Holly Hawthorn, the (wo)man teaching us to fish
No doubt you’ve heard the old proverb, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Though its origins have been debated, the proverb stands as one of the most memorable sayings we are taught regarding the paradigmatic task of enabling self-sufficiency. For those of us with creative intuitions and curious minds, though, we know that nourishing ourselves requires more than food, or fish, alone. Learning to fish, so to speak, requires learning how to nurture ourselves with some kind of art practice, art thinking, or art engagement. And in Holly Hawthorn’s art classroom, students – whether they consider themselves artists or not – subconsciously gain fluency in the language of art and are all the more enriched as a result.
At the intersection of the arts, culture, and education, Holly approaches teaching art as an art in itself. She does not manufacture artists nor does she simply feed her students art techniques. Though she designs projects such that all of her students learn how to approximate dimensions, render realistically, and realize the benefits of different stylistic approaches, she prioritizes opportunities for her students to be a part of their own learning processes. She poses challenges and invites her students to envision their own solutions. She proposes pauses and enables her students to reflect and observe their own transformations. She prompts opportunities and encourages her students to think about how artistic pursuits may help to support their intrinsic needs, passions, and desires. In the end, she fortifies her students with the tools necessary to feed their inner artists.
In the spirit of celebrating the introspective aspect of her teaching approach, a few of Holly’s past students offered to share a bit about how Holly and her classroom taught them not just art techniques, but life skills and lessons:
In my own experience in Holly’s art classroom, I relished finding quietness and losing myself in the process of production. The pieces of art that I created during my time in her classroom remain favorites of mine because they carry the lessons that I learned there. Her emphasis on the beauty of change and transformation in art continues to help me embrace obstacles and the fear of imperfection. Her love for working in slow time persists in my own interest in studying and practicing meditation. And her willingness to make space for my creative ideas – which included painting a hole on the floor to the entrance of her classroom and founding a club called Art With A Heart, dedicated to using art for the betterment of communities – reminds me to this day to believe in my abilities.
Holly is a sure Superstar of Culture. She has helped so many of us transform from blank canvases to masterpieces of our imaginations, and this March she takes a break from mounting her art at the Ely Center for Contemporary Art in New Haven (which is celebrating its 20th anniversary with the theme ‘Our Bodies our Selves’) and reflects on the journey that brought her to this point. Here is a bit of what she has to share:
What inspired you to become an art teacher?
I knew I was going to create art the minute I painted a fire in kindergarten. I didn’t know it would lead me to teaching. I would say that I am an artist first. I teach art because it is my passion, because I know that each person feels the thrill of the creative spark. I hope to help my students achieve the skill they need to create the works they want to. The question I am asked most is can you help me draw this or that? Or how do I make a turtle? These questions brought me to realize that showing someone how by a formula and teaching them are very different approaches. The teaching requires that you show the student that they have the ability to do it and that if they are motivated to achieve it and have a positive attitude they will meet with success. It is in the struggle to create that the pride in the creation is achieved.
Why is it important for children and young adults to be exposed to art?
Humans have a drive to be inventive and creative. Through history we constantly improve our creations. Being able to imagine the unimaginable is something children and young adults are encouraged to do with freedom. It is when these imaginings are perceived to be unproductive in the ‘real’ world that they develop an aversion to them. This causes them to stop engaging in them. Artistic pursuits for personal reasons, public art for social and political reasons and art to create a livelihood are all present in all cultures. The arts of all the world are the indicators of who we are and what we believe in. In order for us to be tolerant, peaceful, productive world citizens we need to appreciate the vast array of arts humankind has and continues to create.
What impact do you hope to have on your students?
I believe that everyone has the ability to draw. I think the reason that many people feel they have no ability to record images on paper is because they are stopped from developing this skill at an early age. In its place they need technology in order to survive in our culture. The students I teach feel that they must have a natural talent to draw or they are somehow incapable of learning to. In fact, the ability is there it just needs to be developed.
Learning to draw is a vehicle for learning to observe your surroundings, for learning to find the quiet space where you lose the thread of time and you enter a consciousness akin to meditation. In this space your brain is able to rest and make vital connections between left and right hemispheres. You begin to see the world in a reflective manner.
I try to instill in my students the appreciation and practice of working in slow time. It often takes many projects and many hours of drawing before I observe a change in their approach to their work. It is an observable moment and a magical one for me. Once this happens the student has acquired a skill that will be applied in many facets of their lives.
I believe that finding an activity that allows one to create an object a drawing or a painting is vital to our wellbeing as human beings. I encourage my students to appreciate their work and the work of others. It is not perfect but it is a perfect expression of themselves. Manufactured objects have no soul.
Superstar snapshot: Holly Hawthorn
Superstar strength: being able to change and live with the unchangeable
Superstar secret talent: practicing yoga (“it quiets the mind… it centers [her] and [her] teacher is an inspiration”) and poetry (which “helps [her] distill [her] thoughts”)
Superstar noteworthy quote: “whatever it is it is temporary; the one constant is change”
(photo credit: Holly Hawthorn)