I’m sitting at the kitchen table of a gorgeous Oceanside Suite as people run around me getting ready for a mixed-media art retreat called Seaside Soiree, which raises money for Charity Wings, a non-profit crafting organization. My friends/fellow instructors have come in to say hello before rushing off to help turn our crafting area for the weekend into a wonderland of beach-themed décor.
Unfortunately, I’m under some tight deadlines so I have to squeeze in some work time before and after the day’s events, but my friends are so supportive of me that I can’t help but feel blessed—once again—to have found my tribe of art-making adventurers.
As a mixed-media artist, I’ve discovered how much I enjoy teaching others collage, assemblage and jewelry making techniques so they can hone their natural talents. In my attempts to sharpen their skills, my students polish mine. I’m a better artist and person because of them.
Invariably, at whatever art event I attend, the topic of teaching comes up. Many of the students are so talented that they look at the instructors and think to themselves, “I can do that. What did they do that I need to do?”
After attending a handful of art retreats in 2004-2005 on my journey as a self-taught artist and admiring the instructor’s abilities to inspire, I used to say to myself, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could teach someday?”
I put that dream somewhere into my psyche and gathered the courage to show my artsy pages and collages to the owner of my local paper arts store. As she was looking at them, I was gauging her reaction and, at some point, blurted out “Can I teach a class here someday?”
She told me to put together a sample and write a class description. I nodded enthusiastically and rushed out the store not exactly knowing what a sample was. The very first thing I learned about teaching is that the project you make is called a sample. It’s what sells your class. A great sample takes care of half the hurdles because it draws students to you.
It was a new beginning for me. The ladies had fun and told others about my classes. I gathered a core group of wonderful women—who still sign up for my classes within days of the new schedule coming out—and I asked if I could use them as my focus group. I asked them questions. What techniques did they want to learn and why? What, in their opinions, made for interesting classes? Why did they keep coming back for more? I started teaching at other independent scrapbooking and rubber stamps stores in my state.
As I became more and more comfortable in my own art-making skills and my teaching abilities, I went back to Art Unraveled, one of my favorite art retreats because it’s both fabulous and local, and took classes from the top mixed-media instructors in the country, many of whom were already friends of mine. I asked the organizer of the event how she choose her artists and learned she had an email list of people and sent out an annual call for proposals with application deadlines. I was bold and asked if she could put me on her email list of potential instructors.
I didn’t get accepted right away, but I persisted because I had put it in my heart to teach at larger events. Eventually, she took a chance on me. I asked other event organizers to put me on their instructor list for their call for proposals. I’m fortunate to be getting my teaching proposals accepted, but sometimes I get in and other times I don’t. That’s just the way teaching goes for the big art retreats where there’s a much larger pool of talented instructors for organizers to choose from. Number two rule of teaching, try not to take it personally if you’re not accepted. Just keep making great samples and try again next time.
Another thing to know about teaching is that your skills for marketing and promotion must be put into play once you agree to teach. Many people think it is the job of the store owners or event organizers to promote your workshops. It definitely is, but, it’s also the instructor’s job to let their supporters know when and where they can find you. Successful classes are like a living organism where every cell is doing its part to support the life of the whole.
The last thing to understand is that it takes time for everyone to get their name known to the point where potential students know enough about their work to want to experience their classes. I’m still in the building phase, as are a lot of friends of mine whose work is so amazing it makes me drool. Sometimes, time can seem like the biggest obstacle of all.
This is my story of how I began teaching and why I continue. Ask successful teachers how they began, and you’ll find everyone’s stories are as unique as the individual. The one string that runs through most instructors I’ve met is that they had a curiosity that led them to a dream, which became a goal, which led to some sort of action. As the saying goes . . . a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Jen Cushman is a natural storyteller who found mixed media art a decade ago and never looked back. She is drawn to the imperfect, the funky, the quirky, the artsy and the authentic: be it people or objects or art. She writes a business advice column for artists at CreateMixedMedia.com and also for Belle Armoire Jewelry. She’s also the Director of Education and Marketing for Susan Lenart Kazmer ICE Resin®. To learn more, visit her website www.jencushman.com.
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