The Art of Mentoring
Many artists find that at some point in their careers they begin to play a role in helping and encouraging young people or children in some way related to their artistic development. Sometimes it’s a family connection that sparks the relationship, and sometimes a chance encounter, while at other times it can be the result of a conscious decision to volunteer in an art organization such as Art Start, a program which has been mentioned on this blog before.
This kind of relationship can seem a little intimidating, especially at the beginning, but there’s no reason why it should be. Acting as a mentor to a younger artist, or to a young person with an interest in art, is a valuable experience for both parties. You don’t have to be perfect to be a huge help and inspiration to someone else – they’ll learn from your experience, including your mistakes, and in return you may well find that their freshness and willingness to experiment may add zest to your own work.
Of course, how you approach it will depend partly on what kind of background or setting you’re working in. If you’re helping through a program, there will be some kind of structure, and perhaps a theme to focus on or a broad goal to be achieved, all of which can help you work out how to begin. You’ll also have the support of your fellow mentors, and can exchange ideas and stories with them.
If you’re working in a more private or personal context, though, you can still bring many of these advantages into the relationship. You can work out a subject of interest for your ‘student’ to concentrate on, and talk it over with them and get them to think through various ideas, and their pros and cons. Don’t be afraid to get other friends involved, or ask advice from other people you respect – it won’t harm your relationship with the young artist, but it will help teach them that it’s ok, and can even be really useful, to ask other people what they think.
It can be a little more complicated if the young person concerned is related to you, or perhaps a close family friend. You’ll have an advantage there in that you’ll already know a lot about how they think, what their interests are and so on, all of which is important in helping them develop. On the other hand, you may already have certain expectations of them, or preconceived notions of how they’re going to want to do things or what their development should be like. This can be risky – try to make sure that you give them the space they need to take their talent in whatever direction suits them best, even if it wasn’t quite what you were expecting.
The same goes if you have a particular, strong pattern of working or habits of creation yourself. There’s nothing wrong with having a set way of doing things yourself, based on what you know to be right for you and your work, but remember that they might have a different approach, and that this might work better for them. Even if you’re fairly sure that they’re going to grow out of it, don’t complain if it’s something that isn’t a weakness in their work. You can give advice, but don’t be offended if it isn’t always taken – they’re working things out for themselves, which is a positive stage in their development as an artist.
It’s difficult sometimes to combine guiding them in the right direction with the necessity of giving them space, but it’s important not to let your desire to help push you into trying to exert control – and, equally, to make sure that you don’t let ‘letting them work it out’ slip into failing to give them hints and help where they really do need it, in areas such as technique or practice. If you try to bear in mind both their best interests and a memory of what you were like at that age, or that stage in your career, though, you may find the balance isn’t so hard to find after all.
Don’t worry about your relationship with the younger artist you’re helping. Being at a stage that you can teach others and contribute to their development should be a pleasure – taking the responsibility seriously doesn’t mean forgetting to have fun!
Have you mentored a younger artist before? What was it like? Let us know in the comments!