Sunday, January 26, 2014

Embodied Cognition: Learning by Making

"We have much to learn from research in embodied cognition—an area of cognitive science (and philosophy) that explores how cognition is enacted through bodily experiences, and how knowledge emerges through physical engagement with the environment... Classical concepts of cognition emphasize the importance of mental representation and symbol systems, and it’s easy to default to the view that mental representation comes first, and doing second: We conjure up thoughts in our minds and then carry out those thoughts with the body. But the concept of embodied cognition challenges this dualism. As the AbD project moves forward in its investigation of thinking through making, we need to avoid construing the activities of making simply as outcomes of thought, and instead learn to understand them as instances of thought. Perhaps eventually we’ll be able to reformulate the idea of thinking dispositions with the vocabulary of the body in mind."
From Making Thinking Happen-Agency By Design's blog (

The bolding is mine. But this is SO true and I've never seen it written so eloquently. I learn this way and so do my students! When I or my students interact with materials and investigate the way they react, bend, tear, etc..., this is learning by doing. I see it now with my students as they make sculptures out of pantyhose and wire. They have no idea how the pantyhose will change the shape of the wire, how the pantyhose will change as they put gesso on it to harden it, but they have to react to it and reiterate and let their ideas be malleable and adaptable, otherwise they are so frustrated that it "didn't turn out the way" they thought it would. 

I learn this way as well. When I am making, I sometimes start with an idea of using a certain material. I am curious about how it will react when I do something to it. But often, I just begin by picking something up-a material, a tool, a writing implement, and start using it. If I am drawing, I have to recognize and react to the sensation of the implement as it moves across the drawing surface. I can press harder, more softly, change the type of mark I am making, etc... There are a myriad of reactions that I could have, but they are not  thought through cognitively. My body is reacting to the sensation. I am learning by feeling the mark making tool as it moves across the surface and reacting to it. Sometimes I consciously name this as "playing" in my mind, because this gives me the freedom to react without making it count as a "real" piece of art. I know that the minute I begin to consider my playing a work of art, that my creativity and the joy I associate with making goes out the window. This is paralyzing for me and for many other creative minds. 

So now I know the term for this habit of mind: embodied cognition. It pleases me that someone is doing research into this and recognizing it as a valid way of learning. I know it is. It has worked for me and I see it working for my students: learning by making.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mothers are Makers and Innovators

Mothers are makers, innovators and designers. This realization struck me today as I watched Dale Dougherty's TED talk on making, yet again. Certainly we think like innovators, designers and makers. Ever been part of a design charrette? There is a time restraint. There are limits. And you need to solve a problem-actually you often have to solve a complex, multi-layered problem:  a real-world problem.

When I had my first daughter over 23 years ago, I had never changed a diaper, held a newborn, or fed a baby. And yet, they sent me home from the hospital after 32 hours with my infant. I was totally unprepared. Sure, the nurses gave me a few tips while I was still in the hospital, but, let's face it, I was unable to take it all in: I had been in labor for over 16 hours.

Here was a real-world problem: how to take care of this baby that didn't speak and was unable to care for itself. There was a lot at stake. I was exhausted. The baby cried all night and slept all day. I had to figure this out.

So, what did I do? I went to the experts. I was lucky enough to live in a neighborhood of close knit young families. There were experts right outside my door. And they were full of ideas and advice. Thank God. These woman and I talked and shared ideas and commiserated. They became my life-line. And I learned to care for this tiny being that couldn't care for herself.

Women have been doing this for centuries. They organize playgroups and share advice and ideas. They help one another when mothering is new. They share recipes, solutions and resources. When a baby is crying, there is only one thought in a mother's head: how do I solve this problem? Women are resourceful and innovative. They have to be.

Remember when being a "homemaker" was a backhanded insult? We need to embrace our roles as makers. We make a home for our children. We make meals. We make Halloween costumes, curtains, and quilts. We make things on a daily basis.

So to all the women out there who say you aren't creative, I want you to ask yourself: what was the last meal you made; dinner table you set; costume you created; cookies you baked? These are creative acts. Making is one of the ways we express our love for our families and our children. It is a satisfying experience that is fulfilling and brings pleasure to ourselves as well as others. Women have been doing this making for centuries. Our daughters will continue on after us. Let's recognize the resourcefulness, inventiveness, and creativeness in all of us.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Making: A Lifelong Conversation with Oneself

I realized recently that making art is like having a lifelong conversation with yourself. There is a private place inside that is always thinking, looking at the world, and personalizing it. I invite others in sometimes, to react and talk things through. My husband is one person I trust with these thoughts and ideas, my oldest daughter as well. Both have artistic sensibilities and will be kind and gentle with my ideas. I don't invite just anyone into the conversation. It has to be someone I trust, because before an idea or piece is fully formed, it is fragile. Criticism at this time would be fatal.

There are times, when I am busy, that I do not have time to actually make art. But that doesn't mean that the conversation is silent. My mind is always gathering information, images, and ideas. I will see something I find interesting and invite it in. For instance, I was at the Metropolitan Museum last week and saw the contemporary ink drawings from Asia. I was intrigued by the way that some of the pieces used ink and by some of the other formats and materials. These artists and pieces entered into my monologue. I found myself excited to get home and play with some of the ideas. I turned over different possibilities in my mind of ways to include these materials and methods in my current way of working.

And yesterday, when I finally got there, I allowed myself to play. If I had gone into my studio with a concrete plan, it would have reacted like concrete: immovable. I had some ideas of things I wanted to try and materials I wanted to play with, but nothing definite. That is so important to creative thinking: the ability to remain fluid in your thoughts and actions; to act and then react. It is good to have something to push against and for this you have to make something through action-by using materials in some way. If your thoughts become solidified, then it's difficult to react. You become judgmental, which is the death of creativity.

I realize that this seems very self absorbed: the idea of having a life-long conversation between oneself and materials. And perhaps it is. But I can't imagine my life without it. I don't think my artwork will be seen by a lot of people or that it will ever make me famous. That's not the point. I think the conversation is the point: this enduring and personal cognizance of life. Man has been involved with making and art making since the beginning of time. That has to signify its importance.