After graduate school, I worked at an art non-profit called Big Thought. While I was there, my podcast guest today Eric Booth was a consultant who went high up in the company straight out of college. He did a lot of staff development training and programs for the non-profit. This episode represents a full circle moment for me as I thrill at reconnecting with him! In it, he and I talk about his path as a teaching artist and the connection between art and spirituality, a topic we both care about tremendously.
3:16 – Eric talks about his transition from Broadway actor to teaching artist
6:36 – How the teaching artist field has changed and the effects of the pandemic on the industry
12:18 – Two ways to bring a teaching artist into your classroom
15:38 – Eric describes what a good teaching artist partnership looks like
21:03 – The single best sentence Eric ever wrote, the idea behind it, and the companion book it eventually created
24:51 – How I recently made my own art and spirituality connection
27:52 – Paying a higher quality of attention to all different kinds of things in your life
32:20 – Eric explains what he means when he talks about the “verbs of art”
37:40 – The different between big art and religion and little art and religion
41:10 – The three concepts the Everyday Work of Art book boils down to
45:01 – Ideas on how to help students develop responsiveness to works of art
49:58 – What you can do right now to become more connected with art and spirituality
55:51 – How Hamlet changed Eric’s life
- Beyond the Surface: Free Email Course
- Eric Booth
- The Everyday Work of Art: Awakening the Extraordinary in Your Daily Life by Eric Booth
- Tending the Perennials: The Art and Spirit of a Personal Religion by Eric Booth
- The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
Be a Podcast Guest: Submit a Voice Memo of Your Art Story (Scroll to the bottom of the page to submit your story.)
Cindy Ingram: Hello and welcome to The Art Class Curator Podcast. I am Cindy Ingram, your host and the founder of Art Class Curator, and The Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration from the daily delights of creativity to the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher. Whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today, take a second, take a deep breath, relax those shoulders, and let’s get started.
Hello everybody. I am so thrilled to introduce my guest for today’s podcast. This is a full circle moment for me in my career when I first graduated from graduate school. I worked at an organization called Big Thought, a non-profit. While I was there, we worked with this teaching artist, Eric Booth. He did a lot of our staff development training, he did a lot of the programs that we worked on, but he was a consultant high up in the company. I’m straight out of college, a young mess of a person at that age, and it was so thrilling to me to be able to reconnect with him now and have a conversation about this topic that we both deeply care about, which is the connection between art and spirituality. I’m so excited to share with you our conversation. We also talk a lot about his path as a teaching artist.
Just to give you a little bit of information about Eric Booth, he was given the nation’s highest award in arts education in 2015, the Arts Education Leadership Award from Americans for the Arts. He was also named one of the 25 most influential people in the arts in the US. He began as a broadway actor and then he became a businessman, a consultant, and a teaching artist. He’s authored seven books and we are especially talking about two of those today; The Everyday Work of Art and Tending the Perennials. It was such a joyful pleasure for me to have this conversation with Eric Booth and I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.
I am so excited to welcome Eric Booth to the podcast. Welcome, Eric.
Eric Booth: Hi, Cindy and listeners. Nice to be with you.
Cindy Ingram: I am so excited to talk to you today because in my very early career, I worked at an organization in Dallas called Big Thought. You had a really strong relationship with Big Thought at the time and did a lot of our training and worked with us on a lot of projects. I just feel a little bit like I’m fangirling to a degree because you were a part of my early career. I 100% know you probably don’t remember me but it’s just really a full circle moment for me so I’m excited to talk to you.
Eric Booth: Well, so nice. Thank you. Big Thought sounds like a good title for where you have lived the subsequent years since we’ve met.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Every now and then I come up with Big Thought as a title for something and I’m like, “Oh, shoot, it already exists.” I love that. For our listeners who are not familiar with your work, can you tell us a little bit more about you, your background and experiences, and what led you to where you are today?
Eric Booth: Sure. What I am is the oldest living teaching artist. I trained classical training as an actor, was having the career that actors want to have, lots of broadway shows and touring and all that stuff and didn’t like it. I found out I did not like doing eight shows a week. I didn’t like the agents and soap operas and all that stuff. Around when I was first noticing that, I had a little project opportunity on the side at Lincoln Center to learn about this thing called Teaching Artists, which sent me into schools. On my very first day, it was so much more interesting and satisfying to be addressing the innate artistic birthright of kids.
Seeing what they came up with and discovering the power of art with them felt so much more satisfying to me than cranking out the same show eight times a week down a couple of miles on broadway. I just followed that direction. It was fortunate that this field of teaching artistry was just growing up at the time. Over the next 40 whatever years, I’ve been able to grow up and help that field grow and work with artists of all the different art forms and work with museums and orchestras around the world in helping them think about how we open up what those who are practitioners of an art form and teachers of that art form, what they know in their bones that happens within that art form, how do we open it up wider so that everyone has their birthright access to the power that’s in those arts?
Cindy Ingram: Oh. I love that. That was so good. There were so many follow-up questions I came up with already. But one thing you notice about not liking it, I always wondered that about the theater—I’m a huge musical theater fan—and I go and I look at these actors on the stage and like, “These guys have to do this every day, multiple times a day. How do they bring so much energy and power and emotion again and again and again?” It feels just impossible.
Eric Booth: There are some artists who just have a gift for that. They’re naturally wired and they go deeper and it becomes this meditative space where they are in full presentness all the time. But it didn’t work that way for me. It may have been because on Broadway, I wasn’t playing the lead role so it wasn’t challenging enough. But God loved those ones who can be fully present and fully fulfilled by that return to the same body of work eight times a week. It’s really the only place in the arts where that is one of your artistic challenges. Symphony musicians get a one week run for any piece of music. Writers spend 20 years creating one work of art. It’s different every day. It’s an unusual challenge that some are well attuned to and that isn’t right for others.
Cindy Ingram: Oh. That’s really interesting. The oldest living teaching artist, how have you seen the field change since you first started doing it?
Eric Booth: Oh, boy, you’re getting to my favorite stuff, because it’s so rare to get to see a field get born and go through its first stages of development in one lifetime. Especially—I want to start with an apology to arts teachers—in our first phase, these artists who came into schools—early 80s mostly—didn’t know much, brought a lot of good intentions, but they also brought a lot of arrogance and condescension. In those early years, I’m not sure artists were always particularly helpful. They came in with a sense of their specialness and a kind of disregard for how much artistic knowing was already active and alive in that classroom. A little bit of chip on the shoulder, lucky you, the artist has arrived.
The field got over that phase of ignorant arrogance in, I don’t know, 10, 15 years, to recognize we really only serve young people if we partner with the strengths that regular sequential instruction teacher is bringing and then that little bit of extra energy and different perspectives that an outside artist can bring in, in close coordination is where we started to discover our stride in terms of having impact. Then over the next chapters, teaching artists were growing up. We were learning, we had responsibilities to contribute to what the classroom teacher was addressing. We had to learn about assessment. We had to learn about deep partnering, not just partnering of convenience but really serving what the other one needs and knows.
Up till the time of the pandemic, teaching artists had really become a fairly strategic tool that could be used. I know there are some school educators who hold an old view that maybe teaching artists was a cheap way to replace teachers. It actually was never true. There are far more examples that a teaching artist excited a school or a community about what the arts can do that they went out and hired a full-time art specialist. But there’s much more coordination, much disrupted by COVID and in fact, the researchers on how the arts have been impacted, the pundits of our field have identified teaching artists as taking the single biggest hit of all people in the arts from COVID because teaching artists fall between the cracks because they’re freelancers because they’re not generally covered by unemployment, so it’s been a brutal hit for teaching artists.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, yeah. I can imagine that because teachers took such a hit that it became about survival and teaching artists are extra people that you add into the classroom, extra germs that you’re bringing into the classroom, especially when the classroom doesn’t even exist anymore and it’s online.
Eric Booth: Right. They’re expendable and everyone, teachers and teaching artists have done heroic work to try to keep things going to serve that artistic flame in young people. Whereas we may not have been able to advance it in the ways that we and the kids find exciting as much as we have in person, we’ve kept it going and looks like we’re going to get our chance to start to recover some of the opportunities that have been missed.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. I loved hearing your journey about how the teaching artist field has changed because I do think that there are a lot of teachers out there that one, they’re trying to get their jobs replaced but that two, that piece about the artist coming in with that ignorance, I know that a lot of teachers inherently know that not anyone can just come in and teach, especially, my degree was in art history and I was taught how to teach art history by just being taught art history and then I leave and I’m like, “This is not the right way to teach. Lecture in a dark room? No, this is not how you learn things.” I think that journey from being an artist and having something to say and having these brilliant ideas to learning how to actually teach that, that’s hard.
Eric Booth: You bet. One of my big lessons, I remember this with such fondness, was a research project back in the early 90s that put me in classrooms of one elementary school that was a research focused school where I was in the classroom of elementary teachers and elementary arts specialists for like a year. Those ladies kicked my butt for all my arrogant intellectualism. Even though I was a good lively teaching artist and could make stuff happen with kids, they just squeezed the bologna out of me like nobody’s business to what needs to be done, how you make a room really work, how you accomplish accessible results. It was the real turning point in my recognition of how much skill is involved in teaching arts in a classroom.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Just classroom management alone, that’s a hard one. For teachers today who have the idea that they would like to work with a teaching artist and bring a teaching artist into their classroom, how do they go about doing that?
Eric Booth: There are really two ways aside from just if you happen to know when stuff can happen. The two ways are school-to-organization partnering. In almost every city and town in the US, there are organizations that provide services to schools. If there’s a relationship that can be made with budget, it’s not a high expense item but it is an expense item, you call the after-school providers in the arts and they will probably have one in your town that provides dance and music and certainly visual art, you may contact the local museum or gallery. That’s one way for an individual teacher to do it. The other way is when school leadership, either a PTA, a school principal, or a district arts coordinator, if a teacher says, “Can we make this happen?” usually people are willing.
Money is sometimes scarce but there’s funny pockets of money that can be tapped for bringing and teaching artists in or an organization that provides teaching artists. I must say there is almost always a universal benefit. The extra infusion of energy, it’s like an oxygen hit in that there’s extra energy coming from the outside affirming what’s already happening in that classroom. It’s well worth doing and teaching artists have become so dedicated and really respectful of what their role is as an additive measure, not as a special something on the side but as really a tonic to advance the work that’s happening in the classroom. It’s almost always worth the extra effort and paperwork.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. I’ve learned, especially with COVID, I think a lot of teachers before COVID didn’t ask for things that they wanted. If they wanted something, some supply or if they wanted some training, they were less likely to ask. I’ve noticed with COVID, all of a sudden teachers are like, “I’m doing enough. I’m going to just go ahead and ask,” and then they’re being given what is being asked for. These school districts are finding these bits of money, especially with the extra COVID money that they’re given, but I think teachers have had a nice lesson just the last couple of years to just, “No. If you want it, just ask for it.”
Eric Booth: Exactly. It applies to their partnering with the teaching artist to say, “There’s this part of my work I would like to pour some extra energy in. How can you create some extra creative engagement around that idea?” That’s when partnerships really work because then the teaching artist can take all these amazing skills she’s got and pour it into exactly the skill development that teacher has been wanting muscled up a little bit more.
Cindy Ingram: I love that. What does a good teaching artist partnership look like? How long would a teaching artist typically work with a group of students?
Eric Booth: I would say it is nice to think ideally, always customized to reality, I would say probably in the US, the average number of visits in a unit of study involving a teaching artist is three or four. There are some quick one shots and then there are these beautiful longer ones that over an arc of weeks. But let’s just say a three visit unit, in an ideal situation, the teacher and the teaching artist focus on a specific something they want to develop, a specific skill set. In music, that might be “I want kids to have an experience of composition in small groups or in an art classroom.” It might be “I want kids to encounter a new artistic medium and in just three visits, notice how they come up with ideas or notice how issues of quality apply.” It’s not just bringing a teaching artist so that you can mess around with Raku pottery, but it’s using Raku pottery to emphasize something that’s essential to that teacher, a way of noticing, a way of thinking, a way of trying out a creative process so that it has a much longer ripple effect after the teaching artist has gone because the kids own that skill set more deeply and the teacher can rely on it.
The other thing I would say about an idealized teaching artist project is there’s quite a bit of planning up front to make sure that time is maximized and then I think of it as slow down to speed up. You actually slow down the work in one particular area and you may spend a surprising amount of time looking at the processes and trying out and purposely making mistakes so that you go way slow in the beginning of that project. The gamble is, which is backed up by research, you actually go significantly further as a result of that slowing down. Slow down, speed up, and then have a carry through that the teacher can use to surf quite a distance beyond the teaching artist’s time.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, I love that, because I feel like a lot of teachers feel this need to cover things. You’ve got to get this, you got to cover this and this.” With Art Class Curator, we tell teachers how to introduce works of art into the classroom and then we’ll say spend an entire class period with one painting, really dive into it, talk about it. I think teachers get a little scared, they’re like, “Oh, that’s wasting a lot of time.” I’m like, “Oh, it’s not. There’s so much happening there, so much they’re digging into and learning about and they’re just enjoying themselves.” I love that slow down to speed up.
Eric Booth: It’s really true, teachers, the pressure for coverage in a classroom is so intense that sometimes it can help to have an outsider, like a teaching artist, disrupt the coverage imperative, it feels almost like a vacation that you get to actually dig in and go deep and explore. It sure has been my 40 years of experience that the payoff for even just the courageous adjustment of three or four class periods, the payoff is enormous.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Especially if we’re talking about artists, that’s not how artists work but they don’t just “I’ve got a painting idea. I’m going to go paint it. I’m going to just rush right into it,” there’s a long process of thinking, sketching, imagining, and writing about it. There’s so much more that goes into the beginning that once they’re ready to paint it, they can paint it probably pretty quickly, but just all of that thought that goes into it before they get there. I love that.
Eric Booth: You got it.
Cindy Ingram: Okay. We got the teaching artist stuff out of the way. I know I wanted to talk to you about that before, but what I’m really excited about your work is you have a couple of books, The Everyday Work of Art—well you have more than two books but these are the two books that I particularly am most interested in—and then you have a newest one called Tending the Perennials: The Art and Spirit of a Personal Religion. Let me tell you a funny story about The Everyday Work of Art. I’ve had that book on my shelf since I worked at Big Thought. Someone gave me a copy. For the last 15 years, I’ve thought I had a signed copy of it and I pulled it off my bookshelf to talk to you today, it’s not a signed copy, it’s someone’s name from who worked at Big Thought and I’m like, “Do I have her book?” It’s not you at all. I’m like, “Oh, it is signed but it’s just signed by the development team.” I was like, “Man, I have to carry it with me next time I’m at some event that you’re at and be like, ‘Can you actually sign my copy?’” But anyway, all that aside, can you tell us about these two books?
Eric Booth: Sure. That’s funny. I won’t accuse you of swiping that book but we now know the development department wasn’t interested in reading it and they were really happy to find somebody who was. That book, The Everyday Work of Art, which starts with the single best sentence I ever wrote in any of my books which is “Art, like sex, is too important to leave to the professionals.” The idea behind that book was something that had been brewing inside me for a long time that really was about distinguishing the nouns of art from the verbs of art, and noticing how addicted we are to the nouns of art, in the US in particular, and actually how all the goodies, both for our own personal experience and for educators, live in the verbs of art. That book was an exploration of what are these verbs of art? What is it that artists are actually doing inside when they’re in their artistic engagement? How are they making choices, how are they evaluating quality, how are they seeing things and making connections? Then identifying those verbs of art and noticing how all of us, even those who don’t think of themselves as arts people at all, how are all of us using those verbs of art for satisfaction in daily life?
We all know this, we know when the thanksgiving table looks great even if we’re finishing our MBA and haven’t had a single artsy thought in the last four years, that is a moment that matters to us. When we have a personal conversation that becomes alive with discovery, it’s the verbs of art that have led us and our friend to that place. That book is about the exploration of those ideas and how we can take greater advantage of the verbs of art in daily life. As I was finishing that book, I was able to be on an artistic retreat and the thought dropped 24 years ago at this point—it took me 22 years to write this companion book—the thought dropped that the things I was doing in my own personal spiritual work, I would meditate sometimes but almost beyond meditation, when I would feel that sense of connectedness to things, when the world made sense like there was a compassionate energy flowing through the world, I noticed that the things I was doing inside were actually the same things I was doing when I was in artistic flow.
I began to get this sense of the connectedness between the verbs of art and the verbs of spirituality. It took me 22 years of research and writing and then giving up on it for some years and then coming back to it to put together that second book that tries to do what the first book did by making that juncture, that overlap where the verbs of art and the verbs of spirituality are the same things, how can we gain greater access to that and how can we make greater use of that in our daily life for a more grounded spiritual participation in daily life, that for me and a lot of people happens around artistic media but in fact, for everybody, is accessible through the verbs of art whatever media they’re dealing with.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, so good. So good. I have a little anecdote that just literally just happened last week, that I saw this happen in my life. I’m reading your book at the same time as it’s happening so that’s probably not a coincidence, but I have been trying to meditate forever. I read about meditation. If you can count all the hours I’ve spent reading about meditation, it’s probably 20 times the amount of time I’ve actually spent doing meditation, but I noticed that when I go to art museums and I’m in front of a work of art, I can sit there forever. I’m just in the flow, I’m in it, I’m connected to the artwork and I’m just there. I was like, “Oh, that’s meditation.”
But then I went to this painting retreat last week and we had to just paint and we weren’t allowed to talk, it was silent, we weren’t allowed to comment on other people’s artwork. It was just pure silence, us with the paint. I noticed what I was doing was meditating the entire time. There was some thought about what I was going to paint. I was just responding to the paint but I was like, “This is meditation. Why am I wasting my time with all of these recordings of people telling me what to do? I know how to meditate. I’m doing it right now.” I had this big aha moment, I was like, “My meditation practice doesn’t have to look like what everyone else says it should look like. I can just paint.”
Eric Booth: Cindy, that’s fantastic. That’s so true to unhook people from the particular practices that work for some people. But so many people feeling inadequate or like they’re not spiritually good people because they don’t do particular practices, I’ll tell you if you find yourself in the flow experience, you are in the spiritual zone. People find flow experiences doing all kinds of different things. How many people have described to me their state of mind when they’re cooking? How many people have described where they get to inside when they’re walking in the woods? These are the spiritual experiences we have. Almost everyone, if you were to draw them out, they start using aesthetic vocabulary to describe it. This is the overlap zone. We call stuff beautiful not just because it’s attractively framed on a wall but because of the quality of experience we are having. We imbue the sense of beauty. It’s not that we buy it and then we have it.
What you’re describing as having spiritually connected meditative like experiences in arts material, I think a lot of your listeners have that experience and they have the cooking experience and they have the walking in the woods experience and so the book Tending the Perennials is about “So if this is so available to us, why don’t we take greater advantage of it?” That’s what the book tries to point out.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. I love that. You gave an example in the book about you listening to the water flowing over rocks and noticing the tones and the music or the musical aspect of it and noticing like the layers of the sound. It gave me chills because I was like, “Yeah, that’s exactly what you’re doing.” You’re putting the same amount of attention into listening to this water as you would maybe listening to a symphony but you’re doing the exact same thing, you’re using the exact same skills.
Eric Booth: Exactly. The one thing I have found—and I bet we all know this from experience—that if you get into attending to things like that, one starts to have that quality of attention to all different kinds of things in life. It’s like a skill set that we developed largely through the quality of our attention, which we usually reserve just for special pockets of activity. But in fact, if we start attaching to the verbs instead of the nouns, suddenly the sound of the soup boiling and the quality, the timbre of the voice in our neighbor’s hello, suddenly these start to reward us in ways that had just been unavailable to us before. We hadn’t been able to have those aesthetic spiritual experiences peopled throughout our days. Man, life is tough, we need some more of that stuff as a regular color in daily life.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. I love that. It reminds me of quote I read recently, I know I’m not going to be able to pull it out, but one part of it was we have to risk delight because the world is so hard and so heavy and there’s so much going on that it’s risky to take the light and little things like the bubbling sound of the water.
Eric Booth: I bet you were reading Ross Gay’s book, The Book of Delights, were you?
Cindy Ingram: No. But I need to.
Eric Booth: Okay, you want to have it. This guy Ross Gay has written this amazing book where he spent a year just attending to the times he felt delight and writing about them. They’re so ordinary and exquisite. Noticing the way someone put on a weird outfit that day and how they’re wearing it, and noticing how a memory connects to something a waiter just said, all those little subtle delights that are there for us but that we usually miss because we’re busy doing other stuff.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Slowing down and developing those skills of the verbs of art. In the book, you were talking about things like noticing awareness, responding, yearning, and you talked about all of them as skills. I think that I loved that distinction of them being skills that we can work on. It made me think of how to talk about my work just a little bit differently too because when you’re looking at a work of art, you’re doing all of those skills, but those aren’t the skills that are in the standards, learning how to pay attention more, it’s not in the standards necessarily, maybe it is. I have to go back and look.
Eric Booth: If I were 20 years younger—and I’m going to pass this idea for someone else to do—I would start mapping the overlap between these skills you and I are now talking about and socio-emotional learning skills. Because the vocabularies are still separate but the actual experiences are hugely overlapping. As a way to introduce more legitimately those kinds of opportunities to young people in schools, especially nowadays where they’re really struggling with how would I be back in school and what is the social part of my schooling, to actually have the space and the authorization, to focus in on those SEL skills a little bit through the lens of the verbs of art. I think arts teachers have a whole lot to offer. We don’t have the language or the curriculum that makes it clear to the systems yet, that’s why I need someone else to go take that one on, I’m too old now, but I think that’s there for the grabbing.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Definitely. That really is. When you’re talking about the verbs of art, what are the ones you’re thinking of? What are the verbs?
Eric Booth: Let me just name a couple, you just did a pretty good list for me. A lot of it is stuff like how you attend to actually become intentional about attending the way artists are. When an artist is looking at a draft of her work, or as you did the other weekend, is looking at a work of art somebody else made, to know how to navigate that intentionally, not like a kid does who hasn’t really been learned how to do it, not just look at it, wonder if it’s good and hope to get told how to make it better, but in fact, to begin to attend with that odd balance of seeing the part and the whole together, the educator Elliot Eisner who was one of the great gurus of arts education in the 20th Century, said, “The arts teach this one skill better than anything else in a child’s life,” which is the relationship between parts and holes. That is a verb of art. To be able to navigate that relationship and that way of seeing for what is the specific here, how do I make adjustments in that specific and then zoom back to be able to assess the effectiveness of that idea, so the capacity to see and navigate the relationship between parts and holes is one.
Another one is to be able to run the continuum, I think of, as making a choice, recognizing what led to that choice, like what are the influences working on you that lead to that choice, and what is the outcome of that choice, what is the effect. A little continuum of making a choice with a sensitivity for its lineage and its consequence, that’s a skill of art. Man, that will carry you well into life. If you can learn in school to pause at choice, recognize there are many choices, I’ve made this one, what are the influences that led me to make that one? Maybe I want to make others, but for this one, what is the consequence of that choice? You can live a life better if you develop that little habit of mind. They’re habits of mind maybe as much as skills, the word skill as you know from reading, at least, one page of my book—I’m an etymology freak—I’m always exploring what a word originally meant and how it’s migrated into usually our more pedestrian usage of it, but the word skill, an important word for arts educators etymologically means the capacity to make a distinction.
The skill is not out here in your hands. That is the manifestation of your skill. The skill is in your head when you can go, “Oh, that. Not that.” That’s the moment you have the skill. What’s important for us as arts educators, particularly teaching artists who don’t have enough time often to see the skills that have been established cognitively, being able to be manifested well out in the hands doesn’t mean you don’t have the skill. The skill is the inside and the practice enables you to demonstrate that discrimination. I think the capacity to make new discriminations is the work of the arts educator. That’s why teachers, even art on a cart teachers who don’t have enough time and personal relationship with students, to really get those skills out there in a way that’s satisfying for everyone, plant that skill, set up enough attractiveness of experimentation that the kid takes at home so that the kid is messing with stuff at home and trying stuff in the margin of her paper. That’s when the hand skill catches up to the internal skill.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, so good. Every time you go answer a question, I’m just like, “Oh, this is so good. I’m really happy for our listeners to get to listen to what you’re saying.” But I didn’t notice that in your book about the etymology and I thought at first, “Oh, gosh, this is going to be really overwhelming to me,” but then as you started to get into it, I was like, “Oh, this was really fascinating, each word.” Then some words, the etymological root of the word was not how we use it, like wonder was an example of that and I was like, “Ooh, that’s fascinating.” I really enjoyed that aspect of it.
But one of the things that you talked about in the book is the difference between big Art and little art. You did the same with big Religion and little religion because you’re talking about both in the book. What is the difference to you between those two?
Eric Booth: Yeah. I must say, those capital letters A and R, as much as they have authority in the world with the institutions of art and all those institutions of religion, in a lot of ways, they lose the direct experience of what that word is when you give it a small ‘a’ so that all art in America, and if you look at the research it’s really only six percent of Americans who feel they are people of the arts, they identify as someone where the arts are a big part of my life. Six percent, it’s your birthright. A hundred percent of us have the small ‘a’ experience in our lives but the institutional representation has allowed us to define it as that six percent noun. The focus certainly of arts educators is invigorating the relationship to art with a small ‘a’ which, etymologically, I’ll do it again, means to put things together. It doesn’t mean make art objects that others will say that’s beautiful. It’s an intentional investment of yourself in making something you care about.
In fact I don’t use the word art much anymore. I use the words “make stuff you care about” because I want kids making stuff they care about in artistic media and in lots of other media as well, with religion similarly. There are probably too many pages in the book about the ways that formal religious institutions have taken us away from the universality of that small ‘r’ where the etymology of religion is to bind tightly. It’s about our feeling connected. It’s not about dogmas and practices and institutions. It’s about feeling connected. The more we can apply energy toward that sense of connectedness, and some capital ‘r’ Religions do it great and some of them do it great for some of their people and not for others of their people, what I care about is not the institution but people have their birthright direct gigantic relationship with this human right and this capacity that brings us some of our greatest satisfactions and meaning in life. It’s sitting right there ready for us to access if we can get those skills sharpened.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. That really has very much described my journey over my adulthood of how I figured out that art is an intensive part of my personal religion. I feel like your book came to me at the exact right moment. I believe that happens. The book comes when you’re ready for the book and this was like, “This is exactly what I’m writing for right now.” I loved what you said about art changing art to creating something you care about. I noticed in your first book, you talked about it as creating worlds and I really loved that distinction too. You not only talked about creating worlds but it was three-parts: creating worlds, responding to worlds–
Eric Booth: Entering worlds and reading the world.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah, and I love, love that.
Eric Booth: Yeah. In The Everyday Work of Art, it really boils down to their three main actions. There’s the making worlds, which are these coherent somethings that hold the way you see things, and if all is well in our lives, we have the courage to share those with others, whether it’s the telling of a good story or the painting of something we care about, or the thanksgiving table. Then the second one is entering worlds: how do you set aside your preconceptions, your judgments to actually enter a world someone else made and discover what it has to offer. Not coming in with opinions and judgments but actually having the skills of audience to discover it on its own terms and find its value. You did that the other weekend with the paintings you were exploring, but we do it when we empathize with a friend telling us a story of something confusing that happened to him. We do it when we enter a foreign country very often. It’s as another set of verbs that artists use exquisitely but that reward throughout life. Then the third one: reading the world is that readiness to the serendipity of what the world will serve up to us if we walk through the world awake.
I’ve always been astonished that when I’m thinking about renovating my kitchen, I’m suddenly noticing stores that sell dishwashers. It’s not like they popped overnight, popped up, they were always there. But I never thought and my attention was not drawn to them because they were irrelevant. In our complex cognitive processing, they didn’t rise to merit attention, but we can actually mess with that, we can attend more broadly and discover all kinds of amazing things that are out there in the world. Reading the world is a way of walking through our lives with our aesthetic antennae active. It delivers up more goodies than you can imagine.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. One of my favorite things to do is to go through where I live and look at it through the lens of if I were traveling here. What would this look like to me when I’ve never been here before? Then all of a sudden, things are more beautiful, things that I thought were just mundane are actually quite charming. It just allows me to just look at where I live, just with a change of lens. I have these little beautiful moments at stoplights when I remember to do that.
Eric Booth: That’s it. One that I ask myself often is right where I am now, what are three things about this space I never noticed before? Or if I’m in a classroom, ask the kids, “What are three things about this space that you think probably no one else in the room is noticing today?” Those little practices start to develop that skill muscle of attending. It always pays off.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. I love it. One of the other skills that you talk about in the book—and I loved the way you did it because it was responding but you would put response-ability and I was delighted by that use of words—but responding to me is one of the ones that we work on so much at Art Class Curator with responding to works of art. Can you give us any tips or ideas on how to develop responsiveness through responsibility?
Eric Booth: Yeah. Of course, if you quote responsibility, you’re inviting an etymology quick break, an etymology break, respond means promise back. It is the ability to promise back. In standing in front of a painting, young people and not so young people generally don’t know what to do so they do the single least useful thing which is have an opinion about it before they’ve really seen it. I watch people go through galleries, it’s like watching dogs pee on fire hydrants. It’s like, “I had an opinion about this one, I had an opinion about that one,” and they haven’t even seen them. The way one begins to practice the skill of response-ability is to slow down and offer a little challenge—visual thinking strategies are really good ones, it’s a very common one—by using those simple questions to get people to ask questions, to just notice a specific something and not interpret it.
I see that there’s a piece of wood in the snow in that painting and to guide it to actually “What is it you’re actually seeing there?” “Oh, well it’s a piece of brown paint,” “Oh, and how’s that thing shaped and what made you think it was wood?” That’s when we actually start to have a relationship to the thing. Little assignments like I had one colleague, to develop responsibility, would have her students stand in front of a painting and do nothing but ask questions about it for about five, six, seven minutes and then at the end of that, have the students decide which questions would be the most interesting to answer together. They would spend 20 minutes in front of a painting with her doing a little bit of teaching in teachable moments but it was really about the practice of overcoming that knee-jerk gratification impulse to actually start to see and then watch them carry that to the other paintings in the gallery.
One little exercise I’ve loved to do for years is as young people come into the gallery, they have a handful of little, I call them chits, but they’re little prompts on pieces of paper like “This is the one that would cost the most money to buy,” or “This is the one I would want to have in my living room,” and they go lay those down in front of the painting that corresponds to the different prompts. Then they have a conversation based on how the class voted basically. Why do you think everybody, like so many people, wants this on their living room wall? What is it about this painting that has a living room feel to it? Suddenly, you’re having an investigation based on what is relevant to the learners that you feed in some interstitial information but it’s about curiosity, it’s about activating what they know and what they wonder about, and that heats up those skills. It builds a sense of relevance and competence that carries forward into the relationship to a gallery even when you don’t have little slips of paper.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Next time they go, it gives them a new way to engage with the art that they hadn’t thought about before.
Eric Booth: Yeah. One of my favorite little chit prompts is “This is the most spiritual painting in this room,” because you end up with young people in a conversation about spirituality in their lives and they have a really welcoming access to sharing what they think and feel, and that is often a memorable bit of conversation with young people.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, yes. I love that. I’m going to do that with adults too. Most of the time these days, I’m with adults in the galleries, because spirituality means such a different thing to so many different people. That sounds super powerful. Every time I get an idea, I have to stop for a minute and just let my brain remember that. Got it, it’s there. I really love that. Your book is so much about these intersections between art and spirituality. If you could, I guess, besides having someone pick up your book—which I recommend, I’m about halfway through and I’ve just been enjoying every second of it—what is one thing that our listeners can do right now to become more connected with that art and the divine?
Eric Booth: What a good question. In the book there are a lot of little exercises for people to try to do. I’m not remembering any of them right at this moment so let me speak in general rather than try to recall one that I’m not thinking of at the moment. The thing, I think, people have ready access to at any point is, well let me say one of the ready accesses, is through the experience of beauty. We assume beauty is in the thing, that’s that noun mind that we have, whereas it’s actually a quality of investment in us. Activities that have to do with inviting people to number one, reconnect to things that they have had beauty experiences with previously in their lives, that’s why these things are on our walls, we don’t always look at them, in fact, we don’t look at them very much, but to reconnect and remember, re-activate the sense of beauty, and then the exercise to look at something that is not beautiful by our standard definitions, and stay with it long enough to discover what’s beautiful about it.
That is one of the most simple powerful little exercises you can do on the bus, you can do with the stop light, is to look at the beat up garbage can, to look at the tree that’s not a great looking tree, and empathetically connect to its world, enter the world of it enough that we are reconnected to the experience of beauty, because its potential is everywhere and the experience of beauty is the one that starts to open us. It’s both an indicator that we’re in that state and it’s a gateway to enter that state. The simple practice of remembering to open to the inherent beauty of almost anything, maybe practicing with beautiful stuff but getting on to the not so beautiful stuff, is a way to just step over the threshold into the spiritual space almost any time you want.
Cindy Ingram: I love it, so good. Since you brought it up, you do have these exercises in the book. I’m an avid reader, I read a ton, and a lot of non-fiction books will have these little exercises at the end of the chapters that are like, “Okay, now do this,” and use the journaling prompt. Usually, I never do them ever because they’re always just like, “Tell me your thoughts on beauty.” They’re just not very engaging to me. But I noticed in your book, your exercises, I could tell you’re a teacher, I could tell you know how to get someone from here to there by the way they were worded, and I think that’s why I’m going a little slower with the book is because I get it in the chapter and I’ll be in bed and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I got to stop because I’m going to do that exercise,” and I’ll just be doing it in my head while I’m falling asleep. But I was so tickled by those because they are just so well crafted. You could tell you’ve put a lot of effort into those little sections.
Eric Booth: Well, that’s so nice and that’s really where my teaching artists years come in to be able to just shape a small invitation. I don’t do these activities at the ends of other books, I don’t do them either, but I was determined to make these inviting enough, and I guess I would say elegantly targeted enough, that it’s not like a generic suggestion you’re throwing out, it’s a real educator’s point of view.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. It’s how I craft a lesson of, “Okay, this is where I want the student to get. How do I get them there without just telling them? How do I get them to get there on their own?” That’s exactly how those were written. I think it’s a masterclass on how to write those. Anybody who writes a book needs to go look at yours.
Eric Booth: Thank you for that. It takes a lot of hours to do them as you well know so I’m glad they worked for you.
Cindy Ingram: Wonderful. We have been talking for a while so I think we probably need to wind it down. Before we do that, can you tell listeners how to connect with you online if they want to follow what you’re up to?
Eric Booth: Sure. Probably the easiest way, I’m really bad about letting people know what I’m doing but things I’ve written or important stuff that’s going on, my website’s the best way. It’s ericbooth.net, it’s that simple. That’s where there’s a lot of the free materials I’ve written and that’s home base. If anyone wants to get in touch with me, there’s a contact button there that’ll come right to me.
Cindy Ingram: Yes, and he gets back to you pretty quickly. I learned when I emailed you about the podcast, I’m so excited. We’ll put links to that as well as links to the books that we mentioned, as well as your books in the show notes for the site. But my last question that I ask all of my guests anytime they’re on the podcast is which artwork changed your life?
Eric Booth: All right. I have to give you the biggie. It was Hamlet. That’s what actors dream of and I got to play it three times. Each time, it was like my whole world. When I was in marathon training, I was running lines, I was still working 20 years after playing Hamlet, I was still working on those soliloquies when I was jogging. I’ve had three entirely different interpretations of it as my own inner life matured. I just got invited to speak to a book group next week so it’s like I spent two-thirds of my life fascinated by spelunking the depth of what’s underneath it. I never knew an artwork could carry two-thirds of a lifetime of fascination. I’d say for me that’s the big one. It may not be quite so fascinating for others but if ever I could play Hamlet one more time, a 75 year old Hamlet, Gertrude would probably have to be 125 at that point, but if there were such a production, I’d be there in a sec.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. My guess was that’s the one you’re going to say based on what I’ve read. I loved, in your book, listening to you, you talk about your process for getting into the character and really fully understanding him. It was really fun for me to watch that. What do you think it is about Hamlet that has captured you for so long?
Eric Booth: I think it’s got just the right amount of mystery where you never exactly know but you feel like you’re getting closer to this deep thing, that really is you’re getting closer to something of your own but you think it’s something out there. It’s just perfectly designed to take you deeper into your own understanding. The reason that play as opposed to another one for me is that’s the area I’m most interested in, that stuff of questions of ethics in the world, questions of the relationship to what do we do in life and how should we hold death, I love that stuff and so I want to spend a lifetime exploring it with some really great language.
Cindy Ingram: I love that. I just had Vanessa Zoltan on the podcast recently and we talked about using text, just secular texts as sacred texts and it sounds like that’s exactly what you’re doing with Hamlet. You’re learning from it about the world that you live in now, you’re learning from it about yourself, you’re feeding new understandings every time you engage with it. I love that. Thank you so very much for joining me today. I had such a blast talking with you.
Eric Booth: Oh, Cindy, so fun to talk with a spirit mate who’s seen the world the same way and is sharing it out with lots of other listeners. Welcome, listeners, who like to explore the world in the same way we do.
Cindy Ingram: Yes, thank you.
What’s keeping you from showing more artwork to your students? Do you get stuck trying to choose a work of art or do you fear your students will ask a question that you don’t know the answer to? Have you tried to start a classroom art discussion but didn’t know what to say or how to get your students talking? Are you worried you’re going to spend a ton of time researching and planning a lesson that none of your students are interested in? That’s why we created Beyond the Surface, a free professional development email series all about how to teach works of art through memorable activities and thoughtful classroom discussions. With Beyond the Surface, you’ll discover how to choose artworks your students will connect with and learn exactly what to say and do to spark engagement and create a lasting impact. Plus, you’ll get everything you need to curate these powerful learning experiences without spending all of your time planning. Sign up to receive this free professional development email course at artclasscurator.com/surface.
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