- Hey Mike, what inspired you to become a teaching artist? What is your art form?
I love to make art, I love to learn, and I needed a job. I teach video, poetry, and photography with people of all ages. We learn by making, hands on. Wherever I go to teach, my nickname is Media Mike.
- What has been most helpful to you in your work?
Community, collaboration, communication, curiosity, and creativity combine to make good work.
This is a true story.
When I work as a teaching artist, I often find myself on the road. I am an ambassador for art.
On the road, teaching COMPAS gig in Badger, Minnesota, I was hanging around in the town café.
With Soul Mountain open, a great novel by the Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, and my journal open, open-mouthed over my oatmeal, open-eared, I began to transcribe the conversation from the table next to me. Two old men were talking about revenge. “All it is is revenge.”
One said he overheard a person say he had waited 25 years to get back at someone. Another joked he was still waiting. The first said he couldn't live like that, and it changed your life forever to think like that. I was busy trying to keep up with their talk when I realized they had turned to me and asked, "Are you studying for college?"
Oddball in our cafe. Explain yourself.
And we talked, or they talked and mostly I listened. It was a trip. It was a scene right out of Soul Mountain, a stop on the journey searching for the meaning of meanings. Among many little bits of philosophy, when he learned I was a teaching artist, this huge man told me the parable of the two students with the exact same first name and last name.
One was always good and one was always bad. Everybody knew who was good and who was bad, including the two kids themselves. Then one night at a parent teacher conference, their teacher mixed up the students and described the bad one to the good one's parents and the good one to the bad one's parents.
Late that night the teacher realized she had slipped up and wondered what to do.
The next day the "bad" child spoke up to the teacher who had slipped up, and gratefully thanked her for being the first teacher ever to say a nice thing about him. He changed, like magic, and was "good" from then on.
The alchemy of education. The naming of names. Soul Mountain.
- What have you learned are the unique talents of a teaching artist?
Being yourself. Teach others how to be themselves.
Be diplomatic. Like directors who often wear hats on movie sets, I like to wear a black baseball cap. In many schools, hats are not allowed. One of the first things I have to figure out is where I can wear my hat in school.
One lesson then is the example I set. In many venues, I am the only person wearing a hat.
Artists are different.
- What have you learned that a teaching artist needs to know?
You need to learn how to relate to people of all ages, and all interest levels, from non-existent to totally engaged.
You also need to know what you are doing.
I have learned never to underestimate the students. Here is an essay about making a video with students who are blind and low vision.
MEDIA MIKE LOOKS FOR PATTERN IN RISING STARS
I like to think the essence of my teaching has been contained in the phrase "hands on." I learned to make video by doing it, getting my fingers on equipment.
Yet, I learned new levels of the phrase, hands on, with this project.
Wondering what we might do, I saw a film about a school for the blind in Czechoslovakia by Mira Janek, which taught me to free myself. It opens with blind kids feeling a camera.
Wow that is so simple, it is a wow.
I had to resist the urge to warn these kids, keep your fingers off the lens. The most exciting passages in our film are when the kids feel the camera. Cayla in the Central Court is so stimulated by the discovery, she giggles ecstatically.
In our studio classroom, Cassie demonstrates she has learned the basic metaphor of the machine as an analog of the body. "The lens is the camera's eye and the microphone is the camera's ear," she says as the camera is physically explored.
These are moments when a teacher says, "Yes."
I'm an artist whose life is seeing things. It is a tiny thing, but every morning since this project, I close my eyes and shave without looking.
Studying RISING STARS, I have been impressed with how much our tools do without our actually consciously using them. We see without seeing, hear without hearing.
Given a camera, Steven, who can't see at all, made pictures for everyone in his life to see. It was a power to behold how good it made him feel. He was ten feet tall. Me too.
Our film played on public TV in Minnesota. You can screen the beginning of RISING STARS here.
- What have you learned is the most important thing a teaching artist needs to be able to do?
Be flexible, be yourself. Have fun. Play for keeps.
And learn from your students. Here’s a photo writing project, THE WORLD IS ANYWHERE. I learned from these students what real life is.
- What or who has been your best teacher?
Teachers have been my best teacher.
My art teacher at Macalester College was Jerry Rudquist. He taught by setting a good example. We made a film together, THE PAINTED EYE. I often use the video to help people see how to see things.
The teacher who taught me to teach is a poet and high school teacher named David Bengtson. A key lesson is the power of the model. When we show people things, they can do them. Monkey see, monkey do.
We taught his high school students how to make video poems by making them. Here’s one. WHAT HE SHOULD LEARN FROM HIS DREAM is a parable of a teacher struggling with the administration.
- What does being a COMPAS artist mean to you?
I have been connected with COMPAS since 1975.
First and foremost, COMPAS means meaningful work for me as an artist. The work has taken me all over Minnesota from Badger to Caledonia. I have been introduced to many communities and people.
In 1979, I was hired by COMPAS to work full time as an artist in residence for a year in Saint Paul. The experience changed my life for good and for the better. I not only learned how to make television, but I also began to learn how to spell the word community. It changed my life and my art.
- Has there been one experience that immediately comes into your mind that changed the way you teach?
When I asked a class of fifth graders what they had learned during my first year of teaching as an artist in the schools, one said, “I realized when I looked through the viewfinder of the camera that I was the first person in the world to see our movie.” Wow.
- How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?
I look and listen and wander, and when I pay attention, I see and I hear and I wonder about the wonders of the world.
- What project are you working on now?
A focus now is a solo exhibition of my photographs called Seeds of Change. It opens at the Minnesota Museum of American Art on May 12, 2016. You can see a selection of the images here.
- What sustains you as a teaching artist?
The keen energies of individuals learning how to make art are divine.
Good questions make me wonder about what I do.
A first grader asked regarding the movies, “How do they make people die, but not really die?”