As summer ends, I begin a concentrated search for sources that will prompt new ideas and invigorate my passion for art. With the another academic year approaching, I must invent a year’s worth of art curricula, thoughtfully designed to launch hundreds of my students, ages 4 to 50+, on their own inspired journey into artmaking. Of course, inspiration can be elusive. Looking for it is like thrift store shopping: you have to hunt through ungodly piles of dull and not-quite-right before something magnificent lands in your hand. And like thrift store shopping, the true treasures reveal themselves just when you’re kinda sick of looking.

Thankfully, there are those places that supply inspiration as regularly as my kids leave dirty dishes in their rooms. There’s the beloved Adobe Bookstore in SF’s Mission District where I can spend hours engrossed by their unmatched book collection or by the conversations that await anyone willing to sink into a shabby sofa and join in. (Sadly, the Adobe is hanging on by a thread and is threatening to close in a couple months.) Our own Berkeley Art Museum consistently presents exciting, out-of-the ordinary exhibits, and their book store is full of gems. (I've had so many euphoric moments in Mario Ciampi’s landmark building I can’t overstate my disappointment with BAM’s plans to relocate soon.) Then there’s SCRAP, which stands for Scrounger’s Center for Reusable Art Parts. I have never left SCRAP without a car load of awesome “art parts” and a head full of project ideas. I mention these depots of inspiration because they deserve to be openly appreciated for all they’ve given me over the years. If creativity can only be fed and never controlled, then these places have served up whole meals to satisfy my hunger for artistic sustenance. 


Rummaging around for inspiration has helped me recognize how a scrapper’s sensibility is essential in artmaking. Artists must see the overlooked potential in things considered too junky, tacky, or common to keep around. Case in point is Mission School artist Barry McGee who infuses his paintings, drawings, and mixed media installations with fabulous elements of funky and forgotten. Using a slew of nontraditional art materials he may well have picked up at SCRAP, McGee explores the artistic capacity of ball point pens, old office supplies, leftover house paint, vintage logos, lanyard cord, drugstore frames, used liquor bottles, old T.V.s, and found photos. Recently, I attended the opening of his current exhibition at BAM, where I was touched to discover that McGee, also an Adobe devotee, had recreated the bookstore as a part of this exhibition. By memorializing the vitality of street art and the artistic soul found in places like the Adobe, McGee’s work celebrates and preserves their inspirational affect.

My wish for the 2012/13 YAWS and Westside Studio art season is that every student be stirred by sudden and unmistakable moments of artistic clarity, moments when inspiration is wildly apparent.


The Artist in Me

I teach art to a remarkably broad range of people in a given day. I may start my morning before a group of ebullient six-year-olds, merge into the afternoon with a gang of hilarious, inquisitive, and ridiculously talented teenagers, then end in the company of my adult students who represent a whole spectrum of experience, confidence, and stamina toward art making. The truth is that with all this teaching, I don't get to make much of my own art any more. There are times I find this frustrating, but mostly, I enjoy the way teaching keeps me in the midst of creative improvisation, innovation, and revelation. At this point, I can't imagine the sudden isolation I would feel if I closed my studio doors to students in order to have extra time to make art. It turns out that my students, all 400 a year, are my greatest inspiration. Vincent Van Gogh, who, despite all the "Starry Night" neckties and "Sunflower" coffee mugs, will never get old to me, said it beautifully: 

"I tell you, the more I think, the more I feel, there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people." 

Every moment I spend in communion with my students, I am smack dab in the heat of art making. Who knows if I will ever make an art piece that can match this. And if I do, it will only be due to all the hours I've spent blending colors with second graders, printing linoleum cuts with my high school students, or being awed by the assortment of amazing work that I pull off my drying racks on a daily basis. That said, I have recently found myself doing some of the projects I've had stored away in my artistic mind's eye. With the same open heart and willingness to fail that I preach about, I am reveling in the process. 


José Abreu’s Wish

“I wish you would help create and document a special training program for at least 50 gifted young musicians, passionate for their art and for social justice, and dedicated to developing El Sistema in the US and in other countries.”

Jose' Abreu has just been named one of three TED PRIZE winners for 2009. The music program he began in Venezuela over 30 years ago has helped to bridge gaps between children of the poor and elite. Talented young musicians representing a variety of races and educational backgrounds come from both rural and urban areas to participate in his extraordinary school. Read below.....

"After Maestro Abreu gave his inspiring talk and made is world-changing wish, the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra performed live via satellite from Caracas, Venezuela. Made up of students from El Sistema, the orchestra wowed the TED audience and we know they will wow you too. Led by Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director Designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and product of El Sistema, the orchestra played two pieces - Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, 2nd movement and Arturo Márquez’ Danzón No. 2."

After seeing this tremendous performance, Jose' Abreu's words seem all the more true: "Once a child learns to play an instrument, that child will never be poor again."



 Knowing that I am an art teacher, people often come to me with confessions of how lacking they are in artistic inclination or skill – or they tell me painful childhood stories of their having worked really hard on an art project that a teacher or parent horribly criticized. What I notice is common in these is interactions is how they seem to be mourning the loss of their artistic selves, either because it was never really developed or because they tried and were hurt in the process. Most of these adults know me because their children are my students. They may not be making art themselves, but they are determined to make art available for their children. While I am obviously grateful that parents expend the resources and effort to have their children involved in dance, theater, or after school art class, I am becoming more and more interested in how everyone, not only kids, can benefit from time set aside for their own version of artistic expression. 

I consider art a vital endeavor that need not be the result of a particular talent or necessarily directed toward a career. In his book The Accidental Masterpiece, art critic Michael Kimmelman, describes how pursing art can enhance our lives. 

 …art provides us with clues about how to live our own lives more fully….I don’t mean that every day becomes perfect if we enjoy art. But having spent much of my own life looking at it, I have come to feel that everything, even the most ordinary daily affair, is enriched by the lessons that can be gleaned from art; that beauty is often where you don’t expect to find it; that it is something we may discover and also invent, then reinvent, for ourselves; that the most important things in the world are never as simple as they seem but that the world is also richer when it declines to abide by comforting formulas. And that it is always good to keep your eyes wide open, because you never know what you will discover.

In the twelve or so years that I have been teaching art, or more accurately, watching art emerge around me - I have seen my students discover many things that were unexpected and revealing. Often they uncover untapped aspects of themselves - like that they can turn something they thought was awful into something beautiful, that they can laugh at their mistakes, that they can be excited by the accomplishments of a classmate. Over and over, I see that making art provides my students with a forum to deeply know themselves, the chance to unveil new thoughts and understanding, recognize their potential, overcome their hesitation, and ultimately, to inspire transformation. 

Last spring, I took time out with several of my third grade students to ask them why they thought art was important. Every child I asked had something positive to say in response, but I was especially struck by the reflections of two students.

Nine year old William explained the significance of art this way:

First there is the art of getting along well with your friends and family; then there is the art when you really concentrate and work to turn the ideas inside your head into something you can see and hold  - like a painting or a sculpture or a drawing. Then there is the art that can only come out through your body, like the way a soccer player moves down the field or a dancer leaps and spins. These are all really important things for people to do in life.

Nine-year-old Song put it more simply:

Art is in everything.