Mary Catherine Bateson’s Peripheral Visions has helped me make sense of how art-making leads to learning. First, she reminds me that as an artist, I have a relationship to culture, which I can learn from if I’m able to be both participant and observer of my experience. She describes participant observation as “a way of being, especially suited to a world of change." Second, she values being “ambidextrous” in relation to our ever-changing worlds; she believes we can learn what we need to, if we acquire flexible skill, even if we've missed or been denied opportunities to learn at earlier places in our lives. “We can carry on the process of learning in everything we do, like a mother balancing her child on one hip as she goes about her work with the other hand or uses it to open the doors of the unknown. Living and learning, we become ambidextrous."
Artists, I realize, are flexible learners, being in and with daily experience and, at the same time, articulating and translating experience and creating new objects from it. Being ambidextrous as an artist means learning from living, and making art along the way.
I’ve also come to view the process of making art as a process of learning to return home. Bateson says learning is a kind of homecoming: “Virtually all the learning that precedes schooling--walking, talking, bye-bye and peekaboo, the intricate rhythms of life within a household--is learning as homecoming." She defines learning as core, fundamental, a primary relationship. I realize what’s primary in our lives is culture--not solely a broad context, but an intimate relationship that defines who we are. Flexible learning allows us to discover or give meaning to our primary cultures (such as family) and allows for new relationship to and with our core selves. It also affirms what we really are. As an artist, I've come to see an ambidextrous homecoming as central to the making of art. Art can be a way to "mother" ourselves and offers a relationship to home that can be primary and real.
Relationship, Bateson makes clear, allows for possibility (and growth) in learning. Learning is not alienated, lonely. It is about connection to another. "Often what is taught would not be learned if it were not embedded in a relationship, for it may have no obvious relevance...” Here, Bateson is referring to our relationship with "teachers,” especially those who shape the context for and processes by which we'll learn. I’m pondering how others shape our learning—how our primary cultures (especially our families) teach us to teach ourselves. The journey of life, it seems to me, is deeply connected to our sense of primary cultures—I'm calling these "home"—and, moreover, being able to make sense of our home. Art is the object that articulates the artist's relationship to home.