Finished teaching a three session class “Learning from Leonardo” last week. Leonardo da Vinci and his work is a vast topic and scholars have dedicated lifetimes to the study of his work. Yet, I’m interested in a unique aspect of Leonardo: What does he have to teach us as modern day creatives (or would be creatives) about fostering our own creativity with passion, as he himself so powerfully embodied?
This curiosity of mindset and process comes from my interest and work in design thinking. Design as product is very important but my own interest lies in the mindset and process of design and teaching others to apply it. The “Learning from Leonardo” class had two goals – one, learning more about da Vinci, his work and process and two, uncovering the creativity and processes of students participating in the class through a discussion, art activities and lecture format.
We used ‘How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci’ by Michael Gelb as the text and while the book had its limitations as having an overabundance very different exercises, and having a somewhat reverential attitude to da Vinci (to be expected perhaps in a book focused on da Vinci?), it is one of the few books that translates the genius’ work into practical application. This was appreciated in a class that was intended to open the doors to the students’ own creativity.
We had conversations, sketched, shared stories, pondered questions about art and practice – quantity and quality. A quote I used from the book Art and Fear seemed particularly potent for a discussion with the students:
“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
–David Bayles & Ted Orland, ‘Art & Fear’ Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
I’ll know soon enough (when the student evaluations come) how the class went for the students but if you ask me as a teacher, how it went – my honest answer is great! I would do again in a heartbeat. The students, most of them over the age of 50, were engaged, brought their memories, extensive life experience and varied talents to the class. It gave me a chance to do a deep dive into Leonardo’s work after a long time with the special focus on teaching others about art practice. I also find my own art-making rejuvenated and into its next phase – thank you, Leonardo and LearningLife students!