For 35 years I ran one of the largest summer schools for creative artists - The Maine Photographic Workshops. For our course catalogue each year I wrote an essay on what a workshop was and why they can be transformational. Recently, I read an essay I wrote in 1988. Much of what I wrote then stands today. Here's a newer version of that essay.
First, what a one-week workshop is not.
A workshop is not a vacation. It’s not like a course or class in school. It's not like any weekend seminar or conference you’ve ever attended.
A one-week workshop or Master Class is an experience. it’s like summer camp for creative adults, it can be fun, but also profoundly rewarding.
A workshop or master, if you are ready, can be a life and career changing experience. It’s an adventure into the unknown, and that unknown is you. With any adventure, the end is only dimly known, and can be a total surprise when you arrive at the end. Let me explain.
There comes a time in life and careers the creative peoples, when they are stuck. We have reached a plateau. We could use with a kick in the pants, encouragement, perhaps a new set of tools, a few new skills and a clearer vision of how to proceed. Those things we easily provided. What you, the student needs is an open mind, a willingness to embrace the unknown, not shy away, but to dive right in. This is risky, yes, but all things worthy require a risk. During my Sunday evening welcome to new students, I would tell them, “I give you permission to screw up this week, to make mistakes, and no one is going to fire you. Go ahead, try new ways of doing things, and if you fail, all the better. In failure comes knowledge, wisdom and personal growth. Not only might you find a new, more creative way of working, you will find out a great deal about you and your inner artist. So, go out this week an explore new ways of seeing, writing, photographing. Failures here are applauded, for we all learn from the mistakes of others. If you are having trouble making mistakes, just don’t call them mistakes, call them something else, an exercise, a test, a trial, and etude.”
How a workshop works?
It took me a few years of observing what was going on in the various workshops to realize what was going on— it was not obvious. It was so organic. As I spoke with students and the experienced summer faculty the process become more transparent. I began to structure our workshops to ensure greater success. I began to write about “The Workshop Process,” and the “Transformational Experience” of a one-week workshop. I began lecturing about what I had discovered.
A workshop involves actual work, physical work. You write, photograph, interview someone for a story, create something to show the next morning. The quality of the work is not as important as is the process by which you create that work. It’s the process that gets the critique. “You were too impatient., " hear aq master trell a student. "Wait next time. Don’t be in such a hurry.” I’d hear myself tell a student. “You weren’t close enough. Don’t be embarrassed or timid. Get closer next time.”
If we can help you find a better way of working, a method that is more natural, more you, your work will get better.
Toward the middle of each week there comes a wall. We called it BMW Day, Bitch and Moan Wednesday. I explained this to the newly arrived students on Sunday evenings, warning them to expect it. “By Wednesday you may be totally frustrated, ready to throw in the towel and head home, but hold on, it’s only the middle of the week. Stay with it.”
“What’s happening is your Intellect has had enough and is bored, but there’s another part of you that just beginning to embrace “The Workshop Process” and that’s your “Intuition.” Your intuition is the doorway to your inner artist, and that is reason you are here, to realize that voice within you wants to speak. By Thursday and Friday, you’ll understand what I’m warning you about tonight.”
And, for most people, it works.
The Intuition learns through experiences. It's not an intellectual procxess, that's what your Intellect does, it thinks. Your Intuition learns through, failures, success, and simply playing around to see what works best. And, while the Intellect takes time to ponder and consider things, the Intuition can act, respond, instantaneously. To built your Intuition, all you need to do is try more things, tackle difficult projects, get in over your head, fail and grow. Here at The Workshops, you can fail in a safe, supportive, creative environment,
We had discovered a new way to help creative people, or people who wanted to be more creative, access their Intuition, use the tools and skills of their medium to create work that was a surprise, even to them.
I tell my writing students, “keep reading and re-writing what you’ve written until it reads like a better writer than you wrote it.”
I could go on, but not here . . . .
David H. Lyman
Founder of The Maine Photographic Workshops, and Director from 1973 to 2007
Camden, Maine 2021
What Is A Workshop?
An Essay on Learning