Tuesday, July 12, 2011

More about workshops

I wrote yesterday about the dilemma of taking workshops: you sometimes come home enthralled by the ideas of your teacher, and find it difficult to translate your excitement into work of your own.  It's easy to keep making imitations of the teacher's techniques or sensibilities.  Judging from the comments left for this post, I seem to have struck a chord. 

For instance, Sandy in the UK wrote, "What is the draw for repeatedly attending workshops by a certain big name? ... What are big names doing to get people to act/think/work on their own? Perhaps after 2 or 3 workshops big names should say 'let someone else have a turn' or take some time out now and think on your own 2 feet' or at least 'go learn from someone else for a bit'."

There are three kinds of workshops. 

In one, the teacher shows you how to do something, a technique or an approach.  For instance, I took a workshop with Connie Scheele several years ago in which I learned to dye fabric in plastic bags with a low-immersion technique.  For me it was a wonderful step forward -- this was in the early days of art quilting, before everybody and her sister had learned to dye.  And though Connie had a different approach to dyeing than some of the other pioneers took, you couldn't look at my fabrics, even less so my finished quilts, and say Aha!  This person attended a Connie Scheele workshop!

In the second kind, the teacher sets projects or assignments for everybody in the class to complete.  In my experience this can be done low-end or high-end. 

Low-end, you show up, get a pattern or detailed instructions, and make it.  Your quilt looks like everybody else's quilt, except for different fabrics.  You learn nothing except how to execute this particular pattern.  I've taken such workshops from seriously Famous Quilters and hated every minute; I won't name names.  This is only for the least imaginative among us, and with any luck, after you've done one or two like this you graduate to thinking for yourself.

High-end, the projects or assignments presumably teach you something that you can take back and use in your own work.  Often they start with your own idea.  For instance, Nancy Crow's various workshops about motifs: you show up with a motif, and then you do assigned things with it.  You might be asked to make your motif in elongated form, or to make a piece with small motifs and large motifs put together, or to use only neutral colors.  Yes, everybody in the room is doing the same assignment, but you each have your own motif so you work isn't identical to the others.  I found these assignments helpful in developing my critical eye, even though few of them turned into finished work that I was willing to exhibit.

Here's one workshop exercise -- elongate your motif -- that did become a show quilt.  In process, and finished.  (The colors are truer in the photo of the design wall.)

Orange H, 2004, 41 x 54"

In the third kind of workshop, everybody shows up with her own stuff and works on it.  The teacher gives comments and critique, but does not direct the work.  I've never attended art school, but I assume this is the kind of thing that goes on in advanced classes; everybody may be painting, but not the same thing or using the same techniques.

So if you're gong to be a workshop junkie, my question is what kind of workshop? 

If the first kind, that's fine; we all need to learn some techniques, whether it's dyeing or machine quilting or piecing curves or screenprinting or shibori.  The downside to technique workshops is that you can learn many techniques but never stick with one of them long enough to make it your own.

If the second kind, you're on very thin ice.  It's too easy to keep doing the same assignment over and over, especially if you liked the results.  Even the high-end workshops, where you are encouraged to use your own motifs or sensibilities, can leave you in a mindset where you keep executing the same quilt, obviously directed by the Famous Quilter, many times. 

If the third kind, you are probably going to benefit a great deal.  Good teachers can help you do whatever it is you want to do better, whether or not it's like their own work.  Of the 15 workshops I've taken with Nancy Crow, 11 have been advanced classes in which we have each done our own thing.  I've benefited greatly from Nancy's comments and critique, but I also attend because I like being with other serious artists whose energy and insight rubs off on me.

I think I'm gradually kicking my workshop habit, finding other ways to get the stimulation and critique and energy that I can't provide for myself.  And as a teacher, I agonize over how I can encourage my students to develop their own design skills rather than simply execute the assignment I give them.

So much depends on how far along you are in your art development.  The tragedy of workshops is that many people who are ready to move on, who have mastered their techniques, who have some ideas of their own or at least the potential of same, get stalled along the road.  I think the wise teacher will say, as Sandy suggests, it's time to think on your own.  But perhaps this can still occur at a workshop.


  1. Thanks for taking the comments further. I think our city and guilds programme (or at least as I have experienced it and am trying to teach it) seems to be a bit of no. 1 and no.3. I teach C+G fashion...We work at techniques - sewing and drafting perhaps with a bit of your high end no 2 for developing designs- so they have the foundation to then design, pattern cut and sew up a garment that is solely their own design.

    Some rebel and want you to leave off some of the foundation, which then reflects badly in the work or limits the options of what they could do with their design.

    Some don't like the design exploration part and would rather copy things they like. It is my job to show them that they HAVE got the ability to make something inspired by but not just like another designer, even though I would rather them be inspired by something from nature or manmade but not something in recent fashion.

    and some just want to jump into the sewing of first idea and I have to coax them into looking at the garment as a whole and what will take it from basic to excellent.

    Not Easy! and time for your own work may suffer depending on how much time you put into the students, but I find it as exciting to see their work praised by others as I do my own.

    Sandy in the UK

  2. I don't get the whole art critique thing. I understand asking another artist to help solve a design problem here and there but I don't understand the need to consistently have your work critiqued and certainly not by the same person. I once went to an SDA meeting and was told to bring something to work on and when I got there the understanding was that everyone's work would be critiqued. I said no. everyone continued to comment on it anyway. I wanted to shove it back in the bag and run out. My work is my own, but then, I already went through all of that in art school so that's probably why it's not my thing now. Now, I take workshops for the socialization, if at all.

  3. The best workshops for me when I was a newby were with Sue Benner. When people walked into her classroom they could not figure out who the instructor was as we were all doing our own work with excellent guidance from her. I also love process workshops where I make luscious fabric that I can take home and turn into art pieces.

  4. As someone with very limited funds, I don't take many workshops, even though I know people who could be classified as "workshop junkies" and are always at a class or workshop and have signed up for 3-4 more in the future. They keep learning so many techniques, and I wonder if they even know what their own style of work is any more (or if they've ever actually taken the time to think about it).

    I've only taken two one-day workshops, both with nationally known teachers at the NC Quilt Symposium, at very affordable prices. The first one I took was last year and I was shocked--the teacher brought tons of extras we were supposed to purchase from her, as she didn't tell us to bring the stuff. Most people probably had all of it at home, but we were stuck and had to purchase from her. Talk about feeling ripped off! In my opinion she cared more about selling than about teaching, and I don't have any respect for her or her work any more.

    This year I took a workshop on pole wrapped shibori dyeing from Jan Myers Newbury at the NC Quilt Symposium and had a totally wonderful experience. Her purpose was to teach us many different methods that she had developed over the years and we came away with the tools to use create our own unique fabric.

    I would love to take a longer workshop from someone like Jan, or Jane Dunnewold, or go somewhere like Penland or Arrowmont for a week-long workshop, but can only dream about it at this point. That's ok, though, because I'm really very happy working on my own and creating things that make me happy.

  5. I don't understand why studying under someone for a long time is a problem. It's the journey that is important... not the outcome. Surely in many other disciplines having a "guru" is smiled upon, almost required. If we are to view art as a path to self-discovery and are mindful of that as we approach our work than the teacher can only help us on our path, not create a path for us.

  6. I guess I'm of two minds. I've taken workshops before - not many - and all of the "make your own fabric" variety. All dyeing and painting techniques. I find them extremely helpful because a: I'm new at this and know I need to learn everything I can in order to make the art I see in my head. My expression is not yet up to my thought process!

    But, I've never taken a class that teaches how to put those elements together - and thus far, they don't interest me. Even when I was a brand new quilter with one whole quilt under my belt, I immediately started designing my own patterns because I never wanted to make something (purposely, anyway) that looked like someone else's. And so I kept myself fairly isolated as I worked (Which is why I thought I invented pinwheels. True story. lol)

    Anyway - all of that said, I also understand wanting to take classes with the same person over and over again.

    In first year uni, I took a class with a certain professor and though I spent the first two months (literally) crying at night because I thought I would never be able to keep up with everything he taught us - I learned so much from him, that through my university career (undergrad and masters), I took a total of six courses with him. So I guess someone could fall in love with art/quilter's teaching style that much too.

    But as you say, the important thing is to then develop your own voice and let it sing.

  7. Workshops have always provided me with a chance to get away from the every-day and become immersed in creativity. I've taken classes in many different mediums and always learn as much from my fellow students as I do from the instructor. My art degree has served me well in the art quilt world. Drawing, painting, and color theory are applicable in any medium. I spent several summers going back to the Oregon coast for workshops with a colored pencil artist. I went as much for the experience as the learning. While I respected and learned a great deal from the artist teaching the workshop, in the end, I had to make a decision whether it was enough to emulate her style and work or did I need to find my own unique voice. Emulation isn't a sin, and many artists have spent an entire lifetime exploring one idea. Each of us has to choose our own path. My question to any artist is can you see a distinct style in your work separate from your mentor's and are you still growing.

    Jean S.

  8. As a teacher I give many workshops and classes and I aim to show students how to take an idea and run with it. It pleases me that at the end of a set of classes or a workshop that the student's work looks individual and is not a clone of mine or anyone else's. I do feel that it is necessary to outline the process and make sure that students understand the initial 'rules'. Having said that I then also explain ways of 'breaking' the rules or bending them so as to move further along the path of ideas. In fact I am often delighted when a student works something out for her/him self which is new to me! One is always learning. And the day one says they know it all is the day their 'art' dies.
    I have taken several workshops myself and I agree with Kathleen that they do fall into different types of experience. However each one of her types is right for someone. Not everyone wants to do anything other than make something so type 1 has it's place as does types 2 and 3. When I was at Art College one was given an assignment and one worked on it. Advice could be sought but it was just that advice. Similar to type 3 but not for everyone. The answer surely is that the teacher should angle a workshop towards the level and wishes of the students. Frequently I will teach one subject at two or even three levels depending on the ability and wants of the students who turn up. And I expect teachers continue to give workshops because they are asked to. If no one wanted to hand over their money there would be no workshops...good or bad!

    Val Falmouth UK

  9. I try to integrate concepts beyond quilt making into my workshops. For me quilting is a metaphor cornucopia for life. I recently taught a two week improv quilt making workshop on the "rhythm of attention" to educators at Penland School of Craft. My name link points to the archive of blog posts on the workshop.