Printing in Japan 日本での印刷: Part 2

 

This is a continuation of my time spent in May and June, 2017. See earlier part 1- Printing in Japan: 日本での印刷

A Comparison of Learning Environments: Academia and the Apprenticeship Models

Watanabe Publishing c. 1935

I personally feel very fortunate in many ways: I have have a functional, supportive family and as a university professor, I am paid to learn, along with my teaching responsibilities. I have tried to not separate learning and teaching as much as possible.

A few opportunities came up for me via woodblock printmaking to consider my role: One was casual conversations with David Bull of Mokuhankan concerning the apprenticeship model and the other is an invitation to speak at IMC2017: the International Mokuhanga Conference in Honolulu, HI this late Sept. The subject that I chose for the conference relates to Environment and Social considerations of woodblock printmaking- certainly a broad subject with a lot of latitude. I would like to concentrate on active learning within work environments and how to incorporate elements of active learning within academia. There will be a diverse crowd: artists, craftsmen, academics, professionals, and amateurs. As a teacher and commercial artist with a diverse background, I feel that I am able to compare ways of learning which I have personally felt were the most valuable to me and my students.

A little printmaking background: Since the mid-90s, I have struggled (mainly on my own) to understand what variables equate making a strong and well-made print, both in design and execution.

If you have tried mokuhanga, you know what I mean: (1) everything seems prohibitively expensive, (2) a lot of things are hard or impossible to come by, and (3) you’re not sure of what’s right/wrong since there are very few reliable sources of direct information. Some, if not most of these challenges can’t be addressed by studying books or taking classes. I have learned enough of the art that I needed to go back to Japan to feel, smell, look, hear, and absorb the process and to work alongside others who have a more developed and varied experience. I really wasn’t conscience of what I needed, it just seemed like the natural progression of things. And I got a chance to do just that this summer. Beyond the technical issues, I also was able to rediscover and consider that…

“I find that, although I have learned a great deal as a student, I have valued work and outside of academia experiences every bit as much, if not more.”

Selected Glimpses of Learning

As I stated earlier, I worked for nearly 10 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution starting in 1987 and later as owner of Amoss Illustration, Inc. working with many national clients.

Prudential Quarterly
cover illustration c.1998
A masthead illustration
for the 1996 Olympic
Editions of the AJC

During that period, I learned:

  • to carefully chose the questions to ask
  • to learn to teach myself
  • to watch, try, then ask
  • to be engaged
  • to be patient and open to listening to authority
  • to witness artwork being made
  • that ability was rewarded
Toshio Odate

Later, I took a week-long course in Japanese woodworking, which, to some degree exposed me to a taste of what it was like to work under a master, Toshio Odate.

I learned:

  • that, in a group, students quickly, and naturally formed a hierarchy based on skills and that there were several un-official teachers
  • that I had the choice to stay or leave
  • that the teacher only helped those students who tried all solutions first
  • that spaces are to be filled with action, rather than talk
  • that I was not very good at carpentry
Fellow printers at work- (clockwise FL>FR): me, Aiyumi-san, Suga-san, and Ishikawa-san

And to compare, I considered my experience this spring at Mokuhankan, print studio in Tokyo.

I learned that:

  • although I was a ‘competent’ printer, I was around printers who were obviously consistently better and I continuously re-defined what “quality” was
  • it was understood that all printers had to steadily improve or they were relegated to less interesting work
  • a print-shop is a team effort which allows for all to contribute
  • you are receptive to learn what you need when you need it

This begs the question:

As an educator in a public university, the question that I am posing is: How can I/we incorporate these “apprenticeship-like” modes of “deep learning” into practice?

Not to be a “downer” here, but there are many things in academia (non-technical schools) that seem to ‘conspire’ against doing so IMO:

  1. Class length: You have them for 3 months or so and even if they take the next class in succession, such as Printmaking II, it could be a year or more since they’ve thought about the subject. Sometimes the 2.5 hours a class period is too long and too short
  2. Grades: Especially in the beginning of college, students often care more about grades than learning- is this high school’s fault? parents? society? What many students are looking for is a “stamp of approval” aka a diploma (which should be important). At least in art, a good portfolio is key to getting anywhere.
  3. Class schedule- me to students: OK, guys- first we study relief printmaking, then etching, then… Some students want to continue to stick with something longer because they see its potential instead of moving on. The rationale is, of course, that they can pick it up later in their academic career to pursue what they resonate with.
  4. “Info-dumping”. Most students want the answers and if the instructor doesn’t give them all of it, then the student doesn’t feel as if they have received what they’ve paid for.

Of all the issues above, #4 seems to be the biggest deal for me. The problem of an “info dump” is that it’s artificial, consumer-based, and not very useful for anyone. I hate to say it, but the student must first find the problem in order to appreciate the answers. Art is, in my opinion, a REALLY good place to apply an active learning process based on information given within the context of need, rather than simply laying out information.

To use an analogy: As a musician, I’ve seen many a beginner buy a very expensive instruments from square-one [I liken this to having access to all of the answers aka “info-dumping”]. Although you can say that “you can’t blame the instrument anymore and it’s now up to hard work”, so many times, the ease of getting a thing overshadows creating a thing which requires a shift of thinking from a consumer to a maker. The same can be true of information- knowing is an abstraction and by “info-dump”, it doesn’t equate understanding and I think a large part of understanding comes from the physical activity of receiving the information when you can value/need it/understand the context. I’m sure I have succumbed to these strong temptations in my life many times- maybe I’m doing it right now…

However, I feel confident in this recipe for succeeding in anything:

“Do a lot of work consistently with persistence, awareness, curiosity, and purpose.”  Or, in distilled terminology:

Enough of my soapbox…

Check this out:

On apprenticeships:In the old days that sometimes meant just hanging around sweeping the floor or helping stack wood, being a ready eager extra hand. When the carpenter was satisfied with the young students’ commitment, then he would begin to give some unimportant tasks to accomplish. Rudimentary tools and basic instruction of their use would be provided. As experience and familiarity with the tools was gained, he was allowed to approach more involved work. Generally the methods of teaching are not overt. It is said that the student must “steal” information. That is, when he has tried and failed at something, then truly ready and eager to learn, the teacher will allow an opportunity for the student to see how it should be done. But nothing is said and the student can’t just stand and watch. He must sneak a look while still busy with his designated task of the moment. Little or no pay was received until the apprentice could produce useful work.”   –Takumi Carpentry

Based on what I’ve experienced- and the system that was developed over centuries, what I would add as a teacher to my academic courses are:

  • To point out what students do and let them explain to the class how they got there frequently and well BEFORE a critique
  • To let them fail without me feeling personally responsible
  • To use silence and work as a way to reduce abstraction
  • To work in front of students as much as possible in and out of class
  • To make another printing bench so that those who show interest can work alongside me

Can you think of any other ways of “keeping things real” as they say?

NEXT: Over the next chapters I’ll discuss what I learned while in Japan about the preparation of some materials.


NEXT: More about Printing in Japan 日本での印刷: Part 3