just you can’t get over ‘em, and then you nurture that.  It’s like, okay, if you are curious about that, if you’re wondering about that, how can you explore it?  How can you do research on it?  How can you figure out how you feel about it?  How have other people made out about it, all of those kinds of things.  So I think inclination is a cultural thing.

Anita Walker:  So the book is, “Studio Thinking.”  It’s out in its second edition.  Is it available if people want to pick up a copy?

Lois Hetland:  It absolutely is available.  Yes.

Anita Walker:  So just go online?

Lois Hetland:  Yep.  Amazon’s got it.  Everybody’s got it.  It’s still around, very easy to get.

Anita Walker:  Well, it’s amazing work.  I was amazed the first time I heard you tell me all about it, because for the first time sort of diagnose something that happens, it never really took it apart and told us what was happening in an art classroom, and while it seems magical, there’s some real logic to it.  There are things that need to happen to have a great art experience, and as I said, it was so illuminating when you told me about it the first time.  So Lois Hetland, Professor at MassArt, thank you very much for joining us today.

Lois Hetland:  It was my pleasure.

Anita Walker:  Another Creative Minds Out Loud.  To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit