The holy calling of the teaching artist

Perhaps I wanted to write this blog merely to make an excuse for why I went quiet for three months.*

For the last two years I’ve taught one class, M-F, at a local Catholic high school, a basic-theatre-principles-and-beginning-acting class. How can one class, five days a week, take so much time and energy? I finish at 11:25 every morning (11:05 on Wednesday Mass days), then I get some lunch, then by the time I sit down to work and answer the emails that have piled up it feels like the day is nearly over, so why bother. Teaching takes A LOT of bandwidth. Ten days left, but who’s counting. [I am. I am counting.]

Over the past 35 years I’ve taught students aged 10 through college. In addition to acting and theatre basics classes, like I’m teaching now, I’ve taught: business skills and entrepreneurship for artists, public speaking, oral interpretation (i.e. performance of literature), Shakespeare (acting, literature, and history), contemporary dramatic literature, medieval dramatic literature, NYC cultural history, and even one extremely misjudged foray into film aesthetics. [Note to self: I am not a film person, and film people can tell.] 

Many artists take teaching gigs for purely utilitarian reasons. Teaching pays when sometimes creating doesn’t. I took both the high school job and the film aesthetics class at the height of COVID, when my musician husband had lost most of his work, solely as a way to help us pay the bills. But other teaching gigs have fed my spirit and my creativity even more than they’ve fed my body. 

According to Berklee College of Music’s website, teaching artists are “practicing, professional artists who have dual careers as educators” [emphasis added]. Lincoln Center’s education department describes their teaching artists as “practicing artists in the disciplines of dance, music, theater, and visual arts who are committed to working with educators and young people.” [emphasis added] 

I’m sure there are artists that have never had any interest in teaching or any utilitarian need to teach. But, based on what I see from my artist friends, most of us have either interest or need at some point in our careers. It seems to be embedded in the artist’s vocational DNA. In fact, it goes all the way back to the earliest records we have. 

It’s Biblical 

The first person in the Bible who was filled with the Spirit of God was Bezalel, an artist. When the Hebrew people were wandering in the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt, God decided to take up residence with them. 

In Exodus 25, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give…. Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.” (Exodus 25: 1, 8-9) Then God gave Moses five chapters of very detailed instructions for the tabernacle and all of the elaborate, ornate fittings that were supposed to go into it. Moses must have been sweating hard for those five chapters, because Moses was a shepherd – granted, with some princely leadership gifts. But not an artist. 

Then, finally, in Exodus 31, “the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts. Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you….” (Exodus 31: 1-6) 

Then the Lord sends Moses back to the people with these instructions, and a couple of tablets He’d written on. Four more chapters pass – there’s some drama with a golden calf, stiff-necked people blah blah, breaking the first set of tablets, making some new ones, Moses coming back down the mountain with his face glowing. Then we get back to the tabernacle-building in Chapter 35. 

Moses gets everyone caught up on what happened up on the mountain then “said to the whole Israelite community, ‘This is what the Lord has commanded: From what you have, take an offering for the Lord’” (vv. 4-5) and “‘All who are skilled among you are to come and make everything the Lord has commanded….’” (v. 10) Everyone goes off and collects everything valuable they have and gives it to the construction of the tabernacle and its artistic fittings (def a subject for a future blog post…).

Then we get down to specifics: “Then Moses said to the Israelites, ‘See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts.” Sound familiar? It’s word-for-word up to this point from God’s original instructions in Exodus 31. 

But then Moses goes rogue: “‘And he has given both [Bezalal] and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others.” (v. 34 – emphasis added) 

God never said anything about teaching.

Who does that? Who adds to YHWH’s commands? 

Maybe somebody who knows his community. 

Maybe somebody who knows that Bezalal and Oholiab would rather be making things than teaching others to make things. Trust me, it can be grueling to watch a young artist do everything wrong until they get it right, if they ever do. We’re not all constructed for patience and encouragement. 

But when we teach others to do what we do, we multiply it. And Moses was a logistics guy. He knew this was going to be a big job that had to be done right (you don’t disappoint YHWH when He’s given you blueprints), and maybe he knew Bez and Oho were going to resist teaching others rather than doing the fun part themselves. So Moses told them God commanded it! 

I think that’s hilarious, and really smart. When you’re Moses, you do what you have to do to get the job done. And although we could see this as a story about two artists 5,000 years ago, many artists of faith see instruction and encouragement for themselves in the story of Bezalel and Oholiab.  

If you want to know more about Bezalel, I highly recommend Christ John Otto’s book, Bezalel: Redeeming a Renegade Creation.

So all that is to say a few things: Teaching in and of itself can be a calling, and it’s even a spiritual gift for some (Romans 12:6–8; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:1–12); but you don’t have to be particularly gifted at it or even into it to have it be part of your creative calling. For an artist, it’s practical—it pays the bills, and it passes the craft down to the next generation—but it’s also obedient. We grow as children of God anytime we’re obedient and, as much as I hate to admit it, I grow as an artist every time I teach. 

Even when I teach film aesthetics. 


*Or perhaps what was really going on in the three months I went quiet, and blamed it on teaching, was that I was avoiding writing my book and didn’t want anyone to know. In his “put your ass where your heart is” series, author and author-prodder Steven Pressfield wrote, “When we set out to write a book or a movie—or when we embark upon any innovative venture—we’re taking a step that has terrified the human race since our days back in the cave.” Avoiding what terrifies us is just good survival technique. The problem is, it’s not good vocation-fulfilling technique.

And did I just spend several hours writing this very long blog rather than working on the book? Yes. Yes I did. 

3 thoughts on “The holy calling of the teaching artist”

  1. I hate when people leave blog comments promoting what they just wrote on their own blog. But it’s also funny, and when you find someone who’s crazy like you, it’s encouraging. “Getting Deliberate about Distraction” (micksilva.com/getting-deliberate) was my most recent, though I’ve been shirking elsewhere to finally commit to finishing my first novel so I can move on to more ahem, sophisticated things, I hope. We’ll see. But Pressfield is right. Just go easy on yourself. And keep sharing what you’re learning. Bezalel. Who knew?

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