Media & Techniques

An Interview with Phil Hansen (Ep. 274)

Phil Hansen is an artist, creative, and an advocate for advancing art education. He’s the author of Tattoo a Banana, a guide to exploring creativity through art with everyday materials. His Embrace the Shake TED talk is a favorite of art teachers everywhere. And today, he joins Tim on the podcast to talk about creativity, artmaking, and education. Listen as they discuss Phil’s experiences in art class, his journey as an artist, and his presentation at the upcoming NOW Conference.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University. And I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Thrilled today to be joined by Phil Hansen, an artist and creative from Minneapolis. He will be our featured presenter at the NOW Conference at the end of July, and he agreed to sit down for an interview with me here on Art Ed Radio. Now Phil is maybe best known for his TED Talk entitled Embrace the Shake and in that talk he discusses how he had developed a tremor in his hand, which limited the type of art that he was able to create. And this left him without a focus, without a purpose, until he decided to embrace that limitation.

And I won’t spoil it for you. You need to go watch the TED Talk, but I think that whole idea brings up a great point. Just the idea that constraints and limitations can sometimes help us be even more creative, which is one of the many things that I want to discuss with Phil today.

I also want to ask him about his educational experiences in art, his creative process, and more about his art making. And if you enjoy what you hear from Phil today, I would absolutely encourage you to sign up for the NOW Conference that is happening on July 29th. It is an amazing day of professional development, and of course, Phil is going to be a spectacular featured presenter. We’re going to turn things over to him during the conference for a tour of his studio, look at his art making, and maybe best of all, he’s going to run an interactive art making event for all of the conference attendees during the presentation. I am very excited for all of it. And if that’s something you think you might want to be a part of, you can check it out on the AOEU website. But we have a lot to talk about with Phil, so let me bring him on now.

All right, Phil Hansen is joining me now. Phil, how are you?

Phil: Doing great. Doing great. How about yourself today?

Tim: I’m doing really well, and I appreciate you taking the time to join us for a conversation here. We have a lot of exciting stuff coming up with the NOW Conference with your feature presentation there, which I think will be great. I’d like to, I guess, start with-

Phil: You hope.

Tim: Yes, yes. No, but I was hoping that you could introduce yourself a little bit. I don’t want to dive too deep into your life story. We need to save that for the presentation for the conference, but can you give us just a quick introduction to who you are and what you do?

Phil: Yeah. Again, Phil Hansen. I’m based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Grew up on the West Coast. I really came late to art and that story is actually, I guess, going to be part of what I share or during the NOW Conference. So don’t please don’t actually go hunting me down and looking for information. I don’t want to have the story spoiled, I guess. Let’s see, what else? I do all kinds of unusual arts. I like to challenge myself with really weird materials and big projects. Like something I have on the wall right now is actually utilizing sawdust.

Tim: Oh, nice.

Phil: I was working with a lady that’s based out of San Francisco, and she has a place called the Girl’s Garage, where she teaches young women how to use woodworking tools outside of the context of having the male oversee or directing. And so it’s all girls. They have a lot of freedom and to explore and work on things. And I was chatting with the lady running this, Emily. And I was asking her for a challenge and something that she could send me. And she’s like, “Well, I have a lot of sawdust that I have to get rid of.” And so I was like, “Well, I’ve never made the request before, but please send me a bag of sawdust.” And it became the task of what to do with sawdust, how to make art with it, lots of different ways. But what it ended up coming to was painting a picture, but utilized … So what I did is I mixed Elmer’s glue with the sawdust and by mixing the glue, then the sawdust became a paste, and I could literally just smear it on the paper with my finger.

And I guess that actually is a good example of me as a whole. I like to jump into weird projects, unusual things, but then look for the deeper connections and things that hopefully stay with people.

Tim: That’s really cool. That’s a really good illustration of what you do. I like that a lot. So let me ask you, when you were growing up, what was important in your family, when you were a kid? Was it education? Was it art? Was it something else? Were there things that your parents really wanted you to do? What were you interested, way back in the day?

Phil: Yeah. And I got to say, I think it depends on who you talk to in my family, because I’m youngest of four and being the youngest of four, I have a different experience than my oldest sibling, my sister. She says I got away with a lot too. My parents didn’t watch me at all and I was just free range.

Tim: Youngest child always does. They always get away with the most.

Phil: Yeah, I’m sure there’s a lot of those listening, because we do tend to be more of the creative types, statistically speaking. Well, and then also then to throw into the other oddities, my was a superintendent of the school district that I was at, and so on one hand, education was really important. You had to maintain, you had to have to do your work. It’s important. But also, my mom was a little more on the free range side where you got to enjoy life, you got to find happiness in your life. And so they set me on the path early of do what you need to do to achieve and live whatever life you want to live, but also make sure it’s something that you enjoyed to whatever degree.

And if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, make sure you have something outside of that, that you enjoy. So I guess looking at that, it’s kind of broad range. And for them, music was important, and that was just, I think, a default for a lot of that generation too, was some sort of music education. And so I actually didn’t even get to take an art class until a sophomore in high school, was when I was able to finally choose my elective. So up until that point, I was jealous of every other kid that was in art classes. So I came a little late to it in that front as well.

Tim: Yeah. That’s cool. And that’s actually what I wanted to ask you about next, was just your art experience. You said you came late to it. So what was it like when you entered in as a sophomore and then did you study art in college? What was your experience like for those years after you first got to sign up for art?

Phil: The thing that came before that too, was I had a friend, he was maybe three years older than me. And so I was in eighth grade. He was, I guess, a sophomore at that point. And he and I became buddies because our brothers … There was these three sets of brothers. We all had an older sibling, so we all became friends. And I actually just started hanging out with him after school and drawing. And so I came into art just by having what I ended up calling a creative buddy. Somebody that you just get to sit with and hang out with and create with. And I think that if there’s anything I can leave people with, is creative buddies are super important, because we all have times when we’re feeling that we’re not quite bringing it. We’re not quite making what we want to make, and having somebody to help nourish us along as well is super important.

But so I had that friend early on. And so then as a sophomore getting into art class, my school, it was rural, it was a good size school. It was outside of Seattle, Washington. And we had basically … I guess when I was there, it was one art teacher, Mr. [Fallon and 00:08:22] and Rob Fallon, now looking back, I realize he was just a heck of a good teacher because … at least for me. For me, he was a wonderful teacher, because he allowed a lot of freedom. I guess almost like my parents, he wanted to make sure that you knew how to do what you needed to do.

And then once you did that, then it was like, “Hey, find something that you want to create, that you want to draw, that you want to make and make it, and then we’ll talk about it and hopefully you’ll gain or learn along the way.” So it was a very, very free flowing art classes, art experience, where occasionally he’d say, “Hey, come on, you got to try something else. You’re falling into old patterns, and get yourself moving.” And so he pushed me into other things, but it was a very, free, open experience of just make sure that you’re enjoying and you’re not killing that creativity. As we never want to do. Yes.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. So, no, I think that’s a really good approach to art teaching. I think that’s going to resonate with a lot of people who are listening to this. That’s ideally our goal: give the kids the tools they need to create and let them go. And I think that’s a really strong approach.

Now you mentioned a little bit back at the beginning of the interview about your creative process, about finding new materials and new challenges to work with, but can you tell us a little bit more about your creative process or a little bit more about your art making process? Maybe where inspiration comes for you or just how you go about creating what you do.

Phil: I may have you repeat a little bit of that. There’s a number of questions in there. So I guess on the surface, one thing that I’ve noticed about myself is I’m very much a planner. I always thought everybody was that way, but then I’ve since met people that are very just spontaneous. Sit down with a blank canvas and they just start working. They have no idea what they’re creating. And I am not that person at all. I very much go in with a plan. My spontaneous work happens beforehand in my experimentation, and with sawdust, trying to figure out what in the world I’m going to do with it. So I’m doing a lot of things that I don’t know where I’m going at that point, but once I sit down to make the picture, then I get very deliberate, very planned, very process-oriented.

Of course, sketching and gridding. Gridding is huge for me. Taking whatever idea and bring it to life that way. But in terms of the actual work, what I find on the creative side, and this is something that I’ve slowly noticed too, is that once I actually start making the picture, I actually feel all the creativity has gone. At that point I am working, I’m using my skills to bring this thing to life. The creativity happened almost beforehand, because I had to figure out how I’m making it, what I’m making and how I’m going to get there, and just all of those parameters. So once I actually get to creating I’m very process-oriented.

And one thing I noticed that when I was in high school is that I just had more patience than I think a lot of other people and just to sit and do pointillism for hours and hours on end. That was my passion then. And I noticed that and I’m like, “Okay, that’s something that I have that’s a little bit different, is just that willingness to sit and plug away on one thing endlessly,” which then ties into inspiration. So for me inspiration is great, and when it’s there, I love it. But then I’ve also found that there’s a huge portion of my work where inspiration doesn’t matter. I have to get the job done. I have to sit down, I have to work. I have to plot away on it when I’m not interested. I have to just force myself into that.

And so I’ve begun to think about my work as there’s the head work, the brain work, and then there’s the hand work, the physical work. And when I’m doing the head work and looking for inspiration, that doesn’t necessarily need to be at the same time as I’m doing the physical work. And that helped a lot of the time too, with having a full-time job for a long time, is trying to balance my time at home, where I can be physically productive. Then I’m not thinking too much, honestly. Not spending my time thinking about a project. I should already have that done because I’ve spent my commute, I’ve spent my free time at work, thinking about the project. So when I’m at home, I’m very deliberately working.

So I think I’ve been one of those people that I’ve been creating long enough that I’ve very much dialed in my modes of creation. And so inspiration is wonderful and important, but there’s a huge portion of the time where I’m just pushing everything away and I have to work, and I treat it that way too.

Tim: Yeah. That’s always interesting to me, because I love talking to artists about whether they’re the work when inspiration strikes sort of person, or if they’re the nine to five, just get the studio sort of person. And it sounds like you have a really good mix of the two. And so I like that balancing. That’s really interesting.

Phil: Trying to balance that and then also even have projects at home. So then if I’m not able to be in the studio space, or even if somebody has their studio at home, just to have different projects going on, because of course the motivation is the hardest. I think anybody listening, they have ideas and they have skills. Well, you have to have those two things plus motivation to bring something to life. And I think that the motivation is where we often lack the most, because of course, skills and ideas, those are things that we can generate pretty quickly. But the motivation is something that I think we have to spend a lot of time on, which is why we end up talking about inspiration and waiting for those moments to strike.

But yeah, no, having a different work ethic to where you can turn on whatever you need to is hard to develop, but it is something you can literally develop. It’s something I’ve seen play out a lot where I don’t want to work on stuff, but I just … well, you have to work on it. And other times it’s like I get excited to work on something. And so then I do a project that isn’t necessarily work. It’s actually something that is a little more spontaneous, a little more creative. So holding different projects in different places and juggling them for a while.

Tim: Yeah. Very cool. Now I want to chat just a little bit more about creativity, because I’ve seen you talk about how constraints can foster more creativity. Can you expand on that a little bit? Just talk a little bit more about that idea and how do you see that playing out for artists where constraints can foster extra creativity for us?

Phil: Yeah. And I think the quick, easy answer, or the quick, easy way to explain it is just if we are unlimited, it always sounds nice, but if we have nothing constraining us, well, we could go anywhere.

Tim: Yeah.

Phil: And then there’s that paradox of choice. It can become almost problematic. You have too many options, too many shiny balls that are pulling you in all kinds of directions. But then the very nice way to bring this back that I see with the students, and I’m actually seeing with people who graduate from college too, is the second they graduate from college there’s a whole contingency of people that they stop creating because they don’t know what to create because teachers have told them so long what to create. So the teachers have created that limitation for the student.

And I feel like right now, we’re talking about two people simultaneously, right? We’re talking about the art teachers and how they can use limitations to push the creativity of the students, but then also it’s interesting to see in the students how the limitation of being told what project they have to work on can maybe down the road actually cause some people to not develop their own idea generation process.

I feel like I’m answering two questions there, but so going back. For me, with sawdust, this idea of just giving myself a constraint of I talked to this lady working at this Girl’s Garage and I had no idea what was going to come of it. And I’m like, “I really hope there’s something that she’ll give me whether it’s words or something inspiration,” right? Looking for some sort of motivating factor. And as we’re going through, then she mentioned sawdust. I’m like, “Well, that’s a lot of something. I don’t know how I could create with sawdust. I don’t know what I could do, but please send it to me.”

And then that starts to create a process of what can I do with it? And now I have to, because now I’ve given myself the motivation of I’ve committed to this person that I’m going to make a picture with sawdust. So I have no choice, which is a nice motivating factor sometimes too. So I think limitations and constraints can be powerful in so many different kinds of ways. We have to watch the power of them sometimes because they can become almost a limiting factor in their own way, which is an interesting little paradox as well. But yeah, does that get to it or no?

Tim: It does. And I think almost everything you’ve talked about today is just all about finding the right balance. Whether it be with how we’re working, when we’re working, or what kind of limitations we put on ourselves. And I think it all comes back to that same idea of finding the balance.

Phil: It’s got to be a common theme of the podcast, right? Balance. Yes.

Tim: Just one last question for you before we go. I wanted to ask your advice for all of the art teachers that are listening. We’ve just finished a really difficult year. People are starting to unfortunately think about heading back into the classroom already, and what this Fall is going to look like, but what advice would you have for them about the importance of creativity, of art making of just the work that they’re doing with their students this Fall?

Phil: Well, I do want to start by saying thank you to all of the art teachers who have jumped into that unknown space. Even some art teachers I know, they kind of stepped back to make sure that the kids were getting comfortable with that new world of doing all their education at home and then bringing arts and very different approaches, of course, as everybody knows. But just being that place for kids to be able to join in and to experience it. I joined a couple of classrooms with chats over the last 18 months and there were some kids who just apparently would show up to classes that weren’t even their own just because art class was just different. It just got them thinking and moving differently. And so I think that one of the things that may come out of this is we’ll just see not just the power of creativity, but the power of that shared space together that is open, that isn’t highly defined and precise.

And I think obviously that’s the beauty of creativity and that’s one of the great elements of art making is to be able to have that exploration, that freedom. I feel like there’s less and less places in society where we are given that freedom. And obviously that gets revealed in the education setting as well, where everything is goal-oriented, it’s always about achieving X, Y, Z versus the exploration of getting there. And I think that explorative process helps you arrive to a place maybe in a slightly different way than other people around you, which then that experience then builds on itself. And then you just slowly begin to think differently. You begin to have different ideas and different approaches to getting to the goal, which no matter where people go in life, finding different avenues to get to the same place as other people, that becomes a really beneficial way of thinking. And I’m realizing I think I lost your question, but man, I arrived at some place I like.

Tim: I like it too. It works great. Cool. All right. Well, Phil, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate the conversation and we will look forward to seeing you at NOW Conference at the end of July. So thank you.

Phil: That’s awesome. Yeah. Excited to be there.

Tim: That was a lot of fun to talk to Phil and gave me a lot to think about. A couple of things that I noticed or I guess the thing that I kept coming back to while he was talking was just that idea of finding balance and how we get to a balance in everything that we do. And we need to find what type of balance works for us between the process of art making and the end product, that we have between the work we do in our head and the work we do with our hands. We need to find that balance between art making and the rest of what we do. And so I think that’s going to give me a lot to think about as far as where the balance lies. This is where I want it to lie. And give me a lot to think about when it comes to art and general and just life and how it all ties together and what kind of balance I have been able to find.

So many great things in that interview and I really appreciate Phil taking the time to talk to us today. And as I said at the beginning, if you are interested in hearing more from Phil Hansen, come see him at the NOW Conference at the end of July. We’ll put links in the show notes so you can … Well, first of all, watch his TED Talk and secondly, check out everything that you need to know about Phil, everything you need to know about the conference, and hopefully you can join us on July 29th. It’s going to be a great day with Phil Hansen.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Thank you so much for listening. I hope you enjoyed hearing from Phil. I hope you go watch his TED Talk and I hope you sign up for the NOW Conference so you can join us for that tour of his studio and hearing a lot more from him. I think it’s going to be an amazing event. So hopefully we will see you there, but if not, we’ll talk to you next week.

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.