Contemporary Art

Eight Rules for Making Artists

By Melissa Purtee, posted on Aug 17, 2020

Art happens in my classroom every day, but it’s not the goal of my time with students. My students are the goal, specifically, their minds. By the time they leave me, they will all think like artists. This requires thought, planning, and rules. Pedagogy reflects values and these eight rules are who I am as an educator.

Eight Rules for Making Artists

1. It’s good when students use their own ideas.
If my classroom is for anything, I want it to be for my students’ ideas. How can I expect my class to be engaged in making art unless they have a personal connection to it? By using their own ideas, students connect to their work in meaningful ways and are required to think much more deeply than they would otherwise.

2. Failure and struggles are okay. In fact, it’s often where the most learning happens.
Making mistakes and learning from them is essential to growth. If we never stretch, it’s hard to grow. To make a classroom space that supports the risk-taking that results in deeper learning, I’ve found I have to establish trust by getting to know my students as individuals and letting them see me as someone who can learn from mistakes.

3. Student art should look like student art: reflective of the person who made it, not reflective of a rubric.
I can design beautiful projects that look great in the display case, but do I need to? What does having me do the planning teach my students, other than I don’t trust their ideas? My answers to those questions are why I value student-planned art. However, I have to keep in mind that work planned by high-schoolers will not look like polished, adult-generated projects.

4. Play = engaged learning.
So many students feel tired, brain-dead, and bored in schools. To engage my classes, I teach experimentation to find ideas, which really is learning through play. I ask students to try out ideas, discover information, and make decisions. Learning should be fun!

5. Investigation of contemporary culture is important and relevant, even when it includes memes and cartoons.
As a beginning high-school teacher, I felt pressure to produce serious art. Then I realized that all of that pressure was based on what I thought I should do, not what was actually in line with my values. The fact is that memes and cartoons aren’t topics to avoid—they are gateways to engaged work, positive relationships, and what feels valuable to many students. I’ll teach them to remix and develop original ideas, but I have to get them to trust me and care first.

6. Copying is the start of a conversation (see rule 1). It takes time and practice to learn how to generate original ideas.
When a student has an idea, we go with it, even if it involves some copying at first; they develop skill with media as well as confidence. This happens with the understanding that it is, in fact copying, and that the end goal is an original work.

7. Relationships are just as important as content. For some students, even more important.
Relationships are key with all students, but for students who feel disconnected from the culture of schools, they are essential for meaningful learning to take place.

8. ALL students should see themselves in the art and artists they see in class.
Establishing a classroom culture that celebrates the work of artists from different cultures, backgrounds, and ways of being is inclusive and welcoming. Our students deserve that.


Melissa Purtee is an art teacher at Apex High School in Apex, North Carolina, and co-author of The Open Art Room, available from Davis Publications.