The Meaning of Choices

My father asked me recently, “How did your art school experience contribute to your career?” I thought about it for a minute, and the first thing that came to mind was that art school gave me the time to examine ideas and helped me understand where I was at in my life and where I wanted to go. It allowed me to process things that were happening and had happened in my life. Through this learning process, I became aware of the importance of my choices.

By way of introduction, I would say that the most important thing you need to know about me is that I love to learn. Why else would I have done a BSc in Marine Biology and then enrolled in Fine Arts School, followed by a Masters degree in Education. Learning fascinates me intellectually and thrills me personally. When I am learning something I get a tingling in my brain that makes my heart race and puts a skip in my step. I must say that art school was a special kind of learning.

I went to the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, known as a very conceptual school at the time. I remember being wonderfully surprised and refreshed by the way things were being taught. Our first year classes were not about technique, theories or facts, as I was used to in science, but about concepts. Practicing how to build, express and clarify concepts. Especially in the mandatory Introduction to Studio Practice class, when we were given assignments the medium and technique were left up to us. What were marked on, was not our technique, but our choices of medium and technique and how they communicated the concept we were trying to convey.

For example, I remember presenting a painting I had done for an assignment and being shocked at how much the class could interpret without me saying a word. For the assignment, we had to use a combination of paint and pattern to represent a memory. After taking some time to look at my painting, the class said things like, based on the pattern, it looks like a long meandering journey. They said the memory was happy based on the colours, but it may be a sort of distant memory because they were not bright, but soft and slightly faded. The memory I was trying to represent was a journey I took to Australia right after high school. It was almost magical to me at the time. I felt as though they were divining the answer. The teacher then explained how each choice I made, consciously or unconsciously, when trying to represent this memory, communicated very important messages to my audience.

During my science degree in Marine Biology, my classes mostly involved absorbing an incredible amount of fascinating information about wonderful creatures. We had labs of course, but I somehow always failed to connect the lab activities with the information I was absorbing in lectures. There was always a huge gap for me between what I was learning and what I was doing. Until I went to art school, I didn’t realize that while working toward a BSc, I didn’t spend very much time examining the concepts I was learning. I spent an enormous amount of time memorizing facts, and instead of dissecting ideas, I was examining the guts of crabs and fish. This is probably why I spent so much time in arts school focusing on concepts from my BSc that I had been left unexamined.

Of course, in art school, it was not only about concepts. I also took technique classes, but even in these classes we had weekly assignments that invited us to use the technique we learned to express a story, a question or a statement. This was a whole other level of engagement in my own learning than I was used to.

When thinking back to this time, I thought of the recent habits of mind trend in educational psychology. This way of engaging helped me to prioritize and focus. It trained me to look at the broader picture. I had to answer the question…what will my choices communicate to those that see this? Will what I want to convey come across? I learned that all of my choices have meaning.
Instead of being paralyzed by the idea that each choice is crucial, Art School got me used to a routine of trying, presenting to my peers for feedback and then trying again. I made things to practice. I don’t know that I got anything right. In fact, I gave away, cut up and re-purposed or threw out almost everything I created.

The point is, I learned how to envision an idea and carry it through to fruition. This habit of mind of envisioning has helped me in many aspects of my career. In my work as an educator, I am able to picture how a lesson or activity will go, including how much time it will take and how many of each kind of material I will need. I can anticipate what kind of questions the students will ask and most importantly, what concepts will they learn through doing it. I am used to asking myself, what is the point of this activity? What will the students gain from it? I know that there are so many choices in how we can teach, and each choice changes what the students gain from their experience. I was trained to ask the questions…Is there any other way I could do this? Is there something that would better represent what I am trying to say?

I didn’t realize as I entered art school that it would be an important turning point in my life. Examining the meaning of my choices helped me personally to sort out the priorities in my life and look at the bigger picture. The habits of mind that I developed in art school have served me well professionally. The habits of envisioning and being conscious about my choices have helped me in many aspects of my career including, event planning, marketing, writing, leadership program development, lesson planning and much more. I believe this is part of why I see children’s participation in the arts as so crucial to their development. They need to learn how to examine concepts, think through ideas and see that their choices matter!