Professor Julia Marshall considers herself a lousy artist, but she still has become an influential figure in the art world.
Marshall is the 2017 recipient of the National Art Education Association Lowenfeld Award, granted to those who have offered significant contributions to the field. Marshall has written multiple articles for national publications and journals such as Studies in Art Education, Art Education Journal and International Journal of Arts Education, written chapters for multiple books on art education, and wrote a book with David Donahue, Art Centered Learning Across the Curriculum: Integrating Contemporary Art Into the Secondary School Classroom.
This March, she presented at the NAEA convention in New York on her work of the past year, revisiting her ideas about making learning and teaching about art.
As her goals of becoming a successful studio artist waned after graduate school, Marshall remembered a passion that had blossomed in her childhood.
“I have memories of when I was about 8 years old, writing my own little textbooks and forcing my friends to sit in my little classroom and read [them],” she reminisces. “Since getting involved in education, I’ve really come to love it even more because the more you do it, the more you learn, the better you get at it and the more fun it gets to be.”
Marshall earned a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts at George Washington University and a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture at University of Wisconsin. After realizing her true calling was teaching, she moved to the West Coast and earned a doctorate in Education at University of San Francisco.
Marshall says there is another level of awareness that teaching offers an artist. One is able to pull oneself outside from the art or creation and analyze the process so one can get better at making art.
“I think it is important and very gratifying to understand what you do as much as be able to do what you do,” Marshall says.
“There’s a common notion that those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” But Marshall has her own take on the old maxim. “I’d like to live by a different way of thinking and that is, ‘Those who can, do; those who understand, teach.’”
Marshall has been working to understand and develop her teaching craft at SF State for almost 30 years. She is a firm believer in approaching life humbly, feeling that people may “get stale” with their work when they stop stretching and challenging themselves.
Her teaching philosophy stems from her place as a continuous learner, “always listening and being open” to her students and “knowing how to shape activities and conversations in ways that grow meaning for everyone in the classroom.”
In her opinion, teachers should be researchers and performance artists, stretching their practice through a mix of getting to know students, learning about the subject and improvising in the classroom. Good teachers do this intuitively, Marshall proposes — they help students realize what they know and build on it. In the case of future teachers, they also organize learning experiences to help students figure out what is important to them and devise ways to assess whether they are learning.
“Art is so interesting because it’s a language. It’s a language like English or Spanish or Chinese,” she says. “And it’s a way of coming to understand and it’s a way of articulating understandings. … [Art] is a great mode for integration and understanding a lot of stuff.”
Marshall and her colleagues speak much about how art should not be seen as a separate subject but rather the core form of inquiry for learning math, science and social studies. Using art methods to explore a topic can help students understand it in profound and meaningful ways. For example, one of her favorite lessons is teaching the Fibonacci sequence by stamping cross-sections of vegetables on paper.
“If you cut across something like bok choy or celery, you’ll see that the way the different stalks are formed in a circle, comes from very tiny in the center and gets bigger and bigger in a spiral as it goes out,” she says.
The pattern of numbers also appears in the growth patterns of pinecones and in rabbit reproduction rates.
“It has something to do with an internal order in plants and animals; it’s all the way through nature,” she says. “So if you start with something as concrete as a pattern you see in a vegetable and you print it, you can help children understand the mathematical harmony of the whole universe.”
With a career spanning decades, Marshall has a wealth of notable teaching moments, but her favorites at SF State are when her students surprise her with their playful creativity. She recalls one experimental lesson:
“I thought, well, I’ll just send them out with a dollar and see what they do with it. And I said you can pool your money, but I want you to bring something back and then we’re gonna make art around it. One guy brought back his transcripts — this was back in the day when you could stick a dollar in a machine, and you could get your transcripts here at SF State. He brought his transcripts back and he wrote a letter to his father about why he had taken the classes he had taken and the grades he had gotten and that was his art piece. It was really beautiful and touching.”
SF State gave Marshall a platform to inspire and be inspired. She credits her award-winning success to the time spent developing her craft with students.
“It was a rich, fertile field for me to grow with students,” she says. “The students here are wonderful and amazing. I’ve had wonderful colleagues. It’s a combination of scholarship and art and working with people and mixing it all together to make a creative and dynamic mix that’s very rare.”
“Julia Marshall really has shaped an entire generation of Bay Area art teachers,” says Kimberley D’Adamo Green, an SF State alum who teaches at Berkeley High School. “Her brilliant writing, thinking and exemplary teaching is creating a permanent shift in the way we understand what art education can be. … She is just an extraordinary human being and lights up any room she enters.”
More publications on art education are in the works for Marshall, including essays in scholarly journals and a book for elementary schoolers, The Illustrated Guide to Inquiry and Learning.
Marshall is officially a professor emerita of Art, but is only semi-retired — she still teaches in fall semesters because she cannot let go of teaching just yet.
“Working here with young people where they’re excited, ready to go and want to change the world?” she says. “You can’t have more fun than that.”
— Gospel Cruz
Photo by Gospel Cruz