Teaching artist Lisa Volta draws connections between the accomplished artists she admires and the budding ones she mentors
Etel Adnan was a Lebanese-born writer and painter who died in November 2021 at the age of 96. She came to painting late in life and is an inspiration for all older women who doubt themselves and, for one reason or another, delay things they know they want to do. Adnan grew up in Beirut with a Greek Christian mother and a Syrian Muslim father. Fluent in Arabic, Greek, French, and English, she studied at the Sorbonne and spent her adult life living between Paris and San Francisco. She saw all sides of things, and I think of her as a symbol of everything that is beautiful about overlapping cultural, religious, and societal differences.
As an artist who has taught with nonprofit art organizations for nearly two decades, I decided several years ago that my lessons would revolve almost entirely around the inspiration of contemporary artists like Etel Adnan. Since I primarily work with elementary and middle school students, I saw this as a way to make art workshops more personally engaging and memorable. Chances are, students’ artworks will be lost or tossed—not just because they’re made by children, but because that happens with things. They come and go unless something is immediately precious about them. But experiences are different. They become memories that settle into our consciousness.
When students learn about living artists who are producing work today, their own art projects come alive. It shows them that they, too, are contemporary artists and validates their voices in unexpected ways. Their observations about works of art are more directly related to their experiences in their families, schools, and communities. Comments quickly move from “I like the colors” to “I can see those things happening here in my neighborhood.” This energy inevitably guides me to research and explore more about the artists and their networks, which profoundly influences the artworks that I create.
I once taught a lesson introducing the painter Hiba Kalache. While students painted bright, loose botanical shapes, I read from Clarice Lispector’s book Água Viva, which Kalache references in her Lemonade Everything Was So Infinite (2) series. Lispector painted with words, Kalache wrote with a brush, and I settled into the layers and fragments of their work. The inspiration was meaningful without being didactic, which resonated with how I wanted to approach both teaching and my work as an artist.
I had a similar experience when I first saw photographs by Eileen Neff. Her work documents observation and transition, and everything in her pictures is there in real life. In an exhibition of Neff’s photos, you may find one hung at your feet or flush with the edge of a wall next to a window. Her work’s careful placement, both direct and peripheral, asks us to notice how we arrange our environments and move through them.
Neff’s work, like Etel Adnan’s, holds space for me, allowing me to be present with their work, never feeling like it’s too much or too little. Perhaps this is because of certain parallels in their stories. Both began with writing and transitioned to artmaking, moving fluidly between the two mediums throughout their careers. Evident in the work of both prolific creators is an understanding of history and how experience is layered.
This shift from one place, artist, or idea to the next is how inspiration travels. If I could have my students internalize one thing, it would be that our lives are woven together with those of others. And that this weaving, with its contradictions and differences, is what makes us beautiful.
Lisa Volta is a Philadelphia-based artist working in painting and photography.
This post was supported by a Re:imagining Recovery grant to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.