Assistant professor of studio art Naomi Falk stands in front of a wall to have her photo taken

Garnet Apple Teaching Award: Naomi Falk

Naomi Falk 
Assistant professor, studio art (3D studies/sculpture) 
MFA, Carnegie Mellon University, 2003 
2021 Garnet Apple Teaching Award 
Joined UofSC faculty: 2017  

I was talking with a grad student last week and we were saying how neither one of us had really left school. Not long after grad school, I started teaching drawing and ceramics, and then sculpture, while also working as a gallery director and art technician. Eventually, my artwork and my teaching dovetailed more and more. 

In some of my older pieces I set up situations for people to actually build — to make sandbags and build different structures that change over the course of the exhibition. Getting people together to think collectively and make and talk about themes and ideas, this is really a wonderful part of the process. It makes it not so much just about me and my own experience. The classroom is similar. 

My own work is driven by my response to things like flooding or sea level rise, things that affect our lives and our homes. But that's my own particular view. Where it shifts in my teaching, I think, is that I open that up and say, “Well, what do you all find important? What do you as students want to investigate and consider and make work about?” That can be hard sometimes because they're not always used to thinking about things that way.  

I had a drawing and painting professor when I was an undergrad at Michigan State. His name was Irv Taran. When he was looking at your work, he would kind of hop from side to side in the studio saying, “Is it better this way? Or is it better that way?” He would talk about the push and pull, trying things and then stepping back to see what you've done, to critically assess with you, and then keep going. It becomes this whole series of problem solving and really thinking about what you're doing, and why, and how. Now I do that with my students. 

They don’t always quite understand how to see in three dimensions. That feels weird to say because we live in a 3D world, but we don't consciously think about that. When you ask a student to make something, and not just draw it with a pencil, they don't always know how to go from two dimensions to three.  

I developed this sculpture project to get them doing visual research. You know, “Let's go do something fun! Let's go do something that we don't usually get to do! Let’s go look through an electron microscope and look super, super closely at things and then build these wire sculptures—” I've done it in a variety of ways. 

A lot of times, the things that I’d like to explore more in my own work I end up playing around with in class, or posing as prompts for my students, just to see what everyone comes up with. It becomes this lovely, circular, holistic thing. It's this dance between setting up more open-ended projects and teaching students how to do new stuff with things they haven't ever tried before. It’s about figuring out the sweet spot. 

I was doing projects that that made sense to me — as far as learning the principles and elements of design, the basics of art as a visual language and communication tool — but so much of their stuff was going into the dumpster when they were finished. They weren’t personally invested. So I started asking them, “Well, what do you wish you had done?” More and more, I got responses like, “I want to make something that means something.” That really stuck with me. Finding ways to change my projects so that they are more relevant to their lives, socially and culturally, whatever — that's become one of the topmost important things about how I teach. 

I didn't have very much teaching experience coming out of grad school. I just had to learn on the fly — for so many of us, that's how it is. But I found people, or people found me, who were willing to mentor me and listen to my internal questions and help me figure out how to do this gig. So now I feel it's important to give back. If someone has a question about a project I’ve done, or how I do things, I just give them my stuff because that's how I learned from other very generous people. 

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