Last fall, photographer and mixed-media artist Teresa Flowers taught her first adult mixed-media art class at the Visual Arts Institute. Almost a year later, and two months before moving to Los Angeles, Flowers now begins her fifth, and final, session Sept. 17.
Don’t let the title fool you. This seemingly straightforward art class isn’t at all typical. It resides somewhere between creativity and self-actualization, two things Flowers says are very much in the same landscape.
She describes the class as “playing, experimenting and finding your own personal expression,” and the process as “intuitive, cathartic and loose.” The artist with the girlish face and the Botticelli hair talks excitedly and in broad strokes about her class for a good five minutes before revealing what, in fact, she and her students actually do.
“We remake old books,” Flowers reveals.
By using drawing, painting, photography and collage techniques, each student takes an old children’s book and makes it into a story about him or herself. For instance, Flowers’ latest book is called Famous American Teresa Flowers, which she says was originally from the Famous American Leaders and Heroes series. She uses the book as a foundation for telling her own story.
She elaborates, “I can cross out words, I can put my name in the book and replace pictures with pictures of me. I can paint a whole page, layer some collage over that, draw over it again, take typed words and paste them on, add transparencies that you made at Kinko’s and use Polaroids that I took in class.” Flowers likes art she can touch and feel.
As art, adding layers and depth and texture to a book is an exciting process, Flowers says. “A book allows me to work very quickly with a lot of ideas. You can spend 30 hours on a painting, which is essentially one idea. With a book, you can move from page to page and work on different layers every day. Things flow better.”
As personal artifacts, the books are profound and sacred, observes Flowers. “You feel like people are letting you into their lives.” Flowers points out that when people see her photography they say, “Wow, you’re really good.” When they look at her books, they say, “Thank you for sharing.”
The intimacy of the work stems from the intimacy of the class itself. Flowers strives to be “someone you can talk to, someone you can feel safe around.” In other words, she explains, she is the art teacher she never had and always wanted. Despite her many years in art school, Flowers felt she never could freely express herself. “They were always judging you and criticizing you,” she recalls “You’re never good enough.” In her class, everyone is good at art. Flowers maintains: “For anybody to say ‘you’re not good enough,’ is not all right with me. Everyone has available to them an ability to express themselves.”
This expression can be simultaneously artistic, emotional and spiritual. Flowers suggests that art and healing go hand in hand. In the space of her class, people can be real. And she says that the best art comes from being authentic. “I’ve seen people go through hard moments where they open up to a place they haven’t been before with art,” she says. Alternately, her class provides a place to play. Flowers applauds the trial-and-error approach, arguing “No way is the wrong way to make art.”
Still, the biggest obstacle her students face is the fear of messing up. She assures them, “You’re going to get messy. Your pages are going to stick together. What you’ll learn from this class is that accidents and mistakes are the best cure for a bad piece of art.”