What is your primary artistic medium?
I’m a multi-disciplinary artist precisely because no one medium I work in is more or less engaging to me than another; so I’d have to say I have an equal artistic passion for and professional commitment to music, creative writing, maskmaking, storytelling, the performing and recording arts, and teaching (which I consider to be an art form in and of itself).
How did you get started as a teaching artist?
I volunteered to lead a creative writing workshop at the Boys & Girls Club of Harrisburg, PA in 1976, right after I graduated from Syracuse University. I loved it. After moving to Tucson, AZ in 1977 I landed a part-time job as a poetry therapist in a psychiatric hospital, and loved that, too. When I completed my MFA Degree at the University of Arizona in 1980, I began working as an Artist-in-Residence with the Arizona Commission on the Arts and as a Performing Artist with Young Audiences, which led to the development of my own multi-disciplinary programs. Concurrently, I taught a creative writing workshop in various units of the Arizona State Prison system and began working as a teaching artist with other special populations. My work with the Lifetime Arts Creative Aging initiative is the latest manifestation of this forty-year adventure as a teaching artist.
What led you to creative aging?
Well, we’re all aging from the moment we’re born ‘til the moment we die! The choice that has always intrigued me is whether we engage in this inevitable process creatively or not. When I was contacted by the Chandler Downtown Library, in 2015 about conducting an adult continuing education workshop under the auspices of Lifetime Arts, I proposed Myths & Masks first, which went fabulously well; and then Planet of Percussion, which was equally successful. My experience working with the library and their clientele, and with Lifetime Arts, was excellent; so when I was invited to join their teaching artist Roster I jumped at the chance.
What has been the biggest surprise in working with older adult learners?
In my work with creative aging, as in all my previous experiences working with elders, I’m continually surprised by the open-mindedness, creative energy and willingness to try just about anything. It certainly belies the cliché that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. My creative aging students not only seize upon and master entirely new skill sets with alacrity over the course of our workshops, but also turn the tables on me, by showing me a great deal about how to do what I do more creatively and effectively as a teaching artist.
What are the differences and similarities in working with the K-12 and older adult populations?
The big differences are the breadth and depth of life experiences, and the emotional and intellectual maturity that elders bring to the creative process. The striking similarity is the uninhibited imagination and the child-like wonder elders sometimes re-discover in themselves through engagement with the arts. Often one expects this from young people but—perhaps stereotypically—not from old people. Surprise!
What have been your biggest challenges? How do you respond?
Along with experience comes a certain amount of psychological baggage. I sometimes find it challenging to cope with long-held insecurities people have carried with them over a lifetime: the fear of making a mistake and being ridiculed; the fear of public speaking or performing (statistically one of the worst fears for people of any age); the desire to get along with the group and blend in without “rocking the boat”; conversely, the need to “stand out in the crowd” and draw attention to oneself (which I take to be a form of insecurity); the eagerness to please the instructor so as to win approval for one’s creative work from an “expert”; and so on. I disarm these insecurities proactively by making it clear that there are no mistakes in art, only new ways to do it differently and even better that one hadn’t yet discovered until that moment. I do this by using my speech and body language conscientiously to model an atmosphere of mutual respect, supportiveness, open-mindedness, and good humor in my workshops.
An ice-breaker I use is to ask everyone to introduce themselves by name, share one or two of their passions, and give a brief statement of their “present condition”: what each participant is feeling or thinking at the moment. Invariably, this sharing creates a sort of creative “safe-zone” in which everyone can relax and not feel pressured, criticized or objectively evaluated. Participants realize we’re all in this together, and there is an immediate appreciation for the collaborative risk-taking. Jokes are good, too—most people think I’m pretty funny, even though I don’t always mean to be! I always characterize our shared endeavor as “serious fun”: we’re allowed and indeed encouraged to have a good time, but there’s also a very meaningful intention at work.
What is the most satisfying aspect of this work?
It’s kind of a cliché, but I find it genuinely satisfying when the student excels the teacher. I’ve never done a workshop in which I didn’t learn something new about my own craft; wasn’t inspired by the effort and accomplishment of a student; wasn’t deeply moved by the emotional and spiritual investment people have made in their artwork and the courage they’ve mustered to share it; or wasn’t enlightened by what might be called “the revelation of the obvious”: why didn’t I think of that thirty years and two hundred workshops ago? Thus, my conception of the work is constantly refined, my instructional rubric made more articulate and effective, and my in-the-moment enjoyment of the teaching experience refreshed. When it’s really clicking, there’s nothing more exhilarating than the art of teaching; when it’s done right, it never gets stale.
What have been your most memorable moments?
Wow, there have been way too many to even begin to list—remember, I’ve been doing this for forty years! But here are two moments from my two recent workshops at Chandler Downtown Library, one funny and one profoundly memorable:
On the first day of Myths & Masks I do a lecture-demonstration of the maskmaking techniques and materials by sculpting a plaster bandage Lifecast on the face of a volunteer model. Usually there is a lot of appreciation expressed for my proficiency at making a “perfect” mask while simultaneously delivering crystal-clear step-by-step instructions. In this instance, when I asked my model for her impressions of the experience, the most important thing for her was that I’d been thoughtful enough to chew some gum before starting so that my breath was minty fresh as I leaned over her at close proximity for forty-five minutes sculpting her Lifecast! That became a standing joke throughout the workshop, and she never failed to bring a tube of Mentos Fresh Mint Gum to each session and offer it to everyone before we began the day’s work.
About three-quarters of the way into Planet of Percussion, I received a text message from one of my most avid students as I was arriving at the library to set up, saying that she was terribly sorry but that she couldn’t come that day, and would probably have to miss the rest of the workshop series because of a serious injury/emergency room visit. Of course, I told her not to give it a second thought and do what she needed to do to address this calamity; but I gave a lot of thought to the fact that someone would value our workshop so highly as to take time under such dire circumstances to send me a text message apologizing for having to miss a session. It reminded me yet again how much of themselves people invest in these experiences, and how important it is for me to be fully present and give 110% when I’m conducting these workshops.
What skills are most important when working with older adults?
Aside from the passion, patience and perseverance I bring to any workshop regardless of the age of the participants, I find that a balance of clarity and concision is most effective with elders. I try to speak loudly, slowly, clearly and conversational rather than didactic tone when giving directions and answering questions. I am also careful not to repeat myself unnecessarily or oversimplifying things, so that everyone “gets it” without any suggestion of condescension. I find my Creative Aging students to be whip-smart and very clever, and I try to make sure they know I know that.
How does this work inform your own artistic process?
As I said before, I’ve never done a workshop or artist-in-residency that didn’t give me new ideas and techniques to apply to my own work. My Creative Aging workshops are especially rich in this regard in that the participants come from such varied circumstances and diverse backgrounds and have led such different lives. When I view what I do through their eyes; observe how they utilize our materials, tools and instruments in very intuitive, “unschooled” ways; and reflect on how they’ve interpreted my process on their own terms and for their own expressive purposes; I rediscover what is exciting, problematic and possible in these art forms I’ve been engaged in all my life. One simple but profoundly eye-opening example from a recent Myths & Masks workshop was the way one participant used the sharp end of a paintbrush handle rather than the bristles to achieve a Pointillist/Australian Aboriginal effect on her mask by placing tiny red dots precisely within a complex array of slightly larger white dots: it seems completely obvious, yet I’d never have thought of that in a million years on my own—but you can bet I’m going to try it on my next mask!
What are your current or upcoming teaching or artistic projects?
All my upcoming performances and workshops are always listed in the Upcoming Events calendar on my website at www.willclipman.com.
At the moment I have two new albums in release (Forecast with Temenos Quartet and Trialogue with the trio of the same name) and a third scheduled for summer release (What Lies Beyond with the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet, or RCNQ) and I’m booking concerts into spring 2017 to perform and promote this new music (I’m my own manager, booking agent and publicist, so the actual work I do out in the world is the tip of a much larger iceberg of activity in my home office!).
I’ll be back at Chandler Downtown Library in Chandler, AZ in June to complete my workshop trilogy there with In a Word, an all-genres creative writing workshop for ages 16 and up.
In July I’ll appear at Tara Mandala Retreat Center in Pagosa Springs, CO for a concert of “music as spiritual manifestation”.
In the fall I’ll be at the University of Nevada in Reno for a series of master classes and a concert; at Western National Parks Association in Oro Valley, AZ for a world drum & percussion workshop; and back in the classroom for my 22nd annual Myths & Masks Artist-in-Residency at Sonoran Sky School in Scottsdale, AZ.
I’m putting the finishing touches on a new collection of poetry called Wilderness in the Marrow and starting work on a new mask over the summer. Those are some highlights off the top of my head. . . never a dull moment!
Thank you Will for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.
Check back each month where we will feature a new Teaching Artist who has excelled in their work with the Creative Aging process.