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  • Michelle Sirois Silver

an honest truth

An honest truth about teaching.

I once asked a painter if she taught painting. She paused before responding, “No, I have an art practice.” I don’t believe that art-making and teaching are mutually exclusive. It’s simply a choice.

When I think back on what motivated me to teach rug hooking, I recall that friends encouraged me to keep a teaching journal. I did, but it has only one entry. Instead, dear reader, you are stuck with a romanticised version of my teaching experiences in this blog post.

Rug hook

Photo: Andrea Sirois

Back in the day and long before Youtube, when I first began making hand-hooked rugs, I worked in isolation. Those first few weeks I struggled to pull up the loops through the backing entirely on my own -- but I kept at it.

GENEROSITY AND SHARING

A handful of months later, I attended my first workshop and I asked my instructor, Barb Kennedy, if my loops were alright. She gave me a funny look because the loops were fine. I simply lacked confidence. But this workshop was about more than learning that my technique was okay: It became a turning point for me. Along with learning a new set of skills I also learned about the spirit of generosity and knowledge-sharing. At the workshop I met a group of individuals who were eager to share what they knew and went out of their way to help me.

Joshua Meets the Octopus. 10'x3'. Handhooked. 1997 I began this handhooked rug in my first workshop with instructor Barb Kennedy in Calgary, AB.

Photo: Linda Spence

I should explain that prior to learning how to rug hook I had worked in television, and while I loved the work, generosity and sharing are not words that I would use to describe the industry. I started teaching for the same reason I began making hand-hooked rugs. Necessity. I craved the company of others in order to share my new passion. I wanted a community.

EARLY WORKSHOPS

The first workshops I taught were filled with friends, neighbors, and my mother. I taught from my kitchen in Vancouver, BC. It was a leap of faith on their part but what I lacked in teaching experience I more than made up with enthusiasm.

I’ve taught in different types of public and private spaces, conferences, festivals, including several years at the Maiwa School of Textiles here in Vancouver. I’ve enjoyed teaching from home, the same way I like teaching from my studio, but there's something special about teaching from the space where I make my rugs. It's an intimate venue, where I can reveal a side of myself that students would not otherwise have a chance to see or know. And I like to think this enriches the learning experience.

WHY DO I TEACH?

​I love this craft form. And I want to share my passion with others because I believe that the creative and making process enhances our lives. A finished piece brings us joy. And the community it builds is a lasting one. We develop and share a common language.

​As a teacher, I’ve reached a point where I want to be an influencer. I want my students to feel excited about their creativity and creative process. I want them to have confidence in their art-making and to feel comfortable engaging in discussions about their process and work. It makes me think about a new craft form that I recently began working with. Ceramics. It took me awhile to find a pottery studio where I felt comfortable enough to experiment and fail spectacularly without feeling like I had really failed. With each new attempt I learn something new, I’m excited and inspired, eager to apply what I have learned to the next piece. This is what I want for my students.

IF I STOPPED LEARNING, I WOULD STOP TEACHING.

I never tire of teaching introductory level classes. I thought I would, but I haven’t.

Back to Basics workshop. Photo: Andrea Sirois

I want people to have the best experience possible when starting out and I believe I can help make that happen. I am always impressed at how quickly a person can learn this new skill – which was not my experience at all when I first pulled up a loop. As a teacher I try to keep my ego in check when a student picks up the skill within the first five minutes of starting the class.

In the intermediate and advanced level classes students are engaged in both creative and technical experimentation. I'm always learning something new from my students and I often leave my workshops inspired, eager to get back to the studio. I believe that If I stopped learning, I would stop teaching.

WE ARE CREATIVE BY DEFAULT

I’m surprised when I hear someone say that they are not creative. We are human and by default this makes us creative. Creativity does not begin or end with art making. If you play hockey, brew your own beer, or raise a child how can you not be creative? Creativity is about process, exploration, problem-solving. We revisit the process again and again, and if we're lucky, we develop mastery. We all have a creative voice and a story to tell. This philosophy is one of the motivators for why I teach.

LIFE HAPPENS

Teaching can be a joyful experience. But there are things that happen in a class, things that we as teachers don't talk about. Things that make us question ourselves, knowledge, and our abilities to teach. The creative process can be a vehicle for exploring deeper emotions. I’ve had students cry from frustration, which is something I’ve experienced myself, especially when I first began. I cried from both frustration and profound disappointment at how challenging I found it to pull up the loops through the backing, because it looked so simple. And yes, on occasion I still cry usually from exhaustion, especially when I’m working to a deadline and I need to reverse hook an area. I've had students who at the end of the day return all their materials and tell me they won’t be continuing and that’s okay. We are all human, and I have no way of knowing what is going on in someone's life at that moment unless they share it with me. I’m grateful that they tried, and I appreciate their honesty.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

I have a specific teaching style that’s both structured and organic. I am much more interested in what the student has to say than what I have to say and there's a difference between technical and creative questions. For example, I will show you how to install a grommet. But if you ask me how many grommets you should you install, I'll always ask, “What do you think?” The students who know me best have told me this question is very annoying. But I ask it because I often find that the student already has a vision.

New Materials New Techniques Workshop Photo: Michelle Sirois Silver

Here’s the thing: It’s not my work, it’s not my creative voice, it belongs to that individual and I want to see their vision and work evolve and develop in the time we have together. And I want to support that development, not dictate it.

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT

New Materials New Techniques Workshop Photo: Michelle Sirois Silver

There is a moment when a student’s creative process shifts. Sometimes it’s individual, other times it’s the entire class. This is especially true in the intermediate and advanced level classes. There is a moment when things fall into place. I can feel it in the room – the fog lifts and possibility slips in. This is my favorite moment in every class.

I EASED INTO IT

Some individuals are born natural teachers, but for me I eased into it over time. Enthusiasm and passion in the early years are now accompanied by experience and the acquired knowledge from making.

New Materials New Techniques Workshop

When a class finishes, especially the New Materials, New Techniques classes, I am impressed by the students, their creative exploration and process. I am grateful for the trust they have in me to guide them along this path. For me teaching is about acts of generosity and sharing. Encouraging and fostering. And yes, believing in not only my students, but in myself.

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