I recently spoke to a class at the University of Michigan School of Social Work about my art and my approach to teaching art to middle- and high school students in 'at risk' programs. Professor Deb Gordon-Gurfinkel hired me to teach as a part of a program called 'Telling It' at COPE a few years ago, and, as always, I learned more from the students than I felt they did from me.
One of the things I learned is to appreciate the unending ways the human mind solves problems. When I teach students, I emphasize and constantly remind that 'this isn't about making art as much as it's about problem solving'.
Art is all about problem solving – it's the part I love about working an idea out in the studio. I've found that when I emphasize the idea of problem solving, the pressure of 'making art' softens. Many times, I present projects that require basic hand tools (i.e., pliers) or that use unconventional materials. I encourage the students to 'mess around' with the materials and tools to get a feel for them. I feel it's important for students to use good tools and have that experience so that problem solving with tools becomes familiar and not off-putting.
Practicing problem solving in art projects gets the mind working, thinking and open to solutions not before considered. If the student can think about an 'art problem' in new ways, then they not only build skills for the art room, but they train their minds to think in a problem solving mode. 'Practicing problem solving' is the key phrase here.
So today, one of the young men in my class was clearly resistant to using the tools and bending the wire and making his mobile. An hour later, he was looping wire, working on balance, punching holes and spray painting shapes to hang from his mobile - not to mention discussing how to make his mobile work better.