When I'm not working on my own illustrations, I teach art classes at the Arts Council of Princeton. Over the summer, instead of the regular 6-8 week sessions that include adults, I agreed to teach summer camp. Where regular adult classes meet once a week, camp is 5 straight days, with a morning and afternoon session. These are long days, but it's a great way to get to know the artists and help then grow in a short time span.
This week I'm teaching a Character Design camp, which pairs with the afternoon class of Animation (taught by someone else). Yesterday, I was with 15 students for both sessions. Although normally that would make the day hard to get through, these teens (ages 14-16) were eager to tackle any challenge I put in their path. By the end of the day, the gallery walls were covered in truly accomplished drawings of funny, scary, silly and beautiful characters in interesting situations. I was really proud of them. To relish in their accomplishments, we spent the last 20 minutes of the day critiquing work. I praised them as a group for all they had done. I mentioned that they should all keep artistic friends in their life to give them feedback, and help them feel supported as they continue to make art (some students express a desire to pursue art as a career). And then, on instinct, I said, "Because, sometimes, well-meaning people that aren't in the art world, can say an innocent but dumb comment that totally deflates an artist. It has happened to me." I noticed heads turn, and realized, they too, had most likely already encountered this. So I asked. "Who here has had that happen to them?" Half the class raised their hands.
I called on student after student to share, and an unbelievable thing happened. For every, "Geez, that head looks like a pear," or "Your drawing is horrible," –that students shared–the room was filled with murmurs of support. I could feel the connection between these artists build as they shared their stories. After awhile people were laughing at the ridiculousness of those without the ability to constructively criticize. I had to acknowledge the minor miracle of how each and every artist in the room that had been deflated by a flimsy comment, had moved past the sting, and continued with what they love to do. I let them know that this won't be the last time they endure moments like these, but that the secret is to find others of their own tribe, the art tribe, to give honest feedback with the intention of helping the art–and the artist– be even better.
If the students in camp this week learn nothing else, I hope they learn that. After all, in the fall when I return to teach adult classes, I will come across talented artists that admit they let an upsetting comment prevent them from taking themselves seriously as an artist–decades ago. While art is something any age can excel at, it always breaks my heart to hear these stories. No one should set aside their creative selves based on outside judgements, opinions that are usually not articulate enough to encourage the artist while giving something substantial to make it better.
So if you come across someone that seems on the fence about their creative work, welcome them into the art tribe. There's room at the table for everyone.