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.
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.