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February 28, 2002 Thevulnerability of creators — students reveal themselves in journals



Gail Bourgeois

Gail Bourgeois

Rhizoming Heart

Rhizoming Heart, by Gail Bourgeois

by Eleanor Brown

Gail Bourgeois nurtures vulnerability in her classroom, and that includes her own.

“In the fine arts and women’s studies, there is no theorem, no formula for engaging with the world. I’m trying to get students to trust their own experience, [to] interpret their own lives, but also to see the world critically.”

Bourgeois, an artist and curator, teaches a women’s studies course at Concordia called Feminism, Art and Autobiography. Every Tuesday evening, the 18 students are shown a work of art, and their homework is to record their own response, in text or images, in their sketchbook-journal.

She sometimes shows her own work in class, telling the students they don’t have like it, just give an honest reaction and analysis — and some do. That permission can lead them to talk back.

“That’s the risk in teaching a course. Students leave themselves vulnerable to risk, so I do, too. There is no creativity without risk. You have to be vulnerable to create.”

Understanding the process of art

Bourgeois has found that teaching is about finding the right questions to ask, especially when students are at different levels (the course is cross-listed, with enrolment from women’s studies, English, communications, fine arts and journalism). A single student can throw the dynamic off, yet those with insight can teach their peers much. Even trying to get the “shy geniuses” to speak is a challenge.

“It’s a very challenging course for me. Ultimately, the best lessons come out of challenging ourselves. I said I wanted to teach this course, so it’s all my fault!” she laughed.

This is her second take on it. The first time, it was team-taught. She was unhappy with the lack of critical analysis from students (“It was more like, Dear Diary: I had a fight with my boyfriend and I’m upset”), and didn’t like its rather clinical approach through texts and slides.

She revamped it, gave it a different name, and brought it back this term. She has added a more personal touch: performances and artist talks.

A cellist performed a Bach suite last month, and the students watched her strain and struggle from a few feet away. The students went to a local art gallery in February, and heard an artist describe her obsessive search for identity after a childhood in foster homes.

Art is no longer glamorous and romantic when seen from this vantage point, Bourgeois said. It’s a struggle, both physical and emotional, and the artists expose themselves.

“This course is not about the product. It’s about trying to understand the process of art and how we can bring it into our own lives. It’s the anti-thesis of flaky. It’s actually quite subversive.”

Bourgeois wants everyone to slow down and think and feel a bit more. “Under pressure, we can meet deadlines if necessary, but creativity entails slowing down.”