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Finding balance between teaching and creating.

Artist/High School Art Teacher Christina Keith

Artist/High School Art Teacher Christina Keith

Artist and high school teacher Christina Keith is from Prior Lake, Minnesota, a half hour south of Minneapolis. She received her undergraduate degree in Studio Art (BA) from The College of Saint Benedict, where she focused in painting and ceramics. She also completed a minor in K-12 Education. The summer after her first year of teaching, she began an art-specific M. Ed. at The University of Minnesota Twin Cities which she completed in 2014.

When Christina is not making art, she likes to run, cross country ski, and play the piano. She and her husband have extensively remodeled their first and second homes, and are currently working on their shop/studio space.

Christina teachers four consecutive levels of high school Design and Digital Art, and three levels of Drawing and Painting.

How do you balance art making and art teaching?

Finding balance between art making and my full-time teaching job is one of my major goals moving forward, and one of my current challenges. As my business grows, I am trying to embrace the natural ebb and flow of studio production to accommodate demanding times within the school year. I do my best to plan ahead and try to schedule large artistic undertakings in-between events like student art shows, competitions, and AP portfolio submissions. I keep a calendar in my sketchbook, where I write down artistic goals and time frames. I’ve found that committing to outside deadlines (art fairs, group and individual shows, galleries drop-offs, etc.) pushes me to most efficiently prioritize my time outside of my teaching job.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by friends and family who support and respect career as an artist and teacher, and who work to help me accomplish my goals. (I always joke with my students that I haven’t cooked a meal since I first met my husband, unless cottage cheese counts.) Whether it is taking on extra household responsibilities while I am working on commissions, rallying together to put finishing touches on my studio, or sitting in for me during an art crawl, I am recognize that I wouldn’t be where I am now without the help of the people around me.

Your paintings often involve imagery that is interacting with charts and maps. Will you walk us through your process of making these pieces?

Absolutely! I incorporate printed imagery within my paintings through a transfer method using gel medium. I develop digital “mock ups” of paintings using Adobe Photoshop, which serve as an overall guide throughout my process. I begin by painting the background on canvas or panel using acrylics, then I print the mirror images of maps. I coat my in-process painting with a layer of acrylic gel medium and lay the maps, ink-side down, onto the wet surface. After letting the gel medium dry thoroughly, I wet the paper backing and gently scrub the paper away to reveal the ink transfer underneath. I create several semi-translucent layers on top of the transferred image. I then create details and a focal point within the foreground and seal my work with a UV-resistant acrylic varnish.

You do painting and ceramics. Both are demanding in different ways. Do you focus on one at a time, or do you work in both simultaneously?

I tend to work on my paintings and pottery separately. My studio is one open room, with my wheel and kiln on one side, and my painting supplies on the other. I am a considerably messy worker, so I like to go “all in” with clay for a concentrated period of time so I only have to clean up once. A successful clay process is so dependent on proper timing, which is another reason why I like to solely focus on one medium at a time. Since my pottery is distinctly different, both in form and function, than my paintings, I like to release ceramic work in small batches a few times each year, separate from the the release of my paintings.

Are you involved in any sort of support network of other artists or teachers?

My most helpful and consistent support system, both artistically and educationally, are my coworkers. I am fortunate to teach with a team of three supportive, dedicated individuals who are collaborative and who provide honest, constructive feedback. I am a member of the National Art Education Association and frequently access their material. I work with a couple of local arts organizations, which has been helpful in getting to know other practicing artists in my area. I am part of an online group called The Studio Source, which is a community of artists who primarily sell their work online through their own websites. I have recently partnered with Kelley Gallery in Hudson, Wisconsin, and a facet of The Duluth Folk School and am enthusiastic about the relationships and support that I have experienced.

What does your schedule for making art look like?

I create a majority of my work out of my home studio. I work most weeknights, and almost every weekend during the school year depending on what upcoming events and deadlines I have. Sometimes I create smaller projects alongside my students as they are working. I try to save larger projects, like throwing/trimming several ceramic pieces, for weekends when I have a longer stretch of time to dedicate to the process.

Do your students see you making art?

They do! When I first started teaching, I was uncomfortable creating my own work within my classroom. I felt like I needed to monitor students’ progress constantly throughout each assignment, but I have since learned the many positives that result from sharing my process. Working alongside my students allows me to model appropriate studio habits, and has generated many authentic conversations about art making processes, developing theme and style, and how to interact with the surrounding artistic community.

Do you think it is important for your students to know about your art career? Why?

Yes. Teaching is such a social field, and heavily contingent on building positive, personal relationships with students through our content. My art career is a large part of my life and my identity, so it is something I naturally share with students when getting to know them. I hope that discussing my art-related successes and shortcomings authentically express my passion and dedication for my subject matter. I strive to be an open and approachable resource for young people who are interested in taking their work to the next level.  When talking about my art business, I consistently stress the connection between goal-setting, hard work, and improvement.

How has teaching changed the way you make art?

The image transfer process I use in the majority of my paintings is a direct result of teaching. Several years ago, I was researching mixed media techniques to demonstrate to a group of Advanced Drawing/Painting students. I was drawn to this process because it didn’t require any expensive or toxic materials, so I experimented with ways to incorporate it into the course curriculum as well as my own work. Teaching forced me to become reacquainted with digital art practices, which I now heavily rely on to create all of my transferred imagery. Overall, teaching has kept me from becoming complacent. As educators, we are constantly restructuring, changing, and reflecting to improve our current practice. We challenge our students to take artistic risks and push boundaries. Whenever possible, I try to “practice what I preach” in my own work.

How has your own art influenced the way you teach?

I believe that regularly making my own work has caused me to place a heavier emphasis on the artistic process and routine self-reflection. I encourage students to experiment and take risks, and find innovative components within their work that they deem unsatisfactory. My process has taught me that I won’t like everything I make, but that doesn’t mean I should stop making art. When teaching, I try to emphasize perseverance, problem-solving, and the eventual growth that comes from them.

What advice would you give other artist teachers?

That’s a good question. Over the last year, I have found myself seeking lots of advice from fellow artist teachers, so I would tell others to not be afraid to recognize when you need help and to seek guidance. Find balance whenever possible. Teaching and being a working artist are two demanding jobs, which has made it easy for me to use this as an excuse to ignore other important components of my life. Focus and dedication are key factors in success, but finding balance and allowing yourself time to rest and reflect is essential to maintain sustainability and happiness within your career.

What advice would you give to a brand new teacher who wants to be an artist as well?  

Keep at it, even if you start small. Involve yourself with local (or virtual) artist communities to build relationships and engage in critique. Be kind to yourself if it takes time to accomplish your goals and grow your business. Don’t let fear of rejection keep you from applying to shows, fairs, and residencies. If you don’t at first accomplish something you set out to do, use the experience to motivate you to build your resume, elevate your work, and try again.

Describe your favorite classroom project.

Whenever possible, I want classroom projects to challenge students’ perceptions of themselves, how they relate to the world around them, and how they can use the art making process to visually speak. I recently asked my Drawing/Painting II class to reflect on what their favorite classroom project was and why. An overwhelming majority indicated that they most enjoyed my “mixed media social justice” assignment because of its open-ended technical and conceptual nature and because it gave them the chance to research and advocate for something they deemed important. Another one of my favorite classroom endeavors was when my students, coworker, and I partnered with The Memory Project, which is a non-profit organization which invites young artists to create portraits for children around the world in need. I was inspired by the amount of ownership our students took throughout this project, including research, communication, and fundraising. While the art making process was not as experimental or personalized as some of my other classroom projects, I loved that this experience strengthened the connection between art making and advocacy for the students involved.

Why is it important to you to continue making art?

For me, creating art is a necessary counterpart to the interpersonal, extroverted demands of teaching. I appreciate the relational, communal aspects of education, and I find that the introspective nature of art making helps me recharge and find balance. Creating art is both humbling and empowering. Through the process, I am able to practice authentic problem-solving skills that I use in the classroom and throughout my daily life. Art making allows me to deepen my understanding of ideas and concepts that I find important. The “trial-and-error” nature of painting has allowed me to become more comfortable with making mistakes. Creating art helps me combat anxiety and perfectionism, and view the world around me in a reflective manner.

What do you do to sell your work?

I sell my work through my website, galleries, and art crawls and juried shows. While art crawls can be exhausting, (hello, 110 degree heat index and tornado season!), I appreciate meeting a large number of people face-to-face and answering questions about my process. These events have helped me build a mailing list and often result in custom commissions and future purchases. I love the advocacy and constructive relationships that come from working with a gallery, and the exposure and communal nature of group exhibitions. While photographing/listing/packaging my work results in less studio time than I would like, there’s an obvious satisfaction and benefit from marketing and selling my own work.


Instagram: @christina_keith_studios


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