The high school that I went to was a pretty large school, with a big focus on sports, which is where most of the resources went. The visual arts department was pretty weak. When I was a freshman I took a foundations class and I probably took one more art class that same year, and then one in my senior year. The art teacher always seemed to be struggling to offer something that all students would enjoy. It was a little bit like playing to the lowest common denominator, which made me frustrated, being a student who liked to do a lot of drawing on their own. We did a lot of collage work with no boundaries – you just have a bunch of magazines and make stuff out of it. It’s fun, but that’s just kind of it. One of the only projects I really remember was this metamorphosis drawing. I really tried my best on that one and made a nice piece that I ended up using for my college portfolio when I applied to art school. I worked hard on that one piece, and it was a nice exemplar, but then to see everyone else’s work be so poor, it didn’t really motivate me to want to do additional great work in that class when I could do other independent projects that I wanted to do.
I was fortunate to take a couple classes outside of school, through community centers and things like that. My mom pushed me to do more outside of school stuff. I took classes on figure drawing and on really niche things like Japanese ink painting and stuff like that. So it wasn’t an everyday thing, but I had this experience outside of school.
I was drawing a lot of comics then, and little illustrations. The comics were for myself, not for school. Even earlier than elementary school, when I didn’t know how to write or spell, I remember drawing pictures of things and then I had a bunch of child scribbles next to it, and I would bring it to my mom and tell her the story. It looked like a comic, but it wasn’t a comic – it’s just something that I’ve always liked to do. When it comes to comparing yourself to others, I know I’m not the strongest writer and I’m not the strongest illustrator. But you can be a little weak at either of those, and still make a really good comic. You don’t have to be the strongest writer or illustrator to get your point across. It’s freeing to me, but it’s stable enough in those kind of ways, where I know if I think about it I can get more of a story or impact across if I have words to accompany my drawing. So I’ve always wanted to work that way.
When it comes to comparing yourself to others, I know I’m not the strongest writer and I’m not the strongest illustrator. But you can be a little weak at either of those, and still make a really good comic.
I remember the first longer comic that I wrote – it was maybe a 20-panel comic that I wrote about going to see a movie with a friend of mine, and I was just lamenting about hating my job, and then going to see this movie that’s an anime movie, but I’m not an anime fan, so I turned it into this whole thing and made a comic about it. I must have submitted it to an art competition that my mother encouraged me to do – she was always looking out for those outlets for me to submit stuff. And that was the first thing that I had made that I got recognition for publicly. And that wasn’t until I was fourteen or fifteen, so it took a long time. It felt like real recognition, when it’s not just my teachers, it’s not just my parents, it’s not just my friends, it’s somebody else from an outside field that acknowledges that what I’m doing is worthy of an award, even when the award that has no value – or that the value is intrinsic. That was the first time that I felt pretty good about the work that I was doing, and felt like I could do it for a living if I wanted to.
I went to the Columbus College of Art and Design. Going to art school became one of those situations where you realize that you’re really not hot shit, because there are these other artists that are all really good. That kind of was a learning curve for me in terms of my own personal anxiety – understanding that other people are better at certain things, and I am also good at things, and people like me and it’s fine.
You need to see people trying in order to feel like you should try.
What was great about being there was that everybody was also making mass quantities of work and really getting into thinking about it and talking about it, and it was good to be in a nurturing environment like that. That’s what I really was looking for when I went back to get my Master’s, and it’s what I’m going to be looking for if I go back to school again – to have artmaking experiences with people who are really in the trenches doing the work. That’s what gets you going. You need to see people trying in order to feel like you should try.
I think what I was missing as a high school student is somebody really connecting with me on that personal level and telling me something specific about my work, and pushing me to do more with it. As an art teacher now, I'll notice when a student comes in who has that predisposition to make work, and it’s really easy sometimes to just let them do their thing because they know what they’re doing, and they’re taking a class, so they’re already doing more than I was doing in high school when I decided that I was just going to do this art stuff on my own. So I’m glad that they’re there with me, and then to know that I have that opportunity to get more out of them is really great, but I have to be thoughtful in the way that I ask them questions and support them in what they do. I think that’s my biggest thing, structuring my instruction so that there are enough openings for a student to do what they want to but also enough structure to help them improve certain things that I wish I would have had guidance in when I was that age. Because it’s really easy to be like, that’s great! Everything’s great! You’re doing a great job! Awesome! But that holds no real value. Certainly there are some students who want to hear that and might lose their mind if you don’t tell them that, but to structure informative, critical feedback in a way that encourages them is a tricky, nuanced dance that is always something that I want to pay attention to.
It’s really easy to be like, that’s great! Everything’s great! You’re doing a great job! Awesome! But that holds no real value.
Rachel Branham is an artist educator living in Massachusetts. She received her Bachelor's in Art Education from the Ohio State University, and her Master's in Art Education from the Rhode Island School of Design. Ms. Branham has taught a wide range of learners in diverse settings, but especially enjoys teaching students about comics. She also enjoys cooking, horror movies, and spending time with her husband Ben and their two pets, Psychobilly Freakout the cat and Momo the dog.
Her first book, What's So Great About Art, Anyway? A Teacher's Odyssey, was recently published by Teachers College Press.