Saturday and Sunday I taught a monotype workshop. I relied on all of my techniques, tricks and tips to try and help students get the most from the two days. I answered lots of questions from students: how this might work, what to do about this, that or the other, what size paper to use, any color suggestions? Oh, and one minor melt down. Watching from my table, I could see her body tense up. She was squinting her eyes, wrinkling her nose and just froze. Unable to make any decisions of where to go she got stuck, really stuck. She had been having similar issues earlier so I suspected that an intervention was needed. I resorted to one of my teaching tactics to get her moving. I gave her 5 seconds to pick a tool and a color, counting down the seconds out loud. She had 10 seconds to make a mark, add color or remove ink before she had to put the tool down. Counting quickly, I asked her to make another choice and gave her 10 seconds to get it executed. We went through this together 4 times and then I grabbed the plate. We made a beeline to the press and I reminded her it was only paper, not arms and legs, but that we were going to print it.
When the press was running I talked with her about why she thought she was having a hard time making decisions and working. She bravely told me that in looking around, she was comparing herself to the other students and felt like she was coming up short. The feeling that she wasn’t getting it, that she wasn’t catching on and in her mind making good and interesting work led her to seize up. My heart broke. This is the exact opposite of what I hope students feel in class. The first thing that came out of my mouth was that comparing yourself to another person creatively is the quickest way to make yourself miserable. This sentiment was echoed by the other students at the press and I think that helped her feel a bit better. We lifted the felts and pulled the print back from the plate. She was surprised that it was better than she thought. We talked about it briefly and then went back to her table. We went through the timed exercise again. I told her the surest way to get stuck is to stop moving and that she needed to get up momentum and keep rolling. I could visually see her loosen up and I encouraged her to continue limiting the amount of time between decisions and to just moving forward.
I can’t say that by the end of class everything was hunky-dorey and she felt fabulous about every print she did from then on, but I do think that there was a mental shift that was visible in her work. First off, she produced twice as many prints as she had before which meant two things. One, she wasn’t stuck anymore and two she was learning twice as much as before by making more work. Experimentation became less scary and she was much more willing to say that she was just going to try it and see what happened. Efforts that didn’t work out became tools to use for the next print and she became more deliberate about color palette and composition which resulted in better work. As she stopped comparing, her work improved as did her confidence, which gave her more freedom in her choices and resulted in better work.
The situation reminded me again how true it is, that nothing will make you miserable faster than comparing yourself to others. I was impressed that she felt comfortable enough to express her fears in a class setting, and as always, I learned something too. The situation helped me strengthen my teaching and I was able to help her work through the issue in a constructive and compassionate way. I felt like a pretty good instructor, which is not to say that I am comparing!!