Not-Knowingness

Painting by Robin Remick

This week I came across a terrific piece in the Huffington Post by Brian Cohen (who is the President of Idyllwild Arts Academy) about teaching creativity.  In it, Cohen talks about the importance of giving students room to figure things out for themselves – allowing them to struggle a bit and discover on their own. He quotes the artist Paul Klee in the opener to his essay, “Genius is the error in the system.”

Which made me think of my good friend, Robin Remick, who is an abstract painter. I recently went to an Open Studio of hers and, much to my delight, she walked me through the work she had on display. There, in the studio where she created her stunning paintings, she talked to me about each piece.  Where she was when she painted in, what she was trying to accomplish, how the colors and materials she used worked together.  While listening to her, I was particularly struck by the role of error in her work. More than once she talked about “not knowing what would happen” and just rolling with it.  For instance, on one recent painting she had experimented with applying a coat of resin to the finished painting.  The resin bubbled up in an unexpected way which she, at first, saw as a problem. To correct it, she poured lavish amounts of resin on the bubbled up places and, in the process, created these thick dollops of resin that gave the painting an interesting textured look with unexpected visual dimension – which she ended up liking very much (me too).  She explained that it’s often that way with her work. That the so-called “mistakes” lead to unexpected discoveries, that working with new materials that she doesn’t yet fully understand leads to intriguing results. This, she told me, has become a familiar theme to her.

Of course, you must have confidence to let that happen. For Robin, who is a thoroughly trained painter, with an MFA and years of experience to guide her journeys and experiments, she has the confidence to roll with her “mistakes” and venture into new territory. But surely there is something to be captured from what she’s discovered – and what Brian Cohen recommends –  that could and should be applied to education? That we need to find room in our fervent curriculum planning to allow learners of all stripes to make mistakes, to take risks, to wander a bit and see where those foibles and flounderings lead? To spend time in that unsafe place of not-knowingness and get comfortable there?

As Cohen explains to the faculty in his academy, your first answer might not be your best and your last answer may well help you to get to the next, but it won’t be the next answer. Modeling that sort of not-knowingness and comfort with errors and unpredictable results feels incredibly right-headed to my ear.

“Creativity involves understanding and, paradoxically and simultaneously, not knowing; entering a process where ready answers are inadequate to the task, and where the resolution at first uncertain. You can know a lot about something and be thought to be good at it, yet not know for sure where things are going to come out.”

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1 Comment

Filed under Reflections on Teaching

One response to “Not-Knowingness

  1. Neil Heyden

    But you have to open to accepting the discovery with the error, which is much harder if you a preconceived idea. With Robin Remick, what if she had a definite idea of the appearance and texture of the piece in its final state? She easily could have been consumed with the frustration of not making what she envisioned she might not have seen the beauty or at least interestingness of what happened instead. With Brian Cohen and education, what happens when the importance of relaying a certain body of knowledge–say for a standardized test–blinds the learner and teacher to the wisdom to be gained from learning from errors?

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