The Art of Learning, In and In Spite of School: A Conversation with Austin Kleon

Jul 01, 2019

Austin Kleon is a New York Times bestselling writer who draws. And his work draws from his experiences in school, weaving across the realms of interdisciplinary thinking, social-emotional learning, self care, and the steady search for creativity on a human scale. It’s an approach that is intuitively connected to the evolving priorities of conscientious educators and schools around the world.

His works—“Steal Like an Artist,” “Show Your Work” and “Keep Going”—serve as a trilogy on creativity that is both timeless and overtly modern. These books won’t fit neatly into a traditional classroom, but they speak to a mindset that all teachers can relate to and apply. Knowing one’s history in order to create something new, sharing one’s work in stages (even if it’s not perfect), finding ways to persist and make meaning each day—these are all ongoing concerns for teachers and learners, for schools and families, for teams and individuals.

The following remarks are lightly edited for clarity.

Here’s a quick sketch of Kleon’s schooling.

Austin Kleon (Photo credit: Clayon Cubitt)

Austin Kleon: Middle school was formative for me. I had a good art teacher and a good English teacher, and those two things, English and art, are part of my journey. When you start out as a kid, pictures and words go together. Then you go to school and they get split apart into subjects. If you are like me and you want those two things in your life, you figure out a way to unite them again.

I went to college for writing, at Miami University in Ohio. There was something called the Western College program, and it was the school of Interdisciplinary Studies. You could put your own major together and it was a living, learning community—a wonderful place to go to school. I cobbled together a major out of writing, English, art and classics.

And since then I haven’t had any formal schooling. I graduated in 2005, so the great teachers of almost one-third to half of my adult life have been pretty much mentors from afar or dead people.

As a parent of a newly school-aged child, Kleon has strong opinions about what he expects from formal schooling.

Kleon: I don’t think the way we do school is remotely the way how people actually learn on their own. That’s not the fault of teachers. Teachers are stuck with a structure that is fundamentally unnatural to the way people learn. When my sons learn things, it has nothing to do with disciplines or subjects. It has everything to do with interest and inquiry.

I’m interested in how teachers can overcome these terrible structures, because so many teachers I know are really thoughtful, brilliant, dedicated people, and they just happen to be stuck in a structure that doesn’t work for many people. And that’s difficult.

If you can get people to experience what it’s like to be genuinely interested in and curious about something . . . that’s it, really. And that’s what terrifies me about my kids going to school right now: they have curiosity and interest, they have that spirit, and I’m worried that school is going to take it from them.

My wife and I had our first parent-teacher conference, and the teacher pulled out this binder and was like, “Okay, here are his marks and this and that.” And I was just sitting there and letting her finish, and then I said, “Well, that’s fine. How was he? Is he kind? Is he making friends? Is he going to the bathroom?” I know he’s smart.

She’s got her charts and stuff, and I was just thinking, “Put that away. I could care less what marks you put down. He’s six. None of these marks mean anything to me.”

Over time, Kleon has become more comfortable acknowledging the ways in which creative work is a form of permission for certain activities and even the formation of one’s core identity.

Kleon: I’m interested in this word “permission” because, for a long time I was like, “What the hell are people talking about? Give permission. I’m not a teacher giving you a bathroom pass. What is this permission thing?”

But then I had an interesting experience where I went to a show of Nina Katchadourian’s at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin. She was doing this work that was funny and abstract. And I realized, “Oh, I’m getting permission from the show. She’s giving me permission. You can be funny and make serious art. This is permission to do that.”

They only come around every once in a while, but there will be artists that blow things open for you. I think teachers can be that, too. Because for a lot of kids, a certain teacher might be the most “out there” person they get to meet, and I think that that person can help someone see, “Oh I can be this way. I didn’t know you could do that.”

On the false choices presented by formal education—and why we need to overcome them.

Everyone has the opportunity to have a more creative life even in just a few moments each day.
Austin Kleon

Kleon: I grew up in this extremely rural place, and I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be an artist. And I literally did not know anyone who did that. So I spent a huge amount of time trying to figure out: What do artists do? What do they look like? What do their days look like?

A lot of my way of connecting with what I’m naturally good at, as a writer and an artist, is through abandoning the options that were presented to me through school. I made certain choices throughout my academic career that I thought were good academic choices that turned out to be the wrong choices for me.

For example, fiction versus poetry. Fiction was supposed to be where the serious people went. And writing novels, short stories, that’s what serious writers did. So I started by studying fiction.

And then: art class versus English class. I had English teachers who said, “You should be an English major.” And I had art teachers who said, “You should be an art major.” And I thought English literature was more serious than art. So I picked that.

And then: comedy versus tragedy. Well, tragedy was serious. I wanted to study tragedies and epics and that kind of stuff, when in fact my voice is comedic.

Those are three different areas in my life as a student where I chose what I thought was serious, versus what really resonated with me and what I was naturally good at.

On the radical importance of self care.

Kleon: Self-care these days is a kind of radical act. But not in the “let’s spend $300 on a new mud treatment for your face” type of self-care. It’s the kind where you might spend a month reading a great work of literature that you really want to dig into, or spend a year learning how to paint or code. Working on yourself and discovering who you are and what you care about.

It’s even a matter of how you pick your media, something as simple as what to watch on Netflix. Do you watch what everyone else is watching, or do you figure out, “Well, I like old movies” or “I like comedy.”

I think that young people and people of all ages have this general feeling right now that things are bad. But then you think, “Oh well, that’s just me. I just need to chin up.” And it’s like, no, this is systematic, you’re being systematically squeezed.

The thing I detected the most on my book tour for “Keep Going” is just a general anxiety from people. And I think this is true of students right now, too. They know there’s all this stuff that they’re supposed to do and achieve, and no one is being taught how to be comfortable in their skin. And one reason is that it’s not profitable. Nobody can make money off of you if you’re comfortable in your skin. If I can help people pull back a little bit and say, “No, I really do need to get an extra hour of sleep. I really do need to take a walk. I really do need to spend 30 minutes in my journal and not on social media,” then I’ll be there for that.

Teachers are stuck with a structure that is fundamentally unnatural to the way people learn.
Austin Kleon

On learning outside of institutions while being absorbed by them.

Kleon: Much of my adult life has been about trying to figure out how I can continue as a student without school. As someone who’s been out of school for so long now, it’s been interesting to think about how the artist studies; it’s the artist’s job to remain a student forever and to think about how you have to sort of de-school yourself for the kind of work that I do.

And what’s interesting for me now, in spite of that attitude, is that so many teachers use my stuff in their classrooms. It’s such a huge compliment. I think one reason that educators really respond to my books is because the main point is: What can you learn? You can rethink your creative work in terms of that question.

The theme of “Steal Like an Artist” is: you have to study in order to become original; you have to know what came before you in order to really be original; you have to devour everything in order to have your own say. Which is counterintuitive to a lot of young people because they think, “Well I’m just me and I can just be me.” I feel that, it’s inside you, sure, but you have to know what’s come before you in order to unlock it.

Education is always your job, whether you’re in school or not. “Show Your Work!” is a book about learning in public; it’s about how you can set up a system in which you can learn things in public and become who you are and share that in a way that actually helps you learn.

“Keep Going” is more of a stamina book, about how to create indefinitely. It looks at older artists, people who are working into their 80s like David Hockney or Joan Rivers or Pablo Casals or Bill Cunningham. They just kept on, kept doing it, kept learning. So education is sort of at the heart of at least two of my latest books, if not all three.

My books are not coming from a guru perspective where I say “I have the answers and here they are.” I’ve gone through this stuff, and this is what I’ve learned, and maybe it will help you. Mine is more like a fellow student approach. I talked specifically about that in “Show Your Work!”—about being an amateur, and how students can learn from each other sometimes better than from teachers.

Ultimately, meeting Kleon through his work is meeting someone who throws the doors of creativity wide open.

Kleon: You have to expand your notion of what’s creative. If you cross stitch in front of the TV at night, to me that’s creative. If you read a book on your bus commute to work, that’s creative. For me it’s about just doing what you can. You can use creativity to reorganize your living room. You can use it to paint a masterpiece. It’s just a tool.

I remember reading about this wonderful woman named Sylvia Fein. I might write about her in my next book. She’s a surrealist painter, and she took time off to raise her daughter, Heidi. She wrote these two books. One’s called “Heidi’s Horse,” a book of drawings. They grew up on a horse farm and she kept Heidi’s drawings from age 2 to 17. It’s this remarkable book that shows the progression of one child’s drawing.

And then she used her observations to write a second book called “First Drawings,” which compares children’s drawings to ancient drawings that you find in cave paintings. Then, she discovered that she could paint on these little cards, that she could do quick paintings. It’s similar to Emily Dickinson scribbling on the back of envelopes or Hannah Höch making collages with patterns from her job at a fabric company.

I’ve always been attracted to work that came from stolen moments, from people who didn’t have a lot of time. Really, the poems in my first book, “Newspaper Blackout,” all happened on lunch breaks, commutes, stolen time.

I think it’s important to redefine your notion of what’s creative work and to lower the bar for entry. Everyone has the opportunity to have a more creative life even in just a few moments each day.


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