How Do You Teach Art?

By Lizzy Fox

As a poetry teaching artist, I’m asked this question (or a version of it) all the time: “How do you teach art, exactly? It’s so subjective.” And of course, they’re right. You don’t answer a poem like a math problem. But there are tools and techniques in any artistic discipline that are very teachable.

Take music as an example. We all know that a new musician must learn a few basics: how to read sheet music and arrange their fingers to play different notes. So it is in poetry, where we learn how to use rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, sensory language, line breaks, and more to produce different effects. But far more challenging (and fun) is to teach creativity itself. This is what folks really mean when they ask me, “How do you teach art?”

Eric Booth, co-founder of Montpelier’s Creative Engagement Lab and long-time teaching artist, says that “The job of an artist is to activate the artistry in themselves to make new worlds to share with others. The number one job of the teaching artist is to activate the artistry in others, and to guide them to make new worlds that matter to them.” By this definition, a teaching artist offers not only the concrete skills of an art form, but the fundamentals of how to be an artist. Now, how, exactly, do you teach that?

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned over my years of teaching in the arts:

Be an artist yourself. This may sound intimidating. But the basis of art is creativity, and all humans have a creative impulse. Perhaps your artistry comes out in a well-cooked meal, or knitting, or drawing in the margins of your notes. An artist takes time out of their day to focus on creative enjoyment. They pause and savor the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of our world. They revel in their senses and imbue that revelry into making something new. Start small. Try free writing for a few minutes each day. (I find seven timed minutes to work well). Or cut pictures from a magazine and collage. Take a peek at Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path To Higher Creativity  if you prefer to follow a guide.

Expose your students to the art form you’re teaching. When I lead a class, I always start by presenting a poem I love. Then I ask questions about it: “What do you notice?” “What is this poem doing?” I keep the questions broad and point students toward how the piece is made, not just what it’s about or how it makes them feel (although these are important too). To get at the techniques of poetry while also piquing a student’s interest in the art form, it’s important they investigate how the poem is working on their own and in their own words.

Play. Writing exercises can be daunting, or worse, boring. I like to keep mine interesting by imposing time limits, asking students to write without stopping their pens, offering writing prompts related to what they care about, and weaving in other disciplines (more on that in my fourth point below). What playful ways can folks engage with your favorite art form? The artist within us loves, above all, to have fun. So, you won’t activate anyone’s artistry unless you keep it light.

Cross Pollinate. Over the years, my students have learned the basic techniques for public speaking, practiced meditation, deepened their knowledge of food systems and culture, connected with their natural environment, and more through exercises in poetry. By weaving in other practices, and by focusing our reading and writing on particular subject matter, students find that art responds to and is integrated with the rest of life.

Take a bigger interest in what they’re creating than in what you’re creating. What you focus on will show. And when you’re teaching, it’s never about you. Artists create art and share it with an audience. So be the audience they need, and your students will become the artists they are.

Lizzy Fox is a poet and traveling teaching artist. She also is the associate director of the MFA in Writing & Publishing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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