An Example of Learning Through Personal Art Practice
A major part of an arts and experiential learning process is it’s cyclical or iterative nature. Kolb’s learning cycle is the classic model for how experiential learning happens. Unfortunately for me, it doesn’t quite fit with my experience of the process of making and learning from art. The idea of it being a cyclical as opposed to a linear process totally works. But how the art making process works is a bit of a black box generally. Kolb doesn’t fit because individual experiences of art making vary greatly, and thus a generic model is difficult to define. Writers and influencers from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to John Dewey, to John Ruskin, to Howard Gardner, and Plato and Aristotle have developed theories about the arts, crafts, aesthetics, beauty and creativity. Discussion of a generic model for ‘art’ is too expansive because art is too expansive. The main thrust of my argument is that making art is what is of value, personally and as a means of learning. I have found much writing and many ideas about art, but there is actually very little out there about making art.
Artist and Psychotherapist Patricia Townsend recently published ‘Creative States of Mind – Psychoanalysis and the Artists Process.’ As an analyst and artist she said she wrote the book to fill the gap in research and writing about the artistic process. At the book launch in Cumbria in May 2019, she talked about how much the process varies from person to person, artist to artist. The things Patricia suggests are recurring themes are that the work is highly individual, that each artists balances consciously seeking a continuum of expression against what psychoanalyst Howard Levine calls ‘inchoate forces’, ie the unconscious. Townsend describes her work as research using qualitative methods but uses her own art making as a means of research talking about her personal experiences art making as research.
This reflects what Estelle Barrett states in ‘Practice as Research – Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry’ that art as research reflects art in that it is ‘personally situated, interdisciplinary and diverse and emergent’ It seems to the antithesis to that which can be formalised, fixed, general and bounded. Barrett say ‘knowledge is derived from doing and the senses’. She continues saying that ‘artistic practice can be viewed as the production of knowledge or philosophy in action’. Artistic practice and the production of art objects is a source of learning and thus also a mode of research, but what is learned is entirely personal and subjective.
What I think this is suggesting is that making art is the subject and the product of learning and personal research and that the manipulation and engagement with material is the mode of learning and research. Elsewhere in ‘Practice as Research’ Barbara Bolt, the co-author, refers to ideas about material thinking saying that learning and research ’takes(s) place within the very process or tissue of the making.’ Bolt describes this as ‘The Magic is in the Handling’ and goes on to follow up Heidegger’s ideas of ‘Handlability’ by saying ’Praxical knowledge is a reflexive knowing that imbricates and follows on from handling.’ To me this reflects Kolb’s ideas but from the specific perspective of the arts and art making. It is about doing and thinking and reflecting.
Paul Carter in his book ‘Material Thinking: The Theory and Practice of Creative Research’ develops introduces the idea that art is a form of research and material thinking is a central element. The artist thinks through material. Your brush, your pencil, your voice, your performance, the words of your novel have a form of their own, an intelligence that provides feedback in concrete material terms. Carter states
‘Material thinking occurs in the making of works of art. It happens when the artist dares to ask the simple but far-reaching questions What matters? What is the material of thought? To ask these questions is to embark on an intellectual adventure peculiar to the making process. Critics and theorists interested in communicating ideas about things cannot emulate it. They remain outsiders, interpreters on the sidelines, usually trying to make sense of a creative process afterwards, purely on the basis of its outcome.’
Central to this is process of repetition and reflection is the making of a thing and the material used to do the making. The materials provide direct haptic feedback through the senses. The artist witnesses what Carter calls ‘the discursive plastic intelligence of materials’ and is able to reflect. Then the artist moves away from the art into the world and connects her reflection to other phenomena, including other works of art, or their own arts practice. For years I have kept a journal. All through my training as a therapist, up until today. I have felt compelled to reflect but have rarely ever read what I wrote. The process of making my ideas material, seeing my ideas, through words, was the thing. I have an essential tremor and have always told myself that I cannot draw or paint, because sometimes I literally cannot write. I have my journal on my Mac and my iPad. But lately have drawn more and now draw daily. What helped me was the intelligence of materials. I use huge A3 notebooks and pens and pencils which reduce the impact of my shakes. Gel pens and other writing pens are terrible for me. I discovered the 2H pencil and the graphite stick on soft paper. With these I can draw. It has been a revelation. I now use words and images dimensionally rather than types words in rows.
I repeatedly tried to draw how I thought Kolb would work for Artist Researchers. I went through dozens of iterations, each new iteration developing from the last. Each time I reflected on what emerged. This is Poeisis. Drawing becomes a mode of research.
In ‘The Ethics of Invention’ from the Bolt and Barnet book Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative arts Inquiry’ Carter says of the act of poiesis ‘These human arrangements are mirrored in the way materials are selected and allowed to ”speak”. Various poetic techniques of combination are tried out: principles of of homology, convergence, and mere coincidence are explored. Attention is paid to the overlooked or marginal, the material supplement that semiotic convention discards. I refer to this poetic process as mythopoetic because it understands invention not as conjuring up ex nihilo something new, but as an act of finding ‘that presupposes existence somewhere, implicitly or explicitly scattered or in the mass’.
Creating My Own Model of Art Making – The Model in Action
Carter expresses in words my act of using a notebook to draw, to do research, to investigate the iteration and reflection central to poiesis and art as research, to trust in the intelligence of materials to facilitate my doing, sensing and thinking. A picture is worth a thousand words. In order to visualise my own experiential learning and research process I went to drawing to see if I could find a way of visualising Kolb for art making. Based on the idea of material thinking I used notebooks to make consecutive drawings over time. I did this on the basis that through making drawings (material thinking, handlability) and iterating the process over time, (engaging a creative loop) I could visualise a model of my own experience of art as learning and research.
In sharing all this I did feel a bit like John Cleese as Anne Elk, but bear with me.
I started with my initial idea, a simple image of the ‘Infinite Loop’ and looked for a source image on the net. I found the image below…
I first drew it with the actions; ‘Having an Idea’ and ‘Make or Do Something’ in a loop. I felt there was more to this but this was a starting point.
I developed the idea but it got to too complicated
Then I tried to simplify it but got too clever and psychoanalytical with the loop and my conscious and unconscious self. I knew these aspects were there but this image did not work.
Then I wanted to reference the actual act of making an art object, (Intelligence of Materials – IOM) but over extended my sense of design and it’s form, took over from it’s function. It was incomprehensible.
Then one day an image came to me out of the blue which I put into a small notebook.
Which, using an iPad and a Mac, turned into this…
For me this was a good balance of form and function. I visualised my experience of making art and worked with the image to visualise my ideas about art as experiential learning and research. The act of making this as art was the means by which I did my own personal research about how I made art and experienced it as learning.
Art Form as a Means of Identification, Knowledge and Peer Review
How this simple image can be used to describe my art making process in more detail will be covered on another page. I present this as one would present a work of art. The response of the viewer is highly personal. You may or may not like it or have differing thoughts about the extent to which is describes your experience in the same way people respond to different paintings, or photographs, or artists or songs or performances.
But one could also see it as a research finding, one that is, again, in Estelle Barrett’s words ‘personally situated, interdisciplinary and diverse and emergent’. It is not the same as the findings of quantitative or qualitative research. One way of describing it as research is as ‘Performative Research’.
In the same way that qualitative and quantitative research will be subject to peer review, presenting this as art as research, it is also reviewed, but at a very personal level. It is personal performative research. The value of it as research is the extent to which is makes meaning for you or describes an experience that is known to you. To me this is how art works.
Estelle Barrett talks about the idea of a ‘meme’ as an appropriate metaphor as a way ideas are propogated in culture. We can see a novel like Orwell’s 1984, or a painting like Picassos Guernica taken as a meme and as art. But understood as the findings of performative research it can tell a witness something new or only half understood. An idea can be propogated.
The word ‘Research’, is from the 1590s, from Middle French recercher, to “seek out, search closely.” For the artist, searching closely and seeking meaning through art making, learning from the iterative process of making art, shares their findings as art, for identification or vilification.