Teaching Art in the Real World

White Mountain Art Department Chair Rachel Van Wylen shares her real world approach to teaching art. A former professor at Spring Arbor University in Michigan, Rachel has always loved cultivating creativity in students. Read her reflections below.

As an art teacher, I don’t believe that some people can draw and others can’t draw. I think everyone has the capacity to be creative. I want to help students figure out who they are as artists and then, once they’ve found their artistic voice, refine it and become better at what they do.

I teach skills, but I encourage students to figure out what they want to do with those skills.  For example, I teach students watercolor technique, but I also ask them what they want to make with watercolors. I leave a lot of room for interpretation, especially with projects, so that students can take ownership of their work and do something that is uniquely theirs.

In my class, students are constantly learning about what is happening in the real world by researching contemporary artists and designers. They write weekly entries about contemporary art and art history and keep a visual journal. They choose which artists they want to study. Their journals are very personal and allow them room to pursue the things they are curious about. They are also a place for students to experiment with materials and sketch ideas, so by the end of the semester students have a whole book filled with things they’ve learned and explored.

At White Mountain, we have students displaying their work in local galleries, like WREN (a local nonprofit), not just hanging their work on the walls of the School. This is important because it forces students to become professional in their presentation. Students learn to write artist statements and interact with gallerists. Because I am a practicing artist, I can talk to students about professional practices such as meeting with clients and interacting. One student researched his ceramics project by visiting shops and galleries in Portland, Maine and studying trends in what kinds of ceramics are being created and sold today. He then used this research to inform the decisions he was making in his own work. Some of the AP students are building their own websites and using them to market their work.  

At the end of the day, I hope students walk away with a vision for how art can become a part of their lives. For other students, it might mean that they are comfortable sketching out their ideas on a piece of paper so they can communicate visually. For others, it might just mean that they really appreciate excellent art and design.

Learn more about the Art Department, including the new Catherine Houghton Arts Center, and course offerings here.

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