NCECA 2012: Education post from The Evolving Role of Residencies Panel

Anderson Ranch - Snowmass, CO
Odyssey Center - Asheville, NC
Canton Clayworks - Canton, CT

An excerpt from my talk for the Evolving Role of Residencies panel. I will be joining Martina Lantin, Jill Oberman, and Cynthia Consentino to talk about our experiences and observations. For my part I will cover the residency as a form of business education. I open by contrasting observational and curriculum-based learning styles. My time as a resident helped solidify the way I approach learning in my own studio life. If you are in Seattle stop by and join the discussion. Seattle Design Center Ballroom 6C Thursday 2:30-4

Through study at a four year academic institution I learned art history, aesthetics, and technique. These tools were essential to my foundation as an artist, but without real world application they remained intellectual pursuits. It was not until I left the academic cocoon that these tools attained their practical value. The transition from the safety of the institution to the realities of artistic self sufficiency was a jarring experience. Whereas ideas are the currency of academia, cash is the currency of the real world. Turning ideas into cash is a challenge that was both overwhelming and confusing. To help smooth my transition from student to artist I chose to participate in both short and long term residencies. These communities offered the advantages of shared costs, interaction with other artists, and access to established networks of patrons.

The switch from academia to the residency system involved a switch from curriculum-based learning to observational learning. By default curriculum-based learning has a defined form. Within this form the teacher externally motivates the student by assigning problem solving tasks that progress in a linear direction. After completing the curriculum the student has attained the knowledge embedded in the assignment. This style of education is one size fits all. It can be spread over large groups of people to standardize the quality of education while maximizing the quantity of learners.

(Diagram A: Curriculum-based Learning)

In contrast observational learning is self-directed and unique to each learner. For me this starts when I experience an idea or object I cannot easily understand. My lack of understanding feels like an intellectual itch that I have to scratch. To satisfy my curiosity I work backwards from solution to question in an attempt to reverse engineer the understanding that I am seeking. It is an intuitive process that involves lots of wandering and mistake-driven redirection.

(Diagram B: Observational Learning)

I have found it helpful to give a loose form to this non-linear process, which shares many similarities with the scientific method. First a catalyst for observation is chosen. This might be the intricate patterns of a historical piece of pottery or another artist’s explanation of their aesthetic. With my interest piqued I search for any information on the subject. I might ask my fellow resident artists, or if no personal connection can be made I head to the internet for information. Armed with a breadth of knowledge I test different research paths hoping to find one that will yield a repeatable process. This style of learning is not efficient in terms of time but it creates a comprehensive understanding of the subject.

Observation does not guarantee understanding but it allows the learner to choose the form learning will take. This freedom of choice is empowering, leaving the full responsibility of inquiry on the shoulders of the learner. When an individual has taken ownership of their learning unexpected and exciting discoveries can happen. This style of learning has continued beyond and throughout my formal education. As I re-evaluate my knowledge base I see the reciprocal nature of both curriculum-based and observational learning. After participating in three residencies where I learned mostly by observation I went back to graduate school. Re-entering the academic environment with a more developed sense of observation served me well. I was able to approach curriculum-based learning with an engaged perspective that helped me yield more information from the assignments I was given.


  1. I really appreciate your insights on the learning process as you have observed it. I myself have finished the curriculum based part, and Wish to go on to my graduate path. I agree with you that the ideal approach now would be residencies or apprenticeship, but I don't have those options here. I rely on comments from other potters like you - online - for direction and encouragement. Thanks for this blog entry, it helped.

    1. Hello Robert, Good to hear from you and I'm glad you liked the post. At the NCECA talk when I presented this information we had someone ask a question about what to do after school if you can't go onto a residency. There are many options out there that can create a residency-like experience without having to leave your home. One that might be good for you is to form a group that meets once a month. I seem to remember you live in an isolated area so you might want to form this as an online group. The members would post images online and critique them over a chat program or a skype call that everyone could participate in. Other options would be to visit a local museum and report on what you saw. This is not exactly the same as a residency but it could be helpful in generating feedback and camaraderie. Hope your doing well.