Trajectories of Learning

Posted on: September 13th, 2020 by jmbroekman 2 Comments
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The path to learning

I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with my friend, Julia, about the trajectory of learning. Almost twenty-five years ago Julia founded The Penobscot School, a non-profit language school in Rockland, Maine. During the summer, they invited people from all around the world to come study English in an immersive environment, while during the winter they brought native French, Spanish, Italian speakers to teach Americans.

At one point during an Italian immersion she described the trajectory of learning she had witnessed at the school. It didn’t matter if the class was one day, or three weeks, the pattern was the same. Students began with a high level of enthusiasm and excitement but about mid-way through each class, regardless of duration, the energy waned, and participants began to get discouraged and seemingly unable to absorb anything new. In each case, though, they made it through the lull, came back up the other side, and by the end of the class they were again full of zest and passion for language learning.

Learning to find my joy

I experienced something similar while taking Louise Fletcher’s on-line painting course called “Find Your Joy” (which I wrote a little about in my last post). There were definitely moments early in the course where I was finding joy. But somewhere around week 6 I wasn’t getting anywhere; I wasn’t enjoying myself, and I just couldn’t “get it”. I had hit a wall.

And then, just as quickly as I came up against my familiar blocks and barriers, once we were into the 8th week they melted away, and I was back up and running on the path of learning.

Until.

Yup, just as the course is winding down, I hit another speed bump. Louise released her last video at the end of this week. In it she shared her process reviewing a series paintings. Initially after seeing this video I had one of those light-bulb aha moments. Then that moment morphed into a point of departure down a rabbit hole of despair.

The “trick” that Louise shared was looking at b/w photos of her work. When I turned snapshots of the work I’ve done over the last ten weeks into monochrome versions of themselves … UGH. All I saw was a bunch of grey mush; there was very little of interest in terms of contrast to help move your eye around the painting. I had to ask myself if for all these years of making art I’d been relying too heavily on my love of and facility with color at the expense of all else.

It felt like I was suddenly back at square one and that I’d wasted the past forty years and all those ten plus thousand hours of work in my studio. But here’s the beauty of on-line learning, when I expressed some of these concerns in the “classroom” Louise responded with: Do you see how black and white this thinking is? Good point.

Velocity of learning

I’ve seen one definition of a learning curve as the rate at which a person progresses in gaining experience or new skills.

Maybe I can look at all those mushy grey photos as an exciting discovery – something new to explore and learn. Maybe there is still time for me to sing my song at the top of my lungs. The opera that is my life is not yet over. So now I need to figure out how to embrace the ever changing velocity of my own sometimes steep learning curve.

(At left are images from weeks 2, 5, and 9)

Adopting a Growth Mindset

Posted on: July 10th, 2020 by jmbroekman
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Developing a Growth Mindset

I am recalibrating my vocabulary and learing to turn the word failure into the phrase ‘not yet’. I recently heard a TED Talk by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck in which she talked about a school in Chicago, where the grading system was “pass/not yet”. There is no failing grade. The result of this simple change is that the students are developing a growth rather than a fixed mindset. With a growth mindset comes curiosity and the willingness to try again, or explore a different approach. With a fixed mindset, you decide you aren’t good at something and don’t even try to improve. The students at this school are developing a growth mindset, they don’t give up easily and are thus more engaged in their learning.

Dweck (who wrote Mindset about this concept) posits that your mindset actually changes what you strive for and how you define success and failure. Maria Popova of Brainpickings, wrote a great piece about thisif you’d like to learn more.

Not Yet

I have that mindset when I am making books – I make a lot of not-yets along the way to the final successful book. I’m not bothered by the wrong turns, I learn something each time. Somehow with my paintings I have a much harder time. The not yet stages always feel like complete and utter failures; which in turn sends me down a rabbit hole of despair. I am trying to learn to trust all those not yet stages. To that end I’ve enrolled in a ten-week painting course with Louise Fletcher – an artist in the UK. It started this week, and already it’s opening up my mind to a lot of possibilities. She is showing me many ways I need to change my mindset. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m ready to try.

The images above are 3 stages of a painting that is clearly still a not-yet. Initially it was a quick oil sketch of some early spring flowers. It was light and airy, maybe OK. But something inside me said, nah, not yet. The last image is the most recent iteration – and it was a response to an exercise from the class this week. I’m pretty sure it’s still a not-yet painting.

But for the first time in a long time, I’m OK with that.

Are You Book Enough: Break

Posted on: May 30th, 2020 by jmbroekman 2 Comments
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Break: Seasons

Break

We could probably all use a break right about now. Am I right?

“Break” was this month’s theme for the Instagram bookbinding community “Are You Book Enough” challenge. Sarah Maker, of Editions Studio, began this challenge in 2017, and has been offering up a one word theme every month since then. Artists around the world participate by interpreting the theme and making an artist’s book – broadly defined. I had been following the hashtags (never feeling as if I was quite book enough) for some time before I finally decided to dive in. I have to say that during the shelter in place order, and with the chaos of the news surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been a balm; a way to turn all of my attention and focus in a positive and engaging direction to come up with a book about: Hexagon for March, Machine for April, and finally Break for this month, May. (If you have an Instagram account and do not already follow me, I encourage you to check out my work for the previous months: @jmbroekman).

The thing is, I am such an obsessively hard worker and perfectionist (in some – clearly not all – ways), that I can’t make just one book. This month (thus far), for example, I’ve completed seven. Each of which has in turn led me to another.

Break. Pause. Interrupt.

“Break” brought to mind so many interpretations. Of course there is break as in: crack, destroy, break apart, break open. But what interested me even more, was break as in: pause, interrupt, the space between. I thought of how it relates to time – the time between, as in intermission; and that what we are experiencing now is a break in the normalcy of our lives, an intermission between Act 1: before the pandemic and what has been; and Act 2: what is still unknown, has yet to become. That was the first book: Intermission (at left top).

Break. Disrupt. That space between two moments.

Next up were a series of thoughts and books about water; waves and tides. The place where the wave crashes, rolls into shore and then back out. The moment when it changes direction. That break when the incoming tide becomes outgoing. A reversal. The gap in a pattern. That nanosecond when something is neither this nor that.

Break. Crack. Destroy.

Then one day I took a detour. As I was washing my hands for the umpteenth time, I glanced up at a painting I’d made 27 years ago. It was from a series of cracked vessel paintings, which in turn reminded me of another small body of work I’d completed in 2015 – prints of vessels that were in response to the bombing of a booksellers street in Iraq in 2007 (more about that project here). I had a mess of proofs from that project in my flat files, and thought I could make a broken cup book (below). The result was not what I had in mind, but it was great to find a use for all those proofs.

Break:Cups

Break free, break loose, break out.

Another direction. This one was an idea that had been tumbling around inside my head all month. Spring took it’s time arriving in Maine. At the beginning of May, I wore a heavy jacket on my morning walks – the temps were still only reaching 40 degrees. But each day, I watched as spring slowly started to emerge. It brought to mind the question: when is that moment when one season becomes the next? I was watching as winter broke and became spring, and now spring is fast hurtling toward summer. After I sent my friend Janet some thoughts I was working with for text in the next book, she wrote so eloquently:

Some seasons creep in slow and some days start off in one season and end in another.

I was noticing the windows through which one season breaks free and becomes the next; how plants push their way through the not completely thawed ground to announce the arrival of spring. This became the most recent (but possibly not the last) book for this month’s challenge. It may be the most hopeful of the lot. Which admittedly we can all likely use a good dose of as spring finds it’s way toward summer, and we continue to try and crawl our way into a post-pandemic world.

My hope for you is that this pandemic will not break you in any way shape or form. Be well, stay safe and whole.

Interpreting the Silence

Posted on: July 17th, 2019 by jmbroekman
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What We KEep

Save the date: Thursday, September 12, 2019

My solo exhibition, Interpreting the Silence, opens September 12, 2019 at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland, Maine.

I will be showing one-of-a-kind artists books, and mixed media paintings that explore my family’s survival of the Holocaust, their immigration to the United States, and the effects of this legacy on my life. Though neither of my parents was willing to talk about their wartime experiences, that period in their lives obviously left a lasting imprint –– not only on who they became, but also on the children they raised. Who were my parents? Who might they have been had the war not interrupted their lives? This past winter I found myself trying to unravel some of the threads of their history.

The Work

Using facsimiles of writing, photos, and other ephemera, I created a matrix of original monoprints. Prints which were then torn, folded, and bound in myriad ways. The books are meditative –– not your typical turn-one-page-at-a-time kind of books. They are sculptural objects that serve as containers in which to hold these stories. Rather than being specifically illustrative, they are evocative of the journeys we take from one moment to the next.

This body of work also reflects a broader theme that I have been investigating for decades — how each of us is shaped not only by our own experiences and the memories we hold, but also by the experiences and memories of our ancestors.  I am interested in how these narratives are passed from one generation to the next –– not always in obvious, but often significant, ways. Examining these individual formative stories is certainly as relevant today as ever given current mass human migrations across the planet.

Initially the plan for this exhibition was to tell my family’s stories of surviving the Holocaust. That idea, however, evolved into an exploration of the intersection between past and present, and the unintended consequences of keeping secrets. Making these books and paintings cracked a Pandora’s vase spilling out more questions than answers. Perhaps I will always be trying to interpret the silences of my childhood.

Photo Album

Questions of Enough

Posted on: September 27th, 2018 by jmbroekman
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What is Enough?

I have been working on some new work around issues of ENOUGH. When is enough, enough? What is enough? Will we ever understand there is more than enough? How do you define enough? These questions came up as I considered the path of migrants throughout history. It’s something I’ve been thinking about recently in light of an upcoming show. More on that in a minute.

In my mind many, if not most, of the ills we face as a species boil down to a question of enough. Today’s rise of the far right nationalist parties seems to grow out of the fear of not having enough; that what little you might have will be taken away by those who have even less. Migrants are almost always driven by not having enough – safety, food, clean water, shelter, economic opportunities etc. I can’t help but think that issues around enough are at the root of just about every problem we face in this increasingly polarized world.

When is enough, enough?

I have been thinking about this while creating a few artists’ books about it; specifically for IXNOS, an exhibition in response to the passage of migrants through the Greek Island of Lesvos. This exhibition is part of a statewide initiative: Making Migration Visible, which includes a major exhibition at the ICA at MECA exploring ideas about migration, mobility and displacement. It’s a topic that hits me at my core; and one I think I’ve been exploring in indirect ways for a long time.

These patterns of having or not having enough get passed down through the generations. For example, having survived the Holocaust, my mother understood what not having enough to eat felt like, and was thus, always afraid that we wouldn’t have enough food in the house. When, in high school, I started to do the grocery shopping, I would always shake my head as she put a can of tuna on the list when I could see we clearly still had two cans on the shelf. Now I get it. On a visceral level. In fact, I, too, am afraid of running out of food, and often have more than one can of tomatoes in the cupboard.

Good enough?

There is another manifestation of what enough means: when you add good as a prefix. Good enough. What’s good enough? Is good enough, enough? It’s an endless battle in my mind when it comes to my work. Not to mention my overall being. Making this book about enough was a great experience. It allowed me to put these thoughts out into the world in a compelling way; It was a way for me to continue grappling with them. And, the best part: I learned some great new tricks for making a flag book, which was a lot of plain old fun.

Ixnos:Traces

The exhibition runs from October 6 through the end of the year at the Glickman Library on the University of Southern Maine campus.