Kurt Vonnegut often told audiences, “To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
It’s a sentiment echoed in a 2017 Drexel University study which found that doodling and other forms of artmaking activate the brain’s dopamine system which evokes positive emotions. Study participants also said they had more good ideas and could problem solve more easily after creative efforts.
For Washington State University professor of fine arts Io Palmer, making art is a richly rewarding and pleasurable way to express her feelings about society and the state of the world.
“I love the challenge of figuring out something creative,” she says. “I love nothing more than being in a studio by myself working on a project. It really makes me feel I’m living a fulfilled life.”
Palmer, who teaches classes ranging from ceramics and 3D materials to performance art, says she wants to create a space where her students can likewise experience the joy of making art as a fulfilling part of their lives.
“Everything is digital now with a flat 2D surface,” she says. “Most of the students’ information comes from the computer, so getting students to really focus on three dimensionality is a challenge. We often get students who have a very limited understanding of art as it’s not taught in many high schools anymore.
“I think sculpture, drawing, and painting can help them clarify that line from your head to your hands,” says Palmer. “Just being able to use your hands, these amazing tools we have, to manipulate materials and create something from your mind, spirit, or heart is kind of extraordinary.”
Long-time photographer and digital media artist Harrison Higgs agrees. During his childhood, he was fortunate to have spent many hours outdoors exploring the woods, rivers, and streams.
“My grandfather taught me how to work on my car and my father taught me how to work in the woodshop,” says the associate professor and program lead for the Department of Fine Arts at WSU Vancouver. “Most students today don’t have those experiences.”
Like Palmer, Higgs says much of the experience they do have is mediated online. “They really haven’t had the opportunity to develop their hand-building skills like measuring, planning out projects, and visualizing if it will fit together when assembled,” he says. “It’s a different way of working.”
As an artist, Higgs finds natural congruences between photography and sculpture. His home studio is filled with a diverse assortment of materials and objects which he arranges for photo shoots. Over the years, he developed an interest in natural resource allocation and sustainability.
“The longer I practice art, the more I find myself gravitating toward things that get me off the computer and have me work with my hands,” he says. “I find I need a balance and to use a different part of my body. On a basic level, it’s a remedy to part of the modern condition—being in front of a computer too much.”
Higgs helps his students gain some experience working with their hands through his sculpture and printmaking classes. “I think it’s a kind of a materials and process literacy,” he says.
“Through making, we can do things in a different way, can consider the world in a different way. It’s a form of thinking and has a different set of rules and is much more open-ended. I’m convinced there is discovery, self-knowledge, and growth there too. It’s been my experience that making is a good way to understand the world.”
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