At home I am constantly surrounded by sound: my chatty classroom, my own boisterous children, tv, podcasts, and music that fill the space while I multitask. Moments of silence are few and far between.
During the week as I worked alongside Esther in the studio, the only sounds to be heard were wind, birds, and her neighbor’s footsteps crunching back and forth past the small window as she dutifully and lovingly tending to cows, chickens, and her garden. During this peaceful time, as we massaged and matted fibers to make felt, we struck up conversations. We talked about parenting and scheduling your time. We talked about friendships, mental health, and loss. We talked about K-dramas.
On this remote mountaintop, life was narrow. There were commonalities, connections, and a familiar way of being.
The final day of my VAWAA, our foursome took what had become our usual relaxed hour-long lunch. As we chatted, nibbling cheeses and fresh melons, I felt an interior stress slowly building. Finishing yet another caffè, Massimo suggested that now we go rest. I resisted and laughed, “We’re American! We don’t take breaks. We push through.” Their eyes widened. I had already taken a long lunch, how could I possibly take more time away from work that needed to be completed today? Navigating tight schedules and seemingly unforgiving deadlines were deeply ingrained, even in my summer respite.
We headed back down the alternating wooden steps to the bright basement studio and proceeded to start the shrinkage process: kneading and rolling wet felt to push air out, tighten the negative space between the fibers, and make sturdy this new fabric. Esther inspected my work approvingly and began to explain the next step. Eyes heavy from writing late into the night before, I finally admitted, “Italy is telling me to take a break." She smiled and nodded knowingly, sharing that her younger self would also push her body until her body pushed back and demanded she rest with regularity.
I headed back upstairs, and crashed into bed. Porch door ajar, the winds whispered that the work could wait. The trees moved gently in agreement. Georgia O’Keefe clouds drifted me to dreamland.
On this remote mountaintop, life was wide. There was space, time, and a different way of being.
Our wonderful hosts, who opened their homes, shared their histories, and nurtured our humanity, were our ultimate teachers. They work in nearby cities, yet chose to root and re-energize in their tiny town. They chose to build deep community with quirky Gilmore Girl-esque neighbors. They chose to pursue what brings them joy. This has been my final lesson, for myself and to share with my students.
We can choose.
What invigorates? What distracts? What provides rest and care for our minds and bodies? Beyond teaching art-making skills, I see my role in the classroom to guide students to understand how to identify and make these decisions for themselves.
The world is both wider and narrower than we know. We can choose the life we lead.
Let's take a step back and explain why I am blogging about Italy. As a career educator and lifelong learner, I am always looking for holes in my practice: what I don't know and what my students need. Oftentimes the baseline professional learning days districts offer aren't able to provide answers to the hyper-specialized questions for which I am specifically wondering.
Enter Fund for Teachers, an organization that invests in the professional growth of educators by funding self-directed professional learning for teachers that will support student success and enrich their communities.
My students appreciate the art room as a space for rest and creativity. Making work with their hands not only provides comfort and relief from their busy days, but gives them an immense sense of pride. Perhaps as a break from the near constant use of phones, I find them especially curious about constructing work three-dimensionally. While I have developed a solid ceramics hand-building program, clay admittedly can be messy and time-consuming. I proposed to Fund for Teachers to learn other methods and materials for constructing sculptures and was accepted.
Traditional painting and drawing classes are usually quite easy to find, but sculpting can be more challenging. Serendipity, or perhaps just the right combination of search words, led me to VAWAA: Vacation with an Artist. VAWAA allows any interested person to spend time working alongside and learning from a professional artist who is an expert in their craft, as a mini apprenticeship. (Enter explicit sentence to remind you, adult, that there is a creative hobby YOU want to learn, you work too hard, and also need a vacation. Sign up for a VAWAA! You don't need to be a teacher!)
This week I am learning from Esther, a professional fiber artist.
Esther specializes in wet felting, a process that condenses raw fibers together to make a textile known as felt. Wool felt is one of the oldest forms of textiles in the world. Her 3D soft sculptures have been exhibited across the globe in galleries and professional productions. Learning from an expert with deep understanding of their subject matter increases my content knowledge and allows me to better support my students and the ideas they pursue.
With no prior experience in felting, I found the process both enjoyable and empowering. Making work just with water, soap, and wool is a level of accessibility that few other artistic processes can match. As a public school teacher I feel strongly that access to knowledge and opportunities should be open to all. Art forms that require expensive materials or tools can be a barrier to many. How many perspectives are missing because creative people don't have access to what they need?
In just three days, albeit long work hours, we covered: 1. Solid Forms, 2. Flat Forms, 3. Hollow Forms, 4. Inclusions, 5. Designs, and 6. Coiling. Understanding these basic building blocks of felting opens up a world of possibilities. Once a student finds inspiration, they simply have to determine what blocks to put together to form their idea. Teaching art in this way teaches transferrable skills they will use for life, regardless of the profession they choose.
The future belongs to creative leaders who see connections and possibilities.
Perhaps I was daydreaming or home sick that day in middle school when we studied the vast terrain of America, because only four years ago I learned that Pennsylvania is not flat. No, I was not looking at a map. No, I was not watching a documentary. No, I was not reading Pennsylvania Mountain Landmarks by Jeffrey R. Frazier. I was death gripping the steering wheel through tears on a drive to Washington D.C. (Fear not, dear reader, my wonderful husband had me pull over and switch.)
Minceto, an adorable Italian town Google warned me, is indeed home to only 20 people and is indeed at the tippity-top of an actual mountain. Once again, I found myself wide-eyed and childbirth-breathing through a winding road that we proclaimed was surely one way, only to have locals challenge that assumption and barrel towards us with reckless abandon.
What you want is on the other side of fear.
On the other side of that terrifying drive was our generous VAWAA host artist Esther, her inspiring studio, her thoughtful partner Massimo, and a night of good food and conversation. Had we stopped, turned around, given in to all of our senses that screamed WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! we would have never seen the views we did, learned the skills we have, or made the connections.
Be scared and do it anyway.
This post is not about today’s perfect Italian day. It is not about the 20 mile bike ride up the coast of Lago di Como. It is not about the delicious chocolate pistachio gelato. It is not about the adorable 13th century church we stumbled upon. It is not about the swim in the cool, clear lake or the unexpected fireworks that ended the evening, presumably celebrating us. It is about how this perfect day almost didn’t happen.
To our benefit, the Italians did not grow angrily impatient and shout, as we had unfortunately seen by Americans in the airport. We learned the new routine and all went merrily on our way.
Be it supermarkets or classrooms, when comparing experiences, simple observations should take place in lieu of unnecessary critiques. There is no one single correct way to sell produce in stores. There is no single correct way to build relationships with students or teach content.
Different is not better or worse, simply different.
"This trip is off to a horrible start!"
declared my husband, half-jokingly, as he lost his second round of Casino. To be fair, it was also after hours of unexpectedly waiting in the airport after two delays and an outright flight cancellation.
Perhaps planning for events has never been certain, but pre-March 2020, this hyper-focused first-born Midwestern mom believed SHE could MAKE. THINGS. HAPPEN. (The ego! Yes, I know.) As pandemic waves kept rolling through and disrupting schedules, I distinctly remember thinking perhaps I was the last person who had gotten the memo and learned how to pivot. Changes in plans still made me unsettled at best and angry at worst.
I’d never experienced a flight cancellation before, and may I be so vulnerable to say that I wished my own mom was there because she is excellent at quickly figuring things out. Thankfully, as I panicked aloud, an airline employee talked me out of purchasing an unreasonably expensive alternate flight option.
So, I stood in back in line and waited my turn.
I stood in the discomfort of uncertainty.
I ate a lot of gummy bears.
Moments (hours? minutes?) later, a pop-up notification alerted us that new flights, at no additional expense, had been found while waiting and trusting that someone else could carry this load.
On this first day of my Fund for Teachers professional development journey, this not-so-young grasshopper was reminded to practice patience and pivoting. We offered an empathic ear to the young man who slept in the airport the night before. We found the airport yoga room, set down our heavy carry-ons, and stretched our tired limbs. We dipped crispy fries into the most perfect garlicky aioli. We confirmed that I am still the best card player in the family.
Blog: 2023 FFT Sculpture Fellowship in Spain
Blog: 2023 Qatar - Middle Eastern Studies
Blog: 2019 NEA Global Learning Fellowship in South Africa
Blog: 2018 FFT eTextiles Fellowship in Berlin
Blog: 2011 FFT Animation Fellowship at Parsons
by Lindsay A. Johnson
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