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Superheroic taco ingredients and gassy robots are just some of the characters in Jarrett Lerner’s books and illustrations. This author and illustrator is also an advocate for the importance of high-quality art education for all students. Jarrett focuses on ways to elicit joy through his creativity challenges, punny illustration posts on Instagram, and generous resources for teachers. There is fun and joy to be found in our daily intentional decisions as art educators, but sometimes it can get lost.
Jarrett Lerner has been a staunch advocate for art educators. “Your work is some of the most essential and incredible there is.” Visual literacy is an important part of his work as an author and illustrator. Jarrett acknowledges that art educators help their students become fluent in this language of visuals.
Imagine a world without the ability to recognize logos, visual cues, or icons on signs. Though the education system has traditionally undervalued visual literacy, visual learning binds humans together. Two individuals may speak different languages, yet, “they can look at a drawing of a dog and both instantly reach the same understanding of what is in front of them. Those two people can effectively and even profoundly communicate using only pictures or by making drawings. Art educators keep kids connected to their first language of visuals.”
“All human beings are all innately creative, and the more we recognize, embrace, celebrate, and use our creativity… the more joyful, fulfilling, and meaningful our lives will be.” Jarrett asserts that art educators embody and act on these ideals every day. By encouraging and challenging students to think creatively, art teachers prepare students for a world beyond the art studio. The problem is that this essential and inspired work can be overwhelming. To curb these overwhelming feelings, Jarrett encourages art educators to be selfish with their time outside of school.
This critical work of inspiring students can be consuming. Leaving the classroom drained or spending weekends prepping can limit space for what art educators need most—time to be creatively fueled themselves. Just because the work of art educators is important doesn’t mean “it has to dominate your life,” says Jarrett. “Especially to the extent that there is no room for anything else. We do better work when we take proper care of ourselves, which includes spending time NOT doing work. Or, doing things that are very much the opposite of our work.” This is undoubtedly easier said than done. Imagine setting aside actual time for yourself and how this time can impact your outlook, energy, and ability to find joy both in and out of school.
Jarrett suggests setting a summer goal focused on being positively selfish. “Treat yourself to those things that fill you up and bring you joy, peace, and personal fulfillment. Then, you will be better able to do the essential, incredible work you do with students.” But what does this look like in actuality? How do we set aside time for ourselves? And the summer is one thing, but how does this practice factor into the busy school year?
Start with understanding the amount of time you have to work with. Jarrett has become in touch with his own moods and states of mind. He knows if he has 30 minutes, he should ask himself, “Am I in the right place to hammer out a few sketches I owe my art director? Or should I sit down and aimlessly doodle, playing for the sake of creative play?”
It starts with understanding yourself and the mood you currently embody. Plan realistically for personal time to create, go for a walk, prepare a thoughtful meal, or read a book. Knowing your mood and setting a plan will help the time be productive and meaningful.
A painter was at a coffee shop with paint splatters on his clothes. A guy in line with him said, “Oh, do you paint?” The painter said he did. Then the other man asked, “Are you any good?”
The painter knew this was a misguided and ridiculous question. Because painting, for him, wasn’t about being good. And who decided what constitutes good anyway? According to the painter, a better question is, “Why do you paint?” Or perhaps, “What does painting do for you?” Or even, “How does painting make you feel?”
If you devise a creative challenge for yourself or participate in one conceived by someone else, always keep your goal in mind. Jarrett concludes that the most important goal is “to experience joy, pleasure, contentment, or at least curiosity while pursuing creativity.”
By centering a goal on your emotional response (such as prioritizing joy) instead of a final product, you are much less likely to experience guilt or shame in your work. The whole experience can be far more productive when you shift your mindset.
For those who clam up at the sheer notion of creating their own marks on a page, Jarrett reminds us, “I believe at my core, everyone loves making marks. I think it is just human. But somewhere along the way, something happens that chips away at our connection to that truth.” Things get complicated. Doubt, expectation, fear, and embarrassment have crowded out the pure joy of making with our hands. It doesn’t matter if your work is “any good.” What matters is the act of creating sparks curiosity and joy.
Jarrett is an avid collector of others’ books. He has a few suggestions for all art educators to add to their personal, classroom, or school libraries.
Though he could share book recommendations all day, must-haves include:
“Books are launchpads. With my own books specifically, I’m hoping to encourage kids to use them as a launchpad for their own creativity. Whether that creativity emerges as the urge to write or draw or emerges as a desire to do something nice for a friend. Or possibly they will tackle a problem in their life with renewed vigor.” The same is true for art teachers who find inspiration in the illustrations and beautiful writing of picture books.
“I’ve learned to embrace a sort of creative chaos,” shares Lerner. There isn’t a truer statement regarding time spent in an art classroom. But it is what you do with creative chaos that matters. It’s how you take time to heal from the important work that happens in those messy spaces. Take Jarrett’s advice to prioritize joy, seek creativity, and set aside time to be positively selfish. In doing so, “you’ll be better able to do that essential, incredible work you do with students.”
Schedule time for one activity you love to do outside of school but have not prioritized.
What mark-making creativity challenge can you set for yourself?
What is your purpose for teaching, artmaking, and time spent dreaming?
Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.