Full disclosure, I am not an expert when it comes to workshops, but I have learned some pretty significant lessons along the journey which I thought I'd pass on. There are so many ways to develop as a workshop leader, many of which I am discovering as I go and will be working on for my entire career, but this blog offers an entry point to levelling up and seeing things from angles you may not have previously considered.
Before I founded Cut Out Collage in 2019 I had been running art sessions in a variety of places for several years. I have also been to tons of workshops myself which has been extremely helpful in understanding the participant experience.
Of course, there is always a component of subjectivity when to comes to what people enjoy, but check out the 5 areas below which I believe are a great place to start when it comes to developing your creative sessions.
1. Personality myth busting
It is not true that only one type of person can run art sessions/ creative workshops. There is so much beauty in a range of facilitators bringing their personality and presentation to the world. Being an extrovert is not essential and being an introvert is not a hinderance. The reason I frame it this way is because it's what I hear from new facilitators all the time - "I'm not loud enough." or "I'm an introvert but I still want to teach art how is this possible?" I consider myself both an extrovert and an introvert, so in some ways I'm neither, I'm a melting pot of my different needs on different days and in different spaces. Basically, don't analyse it too much, people are drawn to passion - if you have a fire for creativity and you want to share it, do it in a way that feels comfortable for you and trust me people will respond. We want more people to make art so if there are more types of people creating sessions and spaces that look different there is more opportunity for people to find a space and style that suits them. Be you and let your audience find you.
2. Creating a sense of the group and the one
In my opinion, this component of workshops is wildly underestimated. Understanding and focusing on group connectedness and individual experience simultaneously will transform your workshop spaces in terms of atmosphere and positive engagement. It's an element of workshops which is perhaps less obvious, but it's that 'can't quite put my finger on it fantastic flavour' that people crave. You can start by learning peoples names - I use place settings/ cute calligraphy of their name on a stand which they can collect at the beginning and place in their space - don't use name badges or sticky labels - they suck, we're not at a conference doing icebreakers! I find if I model using first names, then the group do it to each other too. Ultimately it's modelling that everyone is important and seen, this is then replicated in interpersonal exchanges within the group - simple but extremely effective.
Secondly, notice how people are interacting and who is taking certain roles - who is dominating conversation, who is shrinking, who looks nervous, who is alone, who is in a group, who is confident etc. Noticing these things will help you then attempt to balance it - inviting people into conversations, empowering attendees to demonstrate a technique to others, noticing connections/similarities between peoples work and commenting on it, starting creative conversations. I also do a segment of sharing each time - see point no.4.
People feeling seen and appreciated as themselves whilst also being part of something bigger that feels empowering and inspiring is the aim.
3. Authenticity (this one is the core of all the others)
I believe the fear of scarcity destructs authenticity in the creative world. There is a built in expectation that somehow there will not be enough creative space for us all, so we become accustomed to clinging to our resources and knowledge. Even worse, sometimes we try to emulate other people we consider to be winning because we fear our version of creating or being is not enough. Stop it. I say this with kindness to you and also to myself every morning in the mirror. I even bought a ring that says - 'I am enough' on it, so this is practice for me too, I'm with you in this. I have noticed people respond to me and my business so much better when I am being my obsessed with collage, passionate about art in prisons, niche self than when I was trying to be everything to everyone in a toned down more palatable way. Of course, I also pay attention how to be kind and not aggressive in my passions which is part of growth too, but be your niche, talk about what sets you on fire and watch your workshop tickets sell much easier.
If we are all pursuing being ourselves as opposed to chasing money or status then there should be no fear in sharing and no need for striving. It's a lifetimes work learning how to cultivate your own realness, but committing to doing this work pays off in the workshop space - people connect to authenticity - it is more welcoming, safe, inclusive, open minded, generous and prepared to step into challenge.
Nothing that is worth having comes easily, but I promise you the connection to your audience will strengthen incomparably if you step into authenticity and individuality. People crave truth amongst the noise of falseness, so don't lie.
4. Sharing x2
This connects back to point no.2. Sharing is caring - for real! I believe in 2 elements of sharing which you should start implementing straight away:
Sharing - the art! Always make time within your sessions to do a bit of a walk around. As an art therapist I'm super used to introducing time for looking at and discussing/ sharing people's art in sessions, but if it's new to you try making some time at the end of the session to do this. I offer it out to the group by saying - "I like to make some time for a walk around and opportunity to share our artwork with each other if that's okay with everyone?" and usually follow this up with, "As I'm walking around I get to see so much which is beautiful and I want you guys to get the same opportunity, if anyone isn't comfortable sharing you can cover your work that is completely okay." The walk around works in workshops so well, as people are chatting and discussing the work without the spotlight on them - this way they usually feel more comfortable and open - amazing creative conversations and group connectedness happens in this space. If I'm doing a 3 hour workshop I opt for 2 walk arounds - 1 in the middle and another at the end.
Sharing - resources, time, advice and support! As I mentioned in point no.3, I'm on a mission to help people stop worrying that people are going to steal what you're doing, they can't replicate you if you're truly authentic. Don't worry about people stealing your workshop plans or exercises - if you're doing the work on leaning into who you are and using your authenticity to connect with your audience then the session plan alone is not what is making you successful. Share, be generous and enjoy the creative community and what we can learn from one another, it's so much more fun than clinging to everything in a room alone, worried that somehow you'll be copied - you may have your session plans guarded, but no-one will be there with you.
5. Practice what you teach
Now you've all heard of practice what you preach, so if you're leading creative sessions you need to make time for your own art practice. It's non negotiable I'm afraid. It can feel impossible as a creative practitioner to build in time for our own art making but this is how we keep our sessions up to date and interesting for our participants. In my own play, experimentation and research I discover so many new techniques and ideas which I almost always channel back into my workshops, art programs and consultation work. The flow of fresh ideas re-energises my workshops and feeds both my audience and me. It's the reason I can endlessly record top tips videos and bring new content to Liverpool Collage Club - if I stop making, my business stops being accessible and interesting.
Also - my art practice time is a relaxation and processing tool for me as a creative person. Having my own space to create is good for my mental health and general wellbeing - if you want to give that to other people you need to create it for you too.
So that's my thoughts on stepping up your workshop game. This is a huge subject and I could talk about it all day, but here are some initial thoughts to get you going. My friend Jenn and I release our podcast later this month on which we will do a series of episodes about workshops so be sure to tune into that when it's released. Links and notifications about the podcast will be uploaded onto my social media platforms and website.
As always, thank you for coming along for the ride and keep collaging!