Creative assignments

by Sue Dawson

WHEN I WAS in art school (and college art classes), one of my favorite things was the group critique, where we’d tack our homework up on the wall, and listen to the professor respond to each piece. It’s an intense process. You put so much time and effort into your own work, it can be tough to weather the criticism. But it’s so exciting, and inspiring, to see what everyone has done with the same assignment. Of course I most easily remember the time mine was a dud, when a famous illustrator said that my drawing of “happiness” made him sad. But even as I held back tears in that moment, I was inspired to do better next time. My dud wasn’t a bad drawing – it just showed my lack of sophistication. I’d chosen an obvious solution. A surface one. And this professor was having none of it. He wanted us to dig deep, push boundaries, knock him off his feet with our brilliance. He didn’t care so much about the execution, it turned out. He wanted to see concepts he’d never seen before. He wanted to be wowed.   

If you haven’t been in art school, maybe it’ll help to consider an example. One week our assignment was to do an illustration of “Thames.” Did I not mention this was in London? Notting Hill, to be exact. Anyway, all but one of us did illustrations of the Thames River. I did an aerial drawing. Others sat by the banks of the river and illustrated the view. Blah, blah, blah, said the professor. Until he got to one photograph that probably took 1/10th of the time our meticulous drawings and paintings did. It was a shot of the tv in this guy’s flat, at precisely the moment that the station identification came on. The professor LOVED it, because this student had come up with something unpredictable, eye-catching, and smart. It was so brilliant, all the rest of our drawings fell away. And it taught me an important lesson. The obvious solution is often too easy. With creative work, the goal is to push ourselves to find something unique, provocative, that comes from a deeper place, and reflects deeper feelings or thoughts. The depth can be emotional, intellectual, philosophical, visual, or satirical. It can be child-like in its innocence, or dark and brooding. In other words, it’s the opposite of “point and shoot.” 

This is why I believe artist statements are such an important part of the creative process. Writing about our work forces us to find the wellspring of our creativity, within us. It’s where our unique voice is â€“ and the more familiar we are with this place, the better we are at showing it artistically.

My assignments are purposely broad, just as my professor’s were 30+ years ago. I think specific parameters narrow things down too much, and squelch creativity. I could go on and on about seeing this issue in preschools and grade schools. Just when children are most uninhibited creatively, they’re often given too many specific directions in creative classes, to fit a rubric, or learn a particular technique. (I know there are children who thrive in restrictive settings, so no need to set me straight!) I just think we set too many rules, too early, causing kids to bury their unique creative selves. As adults doing creative work, we need to dig deep, to find the little kid we once were, and grow from there.

We usually do assignments and critiques with the Advanced Mentorship only. But this year, we combined the groups in one online critique. There are fewer students, so it works for both groups. This year’s first assignment was “inside a jar.” Here are some of the solutions:

Andrea Dawson is both a photographer and a painter. Her photographs are done mostly in her backyard woods, in cool/cold weather, of trees and leaves in shallow depth of field. She chose to put some of her leaves in a jar, and caught the jar’s unique reflection.


Beth Horstman keeps her food in mason jars, so she used her own pantry as inspiration. She often plays with depth of field, but always shoots outside in nature. The painterly background and setting in this shot is a departure for her, and hopefully inspires more exploration.


Dena Porter spends time in New York City, and chose to abstract her jar image. “I used the jar as a lens to create a new view from my apartment window. Car and street lights provided a colorful and distinctive backdrop for the jar.” 


Ilene Hertz photographed her grandmother’s button jar, which she’s added to over the years. “I’ve spent countless hours photographing botanicals on my lightbox, but this was the first time I experimented with another subject. The buttons had been tucked away in this jar for a long time, and the way they spilled out onto the lightbox enabled me to appreciate their translucency, much like the petals of the flowers that I normally photograph.” 


Jackie Abodeely plays with color saturation in her work, which comes from a deep awareness of spirit. “When we got the assignment I immediately thought of using a terrarium. As a child, I saw my grandmother’s terrarium as a tiny protected world. I decided to show this small, protected world contrasted against the much larger natural world that surrounds it. I wanted to illustrate the control society imposes on our natural selves, within the greater world that’s so out of control. It’s a world within a world.” 


Rob Skinnon shoots seascapes, so he decided to create his own. “My seascape in a jar comes from Martha’s Vineyard down to Connecticut â€“ well the rocks and the duck do. The night before, I set up the jar knowing we’d get a freeze, and the texture of the frozen water would look more interesting. As the morning sun started to thaw it out, the duck enjoyed the view.”


I’ve gotta end with another of Dena’s shots 🙂 


6 Responses

  1. Linda Taylor says:

    What fun! Yes, I remember the excitement of seeing what everyone puts up for critique. We’ve been giving ourselves an assignment in a small photo group. I see how we can get more imaginative. These are great photos. And thanks for the laugh at the end!

  2. Lisa says:

    Thank you Sue (and all of the creative participants in the jar assignment). So inspiring — and fun!!

  3. Kathy Nash says:

    I love the idea of assignments as part of the mentorship program. And it’s really fun to see how everyone “solved” their assignment.

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