My Professors Were Happy That I Failed

by Mia Woo on October 30, 2019

My Professors Were Happy That I Failed

by Mia Woo on October 30, 2019

Recently, I learned how to make vases in my Ceramics class. But, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t execute the technique. I felt like I had no control over the clay. I’ve been doing ceramics since I was 11 years old, so the fact that I wasn’t “getting it” straight away was discouraging. 

Mia's first vase

My first vase attempt.

Being out of control made me even more nervous, and the vase ended up collapsing during one of the most important steps. My eyes went comically wide, and all I could do was stare at the vase in horror. My professor took one look and said with a sincere, almost excited smile on his face, “I think this is going to be really good for you!” 

He helped me reconstruct it—no cosmetic fixes allowed. As soon as the vase was fixed, I shoved it into the back corner of a shelf and refused to look at it again.

As a freshman, one of the first things the Art and Design professors told me was to learn how to develop a good relationship with failure. It seemed simple enough until I actually had to put that lesson into practice. I thought, “It’s that whole thing about Thomas Edison not failing, just finding 10,000 ways that don’t work, right?” 

Well…not necessarily. Actually, it’s entirely about failing. 

Art isn’t like math where there's always an answer if you study hard enough. Art is personal and vulnerable. Your work won’t be like anyone else’s—it just won’t, and that’s a good thing! But it’s intimidating to be critiqued by your class and professors and then graded on something you created. And because of the common stigmas that surround being an Art major, I’ve discovered this constant pressure within myself to succeed all the time, make “good” work all the time, and prove I’m good enough to be an artist.

Any art professor here will tell you that they don’t care whether your work “looks good.”  They’d much rather see you growing, truly learning, and embracing the process.

- Mia Woo

I realized something that day my vase collapsed: I am utterly terrified of failing. We’re conditioned to avoid failure. To believe that failing is always a bad thing. That it comes with serious, long-lasting consequences, especially in an academic environment. In grade school art classes, you learn techniques, execute them however your teacher wants, and you get the good grades.  So when your college professors are suddenly telling you it’s okay to fail, Art students in particular can have a hard time breaking away from the mindset they spent years developing.

Mia's second vase

The final product.

Any art professor here will tell you that they don’t care whether your work “looks good.”  They’ll tell you that they’d much rather see you growing, truly learning, and embracing the process than seeing you make “good art,” and that’s what they want you to see.

I can assure you that the professors here, especially in the Art and Design Department, don’t find joy in their students failing. They don’t intend on making their students suffer, but they will challenge you. They’ll push you to your limits and outside of your comfort zone. But it’s because they know that it’ll only help you grow as an artist. They want what’s best for you, and they want to help you get where you want to be. And, most of all, they know that you can do it.

It took several more collapsed vases before I eventually made two vases that stood tall and strong. I have to say, though, the “failure vase” grew on me. It might just be one of my favorite creations. I’m still stuck in the inevitable stage of constantly having to relearn and reevaluate my techniques, approaches, and mindsets entirely. But I'm slowly learning that failure is just as important in the artistic process than any success. I'm trying to learn that just because I fail, it doesn’t mean I’m a failure. I haven't quite internalized that yet, and maybe I won't for a while—but I'm learning to accept that that's okay, too.