When my students return from summer break, I can almost guarantee two things: they didn’t do as much art as I hoped they would, and the art they did make all looks exactly the same. It’s not their fault. They spent the summer making the art they like to make, which is art they are good at making, done in the media they are most comfortable with, and of the subject matter they prefer. They play it safe and tend to stay in their wheelhouse. This usually means they’re a little burned out as well. They have no idea how many more ways they can make that thing in that media in exactly the same way while still being slightly different. That’s why I like to throw them a curve ball right when they return. I give them an exercise I call the Wheeler Rotation. I call it that because I learned it from a Texas-based artist by the name of Jeff Wheeler. If you don’t know Jeff, he’s reminiscent of Matthew McConaughey’s character from Dazed and Confuzed with his thick southern accent and pearl snap shirts, except with a vast knowledge of art history and a love for Picasso.
To start this exercise, I cut a sketchbook-sized piece of mixed media paper for each student. I have the students pick a book from a pile of random books and magazines that have been discarded. They set up with their favorite media (nothing oil based), and then I give them the instructions. They will have somewhere between five and ten minutes to flip through their books and find something visually interesting. They then have to recreate that on their paper. They huff and puff and nervously exclaim that they won’t have enough time, to which I callously cackle that they’ll have to make do. And with that we begin. After the time is up, I instruct them to pass their paper to the right and their book to the left. They are now presented with new source material and an artwork already in progress. Again, they are given five to ten minutes, and when the time is up, they pass the book and paper. While they are working, I sneak around the room putting out glue sticks, scissors, pens, and other random things they might decide they want to use. We do this until about four or five different students have worked on each paper. We then hang them on the wall to discuss at our next meeting. The students are always excited and surprised by what they create.
So what do the students get from this assignment? Most importantly, they learn that great art doesn’t always have to take a lot of time. They see that weird experiments sometimes turn into amazing creations. They learn new solutions. With every new paper, they are presented with a new artistic problem they have never seen before. Maybe it’s a color they’ve never used, or new imagery they’ve never had to integrate. These works are messy when my students almost always want to be controlled. They declare this process to be both stressful and freeing at the same time. And by the end of it, all my students excitedly describe a curiosity about something they’ve seen and created during the rotation. The influence of these experiments can always be seen in the works they make after. I highly recommend giving this a try the next time your students seem a little stuck.