Flip-Flop: Student to Teacher

My experience with Marwen for the last six years has been exclusively as a student.
I am one of those Marwen students who just can’t get enough of it and keeps coming back for more—for one class, then another, hmm Marwen Lab looks cool, let’s try Design to Print, Lab was awesome I have to do it again, and oh my gosh it’s my last summer at Marwen, Art @ Work is calling my name! Marwen was my creative home. (And frankly, I am still in denial about the fact I can’t take classes anymore.) I met some of my best friends, saw Chicago through new lenses with every new person I met, and became an artist. Beyond that, though, I fell in love with Marwen’s mission in those six years. As much as Marwen is about making art, it is about building community. Every kind of person walks in through Marwen’s front doors, and regardless of our neighborhood or our high school, we build community. I have learned to love and respect so many people I never would have anticipated, and that is a beautiful thing to learn in a city so diverse and yet so segregated.

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And so, within a week of leaving Marwen as a student I was itching to get back.

So all of a sudden I was a teacher. Being an assistant teaching artist is both my way to give back to Marwen and to continue to be a part of Marwen’s story. Yet, I honestly had very little of an idea about what I was doing as a teacher. I looked back to my experience as a student and asked first who my favorite ATAs had been and then why they were my favorite ATAs. What I decided on was that the best ATAs are the ones that are, first and foremost, friends. Friends are comfortable to be around while naturally commanding respect. Someone in a prescribed “teacher” role automatically has a certain amount of authority, but only being a year older than a few of my high school students (actually, let’s be honest, I was younger than at least one) I didn’t want to come off high-and-mighty. I am working through my artistic practices, and was learning what Fashion Drawing meant, just as much as they were.

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It was an odd transition from student to teacher at Marwen, mostly I think because it happened in less than twelve months. When I walked into the mixed media studio in July I had to think not about the piece I would make but the pieces they were all making. I had to figure out different ways to describe to them how to hold a pencil or how to make this or that kind of line. I wanted to be present and helpful, knowing some students don’t speak up when they want help, but keep from being overbearing. I had to make sure I wasn’t imposing my style on their drawing but rather work to encourage their voice. These, obviously, are the challenges of being a teacher. As a student, though, I had never had to think like that—even in a critique I could suggest something but I didn’t necessarily have to work one-on-one with a student through their frustration about why those shoulders just don’t look right.

Perhaps the change I most enjoyed, however, was that as a teacher I got to know everyone in the classroom. As a student I would either, one, focus on my work and not get to know other students, or, two, become friends with only the few people sitting near me. As an ATA, I got to hop around, student to student, and I truly got to know everyone. I could tell you about each and every student in my class. I could talk to you about what they made and the process it took for them to get there, or I could tell you a little bit about their personality and where they are from. I got to know their personal drawing styles so that by the last few days of class I could tell what drawings belonged to who at a first glance. It was unbelievably satisfying to watch a community being built and to watch their drawing styles grow and mature.

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It was a kind of removal to not be one of the students anymore, to be the person in charge of the logistics instead of in charge of my paintbrush. Being in Marwen I automatically have the mindset of student, and those two flurried weeks of Summer Term were about leaving that mode and entering a new role at Marwen that I had seen so many people before me fill. I have a lot of work to do to become like the teachers I loved, but I have their example set before me as the standard—their balance of the tenuous line between friend and authority, criticizing but loving, and building community but not competition. And now I know how hard it is to achieve that. What I can rest on, though, is knowing that Marwen is doing community and art right, so all of us people that make up what Marwen is just add to the richness of what it has to offer.

(Originally published in 12.2013- republished after it mysteriously disappeared from verve)

Erin Miller About Erin Miller
Erin was a student at Marwen from 2006-2012, taking art classes in most everything involving drawing and oil painting, including two years in Marwen Lab. While still trying to find her voice in the artistic world, she is unrelentingly drawn towards the power art has to communicate across social and cultural barriers. She is now in her second year of studying art at Seattle Pacific University, and had the joy of being an ATA at Marwen this summer in Fashion Drawing.

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