With every mosaic workshop I take (six to date), I develop my skills both as an artist and as a student. Not having a fine arts background, I started out with zero knowledge about how to take an art class. Depending on your experience, this will sound either very odd or glaringly obvious: the skills and mindset you need to approach a mosaic class are quite different from those you need to be successful in, say, biology or literature. So yes, there is a learning curve to learning how to learn an art. (Say that 5 times fast!) I have become a better mosaic student by trial and error, and I have unfortunately not gotten the most out of some fabulous learning opportunities because I didn’t have the right approach to the class. While I’m not a perfect student and am still figuring things out, I wanted to share some thoughts and lessons learned thus far with those of you who are in the same boat as me so you can learn from my mistakes.
1. Go in with nothing (unless instructed otherwise)
The first few classes I took were very project based and we were instructed to bring a design that we wanted to execute. I thought this was the norm, so when I took Sonia King’s class I arrived with everything nailed down, design wise. Big mistake (one that I regret to this day). Yes, there are workshops where you will make a specific project and you should go prepared. But there are other workshops that are more about artistic exploration and if you go in with a predetermined idea of what you want to make, you will miss out. Make sure you know which kind of class you’re signed up for and prepare accordingly. If it’s a class more about artistic expression, try to go in with as little as possible (in terms of design, materials, and tools), leaving yourself open for learning opportunities. I know it can be nerve-racking and it can feel like you’re unprepared and are only increasing your chances of failure, but trust me on this one (and see #2 below for some thoughts on failure).
2. Do not expect to create a masterpiece
I admittedly still struggle with this one, even though it should be a no-brainer. Most workshops are more about the process than the final product. Let yourself get lost in the process and don’t worry about whether you finish or whether you create something pretty. You learn as much from your failures as you do from your successes, so use your class time to experiment and take risks and push yourself under the guidance of someone who knows more than you. This can lead to really fantastic conversations with both your instructor and classmates, and their insights into what works and what doesn’t (and why) are invaluable. Sometimes a failure is just one tweak away from something that works amazingly well and is exciting and new.
3. Be yourself
Your instructor has a distinct style and so do you. You are not there to learn how to imitate your instructor. Yes, they will share their knowledge and insight about what they do and their process, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be you. The challenge is to figure out how to take their style and their teachings and use them to enhance your voice and vision.
4. Get what you need
This will apply more to some readers than others, but since it’s wholly applicable to me, I figured I’d include it in the list. I am quiet and introverted and I shy away from attention. Consequently, in class I keep my head down and quietly go about my business, and am reluctant to ask questions. The more classes I take, the more I realize that this is a terrible approach. Any one-on-one interaction you have with your instructor is incredibly precious and valuable, so don’t be afraid to ask questions when you have them or to call the instructor over when you’re stuck or want to sound out an idea. Of course, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t hog the instructor’s attention—always be respectful and mindful of your fellow classmates.
5. Learn from your peers
It’s easy to get totally focused on and immersed in what you’re creating, but don’t forget to get up occasionally and take a spin around the room to see what your classmates are up to. The diversity of work in a class never ceases to amaze me. Everyone has a unique perspective and way of incorporating what you’re all learning, and it can be very enlightening to see what other people are creating—the challenges they’re running up against and their solutions to those problems, their individual process (including everything from cutting materials to figuring out a plan of attack for their mosaic), and their artistic vision. Even if your class is made up of really different skill / experience levels, there’s still lots of peer-to-peer learning to be had. Obviously beginners can learn from their more advanced peers, but more seasoned mosaicists can also learn from beginners, who have the benefit of ‘fresh eyes.’
6. Embrace how you feel
There is no right way to ‘feel’ during a workshop. I’ve had classes where I feel like I’m on top of the world and things just feel right and effortless (case in point: my time in Rachel Sager’s class). But I have also had classes where I feel like I’m struggling and am consumed by anxiety and self-doubt (example: Verdiano Marzi’s class). This is normal. Feeling unsettled in a class is not an indication that you’re doing something wrong or that you’re failing. And grinning ear to ear and feeling like everything is just clicking doesn’t in any way mean that you’re not pushing yourself or learning anything. You feel how you feel and it’s all part of the experience and the emotional rollercoaster that is artistic growth.
I’m sure there are plenty of other pieces of advice / words of wisdom about how to approach a mosaic workshop, but these are the ones that I’ve learned the hard way and wish someone had told me before I started. I’d love to hear what you have to say—either from a student’s or an instructor’s perspective—on the ones that I’ve outlined here or others you think are important. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. If enough of you weigh in (here and on social media), I’ll compile your responses into a follow-up crowd-sourced post.