Image by Jessica Augustin
created in Matthew McMilon's class at CSUSB
Activating Collective Creation
March 1, 2016
by Jessica Augustin
In the fall of 2015, I was a student in the Art Department at California State University, San Bernardino, and was assigned to interview an art teacher in the community. That same quarter, Matthew McMilon, an interdisciplinary artist and MFA student at the same university, was teaching Beginning Painting for the department. As a painter myself, I was particularly excited to visit his classroom. Matthew and I also work together, teaching at a women’s prison with Community-based Art, and have had many opportunities to discuss art and education. Through these conversations, I sensed that his view on teaching was truly inspiring.
Matthew comes from a family of educators and expressed that teaching probably runs in his blood. “I learned everything about life and teaching from my family,” he told me. In particular, Matthew recognizes his mother, a nurse and director of education in a skilled nursing facility, as a mentor. However, it was not until his late twenties that he definitively decided that he wanted to become an educator. His decision came after years of working at a variety of hospitality professions. He already had a love of art making and so chose to combine that with his passion for public service and education. As a working artist who has supported his practice for fifteen years, Matthew feels that he has an understanding of what his students go through. He aims to create a space where they can safely express their questions, concerns, and frustrations, something that was very apparent to me when I visited his classroom. I noticed that students appeared comfortable in the setting; they spoke and asked questions freely and Matthew took time to respond to each one of them. I asked him if he had a preferred title but he said that he has no preference as he would rather students not feel the division that titles sometimes create. Matthew explained, “I am in the classroom setting to both teach and learn.” Based on my experience at the prison, I feel the same way.
The day I visited, Matthew’s students were working on a visually stunning project. Various sculptures made from everyday objects sat on a large table. He told me that he wanted to avoid assigning a traditional still life as he did not want to stifle his student’s creative flow. He decided to have them directly participate in this project by asking students to use found objects to create an abstract city. Each student was responsible for creating a sculpture to represent a landmark or building of the town. The last step was to make a painting of a section of the city. I asked how he came up with the idea and what he considered when planning projects. Matthew explained that he thinks about the specific population of students he is teaching and how to teach about a diversity of art and artists. Aside from projects, he also provides lectures that emphasize the history of marginalized artists typically excluded from traditional texts. He integrates ideas from the lectures in his project design. But, he tells me, the most important consideration for him is the students’ growth and engagement. “Collaboration is excellent and we grow most when we learn from others,” he explained, adding that there should be an equal effort on both sides, from teacher and student. He enjoys meeting students in their journey as artists with integrity and compassion.
In my observation, Matthew’s teaching approach effectively reflected a balanced creative setting. He successfully incorporated flexibility with his collaborative project. In his classroom, a “still life” became active, engaging event, more closely aligned to a community project than a static and formal arrangement of objects. It was evident that the communal working environment he created allowed his students to feel validated and accountable in their own creative process. In comparison to more traditional classrooms, it was exciting to observe Matthew treat his students as equal individuals who can each bring something to the table.
Jessica Agustin is an upper division honors student at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), dual majoring in Studio Art and Visual Studies (emphasis: Public Practice). She is a member of the CSUSB Community-based Art leadership team and serves as a Site Lead at the women’s prison in Chino, where she also teaches Art History. Her art practice reflects on issues of activism, social engagement, and institutional critique.