THE ART OF THINKING CRITICALLY

by Margaret DeRitter

If you watch Associate Professor of Art Sarah Lindley interact with her ceramics students at Kalamazoo College, it’s clear she’s teaching them about more than technique. She’s also teaching them to think critically about form, function, scale, color, and other qualities of three-dimensional art and the ideas an artist’s choices convey.

During critique sessions, Lindley doesn’t do all the talking. She has her students gather around a project, look at it carefully and even touch the work. She then encourages the artist to talk about his or her goals for the piece and asks the others to respond to what they are seeing and touching. Rather than making snap judgments about whether or not they like a piece, the students make observations and ask questions, and Lindley does the same.

“Do you want this shape to mean something?” she’ll ask. Or: “Why did you choose this size?” Or: “At what height would you want to display this piece?”

She might eventually talk about whether certain aspects of a project are successful or not, but her main point is not to offer judgment. Her point is to get students asking questions and noticing artistic choices and whether they further a student’s goals.

For one assignment in the spring, she asked her students to make something related to the theme “A Matter of Taste.” One student made a series of seven white bowls of descending size and placed strawberries of the same size in each one. Another student made a sculptural form that looked like a discarded cloth napkin. Another made about a dozen cups that she placed in a row at the edge of a table.

After the students handled the cups and talked about them a bit, Lindley pulled out five of them and placed them in a row by themselves. The five were about the same height, but their shapes and colors were different. Suddenly their differences came into sharp focus, and the aesthetic appeal of the five was dramatically greater than the original lineup.

“The artists here are learning not just how to make stuff but how to analyze it and how to edit it,” Lindley says.

Lindley, a member of the Kalamazoo College faculty since 2001, received her own lessons in analysis and editing when she was earning her Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Washington. “A professor told me, ‘You’re too caught up in how well you can do stuff. You’re way too caught up in how you can do anything with your hands’. He got us to pay attention to what was in front of us — the artwork itself — and how we felt about it,” Lindley says.

Her undergraduate education at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University was much more technically oriented. “Alfred is one of the most well-known ceramics programs in the world,” she says. “It was a good place to be, but it was very different from graduate school. They were two very different styles of education. Alfred was founded to promote the art and science of ceramics and glass. The curriculum was more based in the material and in form. My graduate program was based more in the concept of the work. There was no pressure to work in clay. A lot of times we were talking about ideas instead of how well something is made.”

This complementary nature of her undergraduate and graduate training has served her well at Kalamazoo College, she says. “I need to have a lot of technical knowledge to be the only 3D professor on the faculty. At a place like K, we need someone who can teach everything: ceramics, wheel throwing, sculpture, wood fabrication, steel fabrication, mold processes.” And, of course, the College also needs someone who can help students think critically.

“We have a lot of discourse (in Lindley’s classes),” says Katie Hunter '15, a junior from Ypsilanti who’s majoring in art. “Sarah poses everything as a question. Sometimes it’s overwhelming when she’s talking about my work, but it’s teaching you to be independent, to think independently.”

Hunter says that when she was choosing a college, she knew she wanted to attend a liberal arts college in the Midwest. “I knew K had the best facilities and the best faculty in the Midwest for ceramics. And I looked at all of the professors’ work before I came and was really impressed with it.”

When it comes to Lindley’s artwork, others seem to be impressed by it too. It has been featured in numerous group shows across the U.S. and even in the World Ceramic Biennale in Korea in 2009. She also has had multiple one- and two-person shows.This school year she’ll have shows at Eastern Michigan University, Alma College, and Hope College.

Lindley has often done ceramic sculptures referencing furniture and domestic environments, but her latest work deals with the natural environment, specifically the effects of industry on nature and on communities. She became interested in the effects of paper
"Sometimes it's overwhelming...but (she's) teaching you to think independently."
mills on the Kalamazoo River and its adjacent communities after she and her husband, fellow artist Norwood Viviano, moved to Plainwell in 2005.

She and Viviano, an art professor at Grand Valley State University, had a joint exhibition in the spring at Western Michigan University’s Richmond Center for Visual Arts. Lindley’s work depicted paper mills as small architectural skeletons made of black and brown clay. They were placed on top of paper-pulp pieces in the shape of the mills’ footprints, and between them ran an approximately 30-foot element of interconnecting coils symbolizing the river and the movement of contaminated sediment. The various pieces in the exhibit were all placed at about knee height.
 
“People at the reception talked about everything being so low,” Lindley says. “I wanted that. I wanted to give the sense that as humans you could trip and destroy the whole thing.”

She also used a different scale for the river than for the mills, with the river being depicted on a much smaller scale relative to actual length and width and depth. “It was a metaphor for a kind of power dynamic,” she says.

It’s not surprising that these choices would be intentional on the part of an artist who has her students think so carefully about such things. In fact, her conversation about her own art reflects the kinds of concerns you’d notice in one of her classroom critiques.

Lindley says she has learned, over her 12 years of teaching at K and from observing her colleagues, how to present her feedback in a nurturing way and to time it so that it’s most effective. “I think I still have the same kind of intensity as in the beginning, but I think I’m better able to judge when students are able to hear things. Maybe you could say I have more patience. Sometimes you can see where students can go and you want to help them get there, but if you go too fast, it can be too much.”

While her students acknowledge that her critique sessions can be difficult, they really seem to appreciate them.

“I love the critiques. I learn so much,” says sophomore Sophie Taylor-Havens '16.

“I’ve never edited so hard as in Sarah’s class,” Hunter says. “It’s become like a sport for us.”

Photo - Sarah Lindley and her students engage in critical thinking.


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1 RESPONSE TO THE ART OF THINKING CRITICALLY
Dave Curl on September 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm
Well-written story about how a fine teacher employs exemplary technique--kudos both to Sarah and to Margaret!
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