UF School of Art and Art History
2007-2008 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
Teaching course content is only the beginning of education. A professor needs to provide students with a toolbox of diverse resources to help students take the knowledge they learn in class on to the next steps in a career. Very often, it’s difficult to assess what students don’t know that might handicap them, and what gaps of practical knowledge and creative problem-solving need to be filled in to supplement the class information and help them succeed beyond school.
In the field of art ceramics, students need basic art foundations, experiences that help them understand the role of the artist in interpreting life and values in the 21st century, and help building confidence in personal expressions. These are central issues for any artist. Beyond this, in ceramics they need an understanding of the complex technical workings of clay and glaze materials and firing, a history of the field, and a perspective on contemporary practice as tools to work. These things are all overt goals of our course of study.
Mentoring fills in gaps that are less visible, but no less important in preparing students to become artists in the field. This content may appear in class syllabi, but often is filled in through less direct methods: side dialogs in group meetings, or one-on-one contacts. It helps to be open to students about one’s professional life, the challenges faced, and the resources available.
Students need to address the fact that artists, particularly in clay, fail regularly as part of the process. All creative endeavors involve going beyond the known and taking risks. In ceramics, there is all that, and then committing work to firing and hoping your hours of planning and effort are realized, rather than destroyed. An effective mentor assures students that accepting challenge and failing is part of the process of moving forward. Failing is instructive, and reveals the next problem, and will continue to be a part of the process wherever there is a move toward new questions, new answers.
Presenting a steady stream of professional opportunities via our listserv has helped students understand potential next moves and the credentials required to apply for them. Often students in art are told there are no jobs, they will find no opportunities. That’s not true. Seeing these things from first year on, helps them get prepared. The presence of real goals makes entering shows, presenting visiting artist workshops, curating shows, and other necessary professional experiences they need to acquire (along with their studies) seem relevant and directed.
Although students have, in theory, taken college-level English classes, most need professional practices (and often writing) coaching on resumes, artist statements and cover letter conventions and strategies. I’ve maintained lists of helpful web resources, and edited countless resumes and letters to help students understand what is expected, and how to frame their background in effective terms.
Mentoring may help shift student thinking from the perspective of an individual art student toward being a participating member of a professional community. Students begin to engage professional organizations and develop a network of peers that will provide them with collegial dialog, sources for specialist inquiries, and a supportive network for professional life. The Ceramics listserv is also useful for this, and students are encouraged to attend, volunteer at, and present in professional events. As they do this, they understand the value of their education and potential contributions, the standards of the greater community, and the goals they should be setting for themselves.
In addition to often having a limited perspective on their own home program and student community, students often have myopic understanding of their own abilities. A mentor can help a student recognize strengths and potential, and find outlets for those abilities. This may mean showing someone how they may contribute to the student community, or matching scholarship, fellowship, grant, or exhibition opportunities toward specific students and giving a nudge about the student’s abilities to make good use of the opportunity. Building recognition of abilities and the confidence to act on appropriate opportunities is vital to professional progress.
Mentoring students is very rewarding. Seeing someone bloom, and go on to succeed professionally is inspiring. Helping aspiring professionals recognize the tools and opportunities available, and encouraging creative problem-solving applied not only to studio but also career development are necessary parts of education. The mentor’s personal contact and interest can be an invaluable supplement to the more focused classroom content.
I’m very pleased to have mentored students who now have professional careers in the arts as studio artists, educators, community art organizers, administrators, and business people (among other things). So many helpful bits of information fall between the lines of regular curriculum, and need to be tailored to the person and his/her individual goals. The personal contact with developing artists through mentoring individual students brings rich rewards, and an ever-growing circle of interesting professional colleagues.