Unleashing creativity by giving students a problem to solve

Art educator Phil Robinson is helping young artists recognize and work through obstacles to their self-expression

After receiving his BFA in Studio Art from Skidmore College and his MFA in Sculpture from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, Phil Robinson began to explore a range of arts-related professions. He took short-term positions as an arts educator at Dwight-Englewood School and Ridgewood High School in New Jersey, then moved on to high-profile positions in the New York art world, including as an art collector, museum curator, art handler, and brand manager for a renown international artist. At the same time, he pursued his own career as an artist, with exhibitions of his multi-media work at dozens of New York and New Jersey galleries.

As he gained real-world experience, Phil came to realize that he had something valuable he wanted to share with students: intimate understanding of the many professional options available to artists. He returned to teaching with a two-year position at the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts in New York City, followed by six years at Grace Church School in Lower Manhattan. He joined the faculty at Catlin Gabel in fall 2020. Phil continues to create and exhibit his own work (see links below).

 The following are excerpts from an interview with Phil in December 2021.

When I was in grade school, a lot of the emphasis was on drawing or 2D—a lot of paper stuff. I was really excited with the three-dimensional work, but sometimes we didn't get to that till the end, or we didn't even touch on it. So I don’t do that with my students. I want them to be able to work in everything.

A lot of kids, when they move from middle school to upper school, have this idea that they're not good at art or that they can't draw, or there’s something negative involved with it. And part of that is because somewhere along the line they had a project or a material that they didn't like. I find that if I can give students projects in all the mediums, by the time they transition they know what they like, they know what they don't like. They know the material so they can spend their time with the creative side, and that's really where we want to get them. They're no longer trying to figure out, How does wood work? How does paper work? How do I paint? How do I mix colors? What is color theory? They know all that. They have the foundation and they can go on to use their creativity to make what they want.

With drawing, for instance, one of the most common problems we find is that kids say they can't draw. Well, what does that mean? It means that they can't create what they want to create. Hence, a problem. If you say to me that I can't draw the figure, Okay, well, let's learn how to draw the figure. If you say I can't draw still life objects, All right, well, let's learn how to do that. Drawing is a learned subject, same thing as music, same thing as a language.

In middle school, students are trying to find themselves. They're in flux. They're trying to figure out what's right, they're trying to mesh with different groups, they're trying to figure out who they are. So when they come here, this is almost like a release. This is the one time where they can express themselves emotionally and physically through the mediums. They don't get to do that in other classes. So this is a safe space. I never tell a kid “no.” If they're trying to create something and they're getting frustrated, we talk about problem solving: How do you solve that problem within the medium?

If you're trying to create something and you find it's not working well, you need to ask yourself why. I try to help kids reach that point where they feel like they have some level of success with what they're trying to create and then learn from that. That's why we have our beginning, mid, and ending critiques. What are some of the things that you struggled with? What are some of the things you can take away from this project and take over to the next project?

That's important because if you haven't learned where you struggled, then you're not going to gain any traction when you go onto the next piece. So giving students different types of media helps them to be individual, allowing them to be creative without confines. Allowing them to be individualized and make their piece into what it is. I'm only giving them the material. I'm not giving them what they're creating. I'm only giving them the problem to solve.   

Image Gallery -  See a recent exhibition of work by Phil Robinson, Old Talks with New Icons, The Untitled Space, New York City, Nov. 20–Dec. 17, 2021 

Video - Watch Phil's process for creating the pieces in the Old Talks with New Icons exhibition.

Video - See the exhibition opening for Old Talks with New Icons at The Untitled Space in New York City, Nov. 20, 2021.