This post is written by Stephen Parsons.

The Nova Scotia Community College, which currently funds my dream of a post-retirement life as full-time woodworker/ artisan, promotes a pedagogy of portfolio learning. This model places equal emphasis on student reflection on learning as it does on evaluation of specific technical skills and knowledge. The idea, in part, is that knowing oneself as a learner, knowing how you learn, and practicing a portfolio approach – setting learning goals and developing a personal strategy to achieve learning outcomes – can make you a more effective and efficient lifelong learner. Taking a portfolio/ reflective approach has allowed me to develop a process that is very clear when setting out to acquire a new skill.

Hands-on, eventually

Although I tend to think of myself as a hands-on learner, reflection and portfolio learning has made me appreciate that achieving the skills to express my ideas in any artistic media is a process that usually involves: defining the artistic vision and the general genre to which its production belongs; observing the technique of others in similar projects; reflecting and analysing the skills, steps, and tools used; and then trying to re-envision or rephrase the technique relative to my own experience, strengths and style – all long before I ever try to initiate hands-on practice. I often start with hours, days or even weeks of research, possibly reviewing videos of similar techniques, and asking colleagues about their experience and recommendations.

Once I have a firm vision and approach, and the media and technique entrenched in my mind, my process leads me to practice incrementally towards mastery and even beyond that to creative redesign, exploration, and synthesis.

Over the next few weeks, I will try to track some of my learning process towards a special piece I hope to complete before the summer. Here is the opening installment.

Defining the artistic vision: I have a vision for a piece that is very clear in my mind – it is of a beautiful manta ray sweeping through the water – the belly of the great fish as white as the sand – its topsides dark, mysterious. It’s head and tail are curved slightly downwards towards the ocean floor but the massive wings are at the peak of its upswing just before the powerful downstroke that will lift it even further towards the shimmering surface and the sun beyond. This vision in my mind is cast in a clear light hardwood and mounted in a way that makes it appear to float on its own. But how will I get that vision into the physical manifestation?

Production Genre: While it would be appealing to think of this as sculpture and consider a carving project, I am not looking to create an exact model, but rather an impressionistic work featuring strong symmetry across the piece. It occurred to me that this may in fact be a wood-turning project – since woodturning is well suited to symmetrical production (although not exclusively so). I am somewhat inspired by work that I have seen on winged vessels done by a number of well-known wood turners. The challenge seems substantial since I have had no experience, but to that point, all the more exciting. With the project thus defined, I am ready to start my research…

Stay tuned for more as I follow a learning journey to bring my manta to life. Meanwhile, what is your process to mastering a technique or creating a piece? Do you start by breaking down the technique into smaller pieces or do you rather learn one part at a time and then bring it together in an integrative way? Do you like instructor-led workshops, or prefer to do it yourself? Is written, illustrated instruction better for you or do you need to watch it in real-time? We each have our own learning style. Knowing yours will make your learning a very individual process.