Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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Thursday 08.29.13

On the art palette and the artist’s palate

1When my colleague April Munson showed me Frank Fidel’s “The Artist’s Palate: Cooking with the World’s Great Artists”, I realized just how confusing words can be. Take palette and palate. The first word refers to that range of colors an artist works with, while an artist’s palate refers to a sense of taste or an intellectual or aesthetic sense.

I was formally introduced to an artist’s palette when as a child I was given an apron filled with crayons. Those sixteen colors worked certain magic on my imagination. In memory, I played with those colors and put them back in their pockets without thinking about primary or secondary combinations. Nor was I to concerned with the elements or principles of art. The apron was a convenient place to keep my crayons and always have them handy. But when I found this packed away treasure, the first thing I did was get a box of “regular” crayons and arrange the colors into a palette ever so pleasing to my adult aesthetic sense. When April shared a photograph of a dish served to her in 2
Spain, here was an example of palate as both the sense of taste and an aesthetic sense.   

April and I have recently spent a great deal of time discussing art terms and words in general. Our conversations ranged from words within art, those disciplinary specific terms we use and teach our students in order to gain experience with art, to the acquisition of academic language, that list containing 570 word families developed by Averil Coxhead known as the academic word list (AWL). The AWL consists of words that occur in a range of academic texts from various subject areas including art, commerce, law, and science that students need to know in order to be college and/or career ready (complete information is available here).

Reviewing the AWL 10 sub-lists made me realize how much I assume about teaching and learning; particularly what I think “everyone” knows. While art words abound in the AWL offering a rich opportunity to expand the knowledge base of all our students, making sure students understand words in context and can accurately use them to communicate orally and in writing is a constant challenge. That challenge gives me an opportunity to unpack the language of art, to consider carefully what type of learning occurs when I use “estimate, identify, method, process, source, vary”, just to name a few of the 570 words in AWL. I am so steeped in my disciplinary silo, I find it’s time to pull back and look at words differently. Words can be confusing so I need to be sure I am providing a solid base for 21st century learners. It’s time for me to put that apron on again in order to learn and teach in a new light.
-Diana Gregory

Monday 08.19.13

Seriously, play

One of the great advantages of art making and learning is the special place play has in what I call my toolbox of skills and competencies. Play is a key ingredient in creative thinking and problem solving, but as adults we often forget to make use of play even though as children it came naturally. Give an empty box to a toddler, stand back and watch the exploration begin. What does that box hold? How can I get in or out? What is this thing made off? Why then does play fall away as we get older? I think we shrink away from play because we are afraid we won’t be taken seriously or we might even look foolish. Play is relegated to certain times, places, or events like board games or spots, but it is not included in meetings unless of course you happen to work in a creative industry where your ability to play will likely be honored.

Several years ago, I decided an injection of play might be just the thing I needed to increase my flat to nonexistent creativity. I wanted to reconnect my heart, hand and brain in one circuit. I seriously needed to learn how to play again. I was a bottled up mess of formal training crammed with over-thought ideas that clearly lacked sparkle. My creativity had disappeared in the long shuffle of day-to-day routines or “most do” obligations that pulled the oxygen out of me. What could I do that would jump start my passion for making and exploring, and give me that childlike sense of wonder? My inspiration came from a formal introduction to mandalas.

Mandala making
1My interest in mandala making has two roots. First, there is the scholarly understanding of the contextual history within Eastern religion and Western psychology second, and most importantly, there is the aspect of mandala making as a centering of self in play. A corner of my studio is designed for just this type of play. All my favorite things are gathered neatly about but are scattered in complete disorder. 2Scraps of paper, small piles of found objects, different mediums including watercolors, colored pencils, even crayons, all hold a place of distinction. My first mandalas show the grasp of formal training; it took awhile for that grip to loosen, but eventually I did learn to relinquish control, to let this moment be, and to not worry if this was art.

  3 4

5Playful encounter with materials coupled with connection to my senses lead to new discoveries. I placed trust in the moment generating what I felt rather than what I thought. What constituted a completed work began to change as I learned that chance and surprise were equally important to balance and focus. Rather than force an idea, I confidently let go and let be.  

At mandala workshops, I invite participants to tap into their playfulness, to faithfully allow what they are feeling to surface, then give the image time for thoughtful reflection. Then like a curious cat just follow where the image takes you.

6This journey kindled newfound powers of creativity within me that I utilize in many aspects of my daily shuffle. As a result, impermanence has entered my art vocabulary. Now, works are what they are. Works change or I use them to make other pieces – there is a cycle of usefulness that excludes holding on and/or clinging. I understand that disruption has a place and may in fact lead me to a new creation. I trust my instincts and find I am not afraid to offer different suggestions or ways of solving problems. The benefit of thinking and responding like an artist diversifies my point of view. It also means I seriously play! 

-Diana Gregory

Wednesday 08.14.13

Creativity every day!

My keen interest in aspects of creativity – problem finding, curiosity, perseverance, finding solutions, reflection, and transformation – is fueled by the work of art. Art making requires certain skills and competencies learned over a lifetime, but as Eric Booth (2001) reminds us “art is not apart. It is a continuum within which all participate; we all function in art, use the skills of art, and engage in the action of artists every day” (p.3). A similar notion of every day engagement with the action of artists is found in the National Core Arts Standards: A Conceptual Framework for Arts Learning where imagination, investigation, construction, and reflection are viewed as meta-cognitive activities that nurture the effective work habits of curiosity, creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, communication, and collaboration – all aspects of learning and life in the 21st century.

I believe the challenge for artist/teachers involves nurturing both the development of the meta-cognitive activities and the constant reinforcement of the working habits, specifically creativity. Creativity is not a simple concept. It is a complex system involving interpersonal factors like thinking, personality, and motivation; it often depends on our interactions with other people, and the supportive or destructive aspects of the social and physical environment (Cropley & Cropley, 2009). Whether we are teaching creativity to students or conducting creativity training for adults, what you know about creativity will foster excellence in both teaching and learning. 

“Tell me what you learned from this” is one way I focus on the creative process not the product that also gives me an opportunity to encourage a differentiated understanding of the production of creativity, especially the phases: preparation, activation, generation, illumination, verification, communication, and validation. For students, an unsuccessful project may not be a disaster if what is learned in one setting is applied to another. Thus, a major artist/teacher task is to keep students genuinely motivated to learn and explore. If we do this, then students are encouraged by risk taking or making a mistake for the sake of discovery. Failure can be an option when reflection leads to increased knowledge. 

Another task: find a way honor those “way out,” even off-the-wall suggestions or questions, still linked to the reality of the context. Thinking on my feet as I incorporate new or different ideas often takes a minute of reflective out loud musing. I know that students and colleagues are a valuable source of ideas especially when they challenge my ideas so respecting “other” is constantly a work in progress. The generation of novel thinking is a practical aspect of encouraging creativity. My preferred cognitive style of random abstract thinking certainly doesn’t fit every situation. This challenges me to question whether my thinking style is facilitating or blocking the generation of novelty or creativity in myself or in others and is a form of meta-cognition that helps me redefine plans when necessary, monitor progress on a project, change my approach if needed, keeps me aware of other alternatives, and helps me recognize opportunities when they arise (Cropley & Cropley, 2009). 

Last I want to mention intentional noticing. With our five senses we are in a constant noticing mode, but as an art form intentional noticing moves us from the succession of experiences to reflective awareness. Booth (2001) suggests that we learn to set things about from the commonplace to attend to them in a special way. Intentional noticing is a way to shift our experience into conscious reflective action. Here’s an exercise: carry different color pens with you, then notice which one you select for writing. You can even record why you selected that particular color. Creativity calls for us to pay attention on many levels, to scan for similarities, to notice differences, to look closely then shift our gaze to the far away. Our noticing is an active tool and one of the best working habits I know. I’ll close with an expanded reference list including some not so recent and recent titles and authors that keep me connected to creativity every day!   

Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in context. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Booth, E. (2001). The everyday work of art: Awakening the extraordinary in your daily life. Lincoln, NE:, Inc. 

Cropley, A. & Cropley, D. (2009). Fostering creativity: A diagnostic approach for higher education and organizations. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Dacey, J. S. & Lennon, K. H. (1998). Understanding Creativity: the interplay of biological,  psychological, and sociological factors. New York: Jossey-Bass.

Florida, R. (2012). The rise of the creative class. New York: Basic Books.

Gelb, M. J. (2004). How to think like Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Bantam Dell.
National Core Arts Standards: A Conceptual Framework for Arts Learning. Retrieved from

Seelig, T. (2012). inGenius: A crash course on creativity. New York: Harper One.

-Diana Gregory

Friday 08. 9.13

The Mentor Mirror

The term “mentor” rattled around in my brain as I sat down to write my first blog. What does it mean to be a mentor? Who are my mentors? Are there folks out there to whom I am providing the mentoring mirror? Are people always mentors? Or are there other events, places, or things that provide mentoring opportunities? I wondered if mentoring was always positive, or were there painful moments or people who also provided mentoring that I hesitated to recognize?

A vivid mentor memory is the image I hold of Marylou Kuhn sitting on her porch in Tallahassee, Florida. I met Marylou soon after she retired as Chair of the Department of Art Education at Florida State University. When we met I was unaware of Marylou’s long and distinguished association with NAEA and the honors she’d received (1981 June King McFee Award and the Distinguished Fellow Class of 1986), to say nothing of her academic scholarship. I knew her from her love of art; our conversations varied but always revolved around art and its importance in our lives. This was a time when we were both in transition. After years in academia, Marylou wanted to reconnect with making art. She dropped herself into the swift waters of creating and plunged headlong into doing and having fun as a working artist. She could have rested on her laurels, taken the easy path and enjoyed the admiration of those around her, instead of challenging herself to create art. How did she mentor me?

As I sat on that porch I learned that art and the making of it is a lifelong endeavor, an unbroken way of knowing; reconnecting with the creative was possible at any age, and finding the courage to create was worth the effort. I talked about graduate school and voiced fears and worries of worthiness that she quickly dismissed. She talked about muscle memory, life experience, and finding ways to express joy and happiness in the moment. She encouraged me. We celebrated milestone events with lunches coupled with generous portions of her time. As our relationship changed, Marylou treated me less as a mentee and more as a colleague. I recognized this when she invited me to view her new art work before framing as she prepared for her retrospective show at LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts.

“I don’t like the bottom of this piece,” she complained.

I boldly suggested she crop it, saving the best part of the piece. She agreed, and when I saw the work at her show I promptly bought it. It is a constant reminder of the valuable lessons I learned from Marylou. Life is for learning, and learning happens throughout life. Art is a way of knowing; trust the connection between your heart, mind, and hand. Create with courage, look for more than one perspective, and enjoy making. Marylou’s love of art was apparent at her opening, a bittersweet moment as she had just passed and was greatly missed by everyone she had inspired. Here are three of her works from 1950 thru 1996.

1974KuhnMarylou__Portrait    1974KuhnMarylou_Dandilion

  First image: Early unframed work of Marylou's Mother circa 1950; Second image: "Dandelion" 1974; Third image: "My Friend from San Francisco" 1996.

When I stand in front of a class, I think about my relationship with Marylou. I remind candidates that in a short time we will be colleagues, not teacher and student or mentor and mentee. I recognize the relationship and honor the growth and challenges presented in the position. I hope that I provide the spark and desire for lifelong learning I garnered from Marylou while passing on a tradition of excellence in teaching and learning.

My influences and mentoring process has included not only people but places as well: the mountains and the seashore, where my experiences have contributed to my memory, my knowing, and my art. I have a growing realization that my mentors are those who helped me develop different perspectives; or who questioned me and challenged me to think critically when defending my position. In this atmosphere of trust, where conversations can take on an authentic level of attention and concern, I find myself opening up and sharing just like I did with Marylou. In reflection, I cherish this mentoring mirror and hope I pass it to others.  

-Diana Gregory