Ellen M. Owens
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
–William Butler Yeats
Art and education have held a very special role in my life since my earliest memories. My grandmother, an avid artist, gardener, and former home economics teacher, and my aunt, an elementary art teacher and adjunct art professor, often cared for me while my mother worked swing shifts in a factory.
My grandmother and aunt not only allowed me to create my own artistic experiments at their homes but they insisted that I help them with their own creative projects—from cross stitching to dying pysanky eggs to painting watercolor landscapes to refinishing furniture. They always ensured I could leave my own little mark. And beyond their wonderous DIY homes, they brought me to museums, historic sites, art galleries, and performances—new forms of self-expression that I had never imagined possible. Even when I didn’t think I’d enjoy the experience beforehand, I always returned feeling fuller, like I sopped up something rich and was digesting those moments. I would re-enter my little country environment with new vision.
Those two ladies—my childhood role models—really helped me foster genuine curiosity for diverse artistic disciplines and utilize this energy to study the world around me. Those moments of exploring self-expression, both my own and others’ unique viewpoints, have taught me life skills: patience, gratitude, observation, and meaningful ways to process emotions.
INTEGRAL TO INDENTITY
By my teaching I hope to inspire you to personal activity and to present your vision.
My childhood and continued experiences have taught me that art is certainly not for the elite. It is a form of self-expression that can be as vital as food and water by providing emotive, subjective experiences. We all radiate joy from moments of self-expression where people recognize and connect with us. Creativity is the pinnacle of Maslow’s mountain, however self-expression intrinsically links to esteem and belonging. In one meaningful project, I assisted South Asian refugees in expressing their daily resettlement struggles by providing for and exhibiting their photo journals. When discussing their photos, the refugees mentioned the importance of their cultural heritage – culinary, performing, and visual arts were integral to their identities. This need was overlooked in the rush to get them homes, furniture, and clothes. Through the project, the refugees received looms and yarns, a place to practice dance, and the ability to perform publicly, nurturing them during difficult transition.
The practice of teaching art develops visual literacy skills, allowing for greater understanding, respect, and participation in local, regional, and global communities. It cultivates the next generation of critical thinkers and engaged citizens that impact their environs. It helps underprivileged or marginalized peoples move up within difficult social constructs and find strength in their heritage. I have done many visual and performing arts projects with Mexicans, a group frequently cast aside due to caustic national immigration issues. But in Philadelphia, this thriving ethnicity has united around their amazing traditions to showcase dance, costuming, and visual arts that share historical aspects with wider, appreciative audiences. It can both enhance and remove our feelings of the “other.”
Learning experiences should occur in both the classroom setting and beyond – out into museums, parks, and other nontraditional places of learning. These ventures outside of academia provide positive role models and professional connections, showcasing people that influence the community and providing entry points for students long after classes have ended.
LIFE-LONG LEARNING AND CONTINUOUS PRACTICE
Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.
My philosophies on teaching are based in the mentorship of those elder women in my family—art became my currency to move out of my simple rural life and into other stimulating environments. My approach mimics what my mentors provided for me: empower learners to tap into their unique abilities by establishing a comfortable classroom, basic skills, problem-solving opportunities, and honest, constructive feedback. I believe to be a good artist, you merely need three things: vision, ambition, and resourcefulness. As Picasso explained, “If I don't have red, I use blue.”
Mutually established classroom rules establish buy-in, nurture exchange, and maintain respect between students and educators. Some of my best learning experiences were exchanges with my peers; our instructor prompted and enabled these interactions to take place by providing non-restrictive framework and fueling conversation. Clarity around the project goals and outcomes allow students to work to their potential, but allow for learners to be empowered to make informed choices and mistakes. Educators have true responsibility to provide truthful and clear feedback; we have a commitment to both deliver positive reinforcement and provide a window into the world beyond academia. And a project isn’t complete without time for learners themselves to reflect and critique their process and final results to deepen critical thinking.
As a teacher, I believe in my own lifelong learning: continuous practice and engagement are infectious. I lead by example, embrace flexibility, and roll up my sleeves: opportunity often comes disguised as change and challenge. Every person has innate creative talents; some people have the self-confidence to exploit them but many do not. By demonstrating and living my teachings, I skillfully facilitate—and learn from—the self-expression and innate abilities of others.