Art School: The Stories that Shattered; The Stories that Mattered

JRS First Day at Art School

I spent last week immersed in a collage intensive at Art School. In addition to this awesome “first day” kit from my sister Shannon (thank you, Shannon!), I went to school carrying a bunch of preconceived ideas & stories.  As I headed out on this adventure, I thought it likely that some of my stories would hold true while others wouldn’t hold water.

Here’s what I imagined and what I discovered.

The environment is going to be confusing, unclear and generally a bit unwelcoming. 

The school was easy to find. There was signage inside to tell you which studio your class was in. The first thing we did was introduce ourselves and share why we were there and what we hoped to learn. In fact, I’d have to say it was pretty welcoming because the minute I introduced myself, Carol McBride of The Trauma Project exclaimed, “You’re Jamie Ridler!! We’re friends on Facebook!” There you have it; I knew someone already! Then our teacher went over the curriculum and the materials so we were well grounded in what we needed and what was to come.

The teacher is going to gravitate to those who are already awesome and ignore those who are learning to be.

The students had vastly different levels of experience, both in collage and in other art forms. Some had even taken this class before and were back for more. Our teacher, Donnely Smallwood, was masterful at balancing teaching the basics to the newest of the new while creating space for the more experienced students to simply get to work if they were ready. She was approachable, helpful and a wealth of knowledge.

The tone was beautifully set when Donnely shared an experienced student’s work with us.  She called him a superstar and then explained that what she meant by that was that he had pushed the possibilities, really stretched and worked the technique, the medium and himself to the edges. I took this as great encouragement that if I show up and do the work wholeheartedly, I can be a superstar too. That is within reach for all of us.

The students are going to be reserved and mostly do their own thing.

Like in any group, there were people who were chattier and people who were quieter. I certainly felt that I could engage with anyone and ask for information or help or just engage in a bit of friendly banter. Truth be told, with a hectic life like mine, I deeply appreciated the time and space to just sit and create and do my own thing. In fact, as I often say to the Universe when I discover something I love, “More of this, please!”

There will be one woman who is older than me by a fair bit and everyone else will be younger than me by a fair bit.

This story was completely shattered! In fact, it was quite the opposite. There was one teenaged student and everyone else was around my age or older. It was a room rich with thought-full, experienced learners and I enjoyed being in that community.

It’s going to be mostly self-directed.

The course was a great balance of form and freedom. The teacher gave us a project, like creating geometric collages or frottaged papers, and within that, we could try, use, explore whatever we choose. I found that as long as I kept the pressure off and stayed in a state of learning not proving, I was creating easily, following one idea and inspiration onto the next and the next.

I’ll relish the dedicated creative time but resent the lack of guidance and instruction.

This story was also shattered. The balance was perfect.

Seeing what other people do will expand my range of possibilities.

This story mattered. It was one of the biggest gifts of art school and it was smack dab in one of the practices people fear the most: critique. Our teacher took a stand for the importance of critique in our development. She explained that in order to grow we must stop to examine and learn not just make, make, make, make, make. We put our work on the wall and one by one we shared. I was amazed by the result! We explored the relationships between intention and resolution or intention and stuck, celebrating and learning from the former and building bridges for and learning from the latter.

Seeing what people created with their collages awakened a sense of possibility in my imagination. “Oh, that creates a sense of transparency! Look, that creates a sense of movement!” I wrote down abut a million things that I want to try, thematically and technically!

Seeing what other people do will bring out my insecurities.

I’m surprised to say that this didn’t happen. What helped? Staying clear that I was there to learn not to prove. Feeling deeply that we all have our own gifts to share. Loving the work and knowing that no one can take away my art-love, not anymore.

I’ll create pieces that I feel mark me as a novice and maybe a thing or two I feel good about.

Yep, totally, and I am good with that.

I’ll indulge myself in the repeated fantasy of not returning but I’ll stick it out until the end.

I never once considered not going back. The only thing I realized was that the “intensive” format may not be the best for an HSP (highly sensitive person) like me. It’s a lot of stimulation in a concentrated period of time. I think it would work better for me to have a shorter lesson and then the whole week to explore it. It’s so helpful to know what works for you and to go with it.

It’s going to be on an emotional roller coaster.

Honestly, it was just great. I feel kind of proud to take some credit for this myself! I’ve learned a lot about what I need in order to support myself during experiences like this and I’m no longer afraid, embarrassed or shy about taking care of those needs. For example, it helps me to have good healthy food and to eat when I need to eat not when lunch is scheduled. It also really helps to journal through the experience. I often spent the entire subway ride home scribbling madly in my Moleskin!

Other people will feel at home but I’ll feel like I don’t belong.

Perhaps the biggest shock of art school, the most powerful revelation I had, was that I felt completely and utterly at home. The room was filled with creative souls, many of whom were also in helping professions. It was a learning environment, which I have gravitated towards my entire life. It was a place full of paper and paint and brushes and glue and magazines and stencils and all sorts of creative supplies – yes! And I was engaged in an activity that touches my heart, that challenges my mind and that fills me up completely! But the biggest part of feeling like I belonged at art school, what allowed that to be true, was letting go of my own judgment of myself as an artist and replacing it with giving myself permission to be a learner. From nose to toes I got it; it is downright ridiculous to judge a piece as lacking in skill when it is an exercise in learning!

I’m going to learn at least something in spite of all this. 

In fact, I learned a lot because of all this.

I’m going to feel proud of myself for going.


Jamie Off to Art School


Leave a Reply