teaching, integrating history in art, uplifting the work of others, imposter syndrome, and what i am trying to do about it

A few weekends ago, I taught two all day indigo workshops at Ox Bow in Saugatuk and, boy, am I so incredibly full of love and the excitement of just making (a common side effect of creative workshops). I am so grateful that I am able to do something that I love and to share this love with others. To be honest (real talk time), I have been navigating this feeling of guilt. I have been thinking about what it means to profit off teaching techniques that I myself learned from others. I learned how to indigo dye four or five years ago when I was working at the Textile Arts Center from Isa (who is an incredible maker and teacher!) during our natural dye course. I mean, everything I know I learned from others, whether it was learned in an academic setting or from friends and family. Sometimes it feels disingenuous to consider myself an expert or an authority on anything, especially if I didn't learn something in the "traditional" sense like at university. I am notorious for downplaying myself and my abilities. No matter how long I have been teaching, I suffer greatly from imposter syndrome. This, coupled with my feeling of guilt, often creates this incredible barrier between myself and what I need to do to advance my work and my teaching practice. I have all of these ideas, but when I sit down to actually work through them, I feel an immense amount of anxiety and I turn to the endless scroll instead (or Netflix). Though I think some of my modesty is okay (no matter how many indigo vats I make, I always read the recipe when making a new vat), I know that it is time I have more confidence in myself and my abilities. It's time for me to roll up my sleeves and do the work. Which brings me to my main point...

It's time (for me at least) to integrate art and textile history into lessons, whether it is in a casual workshop or in a "traditional" classroom.

Textiles and art both have rich histories. Often in workshops I don't really go into the history of the techniques I teach. Though, to be fair, I haven't taken a workshop that offered much in terms of history, etc, unless the conversation organically moves in that direction. I do always cite my sources and share where I learned the techniques and where I purchase my supplies. Soon I will be embarking on a new journey of teaching and facilitating art (both textiles and traditional) for a group of middle schoolers on a Montessori farm school. To say I am excited is a bit of an understatement. I have been wanting to make art (and/or teaching art) the main focus of my career since, well, forever. I feel so lucky that I have found a place where I am able to do this and to also explore what an art program looks like. Growing up and going to public school, then community college, and eventually a very big university, I reflect on the teachers I had: those who allowed fluidity in their classroom and those who created a box of what they felt art instruction should be and then did little to break through those constraints. I want to create an environment that is rich in art, artists, makers, including history plus what is happening now, the ability to learn and do it yourself, and that is indicative of Maria Montessori's values. It's important to talk about the origins of techniques, art, art movements, and more. I think that by sharing why we started exploring the ability to dye and to spin fiber into yarn and weave it into blankets and clothes, it connects not only us but our children to how vital everything is in the bigger picture. It helps us appreciate the process of how wool from a sheep becomes a sweater for us to wear. Perhaps then it helps us appreciate the folks who make our clothes, the animals, and plants that we harvest for dyeing. It connects us to something small but also to something bigger.

As I continue this practice of teaching and facilitating conversation, I am doing more research not only into the techniques themselves, but into the history behind the techniques/materials/etc. What is indigo? How did it come to be? Have you heard about the 1859 indigo revolt in Bengal? It isn't difficult to do a quick google search and find the wikipedia page for indigo and learn about its history, including the synthesis of indigo. I want to be able to effectively integrate history in my lessons, as well as highlight and share the work of those who preserve these traditions. I think it is easy to get lost in the eye candy of instagram posts and forget that we didn't discover these techniques. I am a white person who is profiting off teaching things that are rooted in others' histories, often those of marginalized folks who were taken advantage of in regards to those techniques (again, look up the 1859 indigo revolt). I mean, indigo is so trendy (so is tapestry weaving, wall hangings, macrame, etc) that Target and Joann's sell pre made pieces. I see my favorite designers and artists using their positions of privilege and power to uplift those who would otherwise be displaced by someone profiting off these ideas and techniques. Whether it's sourcing materials and production locally rather than overseas where labor is often exploited, or it's highlighting those who are producing your work by creating a sustainable business and relationship with those who do make your products, like sourcing production in Oaxaca, Mexico, but treating the weavers as the artisans they are rather than cheap labor for example.

So I have been thinking...as an educator, what can I do? 

I think a good place to start is to acknowledge my privilege of being able to teach art and make money.

The next thing to do is to continue sharing with others who I learned from (though I don't think a class I teach goes by without talking about how amazing TAC is) and where I purchase my materials. I must also continue to source materials from small ethical businesses (like Botanical Colors, one of my favorite natural dye resources) rather than big businesses who may displace others.

This next one is where I confront a bit of that imposter syndrome anxiety...I just need to sit down and do the work. The work is to research and to integrate the history of the peoples who discovered and utilized (and those who continue to do so) these materials and techniques. Much like teaching about an artist or an art movement, I think this is a very important step and is not only important, but enriches the lesson and gives it depth.

One of the biggest pieces is to research folks who are indigenous to this land. I currently live in Michigan and I have been planning to integrate the history of those indigenous to Michigan (and hopefully as close to regionally where I am as possible) and discuss with my students the types of dye plants folks would plant, harvest, and dye with, as well as their techniques. I am also working on a list of folks who may be able to come in and teach the students themselves about their histories and perhaps lead a class on one of their own techniques.

As a white artist and an educator I want to do my best to uplift others and to give credit where credit is due. I also think I can continue to donate to organizations and others who are doing good work. In the past I have done free events like hosting an indigo pop up at a homeless shelter where I would teach shibori techniques and folks could bring their own clothes to dye. I know doing more of that kind of work is important. This is an always evolving thing and I want to continue to be a positive force in my community, whether that is teaching, showing up for others, or making space and stepping aside to let others shine. I am also very open to other ideas including how I can make my teaching practice more inclusive, who is someone I should connect with, perhaps moments in history that are often overlooked in art classes (and/or in history classes overall), and more. 

Thanks so much for tuning in and, as always, your support of this little practice of mine.



i have been working on this piece since early january, and it still is a big ole work in progress. it’s the longest process i have ever encountered, most likely because it is the biggest piece i have ever worked on and the subject matter is quite specific, rather than imagery that gives way to improvisation. previously when i have worked from photographs, i allowed some room for more expressive mark making and was less concerned with using the source material in a very literal sense. however, this new series (including this piece) is very different from what i have previously created.

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                                                             wow look at this really hi res photo!

                                                            wow look at this really hi res photo!

my goal for this piece is to showcase it within a series of translating family memories and stories into large scale works. i am not sure how long it will take, but i am enjoying the process as i go (even when faced with some stressful paper ripping, "nothing is working" situations). this is one of those times when this process of sewing handmade paper really forces me to let go of expectations and perfection. i know as long as i work hard and am enjoying the process, that is "success". of course i want something beautiful at the end, something that evokes nostalgia and triggers the viewer to appreciate my work (and by extension... me), but since this work is so fragile, the lesson of patience and learning to let go is incredibly valuable. i have always been extremely interested in delving deeper into the relationships i have within my family and the stories of before i was born, what caused the ripple effects that are reflected in my life today. since the death of my father last year, it's been something that fuels my work even more. the photograph i am working from is an image of my step father teaching me how to ride a bike, something my biological father never did.

this has been an arduous process, but i am grateful for this outlet which gives me space and a constructive way to deal with my father's death, his abandonment during my childhood, and the complicated relationship i had with my step father. at times this work can be emotionally fraught, but for me, i think it's important to work through the entanglement and see where i end up. this is why, i believe, the process is so much more important to me than the actual piece itself. the slowness, the ripping and mending, the readjustments i have to make, all are important in this journey.

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thank you for stopping by and catching up on this process! i am very excited to share with you the finished piece, which is a main goal in the new year.

is there something you are working on lately that you'd like to share? leave a note in the comments, i'd love to see what y'all are working on.