Artist/educator Mary Stewart is the author of Launching the Imagination, a best-selling basic design textbook. Exploring a wide range of products and processes, this book treats design as both a noun and as a verb.
As a co-founder of Integrative Teaching International (see https://www.integrativeteaching.org/), Professor Stewart has helped to nurture a new generation of university-level educators. She is currently working on a new book titled From Ideation to Implementation. During her visit to University of New Brunswick, she completed the interviews posted here and gave a presentation titled From STEM to STEAM: Harnessing the Connective Power of Creativity.
The following is a conversation between Dr. Mary Blatherwick and Professor Stewart.
MB: Tell us about early experiences and influences in your life and career.
MS: Most kids love to draw and can play with clay for hours. As they mature, many take up other activities, such as sports, music or drama. My path was quite different. I grew up in a farming area south of Miami. At that time, there were very few cultural activities available and even fewer sports open to women. So, I stuck to drawing, and when I entered high school, I was quite adept. I became fascinated by printmaking and received my BFA in this discipline from University of New Mexico and my MFA from Indiana University.
Then, as a tour guide at Yellowstone National Park, I received wonderful lessons in communication from one of the trainers for the National Park Service. I realized I was an effective speaker and that I most wanted to teach at the college level.
MB: What lead you to write Launching the Imagination?
MS: I volunteered to organize the program for the 1997 Foundations in Art: Theory and Education (FATE) conference. In developing 32 panels, I came in contact with leaders in art fundamentals from across the United States.
McGraw-Hill (an international textbook publisher) was looking for someone to write a more contemporary art fundamentals text. They called me. The first edition came out in 2001. It was an immediate hit and earned the McGraw-Hill First Edition of the Year Award. Users were hungry for the mix of compositional information and creativity Launching offered, and the sales reps said that the "book sold itself." Whew!
MB: What effect has it had on your career?
MS: Once the book was established, I became viewed as an authority and was asked to speak in many venues. I undertook several curricular consulting jobs--a task that I just love. On one level, this was great; on another, it was rather odd. I certainly had learned a lot during the four years I spent writing the first edition--but really, there are hidden gems throughout any educational organization. Every good teacher has a story to tell and an inventive assignment to share--if we just take the time to listen.
MB: Tell me about Integrative Teaching International, the teaching organization you co-founded.
MS: ITI is the most tangible consequence of the success of Launching. Dr. Richard Siegesmund, Jim Elniski, Adam Kallish and I developed this grass-roots organization to help university-level "emerging educators" strengthen their teaching skills. As you know, primary and secondary school teachers take extensive coursework and teach alongside a master teacher before tackling their own class. However, when we started ITI in 2006, few college teachers had any coursework in education and little mentoring.
There were no obvious funding sources for higher education, and we needed start-up money. I was able to contribute a chunk of this from textbook royalties. As a result, we were able to move ahead quickly, rather than wringing our hands over the lack of funding or pursuing long-shot grants.
ThinkTank (an intensive three-day workshop event) became the primary activity of ITI. The tenth such event occurred at University of Delaware in 2018 under the leadership of a new team of true believers in higher education.
MB: Tell us about a few of the teaching activities you do with your students and the rationale behind them.
MS: I will briefly describe three assignments used in Creative Inquiry, a non-art majors course. Readers seeking more examples can take a look at the five-day workshop information, posted at the end of this interview.
TEN ATTENTIVE MINUTES. Heightening attentiveness and avoiding distractions permits creative people to identify possibilities for invention in any situation. Using a pencil line to record every twist and turn in a simple flower, we do one blind contour drawing exercise in class. We then take a silent fifteen-minute walk outdoors, seeking to cultivate a comparable level of attention. Students then write a daily 100-250 word "mini-essay" based on ten minutes of focused observation.
ESSENCE AND TOTALITY (see visual examples). The ability to identify the emotional, conceptual, or visual essence of an experience or idea is a crucial aspect of creativity. Just as deleting the chaff and retaining the wheat is necessary in the production of flour, so deleting extraneous information can help us to see more clearly the significant structures and connections in any idea or event.
In this assignment, students are challenged to identify the essential angles and recurrent shapes in a large and complex still life that I construct from chairs and tables in a classroom. They look for both positive and negative shapes and note any anomalies in the structure. They then create a design to express their insights. All of the solutions must fit on an 18x24" piece of paper--beyond that, the wider the range of solutions the better!
THE STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE. When better informed about its concept, context or intention, we can see more in any image, action or object. In this assignment, students select an artwork from a collection I provide. They then write 400-800 words, describing the subject, analyzing the composition, speculating on its meaning, and noting the cultural or political context in which the artwork was made and shown. This process can also be applied to an image used in science, a historical site--really anything that invites analysis.
MB: Do you think universities should infuse creativity across disciplines? Why and how do you think this might be done?
MS: I do think creativity can and should inform all disciplines. Through creativity coursework, students in all fields can be empowered to develop fully their own ideas rather than simply learning about the ideas of others.
Students can gain a lot from a course that is specifically devoted to creativity. If such a course occurs in their first year of college, they have a strong basis on which additional work with creativity within their disciplines can be built.
It is rather like "writing across the curriculum." If a really solid writing course is offered in the first year, then strong writing can be reinforced in each subsequent course. However, trying to teach writing essentials and cover discipline-specific course content can be problematic.
MB: What advice do you have for education in general regarding the cultivating of creative and critical thinking?
MS: Realize that critical thinking is an essential aspect of creative thinking. Generating twenty ideas isn't very useful if you can't determine which ones will best solve the problem at hand! Creative thinking helps us identify problems worth solving and propose possible solutions; critical thinking helps us dig in, focus and produce tangible results.
MB: Any final advice for our students?
MS: When someone opens a door for you, walk through it! As a studio artist focusing on a master’s degree exhibition, I never wrote an extended thesis, much less a doctoral dissertation. Thus, writing a 400-page book was quite a challenge--and revising it substantially every three years has required some tenacity. But without Launching, it is unlikely that ITI could have moved forward, and without ITI, my professional career would have been greatly impoverished. Our emerging educators are the leaders of tomorrow.