Saturday, March 24, 2018

Student = Friend = Teacher = Colleague

I've been grappling for a while with how we support each other in the art / teaching / papermaking worlds that I inhabit. For my entire working life as an artist, I have never been under the wing of an organization or institution (meaning, no permanent contracts, no income I could count on from year to year). Yet, I learned about art inside of old academia, where professors have tenure and can store as many books as they like in their offices and are obliged to write you recommendation letters until one of you dies.
To my past teachers who have been generous of their time and expertise, I am forever grateful. Because they were in the position to be so generous (or because they chose to make the sacrifices that enabled them to be generous), I became this person I am today. Even when I was much younger, I loved turning to elders (not my parents!) for advice, and always wanted to pay it forward when I could. Even before I knew I wanted to try teaching, I was profuse in my advice to people who asked (and didn't ask) for it. One of my dearest friends today is someone I met when I was a grad student and she an undergrad student. She was so talented and eager to learn that it was natural to teach her. She won scholarships and admission to a prestigious graduate program, moved to NYC, paid her dues and became a tenure-track professor in her field. Never once did I begrudge her my time and assistance—likely because we operated in different art fields.
We are so accustomed now to instant and "free" access to knowledge, but when I started, that was less common. I would get emails out of the blue from time to time, but after I began to carve a very specific place and expertise for myself, emails from strangers came on a regular basis. Some were harmless, others more aggressive. Many expected me to give extensive advice and guidance just because, and I began to learn when it was okay to take my time, be measured in my responses, or not respond at all. Certainly, I also made inquiries to others, but many had stable incomes and jobs that encouraged that kind of advisor-ness, the behavior of an expert. No one was subsidizing my time when I answered questions, provided international travel tips, pointed them in the direction of resources, connected them to colleagues. Years ago I started a folder called "inquiries" to keep track of each time someone asked me for something. Here are rough numbers:

2008: 3 inquiries (I started the folder late this year)
2009: 5 inquiries
2010: 15 inquiries
2011: 16 inquiries
2012: 53 inquiries
2013: 110 inquiries
2014: 85 inquiries
2015: 123 inquiries
2016: 68 inquiries
2017: 113 inquiries
2018: 25 inquiries (so far)

No, this does not include when friends ask for help. That's different.
There are people very close to me who insist that I charge money to give out this knowledge, and that I protect my intellectual property. I don't know how to begin to approach that (or maybe I do but I don't want to / don't want to make time to). People charge for less in a zillion other fields. I remember in college when an ex-boyfriend got a job as a "consultant," something I had never heard of. He explained that it would be a way to make a LOT of money before he went to med school to become a doctor. While I absolutely believe that I possess information that is worth a lot, I haven't monetized myself in the way that I could have, should have, or shouldn't have. Mostly, I'd rather spend my time learning more, experimenting more, communing more with organisms that don't talk like humans (or with humans that I love).
This is all to say that I am really proud of a past student/mentee, someone who approached me when I looked like someone in a position of authority. We met in my temporary office on a college campus, I advised her, she invited me over for dinner, and we stayed in touch for the last 7 years as she went through the process of applying to grad school and other opportunities, including a Fulbright research grant to Korea. Last weekend, she set up her very own hanji vat and taught students in San Francisco. For a while, I've wanted for someone else to help shoulder this responsibility of hanji evangelism, and it's really happening. In fact, she is also selling hanji that you can't find anywhere else but Korea—the flying bird above is made of hanji her business partner in Korea sourced. It's beautiful to see her interpretation of not only hanji making, but making a living from it and sharing it with others. When do I finally introduce her as a colleague, and not someone who once was a student?

I've had so many teachers and am fortunate that a few became friends, sometimes even students. But the hardest piece is leveling the field to become colleagues. One often forgotten aim of teaching is to create a new field of colleagues, but it can be difficult because it often takes a long time—not only for the student to establish herself, but for the teacher to acclimate to a new kind of relationship. As I settle (more on that soon) and attempt to be more rooted, it's important for others to start flying.

1 comment:

Velma Bolyard said...

what wonderful words...