This week is a little different. Instead of my regular post, I have an interview with the lovely Reena Spansail. She teaches art to both high school students and to groups of women through Nevada Art Museum’s “Girls Night Out” classes. Additionally, Reena is a wonderful artist in her own right. Here, she reflects on encouraging art in others while sustaining her own creative practice, a balance I think creative mothers will recognize seeking in their own lives.
Could you start by describing your own art?
I’m a mixed media artist, meaning I pull from a whole bunch of different traditions and media. Currently I define myself as a water-based media artist. I really like inks; watercolor is my favorite type of painting. Water media specifically because there’s an element of the unknown in it, and I might tend to be a little bit of a control freak. How much it spreads and pools is not dependent on what I do, and I have to work with that, so that’s really meditative and focusing.
Could you say a little bit about what your practice is like?
I keep a sketchbook and I doodle something every day. I think that is work in the way that writing a couple pages every day is work, but when it comes to larger pieces that I’m willing to show other people, I’ve been turning one of those out every two or three weeks. When I was doing my graduate work, I wasn’t doing as much personal artwork and so now after conscientiously trying to pull myself out of that slump, I’ve enjoyed being much more prolific and I’ve noticed a shift in my style. I didn’t set out to really change up my iconography so drastically, but it’s happened. That’s one of the reasons why I appreciate practice even if it’s mostly in my sketchbook, because you notice these things about the way that you’re producing things and that gives you an insight into how your brain is processing things.
How have your ideas of art have changed since becoming a high school art teacher?
I strongly believe that the purpose of art classes is not so much to give basic drawing skills, not so much to give color theory, but more so reminding students that they are creative geniuses inherently. With little kids, it’s not that they don’t think about or know their work is different from the other little kid’s work right next to them, but they just don’t have all those inhibitions. Teenagers, because they’re so developmentally focused on their own ego and so focused on who am I and where do I belong, they’re self-conscious about their artwork. I think it’s my job and my privilege to ask questions and provide exercises that remind them that the very act of making things is important and they deserve that.
It’s very easy for a lot of them to get caught up and how much of a commodity they are seen as. A lot of my students talk about themselves as if they were things: the number of likes, how much money they are currently making, or how much money they might be able to get for artwork if they get good enough. They don’t often use words to describe themselves or to describe art or work in any other class as self-expression, so I feel like art classes are the one place where I can reward them for self-expression just for the sake of expression. Which is kind of funny because when I was an art student the idea of art for art’s sake was so hard for me to swallow, but I really see that phrase in a different way. Now I think the art for art’s sake means art for the action’s sake. The verb of drawing, painting, sculpting, whatever.
I think of teaching as emotionally and creatively laborious, much like parenting. How to do you retain emotional or creative energy for your own work?
This is the big question. I try to create with my students. I’ll be doing the exercise, so it’s not really “self-expression” for me—but instead of just stopping when it’s good enough to be a model, I just continuing to go with it. That’s one of the things that gets me through the day, deciding to make the thing and continue to make it because it’s fun because it makes my hands do something during the day.
Another thing is an exercise at the end of every class. So, you know, everyone is grouping up by the door to get to the next class, and so I have taught my students from the beginning to take an inhale and exhale. It lets them and me reset before the next group of emotions and humans and empathic awareness comes in. It’s a hard reset for me in that moment of awareness. I try to incorporate those little transitionary things, and I’ve also just been really thinking hard about what boundaries mean for me.
Mostly what boundaries mean for me is telling somebody that I feel their energy and I need them to just please leave. That doesn’t mean that I can’t hold space for somebody, but I’m trying to get better about holding space only when I’m want to. Like, someone will come in at lunch time. And I’ll say, give me a minute. And I will ask, do you need help with something or do you just want somebody to listen? It lets them know that I am available for both, but they often times come in blurting things and they need to develop self-awareness about their emotions, too. I think that I was conditioned when I was younger to just take it, but since I started implementing these sorts of questions–what exactly do you need? why are you here?–I have felt so much more energized.
I wanted to ask you about the art museum “Girls’ Night Out” classes for adults. Can you say why you developed that? If you notice mothers in the classes?
I’m trying to find more ways to empower the women in my life to exist outside of the male gaze and exist outside being useful to men. Craft and art, but definitely craft, give women the ability to get into themselves and abilities for the sake of their own abilities. I see a lot of people, women especially, gauge their own value based on their production and based on what they do for other people, and so I was interested in taking back this ladies’ night class.
What I’ve noticed about the women who have taken that class is that there is often a ring leader who will bring in her people and she’s like, we are going to have a nice date night, we are going to get away from the husband, away from my kids. They also come to the class because they want some feedback, or they come to the class because they want to see what other people are doing with this, or they come to the class because they just want some validation—not necessarily validation like I need attention, give me attention,but more like another voice saying I should keep going.
Most of the women who choose to come in are either looking for an excuse or permission to have more fun or they’re looking for an outlet to have some fun or they already found something that was fun and they want to get into it.
What are your tips for developing an artistic habit?
Carve out habit time, and I would say tie it to another habit you already have, like die-hard have to have coffee in the morning. With my coffee I sometimes do a poem; sometimes I just do “artists’ pages.” Carve out 15 to 20-minutes where you can sketch if you’re an artist or where you can freeform write. Tell other people around that they don’t get to talk to you during that time. My partner and I live together, and when I first started this habit he would engage me in conversation, but I’d tell him, you can’t talk to me during this time, you just can’t.
If you need encouragement or if you feel that doing your visual art alone is a lot to ask is making art dates. Incentivize them with snacks and art supplies, even if those are some pipe-cleaners. People are so delighted whenever you invite them to an art date. If that means taking an art class together, great; if that means just coming over and playing with your kids’ crayons while your kids have a playdate, great. It’s still something that you’re doing.
Another tip is to play around with a whole bunch of different media, but don’t spend a lot of money. Beg, borrow, and see what you like. I spent several years of my life thinking I was an oil painter and then when I finally picked up some watercolors, it just clicked. So, it might not be that you’re not visually creative, it just might be that you haven’t found the medium that’s fun. and you know you can do a lot of visual but internet research ahead of time. Give yourself in to experiments the way a kid experiments.
My last tip would be use positive affirmations. Literally writing down or actually saying things like I am the best artist I can be today, I am a visual player, or I am someone who welcomes her own art to flow through her fingers. However poetically you want to say it. It doesn’t really matter, but say it out loud, write it down.
To learn more about Reena and her art: