Problem Finding, Self-efficacy, and Small Victories

For four amazing days each summer, downtown Ann Arbor is overrun by art. The Ann Arbor Art Fairs (four of them, simultaneously) are usually crowded, steamy hot, colorful, and amazing. My husband and I look forward to them every year. This year as I gloried in the amazingly cool weather, I was struck by how much my attitude toward the fairs has changed over the years.

When we first arrived in Ann Arbor I loved the art fairs and was overwhelmed by the talent I saw there. It was mysterious and wonderful—completely outside my un-artistic experiences. That was my view of the art fairs for many years. Growing up I’d had lots of experiences in music and theater, so while I was never a leading player, those worlds felt familiar. Visual arts were wholly different ball games. Nothing I tried to draw ever looked the way I intended. I knew, to the center of my heart, I couldn’t “do” art. Art was for the gifted ones. Until that changed.

I’ve written elsewhere about the journey to my first mosaic. It started with my falling in love with a mosaic mirror that was far above my art fair budget, but would have fit so perfectly over my fireplace. In a spurt of bravery, I decided to try signing up for a local mosaic class to attempt to make something similar. After all, how hard could it be to glue square tile on a picture frame? That led me to my first mosaic—not a picture frame, but a mosaic birdhouse—and a very supportive teacher who led me on many mosaic adventures. I did eventually make a mosaic for the fireplace, but not all square tiles. And then I made more mosaics, then some multi-media pieces, then fiber art to cover holes in my sweater, and a fairy dwelling from an oversize piece of firewood. I still can’t draw anything realistic, but the adventures continue.

At this year’s art fairs I spent time chatting with Deborah Spertus, who makes beautiful things with alcohol-based inks and shares her techniques in generous demonstrations. This time, my reaction was a mix of my usual awe at artistic talent and the thought, “Hey, I could try that!” In our conversation, Deborah mentioned that touring the art fairs was a great source of inspiration to her, full of ideas for new materials, techniques, and genres. I suddenly realized, “I do that, too!” And I do. These days I walk among the astonishing pieces of art seeking out things I might try or ideas for new ways to mosaic. Much of it still is beyond me, but I can try. I can learn.

My art journey could come right out of a beginning explanation of the importance of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is our level of confidence in our ability to do something—bake bread, fix and engine, make a mosaic. It affects how willing we are to start and how much we’ll stick to the task when things go wrong. When I had no self-efficacy regarding art, I didn’t even try it (or if I did, I’d quit after initial ugly attempts). What changed? Self-efficacy is most powerfully built by doing the thing, or succeeding at related efforts. Each small mosaic success, from birdhouse to light switch to jewelry, built my confidence. Now, I still have plenty of artistic failures, but I’m much more willing to try. My (lack of) self-efficacy no longer restrains me.

As I think about creative adventures with students (or math adventures, or any other academic adventures for that matter), my mosaic experiences remind me of the importance of small successes on the way to big challenges. They could be small projects before a big one, or smaller steps on the way to a major effort. As you are thinking about the big and exciting things you hope your students will do this year, don’t forget that many of them may need small successes to give them the confidence to move toward those wonderful exciting opportunities. If you build the small steps gradually, the path will be much more successful.

PS To see more of Deborah Spertus’ work, see her website at Spertus Studios.

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